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Arts & Life

How Molly Weisgram found her voice amidst trauma and transformation

This interview is from SDPB's monthly news show, South Dakota Focus, hosted by Jackie Hendry.

I’m at dinner in downtown Sioux Falls ahead of a book event featuring South Dakota’s poet laureate Christine Stewart. A women I don’t know is seated at our group table. She has written a book of her own, I am told. It’s about an illness that changed her family’s life. She lives in Fort Pierre.

Later in the evening this author, Molly Weisgram, will place her book into my hands. Now I am responsible for sharing her story, in a small way, even before I have folded back the cover.

It’s not unusual for people to send books to my attention. As the host of In the Moment and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, it’s fairly common. I don’t read all of them; I couldn’t possibly. But I do my best to treat each one with the respect it deserves.

This year, reading feels even more urgent for me. My life is changing in ways I don’t yet understand, but books have always guided me through transitions, so I’ve learned to trust the process. Even so, Molly Weisgram’s The Other Side of Us takes me by surprise. It becomes more than a story of struggle and survival. Within pages it becomes a reflection of my own dread, my own hope, my own grief.

Maybe it’s because meeting Molly at dinner was my first serendipitous encounter after months of pandemic isolation. Maybe it’s the way she passed a copy to me (in response to my request) with a barely perceptible reverence, as if she were offering a child into my temporary care rather than an object of paper and ink and glue. Maybe I just like her and admire her book.

In September, we celebrate South Dakota’s literary heritage for our monthly Spotlight coverage. We’ll meet bookstore owners and authors and readers. We’ll consider the books that have changed how we see ourselves and the books that have changed our world. It’s a road trip on the way to the state’s marquis literary event of the year — the South Dakota Festival of Books. I’m excited to share the journey with SDPB listeners and readers and writers across the state.

I’ve been attending the Festival of Books nearly every year since its inception and reporting from it since before I worked in radio. I’m grateful to have interviewed authors such as Ted Kooser, Harry Bliss, Chris Browne, and Marilynne Robinson for newspaper stories. I’m honored to have shared the stage for interviews with authors such as Alice Sebold, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Heid Erdrich, and Nick Estes. One year SDPB’s Paul Ebson and I set up in the green room and recorded interviews with a dazzling list of Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, including the luminously funny book critic Michael Dirda.

It is equally joyful to spend time with our own state’s literary legends — to travel to Windbreak House and meet Linda Hasselstrom, to pause an interview because of the antics of Dan O’Brien’s cat, and to get to know the everyday memoirists, novelists, and poets who are scribbling away in notebooks and tapping away at keyboards. They write on their lunch breaks, in coffee shops, in minivans, before morning chores. They tell stories that are passed down from one generation to the next. They write letters and emails to loved ones and messages in bottles, perhaps, to recipients unknown.

Not everyone has a book, but everyone has a story.

We invite you to journey with us for this SDPB Spotlight and literary road trip. What books do you think definite and redefine our region? Who do you consider our very best authors? What books should people outside the state read to understand more of who we are?