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John Lamb, Published March 03 2013

‘Sweet’ translation: Author Weaver discusses story adaptation to the big screen

FARGO – Young writers are often given the advice “write what you know.”

As a master’s student at Stanford University, Will Weaver took that advice and started writing stories inspired by his upbringing on a farm outside Park Rapids, Minn.

It was advice that paid off for him. One of his early stories, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” went on to become the critically-praised 2006 independent film “Sweet Land.”

The 62-year-old author talks at the Fargo Public Library tonight about the path a story takes from the page to the screen in a discussion called “From Fiction to Film.”

“We like to have authors come in and talk about their work, and he’s a pretty major Minnesota author,” says Solveig Lund, reference librarian associate at the Fargo Public Library, who organized the event. “We thought this would be fun tie-in for the Fargo Film Festival. It’s a really interesting program we haven’t done here before.”

Weaver downplays his own star power.

“I grew up on a small dairy farm and had no idea I’d be a writer someday,” he says when asked if he ever envisioned writing for the screen. “I just wanted to tell in short story form a few good stories from rural Midwest, that small-town farm life. I wanted to capture that before it disappeared.”

Weaver’s goal may have been personal and simple, but his works immediately found an audience.

His first novel, “Red Earth, White Earth,” was published in 1986 and immediately got positive attention. In 1989, CBS adapted the book for a made-for-TV movie.

That year his first collection of short stories, “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” hit shelves. But that road from bookstore to movie theater would be much rockier.

Shortly after it was published, Minneapolis filmmaker Ali Selim read the title story and reached out to Weaver about making it into a movie. It took more than a decade until the project even got off the ground.

Weaver wasn’t happy with CBS’ treatment of “Red Earth, White Earth,” saying they focused more on the dialogue than the story and sped through making the movie. So when Selim got moving on what would become “Sweet Land,” Weaver had a hand in the adaptation. Once he got comfortable with how the director worked and his vision, the author stepped back.

“It’s an enormous amount of work, but not for me. I’m responsible for the story, for the characters, the description. Then the filmmaker takes over from there,” Weaver said Friday from his home in Bemidji, Minn.

While he’s proud of “Sweet Land,” he doesn’t find himself writing with the silver screen in mind.

“I never truly think about film, because if fiction writers think, ‘Oh, this would be a good movie,’ there’s sort of a bad karma that happens and it doesn’t turn out that way,” the author says. “I’m really focused on bringing to life a rich story with real people, real characters. In the end, that’s what catches the attention of filmmakers, I think.”

He says about half of “Gravestone Made of Wheat” was based on actual events, taken from stories his grandparents told of the immigrant experience.

The story and the movie follow Inge, who arrives from Norway for an arranged marriage with Norwegian immigrant farmer Olaf following World War I. The differences between the two are vast, and she receives no support from the locals in Audubon, Minn., who turn their back to her when they realize she is actually German.

Selim amped up the nationalistic themes for the film, but Weaver often uses an “outsider” character of some sort in his stories, whether in his early fiction or his later young adult novels.

“I suppose that is much of literature. Someone once said that at least half of literature is, ‘… and then a stranger arrived in town.’ If you think about it, there are a lot of stories about a stranger arriving and acclimating or non-acclimating,” he says.

He knows some scenes have to be cut to make a movie translate to a manageable run time, but some cuts still hurt. A scene involving Inge and Olaf’s first meeting as she gets off the train in Fargo was ultimately too expensive to shoot.

“It’s a beautiful scene, but in the movie we couldn’t afford that train, so that was a loss for me,” Weaver says.

Still, he praises the final product and says all the years it took to make the film were well spent.

“Ali Selim took his time with the directions, let the camera run and let it appreciate the landscape we have in the Upper Midwest,” Weaver says.

If you go

What: Will Weaver discusses “From Fiction to Film”

When: 7 tonight

Where: Fargo Public Library, 102 3rd St. N.

Info: Free and open to the public.

(701) 241-1492

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533