Festival Feature: Stew Magnuson
Festival Feature: Stew Magnuson
Book featured at 2014 Festival of Books: Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding
1. Have you ever presented at the South Dakota Festival of Books before? If so, tell us your favorite memory. If not, tell us what you are expecting and why you signed on.
I’m from Nebraska. But I have now published three consecutive nonfiction books set in South Dakota. I didn’t plan it that way. In fact, this didn’t dawn on me until The Last American Highway came out earlier this year. The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns takes place in Western Nebraska and Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding is a piece of long-form journalism that recounts the controversial 2012 Dakota Conference in Sioux Falls, where American Indian Movement leaders squared off against former FBI agents. The latest, The Last American Highway, is a hybrid history-travel book that is set along Highway 83 in North Dakota and South Dakota. As a cornhusker, I was honored to be invited to South Dakota to speak about these books.
2. What is the earliest memory you have of books and/or reading?
Of course, my mother and kindergarten teacher reading Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. We went to libraries in Omaha all the time. I remember in the 1970s, UFO sightings were a big craze. I would find books about flying saucers and spend my allowance photocopying the pictures at 10 cents per page. I guess that my first experience doing research in libraries.
3. Who is your favorite author and why?
I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck in high school and it instantly became my favorite book. Thirty-plus years later, no book has knocked it off the top of my list. (The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols came very close!)
The Great Depression and Dust Bowl were two events that had profound effects on my family. As our collective memory of that time fades, I hope this novel will continue to be read in classrooms across the nation. I think The Grapes of Wrath can still teach us a lot today about how we look at our fellow Americans who have fallen on hard times.
4. If you have to give one piece of succinct advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
This is a great time to be an author. The old publishing paradigms are falling away. The gatekeepers preventing readers from seeing your work are losing their grip on power. My dream is that literary agents will soon go the way of travel agents. The catch is that you have to be good at what you do, and be savvy about the marketing and business side of selling books.
5. Tell us one fact about yourself that nobody knows.
I wish I had become an archeologist.
6. What was the greatest moment of your literary career?
It’s very important to me to present my books to the community where they took place. After five years working on The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, I set up my own book reading in a church basement in Gordon, Nebraska. The book recounts very painful events in Sheridan County’s and Pine Ridge’s past. The town declined to host me in the city hall auditorium. I was on my own to organize the event. Despite the fact that the high school was having talent show that night, about 100 showed up from the town and the reservation. During the Q&A session, a real dialogue broke out between the two communities. After awhile, I wasn’t answering questions. I just stood back and let everyone speak.
These are two peoples who have a shared history, but knew very little about each other. I intended to book to be a bridge between the two cultures — where readers can have a deeper understanding of where the folks on the other side of the border are coming from — and not something divisive. It was very satisfying to know that my book may have had some small impact on the readers’ lives.
7. Describe the feeling you had when you first held a finished, published copy of a book you had written.
I started writing novels in my early twenties. The first drafts of these unpublished works were all written in my grandmother’s basement in a small town in Nebraska. After all those years of her providing me free room and board with nothing to show for it, it was a happy day when I handed her a copy of a book with my name on it.
8. What is the best movie adaptation of a book you have ever seen? The worst?
Hands down, the best is To Kill a Mockingbird. The story fits nicely into the structure of a movie, the casting of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch was perfect, and the child actors were so natural in their roles.
I can’t decide if Starship Troopers is the greatest movie adaption of a book of all time, or the worst. All I know is that when it’s on TV, I can’t stop watching. And I tend to laugh at inappropriate times during the movie.
9. Write a haiku that describes you as a writer.
I’m not skilled enough of a writer to compose poetry yet.
10. What is the strangest question you have ever been asked related to your career as an author or your writings?
Some wild eyed guy at a book reading came up to me afterwards with his conspiracy theory that it was the buffalo soldiers, the 9th cavalry, who had carried out the Wounded Knee Massacre at Pine Ridge December 1890, not the 7th cavalry. There was some big cover up, he claimed. I try to be respectful of everyone’s point of view, but I think I told him point blank that I wasn’t buying into that one.