Attention to her literary career didn’t come quickly for Ann Weisgarber, but the author does not fret her lack of “wunderkind” status and is enjoying a crock pot-like, slow-and-steady rise in the literary ranks.
The Sugar Land-based writer is gathering critical acclaim for her first book, “The Personal History of Rachel Dupree,” and is the next speaker in the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Fall Reading Series. Her talk will take place at noon on Nov.4 in the Alcorn Auditorium of UHV University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.
“The stars have all lined up for me,” Weisgarber said. “I recognize that the book is good enough to be published, but luck also plays a role and meeting the right people at the right time. It has really come as a big surprise, primarily because initially I couldn’t get the book published in the United States.”
Surprise comes to readers of her tome, as well. Weisgarber said some readers admit they were prepared to not like the book, one written by a white woman with a black woman as the protagonist. But the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, she said.
“Most writers are encouraged to ‘write what you know,’ but I really wanted to step outside my own personal life and write about what I was interested in,” the Ohio native said.
Reviewers write that the story transcends race and deals with the universal themes of loneliness, struggle, homeland, love and heartbreak, while also taking on divisions between white, black and brown; men and women; wealthy and poor. One Irish friend told her it was similar to the story of the struggles of his country’s inhabitants. The book garnered positive praise from top African-American authors Alice Walker and Terry McMillan, and its legitimacy was further confirmed.
For the unassuming Weisgarber, the gracious comments have been rewarding and fulfilling, especially considering her “accidental” path into the writer’s trade.
Most of Weisgarber’s adult life has been spent teaching sociology, most recently in Wharton County. She worked as an adjunct faculty member, driving to different campuses to teach. But she put teaching on hold to pursue her writing after being moved by what she saw while on a vacation in the South Dakota plains.
“My husband and I were camping at Badlands National Park, and we saw a sod dugout home,” Weisgarber said. “Now, I had read the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series and Willa Cather’s ‘My Antonia,’ but to see the tiny kitchen and a path worn into the dirt floors in front of the stove affected me. I imagined some woman standing in front of that cookstove, basically chained to it, making three meals a day, seven days a week.”
On the same trip, Weisgarber saw a photo of a black woman in front of a similar dugout, one of a few African-American homesteaders on the Great Plains.
“I just wanted to tell this woman’s story,” she said.
Weisgarber began writing the story with no delusions of it turning into a novel. But she took her time with the writing process, taking workshop lessons and moving slowly by handwriting one of her favorite historical novels, Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.” Slowing down helped her learn about narration, dialog, story structure and other aspects.
While her younger cohorts in one writing workshop wanted a screenplay that a Hollywood agent might buy, Weisgarber simply wanted a story. Eventually, the workshop instructor told her, “I think you have something bigger here.”
Once her manuscript was complete, U.S. publishers were leery. But Pan-Macmillan in the United Kingdom was willing to take a chance. And it wasn’t long after its European printing that awards followed, including a nomination for the Orange Award and Orange Award for New Writers, both prestigious United Kingdom writing awards, and domestic recognition as winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Debut Novel Prize.
“I know I am a real late bloomer with all this, which makes it all the more surprising,” Weisgarber said. “But I am so pleased and am delighted to be invited to the ABR Reading Series.”
Jeffrey Di Leo, ABR editor/publisher and dean of the UHV School of Arts & Sciences, said he is excited to bring Weisgarber to Victoria and thinks her story will resonate with locals.
“I’m thrilled that Ann Weisgarber will be sharing her inspirational story with the UHV and Victoria communities,” said Di Leo. “Her rise through the literary ranks shows us all that success is not only for young writers. It shows us that seasoned writers can still be successful with their endeavors.”
Weisgarber also may discuss another connection while at the university. Her next book is set around the 1900 Galveston hurricane, which is the subject of the UHV Community of Readers series of forums throughout this school year.
The last writer scheduled for the Fall Reading Series is E. Ethelbert Miller, who will speak on Dec. 2. Miller, a literary activist, is the board chairman of the Institute for Policy Studies. He is a board member of The Writer’s Center and is editor of Poet Lore magazine. Since 1974, he has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His novel, “In Search of Color Everywhere,” was awarded the 1994 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was a Book of the Month Club selection. Mr. Miller received the 1995 O.B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize. In 2004, Miller received a prestigious Fulbright award to visit Israel.
ABR is a nonprofit, internationally distributed literary journal that is published six times a year. It began in 1977, moved to UHV in 2007 and has a circulation of about 8,000. The journal specializes in reviews of works published by small presses.
For more information about the UHV/ABR Reading Series, call ABR Managing Editor Charles Alcorn at 361-570-4100 or go to www.americanbookreview.org.