Wallace Stegner lived down the road from me for much of my life. Our houses were on different streets, in different neighborhoods even, but very near as the crow flies. When I graduated college, as an English major and an editor of the college daily, a neighbor offered to introduce me to the great teacher and writer, who had just published “Crossing to Safety.” I went down there and was received in his study and talked books and ideas for about two hours. Later, when he gave a reading at Kepler’s he signed my copy: “To Mark Weiss, from his neighbor, Wallace Stegner.” When “Collected Stories” came out, and I was living in SF, I saw him read at Clean Well Lighted Place For Books, and he signed my copy “To Mark Weiss, from his ex-neighbor, Wallace Stegner.” I also recall mentioning to him the hoot owl that was sounding — according to that same mutual neighbor — and Stegner seemed to get a kick out of the nature-themed small talk and currency.
In fall of 2008, when I realized that Stegner’s 100th birthday anniversary was coming, I had just met Dao Strom, and her acquaintance gave me the idea of inviting songwriters to try to base songs on the Stegner short stories. One of Dao’s stories was anthologized — by Larry McMurtry no less — next to Stegner in a collection of best Western writing. So far I’ve approached about a dozen artists, gifting them copies of the set (sometimes “Collected Stories“, but also “The Women On The Wall” a slimmer, more rare volume), but only Dao has reported back with a finished response. She has a song “Two Rivers” based on Stegner’s story about childhood, parenting and memory.
The illustration above was made by Rob Syrett. He created it partly to promote this project and partly for a flyer I made on Feb. 19, 2009 when Origami Ghosts yielded five minutes of their set at Beerland in Austin, Texas for me to describe WS and read aloud a few paragraphs of another Stegner story. (For some strange reason, I read from “The Chink”). J.P Scesniak of the Seattle-based band reports that he is finishing a song based on Stegner’s “Volcano”. For the other songwriters, I am keeping their involvement confidential until they work it out with their respective muses.
The plan at this point would be for an indie label to manufacture and market the proposed collection, and for proceeds after recoupment to go to a Stegner-esque cause like literacy or environmentalism. I think Wallace Stegner would appreciate the way this project imparts a challenge or discipline on the writers I have approached.