Writer predilections take precedence at the October 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, an annual orgy of the written word organized by acclaimed resident author Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope).
Nine years running Schaffert’s partnered with the Omaha Public Library for the free event that calls the W. Dale Clark Library, 215 So. 15th St., home. As usual, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor and Nebraska Writers Summer Conference director has gathered an eclectic roster of authors for quirky panel discussions. This year’s theme is Under the Skin: Literary Obsessions and Cult Followings. Helping him explore these musings are authors from near and far and on different publishing paths. Ohio author Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa and its frank distillation of a sex deviant was published by Ecco/Harper Collins. Omaha author Thom Sibbitt self-published his Beat-inspired pseudo-memoir The Turnpike. Nebraska author Mary K. Stillwell’s dual biography-critical study of poet Ted Kooser was published by the University of Nebraska Press.
“I like inviting writers that I think are doing work that has a lot of edge and maybe not getting all the attention the other writers are getting and yet are worthy of that attention,” says Schaffert, who like any good host mixes and matches authors to enliven the conversation.
The intimate, idiosyncratic fest offers opportunities to talk-up authors, some of whom will be at Friday’s 6:30 to 9:30 opening night party and exhibition, Carnival of Souls. Creatives from the Nebraska chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design, will display their takes on classic movie posters from cult cinema. Beginning at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday a series of panels unfolds, including one billed Cinematic that considers movies as subject, inspiration and influence and another, Trigger Warnings, that promises a provocative spin on sex lit.
A 5:30 signing by Lit Fest authors concludes the festival.
As an academic and a former newspaper editor Schaffert tracks currents and poses questions. That’s how he arrived at the panel Obsessed and its topic of authors doggedly pursuing biographical subjects. Panelist Mary K. Stillwell’s book The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser grew out of a dissertation she began years before. She says she discovered Kooser’s work when a poetry instructor “started bringing me in work by all the Nebraska poets and he kept saying, ‘You come from this fertile land of poetry, look what your people do.’ It really turned me on. Here were people from my own neighborhood talking about things I knew, so it was really a gift to me. We have this long history that goes all the way back to the Pawnee. It got me to thinking of the (Ogallala) Aquifer – there must be something poetic in that water.”
Her fascination resulted in the anthology Being(s) in Place(s): Poetry in and of Nebraska. She cultivated an association with Kooser, the 2004-2005 U.S. Poet Laureate. Then she decided to make him the subject of a book. Researching it meant visiting his childhood home of Ames, Iowa, interviewing his friends there and elsewhere, corresponding with Kooser and immersing herself in his poems
“Going back to his poems you can see the depth of his literary knowledge, you can see the influence of (John) Keats or Thomas Transformer or even (Robert) Frost. Some of his images just seem to be in brotherhood with Frost. So each time you go back you get another layer. It’s sort of an archaeological expedition when you study a Kooser poem over time.”
She says Kooser proved a “cooperative” and “generous” subject who was “patient” with her many questions.
Research comes in many forms. New York state-based author Owen King informed his new novel Double Feature about a famous B-movie director by watching unholy hours of old flicks.
“Taking a survey of the B-movies of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was essential to the book,” says King, the son of authors Stephen and Tabitha King and the husband of fellow Lit Fest guest author Kelly Braffet. “I had seen quite a few before I started but I gained a newfound respect for them in the process of watching and rewatching so many in a relatively short period. There’s an earnestness at work in most of the films that I didn’t fully grasp beforehand. Which is why, although I have some fun with B-movies in Double Feature, I also hope aficionados feel like I did them justice.”
Portland, Oregon author Monica Drake partially drew on her own experiences as a clown for her novel Clown Girl. Her observations working at a zoo and her adventures in parenting helped inspire her novel The Stud Book.
Timothy Schaffert became a virtual 19th century explorer researching his new novel The Swan Gondola set at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. He enjoyed the immersion in all things Victorian for his novel due out in February.
“it was completely pleasurable. It was valuable to learn about the history of the world’s fair and also the general development of the city of Omaha. When I embarked on that research I knew nothing about how people lived day by day in the 1890s and so reading newspapers and books published at the time I did feel myself drawing closer and closer to that age,”
“It got to the point,” he says, “I would get up in the morning and read from the Library of Congress website that day’s news of 1898. You get sort of hypnotized by it so that you’re even imagining yourself living in that period, driving some place in a horse and buggy.
“The 1890s were kind of a terrible time for anyone who wasn’t a wealthy white man. Despite all the racism and ugliness I began to feel more comfortable there than in the 21st century.”
He says his investigation “did require a great deal of time and concentration,” adding, “I was kind of writing and researching at the same time, so I’d write a scene and then go back and figure out how close that scene could be to the reality of the culture of the time – to the social customs and habits and gestures. I wanted it to be an authentic representation of the day.”
Schaffert’s among a handful of Lit Fest authors with novels at some stage of development for the screen. Local crime and suspense fiction writer Sean Doolittle has The Cleanup in development with director Alex Turner (Dead Birds). Unlike Schaffert and author Monica Drake, whose Clown Girl was optioned by Kristin Wiig, Doolittle’s taken an active hand in the process.
Doolittle says Turner “wrote the initial draft of the screenplay, then asked me if I’d be interested in rewriting it. That was my introduction to screenwriting. I’ve been with the project through a number of additional rewrites, until the screen version evolved into both a faithful representation of, and a significant departure from, the original story.
On “the metamorphosis” from novel to script, he says, “I learned a lot about structure – looking at an existing story from different angles and moving as much weight as possible with each narrative decision.”
Most writing’s done in isolation and if you’re self-publishing it can be an especially lonely but rewarding journey. Thom Sibbitt will join fellow lone wolf authors on the panel Experiments: Writing Around the Mainstream that discusses risk, invention, small-press publishing, dangerous subjects and the literary underground. Given that his novel The Turnpike is “this not for everybody material” Sibbitt says he felt it best served by self-publishing. Despite the hard work the process entails he says “it’s been great – I actually feel super empowered to have been able to do it myself.”
Schaffert says today’s digital platforms and micro presses are viable options that allow authors to get their work out as never before. “This is a really exciting time for writers.”
In an era of shrinking attention spans and publications that values technology over literature, Lit Fest celebrates the enduring power of the written word.
Omaha Public Library marketing manager Emily Getzchman says the event aligns well with OPL’s mission. “This event inspires people to think critically and look beyond the words on the page. It provides a rare opportunity to combine authors, art and their works with the community who consumes it. Our hope is that the ideas and perspectives that emerge will inspire people to continue conversations about life and culture.”
For event details visit omahalitfest.com.
NOTE: Leo Adam Biga is the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.