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Acclaimed Author and Nebraska New Wave Literary Leader Timothy Schaffert


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Omaha and greater Nebraska own a strong literary scene, and one of its leading lights is novelist Timothy Schaffert.  I wrote the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) after the publication of his second novel. He’s since had a third published and will soon have a fourth out. He and the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest he founded and directs may not be what a lot of folks associate with this place, but his acclaimed work and the work of other notable Nebraska authors make clear this is a vibrant space for writers.  I’ve had the pleasure of reading the work of many of these writers, also of interviewing the authors and profiling them.  I’ll be posting more articles about Timothy, his work as a novelist, and his lit fest as well as more articles about other Nebraska writers whose work you should know.

 

NOTE: The 2010 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, Curiouser & Curiouser: The Book in Flux, is September 10-11 and as usual it features an impressively talented and quirky roster of guest authors and artists.  You can find a link to the fest via my links roll.

 

Acclaimed Author and Nebraska New Wave Literary Leader Timothy Schaffert

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Author Timothy Schaffert is in the vanguard of a literary movement that finds Nebraska writers like himself all the rage for their high craft and wry style. For the recent (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest he organized, he touted Omaha as “a town of writers” and invited many of its literary lights to take part in readings and panel talks.

But with an acclaimed novel to his credit, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2002, BlueHen), his soon-to-hit second novel already generating heat and a third under way, this leader of the Nebraska New Wave is taking some time to speak about his own work.

Reared on a Hamilton County farm 60 miles from Willa Cather’s Red Cloud, Neb., he grew up in a rough-hewn place unkind to the artist’s bent. The feeling of outsidedness he wore like a badge of honor permeates his work, replete with characters who revel in their own alienation. In his debut novel, the emotionally scarred but resourceful Rollows are rural Nebraska orphans scrapping a life together from the ruins of an antique shop. In his follow-up, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005, Unbridled), set in the same fictitious county, low-rent lounge singer Hud tries reforming the shambles of his broken family, including a son gone off with a touring gospel music act. All of Schaffert’s characters ache with the sweet melancholia of oh-so-sad country songs. Their earnest, whimsical longings are both plaintive and funny in a world where dreams held fast haunt folks.

Not unlike how the sisters feel estranged from their enviorns and misunderstood by family and friends, Schaffert felt adrift as a budding writer in corn country.

”Oh, I didn’t think anybody understood me. I never felt like I fit in. I felt like I’d come from some other plant and been dropped onto this farm. I was pretty much a loner. I mean, I’ve always been close to my family, but there’s no secret I’m not quite of the same sensibility,” said Schaffert. ”All through school I was scrawny. I didn’t play sports. I had chronic acne. I had scoliosis. And I had ulcers, so I was worrying about everything in addition to just sort of scrabbling through life. I was a complete physical and mental wreck. So, I always felt kind of strange.”

 

 

 

 

Just as dispirited Mabel Rollow finds satisfaction in imagining her demise, Schaffert wallowed in adolescent angst as a kind of guilty pleasure and act of rebellion.

“I used to fantasize some dramatic suicide that I would then oversee as a
ghost, to see how people regretted letting me slip away,” he said.

Much like the elaborate stories the girls concoct to explain or justify their eccentric straits, Schaffert found solace in the stories he loved to read and write from a young age. “I read whatever I could get my hands on.” An inveterate comic book fan, he created his own characters and spun his own tales. He even began writing plays in junior high, once directing his own work.

“Even then the act of writing was a kind of salvation,” he said, “and I found some comfort in that. It was something people thought I was good at, so that was rewarding  because when you’re this scrawny kid who can’t play football in a small town in Nebraska, where football is king, you wonder what your worth is. Something I learned at a difficult time was that well, yeah, maybe I do have some talent I can explore. Maybe this is something I do care about and something I can learn more about it. And, you know, that kind of carries you through.”

While an artist’s life was in little evidence between his over-the-road truck driver father and blue collar surroundings, Schaffert’s mother was “an avid reader” whose book club selections became fodder for her bright and curious son.

”I ended up reading these really terrible, raunchy best sellers by Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susan and Sidney Sheldon when I was in the 6th grade. I appreciated them for their drama and melodrama and all these events that happened in them.”

His “developing appreciation of literature” took flight in high school, when he read such signposts of youthful disaffection as 1984Catcher in the RyeFarenhite 451 and Lord of the Flies. He loved Roald Dahl’s work. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied journalism and English, his “sense of language” flowered under mentors Judy Slater, Gerald Shapiro and Marly Swick. Notice for his work came early. He was published in the Prairie Schooner as a University of Arizona grad student. He paid bills writing career guides and filling editorial posts at alternative papers, including The Reader, all the while penning his award-winning fiction.

“I guess I really started paying attention to language when I started reading (William) Faulkner, (Flannery) O’Connor, (Eudora) Welty, (Tennessee) Williams and all the great Southern writers. Their language really amazed me. Early in college I was trying to write in that vein, but mine was highly overwritten, purple prose. Then that tabled out and I found my own voice. I played a little with language in different ways. For me, the writing process begins with the concept or the character and…coming up with situations. Then there’s bringing it to the page. Putting words to it is a whole other dimension. You learn how language can actually change the direction of a book on a sentence to sentence level.  Then there’s the way characters talk to each other and the discovery of who the characters are and what the novel is. So, for me, language is pretty powerful.”

The figures populating his novels first percolated in his head years ago, appearing in short stories he later drew on for his books.

“I sort of pictured the characters in a place where I grew up. There are details from the landscape where I grew up and probably some of the people I grew up around. But for the most part I just indulged my imagination, taking bits and pieces from what I heard, from the newspaper, from daily life, and worked them into the fabric of the novels. I always feel like there’s something perverse about my imagination. I don’t think I could ever just write directly from life. I need to filter it through this warped perspective.”

His penchant for seeing the quixotic and mysterious in the seemingly mundane lifts his Midwestern gothic stories to a state of grace. Whatever acts of folly his protagonists commit, they do so in affirmation of their own existence, choosing inevitable disappointment to feeling nothing at all.

In Phantom Limbs, Mabel and Lily make holy relics of objects their father, who killed himself, left behind. Where no facts exist to explain their abandonment by, first, their father and then their mother, they invent details to suit their own devices. Mabel and others make regular pilgrimmages to a farmhouse, where a paralyzed girl tells them what they want about their lives from the totems they bring. Lily embarks on a road trip that is a pilgrimmage of another kind — to find and confront her mother. In Daughters of God, Hud and company are trapped in a maze of memories, places and things that define them. All around him, Hud’s reminded of his shortcomings — the failed marriage he can’t restore, the prodigal son he can’t bring back, the daughter he can’t fully possess and the best friend he can’t forgive. Each figure bristles at being confined to limited possibilities. Each rebels in their own way. Hud won’t let his family slip away, even as they resist his efforts. Ozzie, his former pal, resorts to breaking stained glass windows, so that he can repair something, anything, unlike the damage in his own life he cannot fix.

Schaffert enjoys giving his lost souls refuge from “realty” in flights of fancy that reveal universal sensitivities, vulnerabilities, absurdities and ironies. “It’s very easy to convince ourselves that we are the only people on Earth. We do take ourselves very seriously. The writer Paul Auster makes the argument that realist fiction is not real at all. It doesn’t resemble real life, but that the more fantastic and more magical fiction actually bears a closer resemblance,” Schaffert said.

His in-progress new novel marks a departure in some ways. First, its events unfold in the space of a day. Next, it’s set in an urban, rather than rural, milieu filled with rich, spoiled characters miserable despite their wealth. Finally, its tone is more “overtly comic” than his earlier work. The episodic story reveals the conceits and hypocrisies of privileged snobs preparing for a party. It’s the sort of delicious fun house that a gifted satirist such as Schaffert loves to play in.

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