The downtown Omaha Lit Fest this Friday and Saturday offers a compendium of writing topics and events around the theme Warped: Historical In/Accuracy, Navigating Fact and Fiction, Past and Present.
Writing about the past is foremost on the mind of founder-director Timothy Schaffert since his new novel The Swan Gondola is set in the late 19th century. When some writer friends had new books of their own out with a historical context, the theme naturally revealed itself as did the scheduled lineup of guest authors and panels.
Big name authors from outside Neb. are participating along with area authors fast making names for themselves, plus other established and emerging authors from here and beyond.
“I became interested in having conversations with other writers who also write about the past,” Schaffert says. “And it seems like there’s a vast readership these days for historical novels. Now one of the things I want to address with the panelists is the particulars of that very phrase, that very label – the historical novel.
“I think there is a distinction to be made between books set in the past versus the historical novel genre, which sometimes can feel like a marketing label. Is a novel set in a historical time inherently a historical novel or is a historical novel something with its own formulas and intentions? That’s kind of what I’m curious about as a reader and writer. I’m looking forward to hearing more from these writers who’ve also recently spent time immersed in the particulars of other eras.”
Maud Casey’s The Man Who Walked Away, which Schaffert describes as “most definitely one of the great novels of the year,” is inspired by the real-life case history of Albert Dadas. The 19th century French psychiatric hospital patient wandered away in a trance-like state across much of Europe. For research the Washington D.C.-based Casey read Ian Hacking’s nonfiction book, Mad Travellers: On Transient Mental Illness, for its take “on the way a particular diagnosis arises at a particular moment in history for cultural-nationalistic-social reasons.”
“I constantly returned to Hacking’s book for the details of the story,” she says, “but also to remember the rhythms of Dadas’ language as he described his wanderings in the sessions of hypnosis transcribed in the back of Hacking’s book.”
To learn about the era she pored over old documents and books at the Library of Congress, steeping herself in the early days of psychiatry, the history of the bicycle, the beginnings of mass tourism, et cetera.
“There was the hardcore research, but there was always, intertwined with that, the endless negotiations with my self-doubt. Who was I to write historical or even historical-ish fiction?”
In France and Switzerland she says she “spent a lot of time walking and thinking about Albert walking.” “The research was all essential to the endeavor,” she adds, “but at the heart of the novel is this character loosely based on Dadas, but I hope he’s become his own creature.”
Schaffert says Casey’s “writing is magical and poetic, her imagination is rich,” adding, “She places us there in 19th century France and creates these vivid characters even as she also provides a portrait of the early days of psychology and neurology. It’s an interesting mix of science history and also rich characterization, poetry and fairy tale.”
Chicago-area author Melanie Benjamin, who’s carved a niche writing historical biographies of the women behind famous men, explores the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh in her best seller The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin’s protagonist is the wife of famed pilot Charles Liindbergh.
Not any woman will do for the author. She says, “There’s an extra special angle I always look for when I’m looking at a real life to explore in fiction, and Anne’s story is just so epic in scope. It’s the stuff of fiction really.” She doesn’t feel hidebound to history: “I’m not a stenographer to history.” Neither does she feel obligated to exhaustively visit and describe historic sites that make their way in her work.
“My books are about people, not places. I do the research, but I’ve learned not to over-research. In the end, I have to have something left to imagine or else I don’t have a compelling novel. I stick to the basic, actual timeline of a life, but the story of the book, the arc, comes from my imagination – the story that emerges that only I can see, I believe, in the beginning.”
Schaffert admires the direction she’s taken her writing.
“The thing about Melanie’s work that is so enticing is that she’s doing an excavation in a sense – she’s getting into the psychologies and the lives of real people and presenting a kind of convincing approximation of what these people might have been like. I love that juxtaposition of the historical document versus her re-imagining of these lives.”
Schaffert will lead separate discussions with Casey and Benjamin.
Omahan Rebecca Rotert is making waves with her novel, Last Night at the Blue Angel, another Schaffert favorite. It revolves around a mother-daughter relationship. Naomi, the mother, is a singer. Sophia, the daughter, tries connecting through her mother’s art. Rotert, a singer who fronted the bands Echo Farm and The Omaha Project, says, “I made Naomi a singer because I know the territory and the vocabulary and the vulnerability quite well. Like the back of my hand.”
Because the narrative is set in 1960s Chicago Rotert says “it was essential to do as much research as I could in order for the period and the place to emerge organically in the prose.”
About Rotert, Schaffert says, “Her story is so deeply embedded in the psychology of the characters and their domestic situation and their lives within the walls of their homes and the interaction and relationship between mothers and daughters. It is about music and performance and that whole aura of stage presence It’s a really heartfelt, moving and utterly captivating story.”
Joining Rotert to discuss the role of music in creativity and character development is another local, Rainbow Rowell, enjoying breakout success with a novel “set to music.” Rowell’s New York Times Bestseller Eleanor and Park is about two teens bonding through New Wave and Punk in 1986
“We have approached the idea in very different ways, but to similar ends, i.e. music as vehicle to both escape the self and find the self,” Rotert says of her and Rowell.
Three Nebraska women fiction writers – Pamela Carter Joem, Margaret Lukas and Karen Shoemaker – comprise another panel.
“They’re three writers who take very different approaches to writing about Nebraska,” Schaffert says. “Pamela’s focus has been on the rural Neb. experience of small communities. Karen also writes about that in The Meaning of Names, but she’s also reaching back to 1918 and presents a historical portrait of Neb. at that time. In Margaret’s book Farthest House there’s a level of fairy tale, folk tale, magic, and spiritualism. So I think their perspectives will be enlightening.”
The festival’s opening night party, Cures and Tonics, celebrates Omaha’s bawdy, burly early history via Tim Guthrie’s Museum of Alternative History and Burnt District literary journal’s Poetry Brothel. View Justin Wolta’s fest posters over its decade-run.
The closing night program features readings by poets from the Women Write Resistance anthology that speak against gender violence.
Schaffert and his salon and its esoteric topics attract a “small but devoted audience,” he says. Rotert speaks for many, saying, “It is utterly profuse with Timothy’s intelligence, sensibilities and curiosities. Every year with this event Tim delivers ideas we didn’t know we needed, themes we suddenly crave the moment he proposes them.”
For event details, visit omahalitfest.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.