Archive for the ‘Omaha Lit Fest’ Category

Hispanic Authors-Artists Part of Omaha Lit Fest Experience

August 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Hispanic Authors-Artists Part of Omaha Lit Fest Experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (


The September 10-11, 2010 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest gathers authors and artists to investigate the theme Curiouser & Curiouser: The Book in Flux.

Some guests, like University of Nebraska-Lincoln Ph.D. candidate Sarah Chavez, are Hispanic, Others, like first-time festival panelist Peter Kuper of Manhattan, New York, are not, but explore Hispanic themes.

Nebraska native Belinda Acosta, the Latina author of two Quinceanera Club novels, was a panelist last year and the Austin, Texas resident would like to come back again.

Chavez, a Fresno, Calif. native poet, has completed a chapbook she’s expanding into a full-length volume. This will be her first Omaha Lit Fest. She read some of her original work at an August 26 preview. She looks forward to the fest, saying she’s “impressed” by the supportive literary community here and by the diversity and quality of writers presenting at area lit events.

In her poetry Chavez explores the working class character of Fresno. She also explores borders and boundaries of identity. Her father is a first generation Mexican-American migrant worker. As a girl she joined her father laboring in the fields. Her Irish-American mother comes from upper middle class roots.

Chavez said by phone, “I was always sort of aware of this transferring back and forth between cultures. My parents divorced fairly early on, so I was always going back and forth, crossing like city and cultural borders, learning you act like this in this environment but then you can act like this in this other environment.

“So I was always aware of this mobility and the tenuous nature of environment. I was also aware of being, like my sister and I joke, ‘half breeds.’ Because of that mix we’re able to pass in different areas. I go to minority programs and have cultural cachet as a Mexican there but then people don’t automatically assume I am of that heritage. I don’t quite fit, I don’t look like this but I don’t feel like this other group.”

She considers different cultural expectations attending Latinas or African-American women and white women. She examines what it means for women of color to move away from traditional domestic duties to inhabit professional and academic roles.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Political cartoonist and illustrator.Kuper anticipated a two-year siesta in Oaxaca, Mexico with his wife and daughter, but when a teachers’ strike there was violently put down by government forces, he went from casual tourist to engaged reporter. His visceral Diario de Oaxaca journal sketches and commentaries capture how nature and civilization, history and modernity, bounty and deprivation are intertwined there.

He prized playing the role of first-hand witness and participant. In a phone interview he said this active, intimate experience “made it feel we were inside of Mexico rather than standing on the edge regarding it from a slight distance.” He said when he first arrived he made up for his “lousy” Spanish by using his sketches to communicate with people, adding that his habit of walking the streets offered interactions that drew him deeper into local rituals and customs.

His work expresses the surreal-like quality of nature run riot amid a busy tourist trade, an oppressive regime, crushing poverty and citizen protests.

“It’s fascinating. I kept on feeling I was walking through a metaphor.”

Perhaps most striking to him is how people risk everything to oppose an unjust ruling class. He’s quite taken by the politicized street art there. He’s also impressed by how every day people make art an expressive part of their life, whether arranging flower and candle homages for Day of the Dead festivities or painting murals.

“There’s so much creating of art that goes on in daily life as a natural thing to do,” he said. “It really gives me a sense of art having purpose, enriching and playing a role.”

He said the whole experience shook him up artistically, putting him on a different track once he returned home.

“It challenged and opened me up to trying different approaches. I had to sort of reinvent myself with the new information.”

Acosta grew up in Lincoln. She was active in Omaha theater, helping found the Center Stage Theatre and touring a one-woman show on Midwestern Latinas, before attending the University of Texas at Austin to focus on writing.

A freelance journalist by trade, she’s a contributing writer for the Austin Chronicle and Texas Observer. Her books Damas, Dramas, and Ana Ruiz and Sisters, Strangers, and Starting Over chart family relationships within the backdrop of the quinceanera, which she finds ironic since she never had a quince herself. But she said she researched the coming-of-age celebration in preparation for her books.

She’s presently working on a new book set in Nebraska.

For event details, visit

Lit Fest delves into what we fear, how we relate in extremis

October 9, 2015 2 comments

By now, anyone familiar with the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest knows that it is the epicurious and somewhat eccentric run off from whatever spills out of the overactive mind of founder-director Timothy Schaffert, who just happens to be one of America’s finest novelists.  His intellect, imagination and interests run deep, as do that of his writer friends, and so every year he concocts a distinclty stimulating event that plays very much like his own personal salon.  His 2015 Lit Fest on October 16-17 at the downtown W. Dale Clark Library features, as always, a diverse collection of national, regional and local authors who will participate in panels moderated by Schaffert himself.  There are also exhibitions and other activities centered around literature. The theme for this fest is Nervosa: Science, Psyche & Body and that’s just both specfic and open-ended enough to give writers and readers alike a fertile field to play in.

Lit Fest delves into what we fear, how we relate in extremis

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared iin The Reader (

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 Schaffert’s 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?”


Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast

October 18, 2013 2 comments

It’s Omaha Lit Fest time again.  Chances are you didn’t even know Omaha had a literature festival but it does.  Nine years strong.  It’s all the brainchild of Omaha-based novelist Timothy Schaffert.  The 2013 edition brings authors together from near and far for panel discussions and shop talk.  There’s also a cool exhiibtion entitled Carnival of Souls that has top local designers showing their takes on cult movie posters..  It happens Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18 and 19, at the W. Dale Clark Library downtown.  I’m serving as a panelist on one panel and as a moderator for another panel.  Visit for details.  My story about Lit Fest is now appearing in The Reader (



Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast

Appeared in The Reader (

©by Leo Adam Biga


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 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

NOTE: Leo Adam Biga is the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. Read more of his work at




Leo Adam Biga, Author of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ to Serve as Panelist and Moderator at (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest

September 30, 2013 2 comments

Yours truly will be a panelist and a moderator at the 2013 Omaha Lit Fest, October 18-19, at the downtown W. Dale Clark Library.







Under the Skin:
Literary Obsessions & Cult Followings
Featured authors delve into their own preoccupations, nervous habits, bad influences and literary obsessions. Nationally acclaimed writers will discuss the appeal of dangerous characters, the danger of appealing characters, the experimental, the sentimental, the personal and the impersonal. Hosted by Omaha Public Library, the (downtown) omaha lit fest features author panel discussions, an art exhibit and an opening-night party.

FRIDAY, OCT 18, 6:30-9:30 pm
In a partnership with AIGA: Nebraska, (downtown) omaha lit fest kicks off on Friday night with A Carnival of Souls opening-night party & exhibit. Members of AIGA: Nebraska, a professional association of designers, will exhibit their own versions of classic movie posters from the golden age of low-budget horror and drive-in theater (think: Attack of the 50 Ft. WomanLittle Shop of HorrorsNight of the Living DeadMothra), in celebration of B-grade cult cinema, cheap thrills, exploitation and scary carnivals.  Among the authors in attendance is Owen King, whose debut novel Double Feature tells the story of fictional B-movie actor Booth Dolan.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 12:30 pm
Love/Hate: The villain as hero in contemporary fiction.
Moderator Annasue Wilson kicked off a national debate earlier with a 2013 controversial interview in Publishers Weekly on the topic of whether literary characters should be likable. Annasue will explore this topic with Lit Fest authors: Carolyn Turgeon, whose The Fairest of Them All tells the story of a fairy-tale heroine-turned-villain; Monica Drake, whose The Stud Book is “the freshest look at the tyranny of the baby bump since Rosemary got pregnant,” according to Chelsea Cain; Alissa Nutting, whose Tampa was declared the “sickest, most controversial book of the summer” by Cosmopolitan; and Kelly Braffet, whose Save Yourself is “an electrifying tomahawk missile of a thriller with honest-to-God people at its core,” according to Dennis Lehane.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 1:30
Obsessed: Research and biography.
Authors discuss the rigorous, obsessive (and sometimes unhealthy) pursuit of their subjects. Panelists: Author and journalist Leo Adam Biga (Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film), who’s long followed the career of the Oscar-winning filmmaker and visited the set of Nebraska; Mary K. Stillwell, whose The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser is the first critical biography to consider the poet’s life and work together; Owen King, who researched Double Feature by watching hours and hours of horror films and is now furthering his obsession with baseball; and Timothy Schaffert, whose forthcoming novel The Swan Gondola involved full immersion into 1898 Omaha.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 2:30
Experiments: Writing around the mainstream.
Authors talk about risk, invention, small-press publishing, dangerous subjects and the literary underground. Panelists include: Elwin Cotman, author of Jack Daniels Sessions EP: A Collection of Fantasies; Brion Poloncic, author of Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics; and Thom Sibbitt, who explores sex, death and drugs in his novel The Turnpike.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 3:30
Cinematic: Movies as subject, inspiration, and influence.
Leo Adam Biga, whose extensive journalism about Alexander Payne is the basis of his book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, moderates a panel on how movies shape a novelist’s vision. Panelists: Owen King; Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl (optioned for film by Kristen Wiig); Carolyn Turgeon, whose novel Mermaid has been optioned for film; and Sean Doolittle, recently involved with the development of an adaptation of his thriller The Cleanup.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 4:30
Trigger Warnings:
Our semi-annual “writing about sex” panel. Panelists: Alissa Nutting, whose Tampa centers on a sexual deviant; Kelly Braffet, whose first novel was written with a “restraint” that “lends the novel a prim mystery, deepening its creepy intensity,” according to the New York Times; and Elwin Cotman, who is a “synthesizer… of lewd dialect and high lyricism,” according to Karen Russell.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 5:30
Book signings by lit fest authors.

For more details, visit

Omaha Lit Fest puts focus on Women Writers and Women in Publishing

October 6, 2012 7 comments

There’s nothing else quite like the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest in these parts.  Oh, there’s plenty of literary events to go around, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something as quirky as this annual assemblage of writerly concerns and pursuits.  The wording of this year’s theme, The Lit Fest Guide to Etiquette for Women Writers, is in keeping with the sardonic leanings of novelist and event founder-director Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope).  The October 19-2o festival just goes its own way in following whatever trail of thought and literary trend that suits the quixotic Schaffert.  He brings in a great lineup of authors and artists every year for never less than interesting conversations and presentations about all things related to writing, editing, publishing.  It’s well worth checking out.



Omaha Lit Fest puts focus on Women Writers and Women in Publishing 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (


It should be no surprise the author of languidly paced satirical novels (The Coffins of Little Hope) that delight in peculiar, piquant details should fashion a literary happening along the same lines.

Novelist Timothy Schaffert has done just that with the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, a free celebration of prose, poetry and other word-made-art expressions.

He founded Lit Fest eight years ago and continues organizing the annual literary salon today. This year’s event luxuriates in its delightful otherness Friday and Saturday, October 19 and 20, at the W, Dale Clark Library, where there will be a gender-centric focus to the readings, panels, topics and performances.

The 6:30-9:30 p.m. opening night party promises local female slam poets unleashing from 7 to 7:30, an altered books exhibit, an edible books contest and an all-girl string quartet.

Well-attuned as Schaffert is to literary currents he hit upon 2012’s theme – The Lit Fest Guide to Etiquette for Women Writers – after reading about disparities females face in publishing.

Featured guest authors Elizabeth Crane (We Only Know So Much), Lisa Knopp (What the River Carries), Marilyn Coffey (Marcella) and Joy Castro (Hell or High Water) will no doubt have plenty to say on the matter.

With Great Plains writer Coffey and Cuban-American academy product Castro Schaffert’s attracted two authors squarely in the Zeitgeist.

Coffey’s 1973 novel Marcella broke ground and generated push back for its frank depiction of female masturbation. The book was banned in America, though Quartet in London published it in paperback. Pol and Ms. Magazine excerpted it. Danish newspapers serialized it. Now it’s being republished in book form by Omega Cottonwood Press in Omaha, along with a collection of Coffey’s poems, Pricksongs.

Marcella was a featured work during National Banned Book Week events in Omaha, including a marathon reading at the Benson Branch Library.

At Lit Fest Coffey’s slated to be on the Saturday, 5 p.m. panel Your Guide to Unladylike Demeanor that examines “women writers making people nervous.”

Meanwhile, Castro’s debut novel Hell or High Water is drawing praise for her ability to sustain a taut thriller amid a complex subject and to evocatively exploit its New Orleans setting. The University of Nebraska associate professor of English and ethnic studies also has a book of personal essays out, Island of Bones, eliciting rapturous praise.

Liz Kay of Spark Wheel Press and burtdistrict in Omaha will address the entrepreneurial publishing scene. New Yorker Festival director Rhonda Sherman will discuss building an audience for the literary spectacle.


Timothy Schaffert


All of it’s filtered through the perspective of women engaged in a lit world not always friendly to them. Recent counts by the women in literary arts organization VIDA show far more men than women published in leading literary publications. That concerns Schaffert enough that he’s making it a point of public discussion.

“If the VIDA Count had not come into existence I might not have even been aware of the disparity, but it really kind of commands attention,” says Schaffert, an UNL assistant professor of English and director of the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference.

He doesn’t doubt women writers confront bias.

“Obviously some editors are going to focus on that work that crosses their desk that seems most vital and other editors aren’t necessarily going to have the best ear for writing by the opposite sex. And I think for decades there’s been some level of condescension towards the subjects women writers take on. There’s some sense of what women’s writing is that may or may not be based on anything authentic in terms of the assumptions people make about the topics of interest to women.

“I’ve heard of editors be dismissive of a story by nature of its topic as too domestic, for example, or too focused on the sentimental, as if that denigrated the work somehow.”

Castro says VIDA, whose creative nonfiction committee she serves on, has been “working to figure out all kinds of ways to address this, in some cases publishing essays about it,” adding, “In my case I got involved with guest editing an issue of a really cool online journal, Brevity Magazine, that’s responding to that count.”

She says her own anecdotal observations have long made her sensitive to the paucity of minority authors published in select periodicals (The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker) “that determine who’s a big deal and who’s not.” The VIDA breakout, she says, confirmed “it’s not just my imagination.” She says when editors are called out on the disparity they either deny a gender-based agenda or agree to proactively strive for more balance.


Joy Castro




Castro will join Kay, Knopp and Sherman for a 1 p.m. Saturday panel on the professional aspects of writing, editing and publishing. She’s interested in exploring how it is more women writers come out of MFA programs than men do yet fewer get published.

“So there’s like this attrition,” she says. “Then where do they all go? Why don’t they continue to write and publish? It’s a good question. I hope people will come out and talk about it and have a really exploratory attitude about it.”

That said, Castro and many other women authors fare well getting their work out and finding it well-received. Her Hell or High Water (Thomas Dunne Books) is a good illustration. The widely released book has been called “exquisite,” “fierce and intense,” “captivating.” Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) termed it “a terrific thriller.”

The book”s been optioned by film producers and Castro’s already working on a sequel. She’s excited that her Cuban-American protagonist, Nola, may headline a mystery series because the genre rarely features Latinas or issues of Latinidad.

Nola, a green Times-Picayune reporter assigned to investigate what happened to the registered sex offenders who went off the grid after Hurricane Katrina, serves much the same role a detective does in classic mystery tradition.

“That’s the story she gets assigned and she’s reluctant because it’s kind of creepy. But it’s sort of her first big break as a journalist, so she goes after it and of course gets in a lot of trouble,” says Castro.

“In the first chapter a young woman tourist is abducted from the French Quarter and that mystery is going on at the same time and Nola starts to investigate that as well and then the two stories intertwine.”

Much as Castro did in her own life, Nola comes from poverty and feels pressured to hide her past and prove herself. Castro’s interest in legendary archetypes comes into play when Nola intersects with believers in the Cajun legend rougarou, which warns of a person normal by day but predatory at night. Santeria spirits also show up. By the end, Nola calls on whatever powers she can muster to protect herself.

Best known before this for her nonfiction essay collection The Truth BookHow I Survived a Childhood of Abuse Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Castro will read from her novel and discuss her research in a 2 p.m. Saturday program.

About choosing to write a genre book for her first novel, she says, “I guess I would have anticipated I would write a literary fiction kind of novel, but I have always loved mysteries and thrillers. In deciding what to write this was the genre I got most excited about and the story seemed to keep suggesting itself to me and so I listened and paid attention and started writing.

“Writing a novel was new for me. I went through a lot of drafts. I was a slow learner.”

For event details visit

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Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest brings writers, artists and readers together in celebration of the written word

June 19, 2012 7 comments

Why I post what I post when I post it is sometimes a mystery even to myself.  The subject of this story, the Omaha Lit Fest, doesn’t happen again until the fall and in this case the piece is about the very first fest from several years ago.  But that’s precisely the point of my quirky blog: to get my work out there regardless of when I wrote it because, well, I feel like it.  Besides, a good read is a good read no matter whether its story currency is in the here and now or in the past.  All that’s relevant is whether the story holds your interest or not.  I trust this will.  Anyway, I’m quite partial to the festival and its founder-director, novelist Timothy Schaffert, and his offbeat sensibilities.  From the start, his fest has found exceedingly clever ways to consider literature in panels, readings, exhibitions, and performances.  I look forward to writing about this year’s event and you can be sure I’ll be posting that story in the fall.










Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest brings writers, artists and readers yogether in celebration of the written word

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


When the inaugural Downtown Omaha Lit Fest “turns the pages” for the first time September 16 and 17 in the Old Market, it will unloose a roster of star scribes discoursing their work and offer a whimsical schedule of events, some predictable, some not, in celebration of the written word.

Recognizing the breadth of written expression, the festival does not play favorites, except for a preponderance of Nebraska writers, by embracing a sampler format exploring literature in all its variegated forms, minus such distinctions as “high” or “low” lit. When all is said and done, the event may just help unassuming Omaha finally shake off the last vestiges of the “aw-shucks” mentality dogging it all these years to assert its claim as a genuine cultural hotbed.

To the casual eye, Nebraska may lack the cache of a hip, plugged-in literary hub. But as even a cursory reading of festival participants’ credits reveals, there is a confluence of literary work connected to this place, by writers born or transplanted here or moved away, penning across a wide range of media and genres and, in many cases, writing about Nebraska, that compares favorably with any region’s collective body of work. The novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, scenarists, playwrights and so forth scheduled to give readings and participate in panel discussions represent some of the best contemporary practitioners of literary writing, period.

Then there’s the fact Nebraska writers are hot right now. Natives Michael Rips (The Face of a Naked Lady), Sean Doolittle (Burn) and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) are just killing it with their new works. Former Omaha radio DJ Otis Twelve is riding high after winning Britain’s Lit Idol contest for his novel On the Albino Farm and a Kurt Vonnegut prize for one of his short stories. Alexander Payne shared an Oscar for scripting his critical-commercial hit Sideways. Gerald Shapiro’s published collection Bad Jews and Other Stories served as the basis for the well-received film King of the Corner, whose screenplay he adapted with actor-director Peter Riegert. Ted Kooser is the reigning U.S. Poet Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. They’re joined by stalwarts Richard Dooling (White Man’s Grave), Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), Kurt Andersen (Turn of the Century), Brent Spencer (Are We Not Men?), Susan Aizenberg (Peru) and many others in creating a vibrant literary pulse here.

Fest founder Timothy Schaffert is himself a major new voice on the national lit front between his first published novel The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2003), which earned high praise, and his forthcoming The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005).

”It just seems there’s something about the writing of people in and from Nebraska that’s entering the national consciousness in a way that’s pretty huge. Alexander Payne won his award for writing Sideways, a movie that’s shaped pop culture and continues to do so. Conor Oberst has won a great deal of attention for his songwriting, as have other songwriters from here. There’s a fantastic poetry scene here. And there’s Ted Kooser, of course. So, there’s definitely some energy and some excitement about proclaiming Omaha as a cultural center. And it’s organic, too,” Schaffert said, rather than some glommed-on movement imported here or some fabricated event dreamed up by pricey consultants.

To be sure, this grassroots deal grew out of Omaha’s own literary community with a “Let’s-put-on-a-show” zeal for showcasing some of its best and brightest talents.









No less a cultural observer than Kurt Andersen, the Omaha born, New York-based satirist behind Spy magazine and public radio’s Studio 360, sees a rich lit stew brewing from his vantage point a coast away, where he’s coming from for the fest.

”It’s always been clear to me a youth spent in Nebraska correlates strongly with good writing later on, i.e. Willa Cather, Weldon Kees, Ron Hansen, Meghan Daum, Michael Rips, et cetera. However, when I was a kid in the ‘60s in Omaha, and former Nebraskan Ted Sorenson infamously said, more or less, Nebraska was a place to leave or a place to die, I took note, and left. But today with novelists like Richard Dooling and Timothy Schaffert doing their great work in Omaha, it seems to me it’s become a place for writers to live and not necessarily leave. In other words, from 1500 miles away the literary culture looks fairly healthy to me.”

Schaffert feels the props coming native writers way speak well for the area’s cultural currency and confirms, as Andersen said, this is a place where one can make it happen. “Each and every one of them are bringing great prestige to Omaha as a city of writers, which is what I think it’s becoming,” said Schaffert.

Omaha Public Library director Rivkah Sass applauds “the model” Schaffert’s come up with for the fest. “It’s quirky and edgy and fun and interesting and will open people’s eyes to what’s going on here, which is a literary scene that’s alive and wonderful, and I find that very exciting,” she said. She sees the event as a “convergence” of the arts that posits the library as a major cultural access point and center. “There’s every reason why Omaha should have a great library and why the library should be part of any number of great cultural events,” Schaffert said. “It’s been a great fit.”

The fest’s design of readings and panels interspersed with mixed media performances and exhibits interpreting literary works, all held in the center of the arts community, is the kind of Bohemian street fair once only associated with more cosmo burgs like Denver, Minneapolis or Chicago. But as more and more Omahans have begun saying — If they do it there, then why not here? — there’s a growing synergy underway that sees cool, indigenous developments, some already in place and others on the drawing board, breaking out on the local music, film, theater, art and literary scenes. These are the very elements that will help sustain and enliven the 24/7 downtown/riverfront lifestyle environment soon to take shape via Omaha’s planned urban condo, mixed-use neighborhoods.








The Lit Fest is right in line with the homegrown indie music phenomenon, led by Saddle Creek Records, making Omaha a pop culture reference point and pilgrimage stop. It’s part of the emerging cinema colony that has new film projects popping up every few weeks, the inaugural Omaha Film Festival slated for March and the Film Streams art movie house coming to No Do next summer. It complements the wide art experience available at the Hot Shops, Bemis, Kaneko, Joslyn and the town’s many diverse galleries. It spins off the lively theater scene, where funky new works, Broadway road shows and the classics can be had. Ambitious new theater projects in the offing promise bringing artists of national stature to area stages. That’s not to mention the new Holland Performing Arts Center and the leap it represents in local music hall aesthetics.

All this has traditionally self-effacing Omaha coming out of its shell. As large as area contributions are to jazz, blues, R & B, soul, gospel and indie folk/rock, Nebraska’s impact on the literary world is far greater. Such giants as John Neihardt, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, Karl Shapiro, Loren Eiseley and Ron Hansen called Nebraska home. The Prairie Schooner published by the University of Nebraska is one of the oldest, most prestigious literary journals in the world. The creative writing and English programs at UNL, UNO and Creighton are well-regarded and staffed by leading literary figures in their own right.

The fest’s lineup of active writers with Nebraska ties is a who’s-who of the state’s deep talent pool. ”Nebraska’s always had a strong literary heritage,” Schaffert said, “but it seems like it’s at its strongest perhaps since Willa Cather’s time. It may be even stronger.”

Some of Nebraska’s finest writers will miss the event, such as writer-director Payne, who’s off in Paris shooting a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, and novelist Ron Hansen, whose book The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is being filmed as a big screen western starring Brad Pitt. Regrettable as their absence is, the fest is bringing passionate writers and readers together in what should be an intimate, invigorating forum that’s all about sharing the love.

”It’s definitely a celebration of the written word and the writing process,” Schaffert said. “But with sort of a central focus on writers with some Nebraska or Midwestern connection. And I always want it to be kind of that way, you know. I want writers that speak to the voice of the Midwest or the Great Plains or the Greater Plains, or whatever we’re in.”

Future fests may add workshops and venues and run an entire weekend, he said. He’s steering the event free of the elitist imprimatur of, say, a university-museum sponsored conference or the drab propriety of a school or rotary reading, while still making it a serious gathering of litniks.

”I wanted to create an opportunity for writers to meet their readership in a way that is a little more festive, a little more sophisticated. So many times when you’re asked to read someplace, you’ll be reading under fluorescent lights in classrooms. I mean, to have any opportunity to present your work is great, but I thought it’d be cool to do it in the Old Market, in the gallery spaces, and to be able to have something to eat and to make it a more casual atmosphere. As well as great writers, Omaha has great resources and spaces to do that sort of thing in.”

Schaffert is a regular at the Nebraska Book Festival, a rather dowdy affair held mostly in back water venues long on scholarly rigor and short on impromptu charm, and while he appreciates the event, it’s a drag and it largely ignores contemporary fiction writers in favor of literary ghosts.

“Its focus has always seemed to me to be literary history. Willa Cather and Wright Morris…which is all extremely important, but I think sometimes the contemporary fiction writers end up kind of like afterthoughts. So that was something that after last year’s event novelist John McNally (The Book of Ralph) and I talked about. There was some conversation about how there could be a different kind of, maybe more urban event that was actually in more the heart of the city as opposed to a university campus. I wanted something that incorporated a variety of genres, that was relaxed and that was in my favorite part of the city, which is a lot of people’s favorite part of the city,” Schaffert said.

Another motivation, he added, was to provide a forum for fiction writers free of the hidebound, institutional restraints that make readings an awkward affair for writers and audiences alike. “Where poetry is very conducive to being read aloud, fiction reading — at the very mention of it — has this sort of feeling of having to sit through something and pay attention and show appreciation.”

Making it a folksy, communal gig will hopefully overturn notions of cranky, head-in-the-clouds writers reciting things beyond the reach of mortals.

”In reality, the stereotype of the crabby, solitary writer does not fit most of the people I know,” he said. “They’re gregarious, interesting, lively, charming, witty people that are great to hang out with. And they’ll all be reading and discussing their work in sessions that I’m sure will really sort of pop as people have the opportunity to come out behind their typewriters and go into the nuts and bolts.”

It’s not hard for him to imagine aspiring writers in the crowd hanging on their literary icons’ every word, as it wasn’t long ago he was an acolyte himself.

“I know when I was starting out writing at UNL in the writing program, they would bring writers in and we would literally sit at their feet. We’d go to their readings and then we’d see them in the classroom and then we might hang out with them at a party afterwards. You wanted every opportunity to soak up their presence and get a sense of the literary life. I don’t know if young writers are still like that, but it sure seems to make sense that an event like this could be a great opportunity to feel a little closer to the process and to the literary world in a way you don’t often get the opportunity to experience.”

New York author Liza Ward, who will read from her Outside Valentine, a novel about the Starkweather killing spree that claimed, among others, her grandparents, said even established writers like herself benefit from the interaction. “There is always something to learn from other writers, and because we tend to work alone, it is hard to connect with other people who understand what it’s like to face the blank screen every day — to invent something out of nothing and call it a job. It’s also nice to be around people who think books are important,” she said.

Gerald Shapiro, who teaches at UNL, said, “On the whole, being a writer is a lonely business. You don’t get to talk to people about what you’re doing and you certainly don’t get to hear people’s reactions to your work, so it’s a wonderful thing Timothy’s doing.”

It’s not only a chance for writers to interact with each other and the public, but for readers to discover writers and works for the first time.

“I’ve heard from a few people that they’ve been using the list of participants as like a summer reading list, and that’s exactly the point of the whole thing — all of us getting together and just letting people know that these writers and artists and works are out there for the taking. I love hearing that,” Schaffert said.

As for writers, it’s a chance to catch up or meet for the first time. Doug Wesselmann, better known as Otis Twelve, looks forward to renewing ties with Ward, Kava and Rips and getting to know  “a favorite” — Andersen. O.T. is enough of a rising star to be an invited panelist on the crime writing panel, Criminal Behavior, and enough of a beginner that he’ll be an eager fly on the wall.

”I hope I can reveal just how amusing a book about crime can be and how deadly serious humor is at its heart. It will be good to hook up with writers working in my genre. Crime writers are, in my experience, a collegial lot. But, listen…I’m a rookie in this game, and I expect to pick up a few pointers – read: ‘steal stuff’. I expect I’ll learn more than I’ll impart”.

Andersen will read from his just finished Wonderstruck, a period novel partially set in what is now Omaha. He’ll also expound on writing funny for the panel Drink and Be Merry. His advice to would-be satirists?

”If you’re funny, let yourself be funny in your writing sometimes. But if you’re not, don’t force it. And writing doesn’t have to be either funny or very serious,” Andersen said. “My favorite things tend to be both.”

What does a lit fest really have to do with anything? Ward said, “A literary festival speaks to the fact the book will never die. There will always be loyalists who support good writing, who understand that it is fundamentally important. It will be wonderful and encouraging to be around so many people who make literature a part of their lives.” Andersen views it as a kind of rally for the lit crowd. “People who fever for good writing need to come together and celebrate that fever now and then, especially in places where there are fewer writers-per-capita than in, say, New York City. And I feel eager enough to be part of this iteration of that group hurrah to buy an airplane ticket and come.”

Out-of-town headliners like Andersen and Ward are coming on their own dime, too, as Schaffert’s “just above zero budget” precludes any air fare, lodging or honorarium support. If they can do it, then locals have no excuse not to show. Besides, there are cool opening and closing night parties to make like F. Scott and Zelda at. It’s a good cause, too, So, c’mon down and get your lit groove on.

Check out the full schedule of events and list of participants at


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

June 19, 2012 1 comment

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 (


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

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 or her web site at

Will Clarke


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 or

Omaha Lit Fest: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like”

October 7, 2011 14 comments

Seven years ago the quirky (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest began, and as an arts-culture writer here I’ve found myself writing about it and some of its guest authors and their work pretty much every year. The following piece for The Reader ( is a preview of the 2011 edition, whose guests include Terese Svoboda (Bohemian Girl) and Rachel Shukert (Everything is Going to be Fine). The festival’s founder and director, novelist Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope), is the subject, along with the event, of several articles on this blog. If you’re a local and you have never done the fest, then shame on you. Make sure you do this time around. If you happen to be visiting during its Oct. 13-15 run then make sure you check it out and experience a sophisticated side of Omaha that may be new to you. Sure, this kind of thing is not for everyone, but it’s a fortifying intellectual exercise you’ll be glad you did. Besides, it’s free, most of it anyway. This year is a bit different in that I’m serving on a panel of local arts-culture writers discussing our role in framing Omaha’s arts scene, including its artists and art oganizations.

Apert from the Lit Fest, this blog also contains many more articles on authors and books of all kinds. Go to the books category on the right and discover the many writers and works I’ve been fortunate enough to report on and read.




(downtown) Omaha Lit Fest poster 2011



Omaha Lit Fest: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


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, 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’s mind, the Fest includes panels, exhibitions, salons and workshops that feature 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 ecstatic reviews, and Rachel Shukert, now at work on two new 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 it’s 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. 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,” Schaffert says with an ironic lilt in his laugh.

He quotes Abraham Lincoln to sum up the event’s cognoscenti appeal: “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”

Mention how the programs feel peculiarly personal to him, Schaffert says, “It doesn’t always come together perfectly, but, yeah, I definitely try to shape it.” Ask if he pulls the strings behind the curtain, he says, “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 pretty much conceptualizes the show himself is a function 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, which just bought 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 the local lit culture. Shukert appreciates the effort. She doesn’t recall a visible Omaha lit scene when she lived here, saying, “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.”

She says, “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. 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 Neb. 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.


Terese Svoboda



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 I know 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 own prairie growing up.

“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 Neb., 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. 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 all 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 awoke her to 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, along with fellow writers, will share thoughts about craft during a 2-5 p.m. salon at the library earlier 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.”

While Svoboda insists her process is not appreciably different writing novels than it is poems, Shukert says, “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.”



Rachel Shukert


Writing is one thing. Getting published, another. Conventional publishing is still highly competitive. Self-publishing though 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.

Shukert says, “I feel like there’s more of an appetite to write than ever before but is there the same appetite to read? 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,” she adds. “there was a sort of curatorial process that I think is slowly falling apart. 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 then 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 thats 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 6:30-9:30 at the library, Enjoy cupcakes, champagne and a pair of art exhibits.

For the complete Lit Fest schedule, visit



Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at


Being Jack Moskovitz: Grizzled former civil servant and DJ, now actor and fiction author, still waiting to be discovered

September 5, 2011 5 comments

Writer Jack Moskovitz is like the comic strip character with a dark cloud over him wherever he goes, always seemingly in a blue mood no matter the situation. I first laid eyes on him as he kvetched from his writer panelist perch at the Omaha Lit Fest. He looked and sounded like a character from gritty crime or hard-boiled fiction. I sought out some of his own work as an author, and not surprisingly his short fiction reads on the page much like the man reads in life. That is to say it’s thick with gloomy irony but make not mistake about it, the man can write. The following profile I did of Jack for the Jewish Press takes an unvarnished look at the man and his peccadillos and idiosyncrancies, moods and laments.

Being Jack Moskovitz:

Grizzled former civil servant and DJ, now actor and fiction author, still waiting to be discovered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press


Jack Moskovitz long ago concluded his writing, like his acting or DJing, wouldn’t put him on Easy Street. That’s OK, you tell him. The mere fact you do write and write well is something to be proud of. He points out he’s only published by small vanity presses. That his book sells and royalty checks amount to little or nothing. Not important, you explain. Talent is talent, and you’ve got it, Jack. Thanks, he says, before launching into a riff about still being an obscure author after 60 years and how he’s destined to remain unknown.

Like the world-weary souls who schlep through his hard-boiled fiction, the Omaha native takes a cynic’s view of life. He reminds you of Rodney Dangerfield with his deadpan “I don’t get no respect” gripes and self-deprecating cracks about “my hunched back, my wide feminine hips and my flabby body.” The retired civil servant bends your ear about supposed failures and slights — unpublished manuscripts, lost parts and so on. He doesn’t mention his well-reviewed novellas, short stories and plays or that he’s been an invited reader and panelist at the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. He does acknowledge the event’s founder/director, renowned author Timothy Schaffert (Devils in the Sugar Shop), “has been in my corner.”

Instead of enjoying his inclusion among Omaha’s literati, Jack talks about “not being in their class.” “I’m the kind of guy that’s whistling in the dark and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “Just like I thought I could have a career as a writer just because I loved to write. But it’s like a steer wanting to sire off-spring: the desire might be there but because of certain limitations the steer can’t.”

“Every time I feel sorry for myself it comes out in my writing,” he said.

He also takes a bleak view of his work as a character actor in local community theater, this despite working with some of Omaha’s finest players and directors since the mid-1950s. He still bristles with resentment over the late Charles Jones’s refusal to cast him at the Omaha Community Playhouse. But as recently as last spring he played four parts — a judge, a reporter, a physicist and a tourist — in the Playhouse’s Give ‘Em Hell Harry, one of dozens of plays he’s acted in there and on other stages. As soon as Harry closed he went into rehearsals for the Blue Barn Theatre’s Six Degrees of Separation, in which he did a funny turn as a doorman.

He’s had on-screen bits as well, including as “featured atmosphere” in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth and a scene-stealing cameo as a cross-dressing grandfather in Jeremy Lerman’s Nebraska Supersonic. But to hear Moskovitz tell it his film work doesn’t amount to much. He says the same thing about his decades-long career in radio, a field that saw him work as an announcer-DJ for stations in Omaha and Lincoln. He was good enough to work for some of this market’s top call letters — KOIL, WOW — yet he ruminates over lost chances.

Acerbic and neurotic in an Oscar Levant sort of way, Moskovitz, 72, compulsively sells himself short and finds a dark cloud in every silver lining. He speculates his depressive nature is “in-born, and all it takes is just a little push.” He suggests he’s never really gotten over losing his father as a teenager. The death, he says, devastated his mother, who “had a complete physical collapse” and depended on Jack to help her out. When she passed, the last semblance of family went with her, as he and his two brothers suffered a falling out that never mended.

“The dissolution of a family is exactly what happened,” he said. “I went through four years of depression, which writing helped alleviate to a degree.”

In truth, he said, the fissures in his family were always present. He felt apart, not just from them but from society. “I am estranged from just about every unit or community I tried to be part of. I’m always on the outside,” he said. “There’s a panoramic photograph from a family picnic back in the late 1940s and, stage right, who’s this guy standing all by himself? Me.”

His radio work offered a sanctuary. “Radio was kind of like the glue that held everything together. It got me out of the house,” he said.

It’s only after you spend some time with him you understand his bitter jags are just Jack being Jack. He kvetches not so much to wallow in self-pity or elicit sympathy, as to frame the world for his sardonic stories. His terse style is inspired by pulp fiction and its tradition of gritty action and gloomy sensibilities. His titles, The Tuxedo Square Job and Feast of the Purple Beast, are in keeping with the genre. Jack himself is the model for his cranky, Guy Noirish protagonists. Like him, they’re wise-cracking figures with a chip on their shoulder and a thankless task to perform.

His hand-to-mouth characters are habitues of flophouses, dive bars, diners, after- hours joints and dead-end jobs, all of which he’s familiar with from personal experience. Once a heavy drinker, he knows the despair of the bottle. He’s had his share of women, too, and therefore is on intimate terms with the emptiness of one night stands and the loneliness of mornings after. The hard road he’s traveled has given him insight into what it means to hustle, scrape by and see dreams fade away.

That’s not to say Jack or his work is all dour. Indeed, he and his characters engage in the kind of witty, edgy repartee Dorothy Parker and her vicious set went in for, only his verbal sparring matches unfold at the corner cafe, not the Algonquin. In the last decade he’s found a measure of calm with his companion Johnnie Mae Hawkins, a voracious reader like him. She’s also a writer. Besides their shared love of words, the two are fellow travelers in another way — as outsiders.

He’s Jewish, she’s African-American. He confronted anti-Semitism here, she endured racism down South, where the Arkansas native was of the last generation to pick cotton in the fields. She sharecropped alongside her folks, doing backbreaking labor unfit for man or beast. Based on her recollections of those times he wrote a poignant poem called The Voiding Tree.

Late in life these two seemingly disparate people found each other as kindred spirits do and they’re not about to let each other go now.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting her,” he said. “She’s a very sweet-natured woman. Very understanding, very considerate, very helpful, even in my writing. Dependable, loyal. You know, everything I never found in a woman.”

His recent books feature the dedication: “To Johnnie Mae Hawkins, who likes thrift shops, kittens, and me.”

Until she came along, he admits his taste in women left much to be desired. “They weren’t the kind of women you brought home to mother,” he said. “In my glory days it was the beginning of the sexual revolution where you locked your valuables in  your car and carried just enough money for the night. It was just like Frank Sinatra sang, ‘Strangers in the Night,’ and still strangers the next day.”

One relationship, with an actress, ended badly. “I fell for her. I really fell for her,” he said. But then he learned her declarations of “I love you, I need you” were mere lines she practiced on him in order to seduce the man she was really after. “It was just really bad melodrama…bad soap opera.”

After years of abusing alcohol, he long ago cleaned up his act.

“I haven’t had a drink in, what is it, 45-50 years. I was getting to the point where I was looking forward to losing myself in…things like Screwdrivers and Vodka Collins. I used to drink when I was really feeling kind of happy, but then I found myself drinking more when I wasn’t happy, which was most of the time. That’s when I stopped. I changed jobs and dropped the lady I was seeing at the time and kind of got some other things taken care of. I just had no more need for it. “

Growing up, he often felt things spinning out of control and the solitary pursuits of reading-writing-acting were escapes into worlds of his own dominion.

“When you’re the only Jews in a Catholic neighborhood, that’s really tough,” he said. “Back then, there wasn’t this liberal bent. These blue collar guys living here didn’t have any use for Jews or any minorities. If you weren’t Catholic, forget about it. If you were Protestant, that was almost as bad as being a Jew. So it was very unpleasant…the Jew bashing.

“When you have the insularity of a family you get a sense of security, even though you know when you walk out the door somebody’s going to throw something at you. In fact, a good day for me…was not having hard objects hurled at me. A good day was when all that was hurled at me was invective.‘Jew boy.’ Geez, I don’t know how the hell I survived that, but I did.”

The sense of injury Moskovitz carries around with him was exacerbated when he saw his father, a restaurant fixture sales manager, get demoted and take a pay cut.

“We were in a helluva fix,” Jack said.

His father later partnered with others to start their own supply house, but soon thereafter Bert Moskovitz fell ill. “The cancer got him,” is how Jack puts it. Rabbi Myer Kripke officiated at his father’s and mother’s funerals at old Beth El Synagogue, just as he did at Jack and his brothers’ bar mitzvahs.

Jack was 14 when his father died and to help make ends meet he went to work for one grocery store after another, cleaning, stocking, bagging, delivering, whatever needed doing. His mother worked at Hayden’s Department Store.

With few friends, Jack slipped increasingly into his interior life. He’s never married. He has no kids. “It’s been a lonely life,” he said. His imagination was fired by the stories that transfixed him on radio, the stage, in the movies and in books.

Moskovitz was fated to be a writer when, as a child, he steeped himself in the “beautiful library” his immigrant grandparents kept at home. The library contained the complete works of Dickens, O Henry, Sir Walter Scott, et cetera. There were full-length play scripts. He read it all.

“That’s where I would do my reading,” he said. “It was something I looked forward to doing.”

His creative side was nurtured by his mother, who played violin “beautifully,” he said. She’d trained on the instrument and could read music. He still has her violin and the original case for it and displays them on the dining room table. Also, his older brother, Mayer, brought him to plays. Jack adored musical theater. Mere blocks from where he grew up was the original Omaha Community Playhouse site at 40th and Davenport, where he saw many productions

But, always, there were books. Piles of books surround he and Johnnie Mae today.

As a young man he devoured coming-of-age classics like the Signet edition of Catcher in the Rye and the Studs Lonigan trilogy and he found his niche in the spare, masculine style of Ernest Hemingway, Mickey Spillane, James Jones, Leon Uris, Richard Prather, John MacDonald, Vin Packer and others. His work betrays the influence, too, of realists Raymond Carver, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.

“They all wrote in a fast-paced, very terse style and each word was carefully chosen,” he said. “It whips along.”

He strives for the same efficiency of language.

“I write the flabby prose on the first draft and then I go take each sentence and try to telescope it. I weed out chunks.”

He began writing stories and plays way back at Saunders Elementary School, just up the block from the stucco house he grew up in and occupies today in the Cathedral neighborhood. His love for theater sparked his interest in writing. Cast as the lead in a school play, he heeded the ham in him when a castmate got a bad case of stage fright and missed her cue and he covered for her by ad-libbing. That’s when he fell for acting and got it in his head that maybe he could craft his own dramas. “That’s what I started doing,” he said.

As a boy he began sending out his work, even play scripts, to publishers, once getting a reply from the famed play publishing company, Samuel French. “I got back what I thought was a personal letter from Mr. French himself and, of course, it was your standard rejection slip,” he said.

He was serious enough about acting that he began auditioning at the Playhouse right out of high school and soon landed a role in its production of Secret Service, which was part of Omaha’s centennial celebration. He averaged about a play a year at the OCP until Charles Jones arrived in the ‘70s.

Jack also went to the west coast with the idea of trying to break into Hollywood. He had the cockeyed notion of being “the Semitic Troy Donahue,” but was dissuaded by family friend, Lynn Stalmaster, already a casting director scion, who warned him of the struggles and heartbreak ahead. Jack appreciated the straight talk. “What a mensch he was,” he said.

Even with the intoxicating scent of Jasmine in the air, all that gorgeous sun, the ubiquitous palm trees, meeting stars and limited prospects back home, Jack heeded the advice. He’s not sorry he did.

“I’ve never looked back,” he said.

With “no marketable skills,” he returned to doing “stoop labor,” content to act and write on the side. Besides the Jewish grocers he worked for, he was a grunt in an appliance warehouse and washed and bused dishes at a restaurant. When he worked at Shaver’s market on 40th Street, between Dodge and Farnam, he hit upon an after-work routine to indulge his passions for good eats and good stories.

“I’d get me a bowl of chili and I’d buy a Gold Medal paperback for 25 cents. I was reading Westerns written by Vin Parker. They were real hard-boiled, lusty, action-packed plots that Gold Medal was famous for. Then I’d go across the street to the Admiral Theater and see whatever was on there. Then I’d walk over to the West Dodge Pharmacy and get me a Lime Ricky at the soda fountain.”

Another favorite pastime was sitting in front of the radio to hear the world come into his home. He and his old brother Mayer loved listening to network radio broadcasts like The ShadowThe Bell Telephone Hour and Stella Dallas. They were so crazy about radio they wormed their way into the studios at KFAB and WOW as audience members for live shows whose formats ran the gamut from quiz to music.

He said it was heady stuff for a boy with a flair for the dramatic. “Wow, this is kind of fun,” Jack recalls thinking. “The announcers would be personalities. What kind of clinched it for me was when I met a neighbor who was in radio. That’s when I thought, Maybe I ought to try radio, too.”

By 1956, at age 21, he was on the air in Denison, Iowa, learning the ropes for no pay at tiny KDSN. A year later he got his first paying on-air gig at KLMS in Lincoln. Then he went over to the capitol city’s KLIN. When he lived in Lincoln he stayed at the Sam Lawrence Hotel, a low rent roomer that often shows up in his stories. He and his radio cronies bent a few at after-hours hangouts like Hamp’s.

One night he was going to help a KLIN staffer celebrate the birth of his first child when an urgent phone call came in. Moskovitz said the new father took the call, “turned to me, and said, ‘Jack, there’s not going to be any celebration tonight. We’ve got a triple homicide.’ Well, that was the beginning of the Starkweather spree.” Moskovitz covered the morning police briefings from the start of the manhunt to the suspects’ capture and arrest.

This was the start of his itinerant, he’d call it checkered, radio career — from the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and DJ’s spinning records on turntables to the age of talk radio and automation. He worked for KOIL and at WOW with such local legends as Ray Olson, Dale Munson, Ray Stevens and Jim Murphy. What he lacked in the “basso profundo” voice department of his colleagues, he made up for with personality.

He did stints at KOWH, KEMO, KBON and KCRO, “a holy station where four people worked and nobody got along. Can you imagine that? It wasn’t very brotherhoodish, that’s for sure.” His last radio job was with “easy listening” KESY in 1989.

In the ‘60s he pulled an Army Reserves hitch. He also worked a year as a reporter-photographer for the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.

As much as radio and the theater fascinated him, his true heart was in writing.

By the time he graduated from Central High School, where he appeared in some plays, he disciplined himself to write every day. It’s a practice and ritual he follows to this day. Now that he’s retired, it’s no problem applying himself to his craft. But when he worked steady, it was tough.

“It was hard working some of these crappy jobs I had and then coming home and trying to get the energy to sit down and write something that was possibly commercial,” he said. “As tired as I was, I turned out some stuff…”

His last regular job was working for “the fed” as a Grade 3 clerk-typist at Douglas County Veterans Hospital, OSHA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He wasn’t crazy about the work, “but by God I liked the security, that paycheck, the benefits,” he said. A back problem forced him to take early retirement in 1985.

Moskovitz was in good company when it came to toiling at a 9 to 5 job and still maintaining a writing life. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. held an insurance post for decades while churning out his award-winning verses.

Jack doesn’t go to a job anymore, but old habits are hard to break and so he still bangs out copy on his Olivetti typewriter. He prefers it to chancing his work on a computer, which he professes to be “illiterate” at. Call him old school or old fashioned, he doesn’t mind. Another example of how he and Johnnie Mae lead a simple life, is their lack of a car. They walk or ride the bus most everywhere.

Unlike his brothers, who graduated college to become professionals, Jack went his own way, did his own thing. He studied radio broadcasting at then-Omaha University, but didn’t get a degree. As the family’s black sheep, he said, he felt his brothers’ contempt for squandering a life to pursue this writing dream. When you hear enough disparaging remarks, he said, “you get to kind of believe it.”

Where his brothers may have had the edge in book smarts, Jack has native intelligence. His instinct for thinking on his feet goes back to childhood, like the time he saved the school play by ad-libbing when his co-star went AWOL.

Fast forward five decades to Jack at the Playhouse. The actor was on stage one night in Over the River when he once again found himself playing for time. Unbeknownst to him, a fellow actor banged his head against a heavy picture frame back stage. “I throw a cue for him to enter and he staggers on stage, holding his eye,” Jack recalls. “I could tell something was wrong. I said, ‘Are you alright?’ and he said, ‘Yeah…no, and then he walks off. I said to the actress playing my wife, ‘Ida, go see what’s wrong with him,’ and she went off and so did the other two actors on stage, and I’m standing there by myself.”

Seizing the moment, a resourceful Jack filled the silence the best way he knew how — by talking. The audience thought his improv was part of the show.

“In the story I’m supposed to be learning to play the mandolin and I’m standing there with this out-of-tune mandolin I wouldn’t know how to play even it was in tune,” he said. “So I start ad-libbing, telling a few jokes. Like, ‘Why does it take two actors to change a light bulb? One to do the work, one to point and say, Hey, that should be me up there.’ Or, ‘The hottest day of the year this old rummy staggers into a bar and says, Whaddya got that’s tall and cold? The bartender says, Have you met my wife?’ You know, doing these little Henny Youngman routines.

“Then I started singing show tunes of the 1920s and ‘30s. ‘42nd Street, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’… I did that because in always auditioning for musicals at the Playhouse and never even getting picked for the chorus, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a chance to sing there again.”

What gives him the moxie to make up bits out of thin air? “The same chuztpah that got me interested in theater at Saunders when I was 10,” he said. Moments like these, he said, give him “such a sense of empowerment, because I’m controlling this thing.” Much like the mastery of events reading and writing provides.

Words have always offered solace for the turmoil inside him. “After all these emotional setbacks — the deaths, the betrayals, the antipathy, and so on — what I would do just to get away from the house is walk down to the library.” Alone with his prose, he found peace. Writing and DJing gave him a satisfaction he misses.

“It really heightened my life. It provided the toots and whistles for an otherwise monotone existence.”

He talks about this being the end of the line. About his window of opportunity having passed. How he’s done putting himself through the “pain” of rejection. “I’ve pretty much given up any possibility of getting anything produced or published. I took the pledge to quite wasting my life on that,” he said. But he still plugs away. Only last year he finished a new novel, Brothers and Sisters. It’s with a publisher now. He’s even learning to write Haiku. He still scans the trades seeking outlets for his work. He also continues to audition and win parts in plays. If a radio gig were offered tomorrow, he’d jump at it. If a publisher called, he’d dance a jig.

When the phone rings at his place, his sense of anticipation is palpable. He interrupts a conversation with a guest — “Hang on a minute” — to ask Johnnie Mae, “Is that a call from a publisher?” He’s ever hopeful his writing will find an appreciative audience. Having a major publisher discover his work would be his legacy, which is much on his mind given he’s the last of the Moskovitz line. He’s already achieved a legacy of sorts. Several volumes of his work are carried by the Omaha Public Library.

Do Jack a favor and check his work out. You won’t be disappointed. And he’ll be glad you cared enough to read some of what he’ll leave behind.

Lit Fest brings author Carleen Brice back home flush with success of first novel, “Orange Mint and Honey”

July 2, 2011 12 comments

Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader ( appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home.  I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend.  He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments.  Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.

You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right.  I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.





Lit Fest brings author Carleen Brice back home slush with success of first novel, “Orange Mint and Honey”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.

Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.

She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.

Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.

Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.

“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”

Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.

Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.




Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.

Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.

Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.

Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”

Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.

She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.

The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.

Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.

His music, she said, speaks through her.

The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.

Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule

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