There’s nothing else quite like the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest in these parts. Oh, there’s plenty of literary events to go around, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something as quirky as this annual assemblage of writerly concerns and pursuits. The wording of this year’s theme, The Lit Fest Guide to Etiquette for Women Writers, is in keeping with the sardonic leanings of novelist and event founder-director Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope). The October 19-2o festival just goes its own way in following whatever trail of thought and literary trend that suits the quixotic Schaffert. He brings in a great lineup of authors and artists every year for never less than interesting conversations and presentations about all things related to writing, editing, publishing. It’s well worth checking out.
Omaha Lit Fest Puts Focus on Women Writers and Women in Publishing
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It should be no surprise the author of languidly paced satirical novels (The Coffins of Little Hope) that delight in peculiar, piquant details should fashion a literary happening along the same lines.
Novelist Timothy Schaffert has done just that with the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, a free celebration of prose, poetry and other word-made-art expressions.
He founded Lit Fest eight years ago and continues organizing the annual literary salon today. This year’s event luxuriates in its delightful otherness Friday and Saturday, October 19 and 20, at the W, Dale Clark Library, where there will be a gender-centric focus to the readings, panels, topics and performances.
The 6:30-9:30 p.m. opening night party promises local female slam poets unleashing from 7 to 7:30, an altered books exhibit, an edible books contest and an all-girl string quartet.
Well-attuned as Schaffert is to literary currents he hit upon 2012′s theme – The Lit Fest Guide to Etiquette for Women Writers – after reading about disparities females face in publishing.
Featured guest authors Elizabeth Crane (We Only Know So Much), Lisa Knopp (What the River Carries), Marilyn Coffey (Marcella) and Joy Castro (Hell or High Water) will no doubt have plenty to say on the matter.
Coffey’s 1973 novel Marcella broke ground and generated push back for its frank depiction of female masturbation. The book was banned in America, though Quartet in London published it in paperback. Pol and Ms. Magazine excerpted it. Danish newspapers serialized it. Now it’s being republished in book form by Omega Cottonwood Press in Omaha, along with a collection of Coffey’s poems, Pricksongs.
Marcella was a featured work during National Banned Book Week events in Omaha, including a marathon reading at the Benson Branch Library.
At Lit Fest Coffey’s slated to be on the Saturday, 5 p.m. panel Your Guide to Unladylike Demeanor that examines “women writers making people nervous.”
Meanwhile, Castro’s debut novel Hell or High Water is drawing praise for her ability to sustain a taut thriller amid a complex subject and to evocatively exploit its New Orleans setting. The University of Nebraska associate professor of English and ethnic studies also has a book of personal essays out, Island of Bones, eliciting rapturous praise.
Liz Kay of Spark Wheel Press and burtdistrict in Omaha will address the entrepreneurial publishing scene. New Yorker Festival director Rhonda Sherman will discuss building an audience for the literary spectacle.
All of it’s filtered through the perspective of women engaged in a lit world not always friendly to them. Recent counts by the women in literary arts organization VIDA show far more men than women published in leading literary publications. That concerns Schaffert enough that he’s making it a point of public discussion.
“If the VIDA Count had not come into existence I might not have even been aware of the disparity, but it really kind of commands attention,” says Schaffert, an UNL assistant professor of English and director of the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference.
He doesn’t doubt women writers confront bias.
“Obviously some editors are going to focus on that work that crosses their desk that seems most vital and other editors aren’t necessarily going to have the best ear for writing by the opposite sex. And I think for decades there’s been some level of condescension towards the subjects women writers take on. There’s some sense of what women’s writing is that may or may not be based on anything authentic in terms of the assumptions people make about the topics of interest to women.
“I’ve heard of editors be dismissive of a story by nature of its topic as too domestic, for example, or too focused on the sentimental, as if that denigrated the work somehow.”
Castro says VIDA, whose creative nonfiction committee she serves on, has been “working to figure out all kinds of ways to address this, in some cases publishing essays about it,” adding, “In my case I got involved with guest editing an issue of a really cool online journal, Brevity Magazine, that’s responding to that count.”
She says her own anecdotal observations have long made her sensitive to the paucity of minority authors published in select periodicals (The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker) “that determine who’s a big deal and who’s not.” The VIDA breakout, she says, confirmed “it’s not just my imagination.” She says when editors are called out on the disparity they either deny a gender-based agenda or agree to proactively strive for more balance.
Castro will join Kay, Knopp and Sherman for a 1 p.m. Saturday panel on the professional aspects of writing, editing and publishing. She’s interested in exploring how it is more women writers come out of MFA programs than men do yet fewer get published.
“So there’s like this attrition,” she says. “Then where do they all go? Why don’t they continue to write and publish? It’s a good question. I hope people will come out and talk about it and have a really exploratory attitude about it.”
That said, Castro and many other women authors fare well getting their work out and finding it well-received. Her Hell or High Water (Thomas Dunne Books) is a good illustration. The widely released book has been called “exquisite,” “fierce and intense,” “captivating.” Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) termed it “a terrific thriller.”
The book”s been optioned by film producers and Castro’s already working on a sequel. She’s excited that her Cuban-American protagonist, Nola, may headline a mystery series because the genre rarely features Latinas or issues of Latinidad.
Nola, a green Times-Picayune reporter assigned to investigate what happened to the registered sex offenders who went off the grid after Hurricane Katrina, serves much the same role a detective does in classic mystery tradition.
“That’s the story she gets assigned and she’s reluctant because it’s kind of creepy. But it’s sort of her first big break as a journalist, so she goes after it and of course gets in a lot of trouble,” says Castro.
“In the first chapter a young woman tourist is abducted from the French Quarter and that mystery is going on at the same time and Nola starts to investigate that as well and then the two stories intertwine.”
Much as Castro did in her own life, Nola comes from poverty and feels pressured to hide her past and prove herself. Castro’s interest in legendary archetypes comes into play when Nola intersects with believers in the Cajun legend rougarou, which warns of a person normal by day but predatory at night. Santeria spirits also show up. By the end, Nola calls on whatever powers she can muster to protect herself.
Best known before this for her nonfiction essay collection The Truth Book: How I Survived a Childhood of Abuse Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Castro will read from her novel and discuss her research in a 2 p.m. Saturday program.
About choosing to write a genre book for her first novel, she says, “I guess I would have anticipated I would write a literary fiction kind of novel, but I have always loved mysteries and thrillers. In deciding what to write this was the genre I got most excited about and the story seemed to keep suggesting itself to me and so I listened and paid attention and started writing.
“Writing a novel was new for me. I went through a lot of drafts. I was a slow learner.”
For event details visit http://www.omahalitfest.com.
- VIDA Shall Be Pleased (themillions.com)
- When Will Female Authors Get the Respect They Deserve? (blogher.com)
- Ceiling or Sky? On Politics, Art, and Gender (brevity.wordpress.com)
- Support Women Writers (ayeshaschroeder.com)
- Wayward Women’s Writers Camp Out (taleasofasierramadre.com)
- Literary Conversations Come to Omaha (wendywriter.wordpress.com)
- Literary Conversations Come to Omaha (wendywriter.wordpress.com)
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.
- From the Archives: Warren Francke, A Passion for Journalism, Teaching and Life (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great American Comedy Festival Presents Lineup of Up-and-Comers with Legends Paula Poundstone, Dick Cavett, Jimmie “JJ” Walker (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Film Connections, An In-Progress Story of How a 1968 Convergence of Future Cinema Greats in Ogallala, Neb. Resulted in Multiple Films and Enduring Relationships; From the Melting Pot of Coppola, Lucas, Knight, Duvall, Caan and two Ranch-Rodeo Families Cam (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Movie Maven Crawford Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Film Revivals that Bring Hollywood to Omaha, Special Guest Pat Boone to Appear at Screening of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha Lit Fest, In Praise of Writers and Their Words: Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke Among Featured Authors
You’ll find several stories on this blog that I’ve written about the Omaha Lit Fest. I’ve been covering the fall event since its inception in the mid-2000s. This is a piece I did on the eve of Lit Fest II. I feature two of the featured authors from that year’s event, Jami Attenberg (Instant Love, The Kept Man) and Will Clarke (The Worthy). The founder and primary organizer of the festival is Timothy Schaffert, who also happens to be one of America’s finest novelists (The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Coffins of Little Hope). I expect I’ll be writing about Lit Fest 2012 come the fall.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The Sepember 15-16 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest will offer the literati such bookish delights as readings, panel discussions, an altered book exhibition and the performance of a play. Guest writers from near and far will talk craft. Artists will pay homage to the written word. This second annual fest is the brainchild of Omaha author Timothy Schaffert. He promises a “whoopdeedoo” both more streamlined and expanded than 2005’s version.
Held at venues in and around the Old Market, the festival emulates the kind of hip, bohemian salon happening that Schaffert, a former editor of The Reader, said one expects to find in a cosmo city with a lively underground press and lit scene.
“In some ways, the festival has become an extension of the alt weeklies I’ve worked on, conveying some of the same sensibilities,” he said. “I take all of this very seriously, but I don’t want the event to feel at all stuffy. As a matter of fact, I want it to seem almost dangerously informal. Events often want to appeal to the biggest number of people imaginable, and homogenization ultimately results. It’s not my mission to convert non-readers into readers. My mission is to give the small cult of passionate booklovers a chance to meet writers, and to learn about other writers.”
For this year’s shindig, Schaffert said “we have loosely applied a theme: the literary fringe, with panels on small-press publishing, blogging, literary sex, death on the plains and stretching the truth in memoir, among others. We also salute the vanished poet, cult figure and Nebraska native Weldon Kees, and show his rarely screened experimental short film, Hotel Apex.”
Schaffert said the fringe is an apt theme for a gathering of writers whose work doesn’t “quite fit in the mainstream” and who make “speaking the truth, speaking their minds” a priority. “Very few of us on the list are best-selling authors,” with the exception of Omahan Alex Kava, whom he said “nonetheless writes some grisly, edgy stuff. So we know well the experience of trying to balance expressing ourselves honestly and getting published and promoted.”
How does Schaffert define the fringe? “Writers writing about things that move them, rather than what the marketplace demands. Writers working in different forms, genres, stepping along the margins,” he said. “Several of our fiction and nonfiction writers, and our poets, are published by small presses; and even those writers published by commercial presses often have to struggle to get word out about their work, while also asserting an original voice. I think most of us at the literary festival are inspired by the notion of creating work that is challenging and intriguing to the reader, rather than just spoon-feeding readers more of the same.”
He said if there’s a lesson to be gleaned from those who toil on the fringe “trying to make their work fit into a publisher’s marketing scheme,” it is that these “writers take their own direction, deal with the frustration and keep writing.”
Festival web site musings showcase Schaffert’s satiric style and include a send-up of the proverbial product “warning” list: “Do not attend Lit Fest if you’re hemorrhaging, cranky, prone to touching strangers inappropriately without an invitation or wear large view-obstructing hats; Lit Fest has not been approved by the FDA, and may cause drowsiness in small children; enjoy in moderation, but overindulge freely.” Gentle readers welcomed.
Most fest events are free. For more details, go to www.omahalitfest.com.
Profiled here are two of the writers featured at this year’s Lit Fest:
Brooklyn-based Jami Attenberg travels to “out of the way places” to write. It’s no surprise then she’s spent the last few weeks in a residency program at Art Farm, a rural retreat for artists near Marquette, Neb., where she’s enjoyed her first real break from a recent book tour. Her debut collection of stories, Instant Love, charts with humor and candor the light-dark love journeys of three women, sisters Holly and Maggie and little girl lost Sarah Lee, over a two-decade period of experimentation, commitment, entanglement and self-realization.
Her soon-to-be-out new novel, The Kept Man, tells the story of a married woman whose artist husband is in a coma, the crucible that causes her to sell off his paintings one-by-one in order to keep him alive. In the process of elimination, the wife realizes her marriage isn’t what she thought it to be.
Attenberg feels she has something to say about the whole love trip. “I tend to fall in love in a sort of very temporary way very easily,” she said, “and I think that comes from living in New York and traveling, which I do.” With Instant Love “I guess I wanted to talk about the instant connection people can have and how each one of those connections is valuable, even if it’s fleeting.”
The author, whose work has appeared in Salon, Nylon, Print, the San Francisco Chronicle and Time Out New York, doesn’t pretend to dish out advice, but her own experiences in the game inform her very personal first book.
“When I think about love I think about an accumulation of things,” she said. “When I think about the person I might fall in love with there’s all these different qualities and all these different moments…and all those things are going to add up one day to just one person. So I guess I just wanted to kind of burrow a little bit into that.”
At readings she’s often asked what she’s learned about love. “What I can tell you,” she says, “is I understand what it takes to fall in love, but I have no understanding of what it takes to make a relationship work after that. The one thing I do know about making a relationship work is that it’s all about compromise. I’m terrible at compromise. I’ve certainly been in love and had good relationships and everything like that, but the book is not about how to make it work.”
She said men ask her, “Am I going to like this book as a guy?” She tells them, “No one gets off easy in this book. The women don’t get off easy and the men don’t get off easy. It’s honest about everybody.” She added, “It’s not like a I-Hate-Men book. I don’t think I would even say I’m cynical about love.”
The title is a wink and nod at people’s “tendency” to “fall in and out of love really quickly,” she said. In this disposable era of immediate gratification, lovers are dumped and replaced like old socks. She said we enter-exit trysts with the expectation “there’s always something better around the corner. And then, you know, with e-mail and IM and all these things to distract you from focusing on love, it’s amazing people can sort of work around it or integrate it to their lives.”
She can “definitely” imagine doing a book “in about 10 years” in which she checks back with Instant Love’s three female characters to “see how they’re doing.”
The book was originally a zine series and she expects to do a zine again next year. She touts the “many great small presses out there doing really cool things.” She said fringe publishers focus on authors “without having to worry about best-seller lists or large print runs. They know who their audience is.” The goal of Attenberg is to one day “work only on stuff I really enjoy…but you have to earn it, you have to constantly be working to get to that point, and I still have a long ways to go.”
Dallas, Texas-based author Will Clarke skewers the college Greek fraternity system in his second novel The Worthy: A Ghost’s Story. For his narrator Clarke uses the dispossessed soul of a frat boy killed in a hazing fit of rage. It is through the eyes of Conrad, the dead Louisiana State University pledge, we witness the excesses of a tradition grown as corrupt as the humid air in Baton Rouge.
As an LSU grad who pledged Gamma Chi Clarke is well-schooled in the cruelties of frat life. As a Shreveport native he’s well-qualified to describe the clashes that result when the state’s jambalaya of cultures — the north half Pentecostal and dry, the south half Catholic and wet — collide on campus. “Those two worlds do not really jive and that makes for a really interesting mystical satire,” said Clarke, whose first novel, the originally self-published Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles, is a genre-busting foray into good old boy magic realism. Both novels are being adapted into feature films.
Clarke, who said “I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” recognized even as his college experience unfolded that he was getting fertile storytelling material. “I just remember paying very close attention and thinking this could be a book,” he said. He made a kind of running commentary in his head. “I’ve always found myself giving narration to events going on around me,” he said. “Even as I was going through all that stuff I was a bit detached, not unlike a ghost.”
He wrote The Worthy not long after leaving LSU and Louisiana for Dallas, the closest oasis he could make in his Ford Festiva. Again, not unlike his ghost protagonist who pines for his physical self, Clarke was “longing for a life that was left behind.”
Hazing baffled him then and continues to now. “Hazing always perplexed me,” he said. “I never understood why there was a baptism of fire that had to occur.” But he contends the tenets of this practice are widespread. “I think in any fraternity, in any place you have pledgeship, where you have to prove you’re worthy, there’s hazing. You can say there’s not, you can hope there’s not, but there is.”
Pranks that may seem like harmless fun, he said, can “turn out to be phenomenally dangerous” when performed by “hormonally-challenged” young men fueled by “binge drinking.” Clarke reserves his greatest disdain for Ryan, Conrad’s killer and a symbol of the alpha male type.
“He represents that idea of All-American malehood,” Clarke said. “On the outside he’s the male ideal…athletic, handsome, the big man on campus, but on the inside there’s something really dark and crazy going on. It’s very hidden. That’s kind of what goes on with a lot of fraternities. On the outside it looks like the golden handshake, but on the inside there’s something really dead and morbid. It makes all of these golden promises to guys but to get there you have to undergo abuse.
“I think sometimes the shinier the facade, the less trusting I am of things. This forced image of perfection Ryan has makes him scarier to me. It’s amazing to see what these respectable, perfect people do in those circumstances. It turns Lord-of-the-Flies pretty fast.”
Clarke, who sees the characters in his books as extensions of “the imaginary friends” he cultivated long past when “it was age-appropriate,” is at work on a new novel about a man who doesn’t sleep. No insomniac — the guy just doesn’t need to. After the grind of a recent book tour, which Clarke found too much “like selling Amway,” he’s found himself contemplating the nature of sleep or the lack of it.
Seven years ago the quirky (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest began, and as an arts-culture writer here I’ve found myself writing about it and some of its guest authors and their work pretty much every year. The following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is a preview of the 2011 edition, whose guests include Terese Svoboda (Bohemian Girl) and Rachel Shukert (Everything is Going to be Fine). The festival’s founder and director, novelist Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope), is the subject, along with the event, of several articles on this blog. If you’re a local and you have never done the fest, then shame on you. Make sure you do this time around. If you happen to be visiting during its Oct. 13-15 run then make sure you check it out and experience a sophisticated side of Omaha that may be new to you. Sure, this kind of thing is not for everyone, but it’s a fortifying intellectual exercise you’ll be glad you did. Besides, it’s free, most of it anyway. This year is a bit different in that I’m serving on a panel of local arts-culture writers discussing our role in framing Omaha’s arts scene, including its artists and art oganizations.
Apert from the Lit Fest, this blog also contains many more articles on authors and books of all kinds. Go to the books category on the right and discover the many writers and works I’ve been fortunate enough to report on and read.
Omaha Lit Fest: ‘People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In his capsule of the 2011 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest founder-director and novelist Timothy Schaffert draws a parallel with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Specifically, to the humbug Wizard’s endowing the Tin Woodman with a heart made of silk and sawdust, with some soldering necessary to better make the heart take hold.
As Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope) suggests, the writer’s process is part alchemy, part major surgery, part inspiration, part wishful thinking in giving heart to words and ideas and eliciting readers’ trust and imagination. Thus, he writes, this seventh edition of the Lit Fest focuses on “the heart and mechanics of writing” as authors “lift the corner of the curtain on their methods and processes.”
Consistent with its eclectic tradition of presenting whatever spills out of Schaffert’s Wizard’s mind, the Fest includes panels, exhibitions, salons and workshops that feature the musings and workings of poets, fiction writers, journalists and artists.
Guest authors include native Nebraskans turned New Yorkers Terese Svoboda, whose new novel Bohemian Girl has received ecstatic reviews, and Rachel Shukert, now at work on two new novels, a television series she’s adapting from her memoir Everything is Going to be Great and a screenplay.
The free Fest runs Oct. 13-15 at the W. Dale Clark Library, 215 South 15th St. and at Kaneko, 1111 Jones St. “Litnings” unfold the rest of the month at other venues.
With Lit Fest such an intimate Being Timothy Schaffert experience, it’s hard gauging it’s place in the Omaha cultural fabric.
“What we do is fairly esoteric. I’m always meeting people who have never heard of it and I definitely wouldn’t be able to handle it if it was as large as some other cities’ lit fests, which draw hundreds and hundreds of people. So I like it the way it is. I’ve often thought I misnamed it, that I probably shouldn’t have called it a festival, but called it a salon or something. So it’s a fraud basically,” Schaffert says with an ironic lilt in his laugh.
He quotes Abraham Lincoln to sum up the event’s cognoscenti appeal: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”
Mention how the programs feel peculiarly personal to him, Schaffert says, “It doesn’t always come together perfectly, but, yeah, I definitely try to shape it.” Ask if he pulls the strings behind the curtain, he says, “In the past it’s usually been just me but this year I’ve worked some with Amy Mather, the head of adult services at the W. Dale Clark Library. They’re cosponsors.”
That Schaffert pretty much conceptualizes the show himself is a function of limited resources and, therefore, a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention approach. “We have virtually no budget. It actually strangely makes it even more interesting I think when you’re trying to do it on the cheap.” Of this labor of love, he adds,. “It is fun.”
Then, too, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English instructor, Prairie Schooner web-contributing editor and Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference director is well-plugged into writing circles. He’s also published by premier houses Unbridled Books and, soon, Penguin, which just bought his in-progress The Swan Gondola, a tragic love story set at Omaha’s 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition.
From the start, he’s viewed the Fest as a means of framing the local lit culture. Shukert appreciates the effort. She doesn’t recall a visible Omaha lit scene when she lived here, saying, “I actually think probably there was but it just hadn’t been identified yet, and once somebody is like, Wait, this is going on, then it’s like all these writers and book people can kind of like out themselves as part of a literary community and come together. I think that was an incredibly smart move on Timothy’s part to recognize there was this incipient thing that just needed someone to name it.”
She says, “I feel a nice balance he’s managed to strike is finding local people and native Omahans who have national profiles and people who have no connection to Omaha at all except this is a cool event they want to be at. It’s a nice mix, and that’s important.”
Schaffert notes the 2011 edition is heavy with native Nebraska authors “because so many local writers or writers with local ties have had new books come out in the last year and a half or so, so this is an opportunity to have them talk about their new works.” Those local scribes range from: Omaha World-Herald political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba, whose memoir Inklings made a big splash, to OWH lifestyles columnist Rainbow Rowell, whose debut novel Attachments did well, to Mary Helen Stefaniak (The Califfs of Baghdad, Georgia) and David Philip Mullins (Greetings from Below).
Of the Nebraska ex-pats participants, perhaps the one with the largest national profile is Ogallala-born and raised Terese Svoboda, a poet and novelist praised for her exquisite use of language. In Bohemian Girl, she describes a hard-scrabble girl-to-womanhood emancipation journey on the early Nebraska frontier. The work contains overtones of True Grit, Huckleberry Finn and Willa Cather.
Peaking her intrigue were “pictures of 30 year-old pioneer women who looked like they were 70…and then they wrote diaries that were extremely cheerful — I just wondered what was going on there.” Charged by the feminist and civil rights movements’ challenge to let muted voices be heard, she says “in some ways Bohemian Girl was setting off to let those voices free or at least to talk about them.”
In some ways her book is a meditation on bohemianism as ethnicity, state of mind and lifestyle. “I was born in Ogallala as the oldest of nine children. My Bohemian father is a rancher, farmer and a lawyer, and my Irish mother painted. They read great books together and recited poetry they had memorized in high school in Neb. And I wore pointy red glasses in high school because I was the bohemian girl.”
Her proto-feminist heroine enlists Bohemian pluck and bohemian invention to survive hardships and seize opportunities in finding prosperity, if not contentment.
Svoboda says “the picaresque story” sets out “to correct Willa Cather about Bohemians — they were more interesting than she portrayed them, and that’s dangerous territory I know to say, but I felt Cather was not a Nebraskan, she was from Virginia, and she looked at the people who settled there with that kind of eye. In fact, her point of view is always a little bit distant. So I wanted to get right inside a girl and show how hard it was and how the opportunities and the choices she makes are her own.”
As a reference point Svoboda drew on a creative pilgrimage she made to Sudan, Africa and to her own prairie growing up.
“I used the experience of my year spent in the Sudan for what it would be like to be a girl out in the bare prairie — blending that with my own experience in western Neb., the Sand Hills especially.”
Those lived vignettes, she posits, “contributed to the authenticity.”
Schaffert is among Svoboda’s many admirers.
“She brings a poet’s rich sense of language to her fiction. I feel like that’s what makes her novels and her short stories so exciting — they’re not weighty with language, they’re not inaccessible, but you do have to read them carefully to fully enjoy them. I think her new novel Bohemian Girl has eloquence. It’s eclectic, it’s whimsical, unsettling, and it has its heart in Nebraska and Nebraska history.”
The depth and precision of Svoboda’s language come from endless reworking.
“I do work hard at that. I am very attentive to each word. I am not a transparent writer — that is to say writing prose where the words are just something the reader falls into a dream for the characters and the plot. Because my background is a poet, I see each word as a possibility and each narrative exchange as a possibility, so nobody wastes any time going in and out of rooms or talking about the weather.
“I really respect the reader and their intelligence and hope that they appreciate I do that. I really think every word they read should be worthy of them.”
She didn’t plan on being a novelist, but a life-changing odyssey changed all that.
“I would have been perfectly happy to be a poet forever…but when I went off to Africa I had such a profound and emotionally difficult experience of being in practically another planet, I wrote a novel, Cannibal, about it. I felt I had to write prose.”
She only came to finish the novel, however, after struggling through 30 full length drafts over several years. A course taught by then-enfant terrible editor Gordon Lish awoke her to a new way into the story.
“At the end of that you learned that writing was the most important thing in your life and the words were a building block of the sentence…And it didn’t matter what you wrote — the minute you thought of someone else reading it or started weighing it against somebody else you might as well toss it away, so I tossed it away, I started all over again, although I had to still send it out 13 times before it finally did get published, and that excruciating experience brought me to the world of prose.
“I’m not one of those people that sits down and all the words come out right. Each of my novels seems to take 10 years from the beginning to the end, overlapping of course. I continue to go back to them. But some of my poems take that long, too.”
She’ll talk shop with Timothy Schaffert at An Evening with Terese Svoboda on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. at Kaneko.
Shukert, along with fellow writers, will share thoughts about craft during a 2-5 p.m. salon at the library earlier that day.
“I’m happy to talk about process but I always do it with the caveat that I don’t expect it to actually be helpful to anybody. It’s not a formula,” says Shukert. “Very often people ask questions like, How do you do it? and the implication is, How can I do it? or How do I get a book published? or How do I finish my novel? And that’s the one thing nobody else can answer for you. Very early in your career it can be helpful to hear the way other people did it because you need to keep telling yourself it’s possible, it can be done.”
While Svoboda insists her process is not appreciably different writing novels than it is poems, Shukert says, “I find my process alters depending on what I’m working on. Like my process writing a book is very different than my process writing a play or a screenplay. My process writing fiction — now that I’m working on my first novel — is very different than the memoir process. It’s a lot slower. Switching from first person to third person has been interesting, especially as pertains to point of view.
“There are things that get easier and then things that get harder. I feel I have a much easier time, for example, just sitting down and writing and not being intimidated by the sheer scope of it. It’s a much more practiced muscle. But that doesn’t mean what I write right away is better.”
Writing is one thing. Getting published, another. Conventional publishing is still highly competitive. Self-publishing though is within reach of anyone with a computer, tablet or smart phone. This democratization is the subject of a 11 a.m. Oct. 15 panel at the library and an Oct. 22-23 workshop at the Omaha Creative Institute.
Shukert says, “I feel like there’s more of an appetite to write than ever before but is there the same appetite to read? I feel, too, it’s about being able to cut through the noise. It’s one thing to publish your work, it’s another thing if anyone actually reads it or is able to find it.”
Yes, she says, self-publishing “does get voices heard that otherwise would not have been, but,” she adds. “there was a sort of curatorial process that I think is slowly falling apart. You want to know that what you’re reading is valuable. In a weird way I feel that attitude that anybody can be published, that I can publish this myself, oddly devalues the work of every writer. There’s still gotta be a way you can separate things. When there’s too much, there’s sort of too much.”
In the traditional publishing world, says Svoboda, an opposite trend finds “many more gatekeepers then when I started, or the gate has gotten a lot smaller, and so there are manuscripts in the world that deserve to get published that aren’t getting published. But I don’t know there would be that many more” (deserving manuscripts) now that the number of self-proclaimed writers has increased.
“The ability to publish so easily is probably a bad thing,” she adds. “Many people have stories and they are interesting stories but not everybody can write literature.”
Schaffert embraces this come one, come all new age.
“I think it’s a really great time to be a writer and I don’t think it’s yet necessarily interfering with the pursuit of the reader to find quality content. The stuff that the world responds to the world will still respond to and still find their way to. There are more ways to respond to the work you’re reading and more avenues to find new work thats more specific to your tastes. I mean, I think this is all great.
“If you’re sort of entrepreneurial by nature you can even venture to do for yourself what a conventional publisher might do, which is to promote your work, try to get attention for it…Even writers going through the old fashioned methods of publishing have added opportunities because you still have to promote your work. The world is your oyster.”
A 5 p.m. panel Oct. 13 at the library, moderated by blogger Sally Brown Deskins, will consider “the role criticism, arts profiles and cultural articles play in presenting artists and arts organizations to the community and to the world,” says Schaffert. “It seems to me every serious city needs serious coverage of what it’s doing. I think it’s integral there be writers we associate with coverage of the arts scene.”
Book design, objects in literature and fashion in literature are other themes explored in panels or exhibits.
An opening night reception is set for 6:30-9:30 at the library, Enjoy cupcakes, champagne and a pair of art exhibits.
For the complete Lit Fest schedule, visit omahalitfest.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com
- Off the Shelf: Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda (nebraskapress.typepad.com)
- Getting to know: Terese Svoboda. (wewhoareabouttodie.com)
- Being Jack Moskovitz, Grizzled Former Civil Servant and DJ, Now Actor and Fiction Author, Still Waiting to be Discovered (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Summer Reading: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert (homebetweenpages.com)
- When Safe Isn’t Safe at All, Author Sean Doolittle Spins a Home Security Cautionary Tale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent’s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Being Jack Moskovitz, Grizzled Former Civil Servant and DJ, Now Actor and Fiction Author, Still Waiting to be Discovered
Writer Jack Moskovitz is like the comic strip character with a dark cloud over him wherever he goes, always seemingly in a blue mood no matter the situation. I first laid eyes on him as he kvetched from his writer panelist perch at the Omaha Lit Fest. He looked and sounded like a character from gritty crime or hard-boiled fiction. I sought out some of his own work as an author, and not surprisingly his short fiction reads on the page much like the man reads in life. That is to say it’s thick with gloomy irony but make not mistake about it, the man can write. The following profile I did of Jack for the Jewish Press takes an unvarnished look at the man and his peccadillos and idiosyncrancies, moods and laments.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Jack Moskovitz long ago concluded his writing, like his acting or DJing, wouldn’t put him on Easy Street. That’s OK, you tell him. The mere fact you do write and write well is something to be proud of. He points out he’s only published by small vanity presses. That his book sells and royalty checks amount to little or nothing. Not important, you explain. Talent is talent, and you’ve got it, Jack. Thanks, he says, before launching into a riff about still being an obscure author after 60 years and how he’s destined to remain unknown.
Like the world-weary souls who schlep through his hard-boiled fiction, the Omaha native takes a cynic’s view of life. He reminds you of Rodney Dangerfield with his deadpan “I don’t get no respect” gripes and self-deprecating cracks about “my hunched back, my wide feminine hips and my flabby body.” The retired civil servant bends your ear about supposed failures and slights — unpublished manuscripts, lost parts and so on. He doesn’t mention his well-reviewed novellas, short stories and plays or that he’s been an invited reader and panelist at the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. He does acknowledge the event’s founder/director, renowned author Timothy Schaffert (Devils in the Sugar Shop), “has been in my corner.”
Instead of enjoying his inclusion among Omaha’s literati, Jack talks about “not being in their class.” “I’m the kind of guy that’s whistling in the dark and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “Just like I thought I could have a career as a writer just because I loved to write. But it’s like a steer wanting to sire off-spring: the desire might be there but because of certain limitations the steer can’t.”
“Every time I feel sorry for myself it comes out in my writing,” he said.
He also takes a bleak view of his work as a character actor in local community theater, this despite working with some of Omaha’s finest players and directors since the mid-1950s. He still bristles with resentment over the late Charles Jones’s refusal to cast him at the Omaha Community Playhouse. But as recently as last spring he played four parts — a judge, a reporter, a physicist and a tourist — in the Playhouse’s Give ‘Em Hell Harry, one of dozens of plays he’s acted in there and on other stages. As soon as Harry closed he went into rehearsals for the Blue Barn Theatre’s Six Degrees of Separation, in which he did a funny turn as a doorman.
He’s had on-screen bits as well, including as “featured atmosphere” in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth and a scene-stealing cameo as a cross-dressing grandfather in Jeremy Lerman’s Nebraska Supersonic. But to hear Moskovitz tell it his film work doesn’t amount to much. He says the same thing about his decades-long career in radio, a field that saw him work as an announcer-DJ for stations in Omaha and Lincoln. He was good enough to work for some of this market’s top call letters — KOIL, WOW — yet he ruminates over lost chances.
Acerbic and neurotic in an Oscar Levant sort of way, Moskovitz, 72, compulsively sells himself short and finds a dark cloud in every silver lining. He speculates his depressive nature is “in-born, and all it takes is just a little push.” He suggests he’s never really gotten over losing his father as a teenager. The death, he says, devastated his mother, who “had a complete physical collapse” and depended on Jack to help her out. When she passed, the last semblance of family went with her, as he and his two brothers suffered a falling out that never mended.
“The dissolution of a family is exactly what happened,” he said. “I went through four years of depression, which writing helped alleviate to a degree.”
In truth, he said, the fissures in his family were always present. He felt apart, not just from them but from society. “I am estranged from just about every unit or community I tried to be part of. I’m always on the outside,” he said. “There’s a panoramic photograph from a family picnic back in the late 1940s and, stage right, who’s this guy standing all by himself? Me.”
His radio work offered a sanctuary. “Radio was kind of like the glue that held everything together. It got me out of the house,” he said.
It’s only after you spend some time with him you understand his bitter jags are just Jack being Jack. He kvetches not so much to wallow in self-pity or elicit sympathy, as to frame the world for his sardonic stories. His terse style is inspired by pulp fiction and its tradition of gritty action and gloomy sensibilities. His titles, The Tuxedo Square Job and Feast of the Purple Beast, are in keeping with the genre. Jack himself is the model for his cranky, Guy Noirish protagonists. Like him, they’re wise-cracking figures with a chip on their shoulder and a thankless task to perform.
His hand-to-mouth characters are habitues of flophouses, dive bars, diners, after- hours joints and dead-end jobs, all of which he’s familiar with from personal experience. Once a heavy drinker, he knows the despair of the bottle. He’s had his share of women, too, and therefore is on intimate terms with the emptiness of one night stands and the loneliness of mornings after. The hard road he’s traveled has given him insight into what it means to hustle, scrape by and see dreams fade away.
That’s not to say Jack or his work is all dour. Indeed, he and his characters engage in the kind of witty, edgy repartee Dorothy Parker and her vicious set went in for, only his verbal sparring matches unfold at the corner cafe, not the Algonquin. In the last decade he’s found a measure of calm with his companion Johnnie Mae Hawkins, a voracious reader like him. She’s also a writer. Besides their shared love of words, the two are fellow travelers in another way — as outsiders.
He’s Jewish, she’s African-American. He confronted anti-Semitism here, she endured racism down South, where the Arkansas native was of the last generation to pick cotton in the fields. She sharecropped alongside her folks, doing backbreaking labor unfit for man or beast. Based on her recollections of those times he wrote a poignant poem called The Voiding Tree.
Late in life these two seemingly disparate people found each other as kindred spirits do and they’re not about to let each other go now.
“The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting her,” he said. “She’s a very sweet-natured woman. Very understanding, very considerate, very helpful, even in my writing. Dependable, loyal. You know, everything I never found in a woman.”
His recent books feature the dedication: “To Johnnie Mae Hawkins, who likes thrift shops, kittens, and me.”
Until she came along, he admits his taste in women left much to be desired. “They weren’t the kind of women you brought home to mother,” he said. “In my glory days it was the beginning of the sexual revolution where you locked your valuables in your car and carried just enough money for the night. It was just like Frank Sinatra sang, ‘Strangers in the Night,’ and still strangers the next day.”
One relationship, with an actress, ended badly. “I fell for her. I really fell for her,” he said. But then he learned her declarations of “I love you, I need you” were mere lines she practiced on him in order to seduce the man she was really after. “It was just really bad melodrama…bad soap opera.”
After years of abusing alcohol, he long ago cleaned up his act.
“I haven’t had a drink in, what is it, 45-50 years. I was getting to the point where I was looking forward to losing myself in…things like Screwdrivers and Vodka Collins. I used to drink when I was really feeling kind of happy, but then I found myself drinking more when I wasn’t happy, which was most of the time. That’s when I stopped. I changed jobs and dropped the lady I was seeing at the time and kind of got some other things taken care of. I just had no more need for it. “
Growing up, he often felt things spinning out of control and the solitary pursuits of reading-writing-acting were escapes into worlds of his own dominion.
“When you’re the only Jews in a Catholic neighborhood, that’s really tough,” he said. “Back then, there wasn’t this liberal bent. These blue collar guys living here didn’t have any use for Jews or any minorities. If you weren’t Catholic, forget about it. If you were Protestant, that was almost as bad as being a Jew. So it was very unpleasant…the Jew bashing.
“When you have the insularity of a family you get a sense of security, even though you know when you walk out the door somebody’s going to throw something at you. In fact, a good day for me…was not having hard objects hurled at me. A good day was when all that was hurled at me was invective.‘Jew boy.’ Geez, I don’t know how the hell I survived that, but I did.”
The sense of injury Moskovitz carries around with him was exacerbated when he saw his father, a restaurant fixture sales manager, get demoted and take a pay cut.
“We were in a helluva fix,” Jack said.
His father later partnered with others to start their own supply house, but soon thereafter Bert Moskovitz fell ill. “The cancer got him,” is how Jack puts it. Rabbi Myer Kripke officiated at his father’s and mother’s funerals at old Beth El Synagogue, just as he did at Jack and his brothers’ bar mitzvahs.
Jack was 14 when his father died and to help make ends meet he went to work for one grocery store after another, cleaning, stocking, bagging, delivering, whatever needed doing. His mother worked at Hayden’s Department Store.
With few friends, Jack slipped increasingly into his interior life. He’s never married. He has no kids. “It’s been a lonely life,” he said. His imagination was fired by the stories that transfixed him on radio, the stage, in the movies and in books.
Moskovitz was fated to be a writer when, as a child, he steeped himself in the “beautiful library” his immigrant grandparents kept at home. The library contained the complete works of Dickens, O Henry, Sir Walter Scott, et cetera. There were full-length play scripts. He read it all.
“That’s where I would do my reading,” he said. “It was something I looked forward to doing.”
His creative side was nurtured by his mother, who played violin “beautifully,” he said. She’d trained on the instrument and could read music. He still has her violin and the original case for it and displays them on the dining room table. Also, his older brother, Mayer, brought him to plays. Jack adored musical theater. Mere blocks from where he grew up was the original Omaha Community Playhouse site at 40th and Davenport, where he saw many productions
But, always, there were books. Piles of books surround he and Johnnie Mae today.
As a young man he devoured coming-of-age classics like the Signet edition of Catcher in the Rye and the Studs Lonigan trilogy and he found his niche in the spare, masculine style of Ernest Hemingway, Mickey Spillane, James Jones, Leon Uris, Richard Prather, John MacDonald, Vin Packer and others. His work betrays the influence, too, of realists Raymond Carver, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.
“They all wrote in a fast-paced, very terse style and each word was carefully chosen,” he said. “It whips along.”
He strives for the same efficiency of language.
“I write the flabby prose on the first draft and then I go take each sentence and try to telescope it. I weed out chunks.”
He began writing stories and plays way back at Saunders Elementary School, just up the block from the stucco house he grew up in and occupies today in the Cathedral neighborhood. His love for theater sparked his interest in writing. Cast as the lead in a school play, he heeded the ham in him when a castmate got a bad case of stage fright and missed her cue and he covered for her by ad-libbing. That’s when he fell for acting and got it in his head that maybe he could craft his own dramas. “That’s what I started doing,” he said.
As a boy he began sending out his work, even play scripts, to publishers, once getting a reply from the famed play publishing company, Samuel French. “I got back what I thought was a personal letter from Mr. French himself and, of course, it was your standard rejection slip,” he said.
He was serious enough about acting that he began auditioning at the Playhouse right out of high school and soon landed a role in its production of Secret Service, which was part of Omaha’s centennial celebration. He averaged about a play a year at the OCP until Charles Jones arrived in the ‘70s.
Jack also went to the west coast with the idea of trying to break into Hollywood. He had the cockeyed notion of being “the Semitic Troy Donahue,” but was dissuaded by family friend, Lynn Stalmaster, already a casting director scion, who warned him of the struggles and heartbreak ahead. Jack appreciated the straight talk. “What a mensch he was,” he said.
Even with the intoxicating scent of Jasmine in the air, all that gorgeous sun, the ubiquitous palm trees, meeting stars and limited prospects back home, Jack heeded the advice. He’s not sorry he did.
“I’ve never looked back,” he said.
With “no marketable skills,” he returned to doing “stoop labor,” content to act and write on the side. Besides the Jewish grocers he worked for, he was a grunt in an appliance warehouse and washed and bused dishes at a restaurant. When he worked at Shaver’s market on 40th Street, between Dodge and Farnam, he hit upon an after-work routine to indulge his passions for good eats and good stories.
“I’d get me a bowl of chili and I’d buy a Gold Medal paperback for 25 cents. I was reading Westerns written by Vin Parker. They were real hard-boiled, lusty, action-packed plots that Gold Medal was famous for. Then I’d go across the street to the Admiral Theater and see whatever was on there. Then I’d walk over to the West Dodge Pharmacy and get me a Lime Ricky at the soda fountain.”
Another favorite pastime was sitting in front of the radio to hear the world come into his home. He and his old brother Mayer loved listening to network radio broadcasts like The Shadow, The Bell Telephone Hour and Stella Dallas. They were so crazy about radio they wormed their way into the studios at KFAB and WOW as audience members for live shows whose formats ran the gamut from quiz to music.
He said it was heady stuff for a boy with a flair for the dramatic. “Wow, this is kind of fun,” Jack recalls thinking. “The announcers would be personalities. What kind of clinched it for me was when I met a neighbor who was in radio. That’s when I thought, Maybe I ought to try radio, too.”
By 1956, at age 21, he was on the air in Denison, Iowa, learning the ropes for no pay at tiny KDSN. A year later he got his first paying on-air gig at KLMS in Lincoln. Then he went over to the capitol city’s KLIN. When he lived in Lincoln he stayed at the Sam Lawrence Hotel, a low rent roomer that often shows up in his stories. He and his radio cronies bent a few at after-hours hangouts like Hamp’s.
One night he was going to help a KLIN staffer celebrate the birth of his first child when an urgent phone call came in. Moskovitz said the new father took the call, “turned to me, and said, ‘Jack, there’s not going to be any celebration tonight. We’ve got a triple homicide.’ Well, that was the beginning of the Starkweather spree.” Moskovitz covered the morning police briefings from the start of the manhunt to the suspects’ capture and arrest.
This was the start of his itinerant, he’d call it checkered, radio career — from the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and DJ’s spinning records on turntables to the age of talk radio and automation. He worked for KOIL and at WOW with such local legends as Ray Olson, Dale Munson, Ray Stevens and Jim Murphy. What he lacked in the “basso profundo” voice department of his colleagues, he made up for with personality.
He did stints at KOWH, KEMO, KBON and KCRO, “a holy station where four people worked and nobody got along. Can you imagine that? It wasn’t very brotherhoodish, that’s for sure.” His last radio job was with “easy listening” KESY in 1989.
In the ‘60s he pulled an Army Reserves hitch. He also worked a year as a reporter-photographer for the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.
As much as radio and the theater fascinated him, his true heart was in writing.
By the time he graduated from Central High School, where he appeared in some plays, he disciplined himself to write every day. It’s a practice and ritual he follows to this day. Now that he’s retired, it’s no problem applying himself to his craft. But when he worked steady, it was tough.
“It was hard working some of these crappy jobs I had and then coming home and trying to get the energy to sit down and write something that was possibly commercial,” he said. “As tired as I was, I turned out some stuff…”
His last regular job was working for “the fed” as a Grade 3 clerk-typist at Douglas County Veterans Hospital, OSHA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He wasn’t crazy about the work, “but by God I liked the security, that paycheck, the benefits,” he said. A back problem forced him to take early retirement in 1985.
Moskovitz was in good company when it came to toiling at a 9 to 5 job and still maintaining a writing life. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. held an insurance post for decades while churning out his award-winning verses.
Jack doesn’t go to a job anymore, but old habits are hard to break and so he still bangs out copy on his Olivetti typewriter. He prefers it to chancing his work on a computer, which he professes to be “illiterate” at. Call him old school or old fashioned, he doesn’t mind. Another example of how he and Johnnie Mae lead a simple life, is their lack of a car. They walk or ride the bus most everywhere.
Unlike his brothers, who graduated college to become professionals, Jack went his own way, did his own thing. He studied radio broadcasting at then-Omaha University, but didn’t get a degree. As the family’s black sheep, he said, he felt his brothers’ contempt for squandering a life to pursue this writing dream. When you hear enough disparaging remarks, he said, “you get to kind of believe it.”
Where his brothers may have had the edge in book smarts, Jack has native intelligence. His instinct for thinking on his feet goes back to childhood, like the time he saved the school play by ad-libbing when his co-star went AWOL.
Fast forward five decades to Jack at the Playhouse. The actor was on stage one night in Over the River when he once again found himself playing for time. Unbeknownst to him, a fellow actor banged his head against a heavy picture frame back stage. “I throw a cue for him to enter and he staggers on stage, holding his eye,” Jack recalls. “I could tell something was wrong. I said, ‘Are you alright?’ and he said, ‘Yeah…no, and then he walks off. I said to the actress playing my wife, ‘Ida, go see what’s wrong with him,’ and she went off and so did the other two actors on stage, and I’m standing there by myself.”
Seizing the moment, a resourceful Jack filled the silence the best way he knew how — by talking. The audience thought his improv was part of the show.
“In the story I’m supposed to be learning to play the mandolin and I’m standing there with this out-of-tune mandolin I wouldn’t know how to play even it was in tune,” he said. “So I start ad-libbing, telling a few jokes. Like, ‘Why does it take two actors to change a light bulb? One to do the work, one to point and say, Hey, that should be me up there.’ Or, ‘The hottest day of the year this old rummy staggers into a bar and says, Whaddya got that’s tall and cold? The bartender says, Have you met my wife?’ You know, doing these little Henny Youngman routines.
“Then I started singing show tunes of the 1920s and ‘30s. ‘42nd Street, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’… I did that because in always auditioning for musicals at the Playhouse and never even getting picked for the chorus, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a chance to sing there again.”
What gives him the moxie to make up bits out of thin air? “The same chuztpah that got me interested in theater at Saunders when I was 10,” he said. Moments like these, he said, give him “such a sense of empowerment, because I’m controlling this thing.” Much like the mastery of events reading and writing provides.
Words have always offered solace for the turmoil inside him. “After all these emotional setbacks — the deaths, the betrayals, the antipathy, and so on — what I would do just to get away from the house is walk down to the library.” Alone with his prose, he found peace. Writing and DJing gave him a satisfaction he misses.
“It really heightened my life. It provided the toots and whistles for an otherwise monotone existence.”
He talks about this being the end of the line. About his window of opportunity having passed. How he’s done putting himself through the “pain” of rejection. “I’ve pretty much given up any possibility of getting anything produced or published. I took the pledge to quite wasting my life on that,” he said. But he still plugs away. Only last year he finished a new novel, Brothers and Sisters. It’s with a publisher now. He’s even learning to write Haiku. He still scans the trades seeking outlets for his work. He also continues to audition and win parts in plays. If a radio gig were offered tomorrow, he’d jump at it. If a publisher called, he’d dance a jig.
When the phone rings at his place, his sense of anticipation is palpable. He interrupts a conversation with a guest — “Hang on a minute” — to ask Johnnie Mae, “Is that a call from a publisher?” He’s ever hopeful his writing will find an appreciative audience. Having a major publisher discover his work would be his legacy, which is much on his mind given he’s the last of the Moskovitz line. He’s already achieved a legacy of sorts. Several volumes of his work are carried by the Omaha Public Library.
Do Jack a favor and check his work out. You won’t be disappointed. And he’ll be glad you cared enough to read some of what he’ll leave behind.
- Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Short Story Writer James Reed, At Work in the Literary Fields of the Imagination (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Many Worlds of Science Fiction Author Robert Reed (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel ‘The Cleanup’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent’s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When Safe Isn’t Safe at All, Author Sean Doolittle Spins a Home Security Cautionary Tale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Louder Than a Bomb Omaha: Stand, Deliver and Be Heard (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’
Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home. I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend. He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments. Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.
You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right. I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.
Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey‘
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.
Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.
She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.
Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.
Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.
“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”
Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.
Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.
Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.
Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.
Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.
Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”
Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.
She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.
The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.
Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.
His music, she said, speaks through her.
The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.
Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule visitwww.omahalitfest.com.
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha is home to many fine novelists and I have the opportunity to sit down and talk writing with some of them from time and time. One of these is Sean Doolittle, a crime novelist of the first rank and a man who leaves all pretensions at the door. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the first piece I did on Sean and his work, and the second will soon be posted on this site as well. If you’re looking for a good summer read that engages your mind and your adrenalin then I highly recommend his intelligent page-turners.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Sean Doolittle has you join him in the very booth at the very Omaha watering hole, the Homy Inn, where the violent denouement of his new novel The Cleanup (Dell) unfolds. Just as you slide in, he mentions you’re about to sit where Gwen, the wan victim in his tale of ever escalating misdeeds, nearly loses her life. The fact he looks a bit like the towering Red Dragon character in the film Manhunter gives you pause. Within minutes he reveals the same disarming tone of his classic crime fiction, which sardonically, not gravely, lets characters stew in their own juices.
In The Cleanup the Omaha-based author has his cop protagonist Matthew Worth discover a murder and rather than call it in, clean it up, which throws into motion, ala Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a cascade of unforeseen results that keep forcing Worth’s hand, raising the stakes each time. Things get complicated when it turns out the corpse was a mule in an illicit racket short a quarter million bucks. The question becomes how far will Worth go to cover his and the murderer’s tracks and how far will those after Worth’s neck or the loot, or both, go to get answers?
“I really like stories where the plot is dictated by the choices the characters make. It’s a continual reaction against cause and effect. That feels to me the way life is,” said Doolittle, whose previous novels Dirt, Burn, both set in L.A., and Rain Dogs elicited warm words from some of crime fiction’s top names. The Cleanup, due out October 31, is getting similar raves. His agent is in negotiations over a potential feature film deal. Unlike many crime authors, Doolittle’s “been lucky” to avoid pressure by editors/publishers to do a series or sequel. His are stand-alone books.
The new novel grew out of a short story, Worth, Doolittle wrote years ago that ended where The Cleanup begins. The character of Worth, a burned out cop reduced to supermarket patrol seeks to redeem himself, gnawed at him.
“I like the idea of this character really trying to do maybe the wrong thing for the right reasons,” he said. “He’s driven to do it. In a dream sort of state, he keeps going. There’s definitely a point of no return in a situation like that where once you step far enough over the line, you have to keep going and keep going. The impulsive action quickly becomes unreturnable. No matter how much he tries to dig himself out he just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper and deeper. To me, it’s more intriguing than a mystery per se, where you’ve got some clues and you’re trying to piece together a puzzle of who-did-what.
“I’m much more interested in the way people respond to circumstances, what that leads them to do and how those actions compound on each other…There’s really not any sort of mystery in The Cleanup, except wondering how it’s all going to play out for the characters. There are little surprises along the way.”
As a nod to classic noir, Doolittle has Worth cross the line for the sake of a woman (Gwen) who, while not quite a femme fatale, draws the cop into a dark place where his one rash act has dangerous consequences in a kind of domino effect.
“In a way, we’re looking at this character of Worth on the day he did something he might not have done on any other day. It ends up changing his life,” Doolittle said of his disaffected hero, who in the course of the story moves from apathy to conviction. “He comes from a long line of police officers and so he goes into that profession as sort of a family trade. But he doesn’t have the temperament for it. He’s not cut out for it. He’s a laughing stock in the department.
“Here’s this guy who became a police officer for this sort of civic minded idea of being useful to the world and found much more self worth in the simple act of bagging people’s groceries than he ever had in the frustrating job of being a cop. In wanting to save her (Gwen) she represents what he wanted to do in becoming a police officer in the first place. This temporary savior complex that overcomes him has lots of levels in it that he puts all together in Gwen.”
What Worth doesn’t know is that his quest to find self-worth in helping Gwen out of a jam is really about saving himself. But, as Doolittle said, his redemption comes “at a fairly high cost by the time it’s all over.”
Although long “drawn to kind of darker stuff,” Doolittle’s not sure why and feels the reasons for it may be best left unexamined.
“It’s the sort of thing where you don’t really want to solve that mystery because it is your fuel and once you learn the secret maybe you lose the fuel,” he said. “The old chestnut is good drama is based on conflict and I think crime novels provide a very visceral, bottom line conflict you can start with and work from. I like what you can do within the general framework of a crime novel or a noir novel in terms of exploring human behavior. I think the way people respond to extreme pressure or in extraordinary circumstances is an interesting dramatic place to play around.”
He recalls the first story he wrote, for a school class exercise, was in the hard-boiled, first-person vein of a P.I. narrator. A kind of, “I was sitting in my office when…” tease. Strangely, he’d not yet read any crime fiction, “but I must have osmosed that sort of iconic story through my skin or something,” he said. “I don’t know if I caught pastiches on television…You just pick that stuff up everywhere.”
Among his earliest influences was Stephen King. That led him to Robert Bloch (Psycho). Then about the same time he was exposed to the neo-noir of Quentin Tarantino’s films and the breezy mayhem of Elmore Leonard’s novels, which led to old masters like Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Philip Chandler and James M. Cain. “I kind of started like a lot of people do,” he said, “by finding somebody in the mainstream and then reading my way back into the margins from there.”
Born and raised just outside Lincoln, Neb., Doolittle began as a journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but switched to English under the tutelage of Gerald Shapiro and Judith Slater. As an undergrad his first “pro fiction,” a short story, sold and paid “real money.” He intended on an academic career teaching college English and writing, but after getting his master’s, he said, “I decided what I really wanted to do was write fiction. I got a regular job and just kept on writing.”
Married now with two young children, he still holds down a regular office gig, writing technical manuals for First Data Resources, but he hopes his books will catch on enough to “relieve the need for that day job.”
He credits his wife Jessica for cutting him slack over the odd writer’s life he leads. “When I’m in the middle of a book it’s not just that I’m physically away at the computer typing, when I’m walking around the house my head is somewhere else,” he said. “It’s very difficult to explain, even to a very supportive spouse…that sitting in a chair staring into space is working. You know, there are tough weeks when everybody’s had long days and any human being would lose their patience. With The Cleanup I was very much behind deadline and the end of that book got very tense. I was really having to lock myself away…to try to finish the book. Jessica was very understanding but by the end it was clear that something had to give.”
In his acknowledgements he thanks his mother for coming to the rescue in “the perfect storm” of deadlines, travel commitments and family illnesses that hit all at once. “Everything just fell apart,” he said. “Without my mother I don’t know how we would have gotten through that.”
Where Rain Dogs was set in Valentine, Neb. and The Cleanup in Omaha, the book he’s working on now is set in a fictional Iowa college town. For this as yet untitled “suburban thriller” he doesn’t want the distraction of adhering to a specific place but instead an Anytown USA readers can project their own experiences onto.
Just as he doesn’t like showing his work until he has a finished piece in hand, he dislikes talking about a book still in embryo. “The idea is kind of fragile for a period of time,” he said, “and you can really crush an idea by talking about it too much.” It’s why he’s reluctant to say much about a big screen adaptation of The Cleanup other than there’s “pretty strong interest” from “a fairly well known writer-director. It’s the first book that’s drawn interest prepublication. Things look fairly promising for a deal, but everything in Hollywood is talk until something happens.”
Doolittle may have left Omaha and environs for his new work but he plans to revisit Nebraska again in his fiction. “I’ve really enjoyed writing the last couple of books closer to home and I want to continue to work around this area.” Besides, it’s so much fun to track blood lettings in the very places one haunts.
- Author Nesbø: I am attracted to dark side (cnn.com)
- Writers Tip #61: Advice From Elmore Leonard (worddreams.wordpress.com)
- A Killer Vision of a Corrupt Society (online.wsj.com)
- With His New Novel, ‘The Coffins of Little Hope,’ Timothy Schaffert’s Back Delighting in the Curiosities of American Gothic (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Crime fiction for summer (salon.com)
- Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
With His New Novel, ‘The Coffins of Little Hope,’ Timothy Schaffert’s Back Delighting in the Curiosities of American Gothic
With His New Novel, ‘The Coffins of Little Hope,’ Timothy Schaffert’s Back Delighting in the Curiosities of American Gothic
©by Leo Adam Biga
This is a longer version of the story that appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The widowed matriarch of a broken family in a small ag town barely hanging on, Essie’s the local sage whose inquisitiveness and intuition make her the apt, if sometimes prickly narrator for this rural gothic tale of faith on trial.
Schaffert, founder-director of the Omaha Lit Fest and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln lecturer in creative writing and creative nonfiction, has a predilection for idiosyncratic characters. Their various obsessions, compulsions and visions seem magnified or anointed somehow by the backwoods environs. He knows the territory well — having grown up in Nebraska farm country.
His keen observations elevate the ordinary conventions of small town life into something enchanted and surreal. Even desperate acts and heartbreaking loss are imbued with wonder amid the ache. Joy and humor leaven the load.
Schaffert satirically sets off his beguiling characters and situations with a sweetness that’s neither cloying nor false. His stories remain grounded in a subtly heightened reality.
He says, “I don’t know why I’m surprised when people find the stories quirky or perverse, although certainly I’m aware of it as I’m writing it. But I don’t think they’re absurd and they’re certainly not held up for ridicule. You don’t want it to be a cartoon.
“But it is definitely filtered through imagination. I guess it feels a little bit like magical realism without the magic because, yeah, pretty much anything that happens in the book could actually happen. I mean, there’s no one levitating, there’s nothing of the supernatural really occurring.”
His first two novels, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, trained his whimsy on the bucolic nooks and crannies of the Great Plains.
After a change of course with Devils in the Sugar Shop, whose wry, winking bacchanal of misdeeds was set in the big city — well, Omaha — he’s returned to mining the curious back roads of America’s hinterland in Coffins.
The hamlet of the story stands-in for Small Town USA at the micro level and American society at the macro level. Essie’s our guide through the story’s central riddle: A local woman named Daisy claims a daughter, Lenore, has been abducted by an itinerant aerial photographer. Trouble is, there’s no evidence she ever existed. The facts don’t prevent the tale from captivating the local community and the nation.
Schaffert says he agonized if the narrative should explain the enigma or not.
“A problem I had writing the book was needing to figure out whether I needed to offer a solution, whether the book needed to come to a conclusion or something definitive about how Daisy came to have these delusions, and I went back and forth about that.
“There are some earlier versions where there is a kind of extended explanation and in talking to my editor it became clear that that was just too complicated or it was just sort of muddying things, which was a great relief actually. It was a great relief to know I didn’t have to…So there is nothing definitive — it’s not a mystery solved in a sense.”
He says he was interested in writing about “how invested people get into situations that have nothing to do with them and how they adopt other people’s predicaments and apply them to their own conditions,” adding, “That’s the nature of community.” And of the human condition he might have mentioned.
People resist disowning narratives, no matter how far-fetched. Second-guessing themselves becomes a kind of existential self-mortification that asks:
“If I stop believing in her, what have I done? What kind of philosophical crime have I committed against my own belief system or the belief system of the community? And then there’s the what-if,” says Schaffert. “If I stop believing in this horrible thing that might have happened then what does it say about the fact I ever believed in it, and what does it say about the potential for mystery? Which is the other thing, I mean we trust in mystery and we rely upon it, it informs our daily lives — the unknowable.”
Rumors, myths, legends take on a life all their own the more attention we pay to them.
“What I’m really looking at is how a community responds to a tragedy or a crime or an eccentricity that has far reaching consequence,” he says. “And we do see that happening, we see it on the news, we see this kind of perversion or distortion of the tragedy. It’s treated as entertainment, it’s fed back to us in the same way the movies are, with these narratives produced around them. They are promoted and we are led along. The newscasters want us to tune in to find out what happened in this particular grisly situation, and as soon as we lose interest then they move onto something else.
“That’s existed as long as news has existed — that conflict and cultural condemnation we attach to the news as feeding off tragedy and how delicate that balance is and how poised for catastrophe it is. So, that’s definitely part of my interest in pursuing that plot.”
Essie’s grandon, Doc, editor-publisher of the local County Paragraph, feeds the frenzy with installments on the grieving Daisy and the phantom Lenore. Readership grows far beyond the county’s borders. Essie’s obits earn her a following too. Her fans include a famous figure from afar with a secret agenda.
As the Lenore saga turns stale, even unseemly in its intractable illogic, Doc comes to a mid-life crisis decision. He and Essie have raised his sister Ivy’s daughter, Tiff, since Ivy ran away from responsibility. But with Ivy back to assume her motherly role, the now teenaged Tiff maturing and Essie getting on in years, Doc takes action to restore the family and to put Lenore to rest.
Coffins ruminates on the bonds of family, the power of suggestion, the nature of faith and the need for hope. It has a more measured tone then Schaffert’s past work due to Essie, the mature reporter — the only time he’s used a first-person narrator in a novel.
The first-person device, says Schaffert, “carries with it a somewhat different approach –definitely a voice that’s perhaps different than the narrative voice I’ve used before, because it has to be reconciled with her (Essie’s) own experience. And she’s spent her life writing about death, and now her own life nears its end and so as a writer you have a responsibility to remain true and respectful of that. So, yeah, I think her age brought a kind of gravity to the narration. The last thing you want is for it to be a lampoon. You don’t want it to be a missing child comedy.”
It goes to reason then Essie’s the sober, anchoring conscience of the book.
“And that has to work in order for the novel to work,” says Schaffert. “That what she tells us at the beginning of the novel is true, that she’s recording what she heard, that she’s paid attention, that people trust her. So that when we do get to a scene and she does get into the minds of other characters and she describes scenes she didn’t witness, you don’t want the reader questioning the veracity of that description. You don’t want some sort of metaphysical moment where you’re trying to figure out the narrator’s relationship to the scene or material.”
Having a narrator who chronicles lives already lived and lives still unfolding appealed to Schaffert’s own storytelling sensibilities.
“It’s a great wealth of experience and information and knowledge and insight,” he says. “I think it was Alex Haley who said once, ‘When an old person dies, it is like a library burning.’ The older you get the more you recognize that there’s just a million lives around us that have these incredible rich histories and experiences, anyone of which would make a great novel.”
Schaffert did not set out to write a first-person narrative.
“It just kind of happened that way,” he says. “I mean, I definitely had the plot in mind and some of the characters and what I wanted to happen, but I couldn’t quite get started because I didn’t really know where to start. And so I one day just started writing and it was in the first person, but I didn’t know who the narrator was. I figured that out shortly thereafter and even as I kind of wrote the first draft I still didn’t feel I knew her (Essie)that terribly well because she was speaking more in the third person.
“It was really in revision that I figured out how prominent she needed to be in the book and that if she was going to be the narrator it really needed to be her story, in her voice, so once I figured that out it then it came together in my mind.”
He admires Essie’s grit.
“She has a sense of herself of having a particularly special gift for writing about the dead, and she takes that very seriously. She’s not at all self-deprecating and I like that about her. She recognizes her importance to the community and the importance of the newspaper, which she really fights for.”
Before Essie became paramount on the page, he says Doc and Tiff took precedence. As an amateur magician Doc’s long pressed Tiff into service as his assistant. Doc, the surrogate parent, is tempted to keep her a child in the magic box they use in their act.
“One of the earliest images I had for the book was Tiff outgrowing the magic box,” says Schaffert. “I read something about a woman who worked as a magician’s assistant and she had done this trick in this box until she couldn’t fit into it anymore, and that seemed sort of profound to me and fit so perfectly this relationship between Doc and Tiff.”
The tension of growing up, holding on, letting go, he says, “seems to be a theme I keep returning to — these delicate relationships between parents and children. When these various losses occur long before the child leaves the nest it means these constant renegotiations parents have to do in their relationships with their children. And when it’s happening at the same time as renegotiating other relationships, it seems often an impossible situation.”
- Heartland of Darkness: Timothy Schaffert’s Midwestern Trilogy (themillions.com)
- Books of The Times: The Obituary Writer Has the Upper Hand (nytimes.com)
- What People Magazine is Reading This Week (May 16th Issue) (kindlereader.blogspot.com)
- Reviewing the Reviewers: Catch Up on Your Reading Now That Your Taxes are Done Edition (omnivoracious.com)
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.”
- 20 Writers to Watch – An Alternate List (emergingwriters.typepad.com)
- The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (guardian.co.uk)
- Jason Pinter: Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner Speak Out On Franzen Feud: HuffPost Exclusive (huffingtonpost.com)
- Heartland of Darkness: Timothy Schaffert’s Midwestern Trilogy (themillions.com)
- With His New Novel, ‘The Coffins of Little Hope,’ Timothy Schaffert’s Back Delighting in the Curiosities of American Gothic (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Great Plains Theatre Conference Ushers in New Era of Omaha Theater (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alice’s Wonderland, Former InStyle Accessories Editor Alice Kim Brings NYC Style Sense to Omaha’s Trocadero (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Word for word, phrase for phrase, thought for thought, there may be no better American writer of the last quarter century than Ron Hansen, an Omaha native whose body of work is impressive for its breadth and depth. He is perhaps best know for two of his earliest novels, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Mariette in Ecstasy. I’ve had the pleasure of reading those and other novels by Hansen, who has graciously given me a handful of interviews over the years. As time goes by I will post other Hansen stories I’ve written. This one appeared not long after the release of his Hitler’s Niece and while he was adapting an unproduced screenplay of his into a book, Isn’t it Romantic?. His sheer command of language is astounding. His research and detail overwhelming. He’s also a fine storyteller. Then when you add to this the spiritual themes and currents that occupy him in real life, and you have a rich reading experience.
My story appeared in the Omaha Weekly, one of at least three different publications that’s published my Hansen work.
Sacred Trust, Author Ron Hansen’s Fiction RExplores Moral Struggles
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
Whether exploring the worlds of saints or sinners, real moral questions and struggles swirl at the heart of author Ron Hansen’s work, which reflects this devout Catholic’s abiding interest in faith. His novels are explorations in the ethical choices characters make and the consequences that ensue. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Knopf, 1983) Hansen essayed the kinship and treachery of an outlaw family. In Mariette in Ecstasy (Harper-Collins, 1992) he chronicled a young novitiate’s ardent love for God growing so intense that it overwhelms her mind, her body and the convent she becomes a curiosity and outcast in.
In Atticus (Harper-Collins, 1996) he brooded on the legacy of a strained father-son relationship, the futility of ever fully knowing someone and the nature of forgiveness. In Hitler’s Niece (Harper-Collins, 1999) he examined the brewing evil of Hitler in the 1920s and early ‘30s through the prism of the only woman the despot ever loved — the fuhrer’s young and innocent niece Angelika “Geli” Raubal, who was destroyed by her uncle.
In his life and in his work, Hansen, an Omaha native, seeks the spark of some connection with the sacred and the ethereal. It gives him sustenance and constitutes his muse. “Some of my favorite moments are late nights with other people talking about miraculous experiences in their lives or times when they felt the hand of God or the solace of God and they learned more about themselves or about God’s benign mercy,” he said in an interview during a recent Omaha visit to deliver the William F. Kelley, S.J. Endowed Lecture at his alma mater, Creighton University. “Those things are kind of ways of inspiring you and bucking you up. It’s a way of becoming aware of another world that’s totally unseen.”
It was while struggling with Atticus that Hansen felt the healing presence of God.
“I’d been working on Atticus and it was going badly,” he said. “This was back in 1985. I’d written like 120 pages that were rotten. I was in Cancun — throwing rocks into the ocean late at night as the waves were crashing in. I was really angry about my book and about the hard time I was having finding a teaching job. I was feeling really awful. I was full of self-pity. And I thought, What’s going to become of me? And then I just had an incredible sense of God laughing. It was a sense of Him saying, If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t be so worried. And I realized it was all going to come out all right, but it wasn’t going to be immediate. I just had this feeling of calm. Almost everybody has the same experience when they have this kind of God moment. You just feel at ease about things. So, I put the book away and started other books.
“I went back to it and it was terrible still. And I just kept going back to it. And then, finally, when Mariette was published I had one book left on a two book contract and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll just go back to this one (Atticus).’ It took me a long time to rewrite it. I kept trying to use the words I used already. But it was almost like somebody else had written that. I was not that person anymore. I finally gave up on that and started writing totally new words, and then it worked fine. I found that sense of God smiling and saying — Take it easy, kid — made me take it easy.”
According to Hansen, the writing process itself is a somewhat mysterious and metaphysical experience that finds the writer drawing on resources he is not always fully aware of or in control of. “Writing well is a form of a waking dream,” he said. “It’s almost the same thing that happens when you’re in a dream state. Images start to occur. You don’t know where they come from. And you try and fit them together. Often, you have a mental picture of something and you see characters in relationship to each other, but you don’t know exactly what they’re going to say to each other. And sometimes that’s where the zest comes — when you hear something surprising and just right that comes from one of them. Part of it is because it’s really your subconscious that seems to be writing the novel at its best. It’s your conscious mind that revises it, but it’s the subconscious that supplies all the scintillating details — the colorations you could not have thought of yourself.”
Whether it’s the spirit or the subconscious moving him, Hansen said, it is no accident these voices speak to him because he is open to the possibility of such a communion happening in the first place. “Partly, I think it’s because I want these things to happen, and some people don’t want them to happen. They might get spooked by them. It’s part of the writer’s equipment to seek out those experiences and to live them fully. And other people are maybe more guarded and maybe necessarily so, so they can’t be as available to that sort of thing. I always describe a writer’s life as being different from others in that some people kind of have venetian blinds that are closed and the writer’s are open, so that everything can come in. And that’s what makes writers go crazy. That’s what makes them obsessive and everything else. But it’s also one of the things they need to do.”
If creative writing flows out of some deep well fed by intuitive streams, then it is easier to appreciate how something like a novel comes into being as a complex and coherent whole from a seemingly disparate and random collection of ideas, themes, issues, preoccupations, incidents, places and characters. The way Hansen sees it, a novel only reaches its final shape after the novelist has played a game of sleuth with himself and all the narrative threads dangling from his imagination. He said for most of the writing process the novelist is only aware of bits and pieces of what the book will eventually comprise — discovering the contents as he goes along. During that creative journey, the writer must be ready and willing to go in many directions and to follow many leads, some of which may be dead ends. It is only in searching out and sifting through the many loose story strands, that the nut of the novel is finally revealed and its elements tied together.
“Well, it’s as if an alphabet exists and you don’t know all the letters to the alphabet,” he said. “You might know A, J, L and Z, and with that foundation you then have to fill in all the rest. It’s like when scholars tried to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics. They had a few words that they knew and then they’d go from there. I think the same thing is true with writing a novel. You know, for example, certain things about it and then you have questions about other things, and then the questions will reveal things as you write the novel. Knowing a few things gives you the confidence that you can actually lay it all out there.
“But you’re still kind of writing in the dark no matter how well you plan. There’s all kinds of spontaneity that comes into the novel. There’s all kinds of surprises and wrong turns that you can take. So, you have to be disciplined enough to kind of say, This is tangential or doesn’t belong, or, I did this badly, or, Maybe I don’t need this scene after all, or, This character doesn’t belong in this novel — he belongs somewhere else. All kinds of changes happen in the process of writing. It’s part of the fascination but part of the drudgery as well.”
Now that Hansen has created a fairly large body of work, he finds himself running up against the same dilemma a writer friend of his faced a while ago. “I don’t think it’s legal anymore, but a friend of mine got a tax write off by claiming his creative ideas were being diminished year by year. He was actually able to depreciate his intellectual capital. And, he was right. How many ideas can you have, you know? In my own writing, there’s all kind of metaphors I can’t use anymore because I’ve used them already. Characters I can’t have. Situations…Certainly, Stephen King has shown you can exhaust your own ideas.”
For Hansen, “part of the interest” and the challenge of writing is tapping his inner being to better understand himself and the world he inhabits and interprets. It is an ongoing search for answers — much akin to the spiritual journey that Hansen, who has a master’s degree in Spirituality, has taken. It is a journey, he said, that has no end. “Yeah, I don’t think anybody ever reaches a stopping point or, at least, they shouldn’t. I mean, God isn’t knowable but you learn a little bit more and more and you learn a little bit more about yourself. I guess I don’t really know myself very well. I think I know who I was 10 years ago and I can look back at the past and understand everything about myself, whereas in my present circumstances I’m just poking around like everybody else.”
As far as injecting himself into his work, he avoids drawing closely on his own life. “I’m not very good at autobiographical writing,” he said. “The only time I ever really write autobiographically is when I write nonfiction (as in his new book of essays, A Stay Against Confusion, Harper-Collins, 2001). I want to have my anima come through in my fiction rather than who I am right now or who I seem to be.” He also knows himself well enough to shy away from certain projects that are not a good fit. “In terms of my strengths and weaknesses, there are some types of writing I wouldn’t attempt and some kind I know I have a propensity toward. There’s certain novels that won’t ever suggest themselves to me because I know I’d do them badly. Among the genres I could never do are fantasy and science fiction because I just don’t have that yen to do them. On the other hand, I like historical writing.”
In much of his historical writing, which ranges from the misadventures of the Dalton gang in Desperados (Knopf, 1979) and the machinations of the James gang in Jesse James to the unholy union of Hitler and Geli Raubal in Hitler’s Niece, Hansen has been drawn to outlaw figures. He said a beguilement with practitioners of left-handed forms of human endeavor is a natural for writers, who share an outsider’s perspective with the lawless, the rebellious and the fringe dwellers of the world.
“Outlaws are in some way marginalized, but also they live outside the world of convention. I think most writers, too, feel marginalized in some way and they feel they live outside conventional rules and boundaries. It doesn’t mean they’re all breaking windows. I think what it means is that the way most people live their lives is unfamiliar to the writer because it has to be,” he said. “I think most writers begin wanting to be writers because they feel like, Oh, I’m different, and they feel somehow they don’t fit into the normal pattern of things, and so consequently they have a sympathy toward outlaws. There’s a tendency among writers to feel like these guys (outlaws) are just misguided writers. Also, I think a lot of outlaws are really control freaks in their own way. And I think writers are, too. They want to form their own world and have complete control over all the characters in it. That’s what happens to a lot of outlaws, and that’s why they keep running up against the law.”
In his literary sojourns Hansen plumbs the depths of his conflicted characters’ souls, whose shadows and secrets are revealed in a world come unhinged by sudden shifts in the terra firma. Hansen said his own world view has taken on certain fatalistic shadings as the result of dramatic losses and reversals he has observed in people’s lives. “A good of friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was a kid and another friend was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was older,” he said. “And you realize it all can change in an instant.” He feels literature is fertile ground for playing out in the mind’s eye how one might react to such dire events in real life. “I think writing is a way of being precautionary,” he said. “It’s a way, like in dreams, where you kind of forecast a situation you wouldn’t want happen and see how you would respond to it. So, in some ways, it’s kind of a dress rehearsal for tragedy. You have some kind of preparation and a sense of calm at a point where you otherwise panic.”
In the case of writing Hitler’s Niece, Hansen was compelled not so much by a desire to imagine himself struggling in the web of evil but by a desire to weave an historically-based story that offered up a cautionary tale about the dangerous lure of evil. He explained how and why he came to devote months of his life to researching the book. “I was reading a biography of Hitler and in there the author said that Geli Raubal was the only woman Hitler ever loved or would ever consider marrying and that Eva Braun, who we know much more about, was just a kind of mistress he had sex with. Hitler used to say to his secretary that Eva was ‘a woman I have at my disposal.’ And, of course, it’s symptomatic of Hitler that he would commit suicide the day after his wedding.”
For Hansen, the real attraction to telling Geli’s story, which is also pre-war Germany’ story, was that she “knew Hitler when all his evil and his power was incipient — when he was just a failed politician and a guy who made his money from giving speeches, but did nothing else. That he was a person she really couldn’t imagine doing all the things he ended up doing was fascinating to me. And, also, it became a kind of moral lesson of how we get sucked in by evil. Of how a poor girl becomes a groupie, essentially, to her uncle. And how he sucks her in and imprisons her with blandishments and how for awhile she tries to turn away from the bad side of her uncle. But then she realizes that this isn’t just a cranky guy with terrible ideas about Jews, but that he’s crazy and dangerous and she tries to escape, and that’s how she dies.”
According to Hansen, part of what he tried to do with Hitler’s Niece was help readers understand “how Germany could fall for” Hitler’s repugnant diatribe and help turn his doctrine of hate into a nationalistic movement. He hopes that lesson gives us pause in considering our leaders today. “As a famous quotation goes, ‘The only reason to write history is to give lessons for the future,’” he said. “So, all we can do is identify those qualities in a political leader that could lead to a Hitler. I think people like Hitler make a deliberate choice for evil, but they disguise it as well as they can. So, Hitler would come across to most people who knew him as incredibly charming and suave. People get deluded. I think we have politicians today who are like that. If you met them you would say, Oh, what a wonderful guy, yet you know down deep there’s a kernel in there that in many ways is opposed to what is right.”
A moral universe filled with choices pervades Hansen’s thinking and writing. How his faith colors his work is something he frequently addresses in lectures and essays. In his April 7 talk at the Alpha Sigma Nu Dinner at Creighton University, he delivered a lecture entitled “Hotly in Pursuit of the Real — The Catholic Way,” part of whose title he took from a quote by another famous Catholic author, the late Flannery O’Connor, who said it is the obligation of a writer to be in hot pursuit of the real. On the eve of his talk, Hansen explained what he hoped to convey: “I’m trying to talk about not only how one finds one’s vocation as a writer, but how being a Catholic that might be somewhat different than it is if you were a Jewish writer or a Protestant writer. I’m trying to identify those kinds of characteristics. I talk about my faith and how it affected me. For instance, growing up with the Catholic liturgies, the reverence for saints, the sacramentality, the sense of God being imminent but being distant — all those things helped my formation as a writer.”
Outside his faith, among the strongest influences on his writing have been the teachers in his life. While attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, he came under the sphere of noted American author John Irving, with whom he lived. “I learned from him how to live the life of a writer,” Hansen said. “How to keep on producing books, how to be focused, how to be disciplined, how to manage a life while writing.” Over a period of four summers at a writers conference in Vermont, Hansen found a mentor in the late John Gardner. “I really liked him as a teacher. He was a very generous person with his time and with his intelligent reading of your manuscripts. I kind of modeled myself as a teacher after him.” And at Stanford University Hansen became a devoted student of John L’Hereaux’s, who years before as a fiction editor at Atlantic Monthly gave Hansen “the first sign I had that maybe I could do this (write professionally). He was the person who helped me with my first novel, Desperadoes.”
Teaching, which is how Hansen has supported his writing the last couple decades, enriches his work as well. “There’s that old saying, How will I know what I think until I see what I say. And teaching gives you all kinds of opportunities to say things that you might not normally address,” said Hansen, a tenured professor in the English Department at Santa Clara University. “Just as writing workshops allow students to see all the different ways a story can go wrong, which will help them avoid those mistakes, the same is true for the teacher. I’ve read thousands of stories in class, and so I’ve seen the ways stories go wrong — so I don’t make those mistakes.” He said for some writers teaching “can have a stultifying effect in that you expend so much of your energy addressing other people’s writing problems that you feel like you’ve written yourself and you don’t do a lot of writing. But that’s not true for me. I do all my work for school at school and all my own work at home, and I don’t let them infiltrate. And dealing with young people who are full of energy about the writing process can be energizing as well.”
Hansen, who never signs a contract until a book is done (“It gives me more freedom.”) is now adapting an unproduced screenplay he co-wrote into a book. “I don’t know if it’s a novella or a novel. I know the dialogue works and the situations are funny, but I don’t think the tone is exactly right. It’s about a French couple who have the bad idea of traveling through the United States as tourists on a bus. They get waylaid in a small town in Nebraska where they’re taken on as kind of mascots for the festival held there. It’s full of misunderstandings and sliding doors and French farce.” Nebraska has figured prominently in several Hanson short stories, most notably in the collection of stories published as Nebraska. He said having some distance from his roots helps him write about them. “I don’t think I could write about Nebraska while living in Nebraska. It’s easier when you’re away from home, partly because it becomes the Nebraska of your imagination, which is much more interesting than the real thing.”
- Never Reading Enough: A New York Affliction? (cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Surfin’ (benpeek.livejournal.com)
- Books of The Times: An Affair, a Murder, a Sensation (nytimes.com)
- ‘Guilty Passion’ Leads A Housewife To Homicide (npr.org)
- Surge of creativity sustains writer Ron Hansen (sfgate.com)
- Omaha Lit Fest: ‘People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.
- Omaha's #1 catfish/spaghetti dinner tomorrow Church of the Resurrection 3004 Belvedere Blvd. Good eats-Low prices-Supports kids 402-455-7015 4 weeks ago
- Brad Ashford Reflects on Recent Omaha Mayoral Primary Loss and the Politics He Espouses nblo.gs/KrZ7t 4 weeks ago
- The Omaha Star Celebrates 75 Years of Black Woman Legacy nblo.gs/Kbvhb 1 month ago
My Favorite Tags
My Favorite Categories
Calendar of Blog Posts
Categories from A to Z and # of Posts
- Flanagan-Monsky Example Of Social Justice and Interfaith Harmony Still Shows the Way 60 Years Later
- Brandeis Story: Great Plains Family-Owned Department Store Empire
- Click Westin, Back in the Screenwriting Game Again at Age 83
- From the Archives: Monika Kelly Recalls her Late Father, the Beloved Clown and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Legend, Emmett Kelly Sr.
- Having Survived War in Sudan, Refugee Akoy Agau Discovered Hoops in America and the Major College Recruit is Now Poised to Lead Omaha Central to a Third Straight State Title
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? John Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun'
- Norman Krivosha's Life in Law
- Golf Shots: Pat Drickey Lives His Dream Photographing the World's Great Golf Courses
- One Day at a Time, A Recovering Alcoholic's Story
- Native American Survival Strategies Shared Through Theater and Testimony
- Altman on Altman: A Look at the Late American Auteur Robert Altman Through the Eyes of His Grandson, Indie Omaha Filmmaker Dana Altman, and Other Cinephiles
- From the Archives: Peony Park Not Just an Amusement Playground, But a Multi-Use Events Facility
- 265,307 hits