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Omaha Lit Fest: In praise of writers and their words: Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors


You’ll find several stories on this blog that I’ve written about the Omaha Lit Fest.  I’ve been covering the fall event since its inception in the mid-2000s.  This is a piece I did on the eve of Lit Fest II.  I feature two of the featured authors from that year’s event, Jami Attenberg (Instant Love, The Kept Man) and Will Clarke (The Worthy).  The founder and primary organizer of the festival is Timothy Schaffert, who also happens to be one of America’s finest novelists (The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Coffins of Little Hope).  I expect I’ll be writing about Lit Fest 2012 come the fall.

 

Omaha Lit Fest, In praise of writers and their words:

Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The Sepember 15-16 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest will offer the literati such bookish delights as readings, panel discussions, an altered book exhibition and the performance of a play. Guest writers from near and far will talk craft. Artists will pay homage to the written word. This second annual fest is the brainchild of Omaha author Timothy Schaffert. He promises a “whoopdeedoo” both more streamlined and expanded than 2005’s version.

Held at venues in and around the Old Market, the festival emulates the kind of hip, bohemian salon happening that Schaffert, a former editor of The Reader, said one expects to find in a cosmo city with a lively underground press and lit scene.

“In some ways, the festival has become an extension of the alt weeklies I’ve worked on, conveying some of the same sensibilities,” he said. “I take all of this very seriously, but I don’t want the event to feel at all stuffy. As a matter of fact, I want it to seem almost dangerously informal. Events often want to appeal to the biggest number of people imaginable, and homogenization ultimately results. It’s not my mission to convert non-readers into readers. My mission is to give the small cult of passionate booklovers a chance to meet writers, and to learn about other writers.”

For this year’s shindig, Schaffert said “we have loosely applied a theme: the literary fringe, with panels on small-press publishing, blogging, literary sex, death on the plains and stretching the truth in memoir, among others. We also salute the vanished poet, cult figure and Nebraska native Weldon Kees, and show his rarely screened experimental short film, Hotel Apex.”

Schaffert said the fringe is an apt theme for a gathering of writers whose work doesn’t “quite fit in the mainstream” and who make “speaking the truth, speaking their minds” a priority. “Very few of us on the list are best-selling authors,” with the exception of Omahan Alex Kava, whom he said “nonetheless writes some grisly, edgy stuff. So we know well the experience of trying to balance expressing ourselves honestly and getting published and promoted.”

How does Schaffert define the fringe? “Writers writing about things that move them, rather than what the marketplace demands. Writers working in different forms, genres, stepping along the margins,” he said. “Several of our fiction and nonfiction writers, and our poets, are published by small presses; and even those writers published by commercial presses often have to struggle to get word out about their work, while also asserting an original voice. I think most of us at the literary festival are inspired by the notion of creating work that is challenging and intriguing to the reader, rather than just spoon-feeding readers more of the same.”

He said if there’s a lesson to be gleaned from those who toil on the fringe “trying to make their work fit into a publisher’s marketing scheme,” it is that these “writers take their own direction, deal with the frustration and keep writing.”

Festival web site musings showcase Schaffert’s satiric style and include a send-up of the proverbial product “warning” list: “Do not attend Lit Fest if you’re hemorrhaging, cranky, prone to touching strangers inappropriately without an invitation or wear large view-obstructing hats; Lit Fest has not been approved by the FDA, and may cause drowsiness in small children; enjoy in moderation, but overindulge freely.” Gentle readers welcomed.

Most fest events are free. For more details, go to www.omahalitfest.com.

Profiled here are two of the writers featured at this year’s Lit Fest:

Jami Attenberg

 

 

Jami Attenberg

Brooklyn-based Jami Attenberg travels to “out of the way places” to write. It’s no surprise then she’s spent the last few weeks in a residency program at Art Farm, a rural retreat for artists near Marquette, Neb., where she’s enjoyed her first real break from a recent book tour. Her debut collection of stories, Instant Love, charts with humor and candor the light-dark love journeys of three women, sisters Holly and Maggie and little girl lost Sarah Lee, over a two-decade period of experimentation, commitment, entanglement and self-realization.

Her soon-to-be-out new novel, The Kept Man, tells the story of a married woman whose artist husband is in a coma, the crucible that causes her to sell off his paintings one-by-one in order to keep him alive. In the process of elimination, the wife realizes her marriage isn’t what she thought it to be.

Attenberg feels she has something to say about the whole love trip. “I tend to fall in love in a sort of very temporary way very easily,” she said, “and I think that comes from living in New York and traveling, which I do.” With Instant Love “I guess I wanted to talk about the instant connection people can have and how each one of those connections is valuable, even if it’s fleeting.”

The author, whose work has appeared in Salon, Nylon, Print, the San Francisco Chronicle and Time Out New York, doesn’t pretend to dish out advice, but her own experiences in the game inform her very personal first book.

“When I think about love I think about an accumulation of things,” she said. “When I think about the person I might fall in love with there’s all these different qualities and all these different moments…and all those things are going to add up one day to just one person. So I guess I just wanted to kind of burrow a little bit into that.”

At readings she’s often asked what she’s learned about love. “What I can tell you,” she says, “is I understand what it takes to fall in love, but I have no understanding of what it takes to make a relationship work after that. The one thing I do know about making a relationship work is that it’s all about compromise. I’m terrible at compromise. I’ve certainly been in love and had good relationships and everything like that, but the book is not about how to make it work.”

She said men ask her, “Am I going to like this book as a guy?” She tells them, “No one gets off easy in this book. The women don’t get off easy and the men don’t get off easy. It’s honest about everybody.” She added, “It’s not like a I-Hate-Men book. I don’t think I would even say I’m cynical about love.”

The title is a wink and nod at people’s “tendency” to “fall in and out of love really quickly,” she said. In this disposable era of immediate gratification, lovers are dumped and replaced like old socks. She said we enter-exit trysts with the expectation “there’s always something better around the corner. And then, you know, with e-mail and IM and all these things to distract you from focusing on love, it’s amazing people can sort of work around it or integrate it to their lives.”

She can “definitely” imagine doing a book “in about 10 years” in which she checks back with Instant Love’s three female characters to “see how they’re doing.”

The book was originally a zine series and she expects to do a zine again next year. She touts the “many great small presses out there doing really cool things.” She said fringe publishers focus on authors “without having to worry about best-seller lists or large print runs. They know who their audience is.” The goal of Attenberg is to one day “work only on stuff I really enjoy…but you have to earn it, you have to constantly be working to get to that point, and I still have a long ways to go.”

Check out her blog at www.whatever-whenever.net or her web site at www.jamiattenberg.com.

Will Clarke

Dallas, Texas-based author Will Clarke skewers the college Greek fraternity system in his second novel The Worthy: A Ghost’s Story. For his narrator Clarke uses the dispossessed soul of a frat boy killed in a hazing fit of rage. It is through the eyes of Conrad, the dead Louisiana State University pledge, we witness the excesses of a tradition grown as corrupt as the humid air in Baton Rouge.

As an LSU grad who pledged Gamma Chi Clarke is well-schooled in the cruelties of frat life. As a Shreveport native he’s well-qualified to describe the clashes that result when the state’s jambalaya of cultures — the north half Pentecostal and dry, the south half Catholic and wet — collide on campus. “Those two worlds do not really jive and that makes for a really interesting mystical satire,” said Clarke, whose first novel, the originally self-published Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles, is a genre-busting foray into good old boy magic realism. Both novels are being adapted into feature films.

Clarke, who said “I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” recognized even as his college experience unfolded that he was getting fertile storytelling material. “I just remember paying very close attention and thinking this could be a book,” he said. He made a kind of running commentary in his head. “I’ve always found myself giving narration to events going on around me,” he said. “Even as I was going through all that stuff I was a bit detached, not unlike a ghost.”

He wrote The Worthy not long after leaving LSU and Louisiana for Dallas, the closest oasis he could make in his Ford Festiva. Again, not unlike his ghost protagonist who pines for his physical self, Clarke was “longing for a life that was left behind.”

Hazing baffled him then and continues to now. “Hazing always perplexed me,” he said. “I never understood why there was a baptism of fire that had to occur.” But he contends the tenets of this practice are widespread. “I think in any fraternity, in any place you have pledgeship, where you have to prove you’re worthy, there’s hazing. You can say there’s not, you can hope there’s not, but there is.”

Pranks that may seem like harmless fun, he said, can “turn out to be phenomenally dangerous” when performed by “hormonally-challenged” young men fueled by “binge drinking.” Clarke reserves his greatest disdain for Ryan, Conrad’s killer and a symbol of the alpha male type.

“He represents that idea of All-American malehood,” Clarke said. “On the outside he’s the male ideal…athletic, handsome, the big man on campus, but on the inside there’s something really dark and crazy going on. It’s very hidden. That’s kind of what goes on with a lot of fraternities. On the outside it looks like the golden handshake, but on the inside there’s something really dead and morbid. It makes all of these golden promises to guys but to get there you have to undergo abuse.

“I think sometimes the shinier the facade, the less trusting I am of things. This forced image of perfection Ryan has makes him scarier to me. It’s amazing to see what these respectable, perfect people do in those circumstances. It turns Lord-of-the-Flies pretty fast.”

Clarke, who sees the characters in his books as extensions of “the imaginary friends” he cultivated long past when “it was age-appropriate,” is at work on a new novel about a man who doesn’t sleep. No insomniac — the guy just doesn’t need to. After the grind of a recent book tour, which Clarke found too much “like selling Amway,” he’s found himself contemplating the nature of sleep or the lack of it.

Visit his web site at www.willclarke.com or www.booktourvirgin.com.

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