The 2015 downtown Omaha Lit Fest, whose theme is “Nervosa: Science, Psych & Story,” celebrates the reflective power of literature to explore human vulnerability.
Worry over terrorism, the economy, climate change, the singularity, genetic engineering and zombie apocalypse dread is backdrop for the free Oct. 16-17 fest at the W. Dale Clark Library.
The 6:30-9:30 Friday night opening party, “Anxiety,” features the Poetry Brothel by burntdistrict literary journal, paintings and drawings by Eric and Shari Post and wire and book sculptures by Jay Cochrane.
Starting at 1 p.m. on Saturday founder-director-novelist Timothy Schaffert (The Swan Gondola) moderates panel discussions and interviews with local and visiting authors.
The intimate annual fest plays like Schafferts personal salon.
“If you don’t like me you probably won’t like the show,” he quips .”I have the freedom to develop it the way I want and I do so with the support of the Omaha Public Library. They let me invite who I want to invite, they provide the space and they promote the event. It’s exciting to take on a project that isn’t mired in bureaucracy.”
He arrived at this year’s theme by noting what authors in his lit circle were writing about. He feels these times induce a collective high tension literature’s better prepared to reflect than social media.
“Literature is really competing with the social networks for that immediate connection people are seeking with each other and their desire to remain on top of every horrifying incident that occurs in the world. Ultimately there can be this overwhelming sense of everything is treacherous, that there’s terror waiting at every turn.”
He says where online communiques incite anxiety, literature brings analysis and rumination.
“We read books differently than we read most other text. We immerse ourselves in the world of the story. We’re looking for authoritative voice, for unique and useful perspective, and that requires a great deal of attention. A book calls for you to put everything else aside to spend time with it and to let the writer speak. I think that has historically been soothing to readers.”
For the panel “Diagnosis” two Omaha doctor-authors will discuss drawing on medical backgrounds in writing.
Retired transplant surgeon Bud Shaw says, “My essay ‘My Night with Ellen Hutchison’ is about a devastating personal and professional episode in my early career.”
“As I sat down to write about it, I discovered just how stubbornly I still held onto a version of that story that blamed others, that let me off the hook for the death of a patient during a liver transplant. I had to revisit that night over and over again for weeks to reconstruct a view that wasn’t about the cause of the failure so much as it was about the results. It wasn’t easy. I needed a fresh and far more human perspective, and that required a lot of processing I hadn’t done before. Now I don’t seem able to stop.”
His new book is Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey.
Practicing physician Lydia Kang writes young adult sci-fi novels and scientific thrillers (Catalyst, Control).
“I find myself drawn to particular stories and struggles and often there is a medical-forensic-genetics aspect that happens along the way.”
Researching a congenital breathing disorder led Kang to cast the hero of Control with that condition.
Kang says wanting to “explain the details, whys and hows of things” in prose can result in “too much info-dumping.” “Curating the details for the sake of smooth reading and the storyline must work in concert with doing factual justice to the fictional patient and scenario.” Through her blog she consults writers dealing with health-science matters.
Schaffert is “fascinated by any effort to make science more readable and accessible.” At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln he teaches a Humanities in Medicine Minor course, “Illness and Health in Literature.”
“We look at everything from science journalism to personal essays.”
Another panel with Neb. writers will consider “Treachery” and outcasts. Novelist Douglas Otis Wesselman, aka radio host Otis Twelve, says, “Treachery is best understood by the old. We’ve had more practice at it – from both sides. We come to know we are betrayed and betrayers by nature. Our human lives seem to revolve around duplicity and it usually comes down to the ultimate deceit – our ability to lie to ourselves.”
In his new novel Tales of the Master a character deals with the anguish of undermining himself and others.
He says writers well fit the outcast bill – “at least if they write the truth.”
Ted Wheeler, author of the chapbook On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown and the related novel Kings of Broken Things, says, “So much of interesting literature is about social outcasts. I see that as the central duty of a writer – to tell the stories that shouldn’t be told, to make personal demons public, to dredge up buried history or explore the parts of society that have been pushed out to the margins. The literary writer’s job is to say what can’t be said in polite company.”
Schaffert says the work of Wheeler, Wesselman and fellow panelist Marilyn June Coffey has “a kind of mythology, whether folklore or historical incident or ancient mythology.”
Wheeler explores Will Brown’s 1919 lynching in Omaha.
“My main intention was to give it treatment in a way I hadn’t seen done in any history books. The trick wasn’t really in explaining why this horrible event happened here, but more about resisting the urge to rationalize a mass act of treachery by exploring what it was like to be at a race riot and get caught up it the swerve of violent extremism.
“What’s interesting to me and what’s unspeakable about it in a certain way is this point where mundane life intersects with a notorious crime.”
Coffey revisited Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in an Atlantic Monthly cover article. She broke ground with her 1973 novel Marcella for its exploration of female autoeroticism. Her new book is Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers: The Unsettling History of the Dirty Deals that Helped Settle Nebraska.
The panel “Empathy” will examine the psychology of identification.
“Reading literature builds empathy,” Lincoln, Neb. author Joy Castro says. “It asks us to imagine the lives and perspectives of people very different from ourselves, faced with situations we’ve never encountered. Entering into their stories expands our hearts. My new book How Winter Began is a collection of 28 short stories which pivot on the challenge of empathy.”
Arizona-based writer Julie Iromuanya, raised in Neb. by her Igo Nigernian immigrant parents, says, “To write, one has to practice the central feature of empathy – one has to imagine. It’s a complicated business to move beyond one’s subject position in order to inhabit the body of another. To me, beauty is about seeing characters in their most unvarnished form. My way into my characters is through their truth, but it’s a risky endeavor. Veer a little too far left and writing is sterile. Veer a little too far to the right and we’re left with sentimentality. Hit the right spot and there is a backdoor elegance.”
For her debut novel Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, she says, “One of the ways I leveraged this was through through humor, albeit dark humor, I’m both inside my characters and outside them. They act, they live their lives on the page, but I don’t let them get away with anything.”
Seattle writer Jennie Shortridge’s novel Love Water Memory considers the limits of love, trust and knowing through the prism of amnesia.
Schaffert will ask Canada native and New York City resident Emily St. John Mandel about the human psychology examined in her post-apocalyptic best-seller Station Eleven.
“It occurred to me an interesting way to consider the modern world would be to contemplate its absence,” Mandel says. “I was less interested in writing a narrative of collapse and more interested in writing about what comes next. The question I’ve attempted to address is, What remains? What might we long for and try to recreate if all of the trappings of the modern world were to fall away?”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.