Timothy Schaffert Gets Down and Dirty with his New Novel ‘Devils in the Sugar Shop’
This is one of the latest stories I have written about author and literary maven Timothy Schaffert of Omaha, whose first three novels (The Hollow Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, and Devils in the Sugar Shop, which was just coming out when I wrote the piece, have all received high praise from reviewers. He has a fourth novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, due out next spring, and I expect it will only add to his reputation as a first-rate talent. His work is very funny and very insightful, and the literary festival he runs, the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, is a superb concentration on the written word. The 2010 event is September 10-11 and as usual features a strong lineup of guest authors and artists from all over America and representing many different kinds of literary work. Schaffert also runs a summer writing workshop at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that also attracts top talent. He is at the forefront of a dynamic literary scene in Nebraska, a state that has produced an impressive list of literary icons (Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, John Neihardt, Loren Eiseley, Tillie Olsen, Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Kurt Andersen). He’s a sweet person, too. I look forward to attending the Omaha Lit Fest (a link for it is on this site) and to reading his new novel, and especially to seeing and talking to him again.
The story below originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). You’ll find more of my Schaffert and Omaha Lit Fest stories on this site, with more to come.
Timothy Schaffert Gets Down and Dirty with his New Novel ‘Devils in the Sugar Shop‘
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
©by Leo Adam Biga
An interview at the Papillion home he shares with his longtime partner found 38-year-old Omhaha author Timothy Schaffert in his usual no-fuss mode — bare feet, jeans, T-shirt, stubbled face, his two dogs panting for affection. Curled up on a sofa in the untidy, tiled, windowed sun room, his voice rose and fell with catty gossip and sober reflection, punctuated by a rat-a-tat-tat laugh. He’s one part John Waters and one part John Sayles, a duality expressed in his tabloid-literary roots.
Schaffert is hot-as-a-pistol these days. His much buzzed about new novel, Devils in the Sugar Shop (Unbridled Books), officially debuts in May. After the rural American Gothic goings-on of his first two books, Devils wryly explores an urban landscape of morally bankrupt subcultures. That the setting is Omaha makes it all the more delicious.
As the author of a third acclaimed novel in five years, the Omahan is a rising literary star. As founder/director of the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, he’s a tastemaker. As a creative writing, composition and literature teacher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he’s an academic wheel. Much in demand, he’s asked to do readings/residencies around the country. Closer to home, he’s been invited to conduct workshops at the Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference.
On a lazy Saturday morning he discussed various aspects of his rich writing life.
Before the novels he made waves on the local alternative journalism scene, first with The Reader, then Pulp. His assured literary style, imbued with sharp wit and imaginative whimsy and full of exacting details, unexpected digressions and eclectic references, set him apart. Schaffert still freelances — witness a current piece in Poets and Writers — but his attention is now firmly on fiction writing.
Besides novels, he writes short stories. He adapted one story, The Young Widow of Barcelona, for a Blue Barn Witching Hour-Omaha Lit Fest collaboration, Short Fictions and Maledictions, that melds literature and theater. Schaffert helped workshop the script before giving it over to the WH troupe, whose work he finds “invigorating.” The show runs April 28 through May 12 at the Blue Barn.
His first two books, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2002) and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005), brought him much recognition. Devils is doing the same. Often noted is the splendor he finds in his characters’ imperfections. Ordinary people sorting through the chaos of their dysfunctional, interconnected lives. Dreams run up hard against reality. Desires conflict. Relationships strain. In true American Gothic tradition, Twisted humor and heightened language create a raw poetry. Never has neurosis seemed such an emblem of Americana.
Sisters is being reissued next fall by Unbridled Books. Daughters was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick in 2006. Now a candidate for the Omaha Public Library’s Omaha Reads citywide book club, Daughters is also being adapted as a screenplay by Joseph Krings, a music video/short filmmaker from Nebraska.
Devils already boasts strong advance press courtesy of comments like these from Publishers Weekly: “…consistently surprising and vibrant…Schaffert walks an uneasy line between the amusingly sexy and the scabrous.”
As Schaffert says of the book on his web site, “I’d say it has undertones of Woody Allen, overtones of old-school soap opera, duotones of Pedro Almodovar, halftones of Robert Altman, and dulcet tones of Mrs. Dalloway.”
He considers Devils “a modernist novel” in keeping with his “sense of the world” as “funny and absurd.” It’s the antithesis of the kind of “formulaic or prescriptive” approach he abhors. “What will cause me to put a book down is if it’s just too insufferably clear-eyed and its characters too level-headed,” he said. “I don’t want to use the words sterility or banality, but…
“I think sometimes our sense of what is typically called realism in fiction is not real at all,” he said. “It’s a construct. When we actually look at our lives and the lives of people we know, there’s all kinds of strangeness. It’s definitely messier than some of the contemporary fiction you see now. And I think part of that is because contemporary fiction tries to avoid melodrama and soap opera. It’s all about understatement, whereas mine is overstatement — more clawing our way through this existence until the day we die.”
Devils’ seven point-of-view characters propel us through a farcical, fun house tour of Omaha in Heat. Via a cast of artists, dilettantes, slackers, Old Market types and suburbanites we careen from Sugar Shop, Inc. sex-toy parties to erotica writing workshops to provocative art works to swinger parties to illicit trysts to homophobic rants to a stalker’s threats to a “reformed” dwarf’s advances to some drag queens’ credos. The effect of all this acting out is not titillation but illumination.
“We have these deep psychological stews and yet we all appear we’re salt-of-the-earth,” Schaffert said. “We’re all convinced we’re doing the right thing all the time. We’re representing ourselves exactly the way we should represent ourselves, meanwhile we’re just flailing.”
He hones in on human desperation, setting in relief the conflicts that rage within and that separate us from others, whether it is, as he says, our “fear of getting hurt or being violated in some sense or having different expectations from other people. That’s the stuff that fascinates me…trying to puzzle all that out.”
For the naughty bits he drew on a sex-toy party he attended and on interviews he did with swinger couples for a Reader article. The thought of soccer moms and dads getting silly over vibrators and lubes is something Schaffert finds irresistible. “It’s so hilarious that it’s become so non-sordid. It is almost like having a Tupperware party.” In his research on swingers, he said, “what surprised me was how many couples are part of this subculture. The people I talked to were pretty frank about why they’re involved with it and very little of it had to do with sex.”
His book touches on the schizoid place sex holds in America. “It’s blatant and ubiquitous and yet we want to pretend we’re all virgins and that the multi-billion dollar porn industry doesn’t have anything to do with us,” he said.
Other taboos are dealt with, too. The overtly gay Lee sleeps with both his girlfriend and boyfriend, a reflection, Schaffert said, of how young people “see sexuality as more fluid and flexible” than past generations. “Who they sleep with today is not going to effect who they sleep with tomorrow, which is an interesting thing to witness. And it makes sense. It’s cool to see young people expressing themselves in this Puritanical society in a way that doesn’t fit explicitly with the social structure. It’s certainly a more imaginative way of pursuing your relationships and your self-identity.” That doesn’t mean people still don’t get hurt, he added.
Lee’s homosexuality distresses the women in his life. “That was an interesting thing to explore,” Schaffert said. “These women are so invested in his heterosexuality that his being gay ends up being kind of life altering for a couple characters.”
Sex may drive the story, but the actual act is never depicted. “As I was working my way towards this,” he said, “I was like, Well, what do I portray about this? Do I have to write sex scenes? I didn’t really want to because that’s been so overdone that it’s almost impossible to do it in any way that’s not obnoxious. I modeled my approach after Edward Gorey’s in his great novel The Curious Sofa, where everything takes place behind a screen or a sofa, so you see a leg or arm or something.”
Like any good writer, Schaffert doesn’t make moral judgments about his characters. He said as he exposes flaws he takes pains to not let his humor turn a cruelty at his characters’ expense. Even though some readers may interpret it that way, he doesn’t intend to make fun of the predicaments that befall his dear misfits. He can’t afford to, as he gets too close to them during the creative process. He said, “When I’m writing I’m inhabiting these characters’ lives like an actor getting into character, figuring out exactly what they would say and how they would react to certain situations based on what I know to be true about the world — that it’s funny and absurd.”
As Devils’ assundry subplots unfold, there’s the added fun of identifying real-life Omaha figures and places dressed up in fictional clothes. In the book the work of a black female painter named Viv, whose edgy art, Schaffert writes, “tends to make people nervous,” is a barely disguised reference to the effect Omaha artist Wanda Ewing’s racially and sexually-charged work evokes. Ewing is a friend of Schaffert’s, who borrowed some of her work for inspiration. The book store Mermaids Singing, Used & Rare run by twins Peach and Plum is clearly the Old Market fixture Jackson Street Booksellers, which he adores.
His swingers expose may end up in a new project he’s developing that he said charts, “in a kind of fictionalized memoir,” the vagaries “of working as an editor for an alternative news weekly in a conservative town.” He was with The Reader, first as a contributing writer, then as managing editor and then editor-in-chief, from 1999 through 2002. He left over creative differences and soon thereafter headed up Pulp, the short-lived but lively salon mag. For part of his Reader tenure the paper was owned by the late Alan Baer, an eccentric millionaire who turned a blind eye to certain irregularities. Beyond a memoir, what makes this a departure for Schaffert is that it’s designed as a comic book, one he’ll both write and illustrate. He’s only taken notes thus far, but he’s eager to explore the form.
“I grew up loving the Dick Tracy comic strip and Fantastic Four and Archie comics. My entree into writing was comic books,” he said.
He’s become “more and more interested” in the graphic novel, citing the work of Chris Ware, Alison Bechdal, Sophie Crumb and Ivan Brunetti. He said his project “might end up being a series of mini-comics that I eventually collect into a book.”
He’s also taking notes for a new novel that, he said, is “picking up on some of the themes I’ve explored before: relationships between parents and their children; faith and religion; strained marriage.” Another short story or two and he’ll have enough for a collection.
With so much breaking his way, Schaffert could be excused for playing the big shot, but he doesn’t. Like one of his bemused characters, he looks with incredulity at all the fuss being made about him. He undercuts the floss by self-deprecatingly dishing on himself and his success. He calls the Lit Fest an act of “arrogant self-promotion.” Imagine the gall it takes, he went on, “to create a literary festival to bring more attention to myself.” In truth the fest focuses on all aspects of the written word, drawing much attention to the strong literary scene here and to dozens of writers not named Timothy Schaffert.
Any mention of the warm embrace given his work is quickly deflected.
“It’s been mainly through my publisher and my editor. I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. As Unbridled only publishes a few books a year, Schaffert reaps the benefits of a pampered author with name-above-the-title pull. “The press I work with approaches their works with the same vigorous attitude commercial presses do for their best selling authors, and in that sense when you only publish eight or ten books a year, a lot of attention gets shoved my way. They’re kind of a boutique press, but they’ve been in the business for years and years and so they know their way around in the publishing industry.”
Co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson formed Unbridled in 2003 after stints at MacMurray & Beck and BlueHen Books, then a literary imprint of Putnam Press. BlueHen published Schaffert’s first novel. From the start Unbridled has gained a rep for publishing new talent. For public relations and tax purposes, the press is based in Denver, Col., but it is in reality a virtual press whose administrative and creative team live and work in disparate spots.
Schaffert appreciates the extra mile Unbridled goes, including the late spring-early summer Devils book tour they’ve scheduled, which will find him going to all the usual places in the Midwest, but also New York, Chicago and Atlanta.
“It’s such a luxury to have a publisher get behind the book in that way,” he said.
Much like the home he’s found at Unbridled, Schaffert enjoys the comfort of working within the very writing community he sprang from at UNL.
He’s discovered he teaches as he was taught. “That’s exactly my approach,” he said. “My philosophy about writing in general was really developed or helped along by professors I had in college — Gerry Shapiro and Judy Slater. My professors were very sensitive to this idea of there not being a right way or a wrong way to write fiction. Instead, you approach it on a story-by-story basis and examine what’s working within a particular piece to help it work better.
“It’s interesting to be going back to the university where I studied, you know. Every day I go to work it feels like a nostalgia trip a little bit. It feels like such a rare experience to be able to be mentored as a teacher by the same people who mentored me a writer. I mean, I talk to Gerry and Judy a lot about teaching, about students, about experiences in the classroom.”
Teaching was long in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t try it until he was ready. “You have to develop a body of work before you can be taken seriously as a teacher,” he said. Now that he’s doing it, he said, “I love it. You have a fair amount of freedom there in how you want to interpret the class, so I appreciate that.”
Having to articulate craft is instructive for a writer like himself. It’s not so different than “when I was a student in that studio workshop environment where you’re expected to read other students’ work and comment on it,” he said. “Obviously when it’s your work that’s up you benefit from the constructive criticism. But you also benefit from examining…and developing an aesthetic, really, of certain critical criteria that you discover as you’re talking about other people’s work.”
He said appraising his own work is something “I feel more adept at than I have in the past.” It’s vital, he said, “in order to seek out bad habits that I may have practiced in previous work and to see it happening now or to recognize it.” Besides the analytical discipline that informs his work, he said journalism makes him more discerning. “I think it comes from writing about dining and style, doing book and movie reviews, writing features about subjects you know nothing about. You develop insights into writing along those kinds of lines.”
All this work-for-hire’s left him undamaged. He said, “I have mostly made my career as a writer at some level and it seems like that can be potentially distracting when you’re trying to write fiction but you’re adapting another style. I think the fear is you could ruin yourself by writing work you don’t really care about, especially if you have to write in a particular kind of way that’s perhaps not good writing. I think it’s good for a writer to compartmentalize as much as possible. It’s a matter of figuring out those ways to slip back into the creative process.”
He’s found a way to protect himself from cross-contamination.
“Part of that is just the space I write in,” he said. “I have a home office where I do ‘paying work’ at a desk at a computer and I tend to write fiction in here,” he said, meaning the sun room. “I write on a laptop, with music going, pacing a lot.” The music he plays to induce a fugue-like state “depends on what I’m writing,” he said. “For Devils, I found myself listening to a lot of old pop and jazz standards. Typically, Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ is on constant rotation no matter what I’m writing. I also tend to listen to Rickie Lee Jones, Erik Satie and Joe Henry.
He doesn’t miss “the 2AMers” that came with being a news weekly editor, when he’d awaken in the middle of the night, panic-stricken over the status of that week’s cover story. The strain of putting out a paper with “no staff writers” and “no budget” grew tiresome. The saving grace, he said, was taking “a creative approach” to the work and always “wanting the story to be exactly what it needed to be. Editing is a creative act all by itself.”
Until his summer book tour he’s doing local readings and commuting to Lincoln for classes. Those I-80 hops allow ideas to seep in. Once, while en route to Hastings, the characters for The Young Widow of Barcelona came to him as a Neko Case CD played. “I’m always tossing around things,” he said. “I have to spend a fair amount of time to have an idea gestate before I can write anything down.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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