Omaha Lit Fest: ‘People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like’

An esoteric celebration of books and words


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 and 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 mind, the fest includes panels, exhibitions, salons and workshops featuring 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 tremendous reviews, and Rachel Shukert, now at work on two 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 its 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,” he said. “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.”

He quotes Abraham Lincoln to summarize its appeal: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”

Schaffert talks about his personal touch in the programs. “It doesn’t always come together perfectly, but, yeah, I definitely try to shape it.” Does he pull the strings behind the curtain? “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 mostly conceptualizes the show is a result 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. The latter purchased 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 local lit culture. Shukert appreciates the effort. She doesn’t recall a visible Omaha lit scene when she lived here. “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.”

“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,” she says. “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 Nebraska. 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 … 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 growing up on the prairie.

“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 Nebraska, 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,” Schaffert says. “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 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 showed her 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, with fellow writers, will share thoughts about craft during a 2 p.m.-5 p.m. salon at the library 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.”

Svoboda insists her process is not appreciably different writing novels or poems,

It is different for Shukert.

“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 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.

“I feel like there’s more of an appetite to write than ever before but is there the same appetite to read?” Shukert says. “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 there was a sort of curatorial process that I think is slowly falling apart,” she says. “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 than 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 that’s 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 p.m.-9:30 p.m. 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


Category: Art

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