Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest Brings Writers, Artists and Readers Together in Celebration of the Written Word
Why I post what I post when I post it is sometimes a mystery even to myself. The subject of this story, the Omaha Lit Fest, doesn’t happen again until the fall and in this case the piece is about the very first fest from several years ago. But that’s precisely the point of my quirky blog: to get my work out there regardless of when I wrote it because, well, I feel like it. Besides, a good read is a good read no matter whether its story currency is in the here and now or in the past. All that’s relevant is whether the story holds your interest or not. I trust this will. Anyway, I’m quite partial to the festival and its founder-director, novelist Timothy Schaffert, and his offbeat sensibilities. From the start, his fest has found exceedingly clever ways to consider literature in panels, readings, exhibitions, and performances. I look forward to writing about this year’s event and you can be sure I’ll be posting that story in the fall.
Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest Brings Writers, Artists and Readers Together in Celebration of the Written Word
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When the inaugural Downtown Omaha Lit Fest “turns the pages” for the first time September 16 and 17 in the Old Market, it will unloose a roster of star scribes discoursing their work and offer a whimsical schedule of events, some predictable, some not, in celebration of the written word.
Recognizing the breadth of written expression, the festival does not play favorites, except for a preponderance of Nebraska writers, by embracing a sampler format exploring literature in all its variegated forms, minus such distinctions as “high” or “low” lit. When all is said and done, the event may just help unassuming Omaha finally shake off the last vestiges of the “aw-shucks” mentality dogging it all these years to assert its claim as a genuine cultural hotbed.
To the casual eye, Nebraska may lack the cache of a hip, plugged-in literary hub. But as even a cursory reading of festival participants’ credits reveals, there is a confluence of literary work connected to this place, by writers born or transplanted here or moved away, penning across a wide range of media and genres and, in many cases, writing about Nebraska, that compares favorably with any region’s collective body of work. The novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, scenarists, playwrights and so forth scheduled to give readings and participate in panel discussions represent some of the best contemporary practitioners of literary writing, period.
Then there’s the fact Nebraska writers are hot right now. Natives Michael Rips (The Face of a Naked Lady), Sean Doolittle (Burn) and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) are just killing it with their new works. Former Omaha radio DJ Otis Twelve is riding high after winning Britain’s Lit Idol contest for his novel On the Albino Farm and a Kurt Vonnegut prize for one of his short stories. Alexander Payne shared an Oscar for scripting his critical-commercial hit Sideways. Gerald Shapiro’s published collection Bad Jews and Other Stories served as the basis for the well-received film King of the Corner, whose screenplay he adapted with actor-director Peter Riegert. Ted Kooser is the reigning U.S. Poet Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. They’re joined by stalwarts Richard Dooling (White Man’s Grave), Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), Kurt Andersen (Turn of the Century), Brent Spencer (Are We Not Men?), Susan Aizenberg (Peru) and many others in creating a vibrant literary pulse here.
Fest founder Timothy Schaffert is himself a major new voice on the national lit front between his first published novel The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2003), which earned high praise, and his forthcoming The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005).
”It just seems there’s something about the writing of people in and from Nebraska that’s entering the national consciousness in a way that’s pretty huge. Alexander Payne won his award for writing Sideways, a movie that’s shaped pop culture and continues to do so. Conor Oberst has won a great deal of attention for his songwriting, as have other songwriters from here. There’s a fantastic poetry scene here. And there’s Ted Kooser, of course. So, there’s definitely some energy and some excitement about proclaiming Omaha as a cultural center. And it’s organic, too,” Schaffert said, rather than some glommed-on movement imported here or some fabricated event dreamed up by pricey consultants.
To be sure, this grassroots deal grew out of Omaha’s own literary community with a “Let’s-put-on-a-show” zeal for showcasing some of its best and brightest talents.
No less a cultural observer than Kurt Andersen, the Omaha born, New York-based satirist behind Spy magazine and public radio’s Studio 360, sees a rich lit stew brewing from his vantage point a coast away, where he’s coming from for the fest.
”It’s always been clear to me a youth spent in Nebraska correlates strongly with good writing later on, i.e. Willa Cather, Weldon Kees, Ron Hansen, Meghan Daum, Michael Rips, et cetera. However, when I was a kid in the ‘60s in Omaha, and former Nebraskan Ted Sorenson infamously said, more or less, Nebraska was a place to leave or a place to die, I took note, and left. But today with novelists like Richard Dooling and Timothy Schaffert doing their great work in Omaha, it seems to me it’s become a place for writers to live and not necessarily leave. In other words, from 1500 miles away the literary culture looks fairly healthy to me.”
Schaffert feels the props coming native writers way speak well for the area’s cultural currency and confirms, as Andersen said, this is a place where one can make it happen. “Each and every one of them are bringing great prestige to Omaha as a city of writers, which is what I think it’s becoming,” said Schaffert.
Omaha Public Library director Rivkah Sass applauds “the model” Schaffert’s come up with for the fest. “It’s quirky and edgy and fun and interesting and will open people’s eyes to what’s going on here, which is a literary scene that’s alive and wonderful, and I find that very exciting,” she said. She sees the event as a “convergence” of the arts that posits the library as a major cultural access point and center. “There’s every reason why Omaha should have a great library and why the library should be part of any number of great cultural events,” Schaffert said. “It’s been a great fit.”
The fest’s design of readings and panels interspersed with mixed media performances and exhibits interpreting literary works, all held in the center of the arts community, is the kind of Bohemian street fair once only associated with more cosmo burgs like Denver, Minneapolis or Chicago. But as more and more Omahans have begun saying — If they do it there, then why not here? — there’s a growing synergy underway that sees cool, indigenous developments, some already in place and others on the drawing board, breaking out on the local music, film, theater, art and literary scenes. These are the very elements that will help sustain and enliven the 24/7 downtown/riverfront lifestyle environment soon to take shape via Omaha’s planned urban condo, mixed-use neighborhoods.
The Lit Fest is right in line with the homegrown indie music phenomenon, led by Saddle Creek Records, making Omaha a pop culture reference point and pilgrimage stop. It’s part of the emerging cinema colony that has new film projects popping up every few weeks, the inaugural Omaha Film Festival slated for March and the Film Streams art movie house coming to No Do next summer. It complements the wide art experience available at the Hot Shops, Bemis, Kaneko, Joslyn and the town’s many diverse galleries. It spins off the lively theater scene, where funky new works, Broadway road shows and the classics can be had. Ambitious new theater projects in the offing promise bringing artists of national stature to area stages. That’s not to mention the new Holland Performing Arts Center and the leap it represents in local music hall aesthetics.
All this has traditionally self-effacing Omaha coming out of its shell. As large as area contributions are to jazz, blues, R & B, soul, gospel and indie folk/rock, Nebraska’s impact on the literary world is far greater. Such giants as John Neihardt, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, Karl Shapiro, Loren Eiseley and Ron Hansen called Nebraska home. The Prairie Schooner published by the University of Nebraska is one of the oldest, most prestigious literary journals in the world. The creative writing and English programs at UNL, UNO and Creighton are well-regarded and staffed by leading literary figures in their own right.
The fest’s lineup of active writers with Nebraska ties is a who’s-who of the state’s deep talent pool. ”Nebraska’s always had a strong literary heritage,” Schaffert said, “but it seems like it’s at its strongest perhaps since Willa Cather’s time. It may be even stronger.”
Some of Nebraska’s finest writers will miss the event, such as writer-director Payne, who’s off in Paris shooting a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, and novelist Ron Hansen, whose book The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is being filmed as a big screen western starring Brad Pitt. Regrettable as their absence is, the fest is bringing passionate writers and readers together in what should be an intimate, invigorating forum that’s all about sharing the love.
”It’s definitely a celebration of the written word and the writing process,” Schaffert said. “But with sort of a central focus on writers with some Nebraska or Midwestern connection. And I always want it to be kind of that way, you know. I want writers that speak to the voice of the Midwest or the Great Plains or the Greater Plains, or whatever we’re in.”
Future fests may add workshops and venues and run an entire weekend, he said. He’s steering the event free of the elitist imprimatur of, say, a university-museum sponsored conference or the drab propriety of a school or rotary reading, while still making it a serious gathering of litniks.
”I wanted to create an opportunity for writers to meet their readership in a way that is a little more festive, a little more sophisticated. So many times when you’re asked to read someplace, you’ll be reading under fluorescent lights in classrooms. I mean, to have any opportunity to present your work is great, but I thought it’d be cool to do it in the Old Market, in the gallery spaces, and to be able to have something to eat and to make it a more casual atmosphere. As well as great writers, Omaha has great resources and spaces to do that sort of thing in.”
Schaffert is a regular at the Nebraska Book Festival, a rather dowdy affair held mostly in back water venues long on scholarly rigor and short on impromptu charm, and while he appreciates the event, it’s a drag and it largely ignores contemporary fiction writers in favor of literary ghosts.
“Its focus has always seemed to me to be literary history. Willa Cather and Wright Morris…which is all extremely important, but I think sometimes the contemporary fiction writers end up kind of like afterthoughts. So that was something that after last year’s event novelist John McNally (The Book of Ralph) and I talked about. There was some conversation about how there could be a different kind of, maybe more urban event that was actually in more the heart of the city as opposed to a university campus. I wanted something that incorporated a variety of genres, that was relaxed and that was in my favorite part of the city, which is a lot of people’s favorite part of the city,” Schaffert said.
Another motivation, he added, was to provide a forum for fiction writers free of the hidebound, institutional restraints that make readings an awkward affair for writers and audiences alike. “Where poetry is very conducive to being read aloud, fiction reading — at the very mention of it — has this sort of feeling of having to sit through something and pay attention and show appreciation.”
Making it a folksy, communal gig will hopefully overturn notions of cranky, head-in-the-clouds writers reciting things beyond the reach of mortals.
”In reality, the stereotype of the crabby, solitary writer does not fit most of the people I know,” he said. “They’re gregarious, interesting, lively, charming, witty people that are great to hang out with. And they’ll all be reading and discussing their work in sessions that I’m sure will really sort of pop as people have the opportunity to come out behind their typewriters and go into the nuts and bolts.”
It’s not hard for him to imagine aspiring writers in the crowd hanging on their literary icons’ every word, as it wasn’t long ago he was an acolyte himself.
“I know when I was starting out writing at UNL in the writing program, they would bring writers in and we would literally sit at their feet. We’d go to their readings and then we’d see them in the classroom and then we might hang out with them at a party afterwards. You wanted every opportunity to soak up their presence and get a sense of the literary life. I don’t know if young writers are still like that, but it sure seems to make sense that an event like this could be a great opportunity to feel a little closer to the process and to the literary world in a way you don’t often get the opportunity to experience.”
New York author Liza Ward, who will read from her Outside Valentine, a novel about the Starkweather killing spree that claimed, among others, her grandparents, said even established writers like herself benefit from the interaction. “There is always something to learn from other writers, and because we tend to work alone, it is hard to connect with other people who understand what it’s like to face the blank screen every day — to invent something out of nothing and call it a job. It’s also nice to be around people who think books are important,” she said.
Gerald Shapiro, who teaches at UNL, said, “On the whole, being a writer is a lonely business. You don’t get to talk to people about what you’re doing and you certainly don’t get to hear people’s reactions to your work, so it’s a wonderful thing Timothy’s doing.”
It’s not only a chance for writers to interact with each other and the public, but for readers to discover writers and works for the first time.
“I’ve heard from a few people that they’ve been using the list of participants as like a summer reading list, and that’s exactly the point of the whole thing — all of us getting together and just letting people know that these writers and artists and works are out there for the taking. I love hearing that,” Schaffert said.
As for writers, it’s a chance to catch up or meet for the first time. Doug Wesselmann, better known as Otis Twelve, looks forward to renewing ties with Ward, Kava and Rips and getting to know “a favorite” — Andersen. O.T. is enough of a rising star to be an invited panelist on the crime writing panel, Criminal Behavior, and enough of a beginner that he’ll be an eager fly on the wall.
”I hope I can reveal just how amusing a book about crime can be and how deadly serious humor is at its heart. It will be good to hook up with writers working in my genre. Crime writers are, in my experience, a collegial lot. But, listen…I’m a rookie in this game, and I expect to pick up a few pointers – read: ‘steal stuff’. I expect I’ll learn more than I’ll impart”.
Andersen will read from his just finished Wonderstruck, a period novel partially set in what is now Omaha. He’ll also expound on writing funny for the panel Drink and Be Merry. His advice to would-be satirists?
”If you’re funny, let yourself be funny in your writing sometimes. But if you’re not, don’t force it. And writing doesn’t have to be either funny or very serious,” Andersen said. “My favorite things tend to be both.”
What does a lit fest really have to do with anything? Ward said, “A literary festival speaks to the fact the book will never die. There will always be loyalists who support good writing, who understand that it is fundamentally important. It will be wonderful and encouraging to be around so many people who make literature a part of their lives.” Andersen views it as a kind of rally for the lit crowd. “People who fever for good writing need to come together and celebrate that fever now and then, especially in places where there are fewer writers-per-capita than in, say, New York City. And I feel eager enough to be part of this iteration of that group hurrah to buy an airplane ticket and come.”
Out-of-town headliners like Andersen and Ward are coming on their own dime, too, as Schaffert’s “just above zero budget” precludes any air fare, lodging or honorarium support. If they can do it, then locals have no excuse not to show. Besides, there are cool opening and closing night parties to make like F. Scott and Zelda at. It’s a good cause, too, So, c’mon down and get your lit groove on.
Check out the full schedule of events and list of participants at www.omahalitfest.com.
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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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