Timothy Schaffert’s new novel The Coffins of Little Hope (Unbridled) takes its elegiac tone from Essie, the elderly obit writer and sage of a fading ag town. Her inquisitiveness and intuition make her the apt narrator for relating this rural gothic tale of faith on trial. Schaffert, founder-director of the Omaha Lit Fest and a University of Nebraska-Lincoln lecturer, has a predilection for idiosyncratic characters. Their various obsessions, compulsions, visions and flights of fancy seem anointed somehow by backwoods environs. He knows the territory — having grown up in Nebraska farm country. His keen observations elevate ordinary small town conventions into something enchanted and surreal. Even desperate acts and heartbreaking loss are imbued with wonder. Joy and humor leaven the load. Schaffert satirically sets off his beguiling characters and situations with a sweet, never cloying sensibility. The reality’s heightened, not false. 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.” Schaffert’s first two novels, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God , trained his whimsy on bucolic nooks and crannies. For Devils in the Sugar Shop he turned his wry, winking gaze on the bacchanal of the city. For his return to God’s Little Acre country in Coffins , Schaffert uses Essie to guide us 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 Lenore 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 was to figure out whether the book needed to come to a conclusion 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 was just too complicated or it was just sort of muddying things. 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. There’s a reluctance to disown a narrative, no matter how far-fetched. No one wants to admit gullibility. No one wants to spoil a good mystery. Rumors, myths and 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.” Essie’s grandson, 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 a following too. Her fans include a famous figure with a secret agenda. Then Doc comes to a mid-life crisis decision. He and Essie raised his sister Ivy’s daughter, Tiff, but with Ivy back, Tiff maturing and Essie getting on in years, Doc takes action to restore the family and to lay 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 than Schaffert’s past work due to Essie, the mature reporter — the only time he’s used a first-person narrator in a novel. He says the narrative naturally “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.” Essie’s the book’s sober, anchoring conscience. “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.” Schaffert says he didn’t set out to write a first-person narrative. “It just kind of happened that way. 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. 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. “It was really in revision I figured out how prominent she needed to be, 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 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, 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 used 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. 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 … these constant renegotiations.” Timothy Schaffert will sign copies of the novel April 16 at the Bookworm, 87th and Pacific, starting at 1 p.m. For more information, visit the author’s website at timothyschaffert.com.

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