Posts Tagged ‘Authors/Literature’

See the fireworks Leo Adam Biga created by blogging on WordPress.Com: 2014 annual report for Leo Adam Biga’s Blog (

December 29, 2014 2 comments

See the fireworks Leo Adam Biga’s Blog created by blogging on
Check out my 2014 annual report.

To all the visitors and followers of my blog,, please accept my wishes for a very happy new year and thank you for your interest and support. Here is a link to a report about how my WordPress blog performed this past year. When all is said and done it appeears the site will have had just under 100,000 views and approached 70,000 visitors. Between folks who follow my blog online or get email updates about it, I have nearly 700 followers. My blog posts feed into my Facebook page, My Inside Stories, which going on 500 folks have Liked. You can also stay up to date with my posts on LinkedIn, Tumblr, Twitter and About Me. I hope you find the content on my blog continues to entertain, inform and perhaps even educate you. Be sure to let friends and family know about it.

BTW, the 2014 post that got the most views and comments was titled “Color Blind Love: Five Interracial Couples Share Their Stories.” It was a cover story I did for The Reader (
You can link to it at-…/color-blind-love-five-i…/

This new year on the blog you can expect to see as usual my latest work for the various newspapers and magazines I contrbute to, including The Reader, Omaha Magazine, Metro Quarterly and the New Horizons. You can also expect to see excerpts from a new book I’m completing as well as teasers for the new edition of my Alexander Payne book.

See the #fireworks I created by blogging on #WordPressDotCom. My 2014 annual report..



Omaha author Timothy Schaffert delivers again with his new novel, “The Swan Gondola”

March 7, 2014 1 comment

Looking for a good read?  Omaha-based novelist Timothy Schaffert’s new book, The Swan Gondola is a sweeping work of romantic intrigue and against-all-odds perseverance set against the backdrop of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition.  My profile of Schaffert for Edge Magazine ( follows.  I’ve been writing about Schaffert and his work for many years and you can find those previous stories on this blog.  Additionally, you can find my stories about the Omaha Lit Fest he is the founder and director of.

Omaha author Timothy Schaffert delivers again with his new novel, “The Swan Gondola”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Edge Magazine (


Nebraska has produced many literary heavyweights: Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, John Neihardt, Tillie Olsen, Loren Eiseley, Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Terese Svoboda, Kurt Andersen, Ted Kooser.

Add the name Timothy Schaffert to this roster of gifted homegrown wordsmiths.

Unlike most of that company, Schaffert has remained in state to write his acclaimed novels and short stories. The Aurora, Neb. native grew up on the Hamilton County farm that’s been in his German-American family for generations. He writes these days in the southwest Omaha home he shares with his life partner. It’s where Schaffert penned his latest novel, The Swan Gondola, (Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin). The historical work of fiction has received strong notices and celebrated a Feb. 6 release.

This is Schaffert’s fifth novel following his previous The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow SistersThe Singing and Dancing Daughters of GodDevils in the Sugar Shop and The Coffins of Little Hope. Like the others, Gondola displays his wicked, yet sweet wit and penchant for depicting surreal events amid ordinary surroundings.

The tragic romance at the heart of Gondola unfolds around the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, a grand event that marked Omaha’s most ambitious attempt to garner world attention.

The protagonist-narrator is ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt, a character inspired by L. Frank Baum’s iconic The Wizard of Oz. Schaffert concocted a kind of prequel to the Oz myth that imagines what propelled this humbug artist to leave Omaha in a hot air balloon – Baum’s wizard commandeers a balloon emblazoned with Omaha State Fair – for the hinterland he comes to rule. Schaffert has Skerritt find true love in the ethereal Cecily, a fetching actress and single mother, until circumstances conspire to separate the lovers.

In a story replete with class distinctions, Skerritt comes up against the city’s most powerful man, William Wakefield, and his witch of a sister, who live in a forbidding castle, and the formidable Mrs. Margaret.

Skerritt cobbles together a supportive family that includes: August, a Native American dandy; Rosie, a good-natured anarchist; and mercurial Pearl, whose eerie intuition turns possession.

Then there’s Emmaline and Hester, the sisters who nurse him back to health after the balloon that carried him crashes into their farmhouse.

In addition to Skerritt being based on the wizard, several other characters have their parallels in Baum’s Oz, including stand-ins for the good and bad witches, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion.







As the man who fell from the sky and lived to tell about it, Skerritt is held up as a supernatural diviner. Schaffert says the fact crops and livestock can be lost to capricious nature makes some farmers susceptible to rainmakers and fortune tellers.

“It’s a part of the world where prophets are needed.”

Skerritt and Emmaline construct the Emerald Cathedral, a pillar of totems from neighbors and townsfolk desperate for deliverance.

The Omaha World’s Fair setting is the impetus for a new exhibition of photographs and artifacts from the expo. The novel’s launch and exhibit’s opening both happened Feb. 7 at the W. Dale Clark Library. Schaffert signed copies of his book.

The author is no stranger to the library, which hosts his annual (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The ninth edition last fall featured the usual eclectic lineup of guest authors. He’s now organizing the event’s 10th anniversary whose focus on historical fiction is apt given Gondola’s immersion in late 19th century Americana.

The choice of the fair as the milieu for his new novel is a function of his long-held fascination with both The Wizard of Oz and the Trans-Mississippi Expo. As a child reading the Baum story and watching the MGM movie, he was “taken” by the Kansas farm setting and the wizard’s Omaha origins. Later, while researching the expo, he found it a rich metaphorical landscape whose by-turns enchanted and crass goings-on made a perfect backdrop for a doomed love story.







The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. The Exposition was held in 1898. There was an interesting link there that had not yet been exploited but I was sort of daunted by the research I would have to do about 1898,” says Schaffert, who teaches English at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “When you’re writing about the past you have the added responsibility of learning about the past, and not just learning about it but communicating it to readers. You don’t want it to seem like an antique.”

To understand the “cultural consciousness” of the Victorian-era he steeped himself in the Omaha Bee and Omaha World-Herald archives. He discovered a society of haves and have-nots “leaning forward into the 20th century.” He adds, “Everything changed in the 20th century. The role of women. New kinds of entertainment. Sources for wealth. Opportunities for the middle class. Medical invention. Psychological development. Fashion. I mean, everything became modern. It’s like in the 1890s people almost made that happen by nature of anticipating that with the 20th century would come the future.”

Being a woman, racial minority or working stiff meant living on the margins, never far from the poor house. The gleaming fair rose up to offer hope but its temporary construction ended in ruins, symbolizing the tenuous nature of life and love.

Delving into the past for his fiction is nothing new for Schaffert, though untilGondola it’d been some time since he’d gone there.

“When I was much younger everything I wrote was set in the past, so strangely for me the books I’d written previously have not been set in the past. So I feel I’m finally writing what I intended to write all along.”

He’s swimming in the past again with an in-progress novel set in the 1920s.

Besides its historical roots, Gondola represents another departure for Schaffert.

“It’s definitely more sweeping than the other books I’ve written that focus on kind of small moments in characters’ lives and perhaps quiet, emotional developments and transitions. Whereas the characters of this book are entertainers and their lives are motivated by melodrama and they’re pushed to the point where there are extremely difficult, even life and death situations. So it’s a larger canvas than I’ve worked on before and I’d like to do more of that.”

As with some of his earlier novels, Schaffert draws on his rural background. Enamored by the allure of New York sophistication in movies, he didn’t always appreciate growing up on a farm.

“I remember regretting we didn’t live in a city and not only did I regret we didn’t live in a city, I regretted we didn’t live in New York City. I wanted to live in the Manhattan of Fred Astaire and Woody Allen. So I didn’t feel like I was necessarily in the right place when I was growing up. Since then I recognize what a rich experience it was and I love to return to the farm. I’m struck by its beauty and I feel fortunate to have had the experience I have.”

“And it is surprising how much I can keep drawing from it. You kind of feel perhaps the well has run dry but then you embark on some new book and some new characters and you find yourself discovering new things about your own past.”



Timothy Schaffert is seeking materials from the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition for an online archive.

Timothy Schaffert created an online archive for the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition




For Gondola he says he tried to find new ways to describe the countryside. “The farm Ferret Skerritt ends up on, as is with every farm I’ve written about, is taken from the community I grew up in. Some of it’s the physical landscape and some of it’s the culture and how in this book this extraordinary thing happens – this man falls from the balloon in the sky and he’s purported to have kind of soothsaying qualities. My understanding of how the community would react to that is based on my own sense of the rural Midwest.”

Schaffert, who once edited and wrote for Omaha alternative newspapers, says early on his parents expressed concern about his making-a-go-of-it as a writer but have remained in his corner. “I don’t think they always understood what I was doing but I never really felt they were discouraging at all. I always felt they were very respectful of this mysterious thing I was pursuing. I don’t know that they thought anything would come of it necessarily but they were supportive and they remain supportive.”

Identified as he is with Omaha’s urban creative center, Schaffert might be expected to reside downtown rather than in suburbia. But he feels at home in wide open spaces.

“I grew up in the country and the house I live in today has a huge        backyard. We’re literally half a block from the Chalco Hills Recreation Area. We can walk right there to Wehrspann Lake and be among deer and the woods. We walk there all the time. It’s quiet. I definitely like it.”

“I think you get more space, more bang for your buck basically the further west you go. We entertain, we have people stay over, we have family events. We do value being able to stretch out.”

He wrote his first three novels at his previous home in Millard. Coffins and Gondolawere written in his present space.

“I have a little library with a writing desk but most of the time I write in the kitchen, with my laptop on the kitchen counter, and I pace around, fix tea, attend to the dog.”

With his new book adding to his already stellar reputation, Schaffert feels his life and career are in a good place.

“I feel very fortunate I’ve had the opportunity to write what I want to write and to have the support I’ve got for it. My publisher (Riverhead) is bringing my new novel out in a big way. That’s completely unexpected.”

He’s especially glad Riverhead, an imprint of publishing giant Penguin, is behind him.

“Riverhead is very much committed to recognizing those they think of as underappreciated writers and getting behind their careers and committing long-term to the writer’s success.”

The editor who signed him to the Penguin family was taken by Janet Maslin’s enthusiastic New York Times review of his Coffins of Little Hope. Schaffert is humble and grateful about the kudos.

“A writer doesn’t always feel like there’s a ladder of success. You’re just kind of moving from one project to the next, uncertain what’s going to happen with it or what kind of support there’ll be for it. You feel you’re scrambling or scrapping or patching together this living. So, yeah, to have the opportunities I’ve had has been extremely rewarding.”

Follow Schaffert at

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

May 18, 2010 3 comments

Nehru and Gandhi at the opening of the Indian ...

Image via Wikipedia

As a kid I watched John Hlavacek on a local network television affiliate’s newscasts and documentaries, and as a young man I was aware of him serving on the Omaha City Council, and operating his own travel agency. I vaguely knew that he had been a foreign correspondent.  It was only a few years ago though that I met him for the first time and got to know more of his story.  He and his late wife Pegge were both reporters in the Golden Age of American journalism.  Their life stories of living and working around the world are as amazing as those of the historical events and figures they covered.  In the last few years John has had published several books authored by himself and Pegge that recount their adventures. I have also posted the story I wrote about John and Pegge and their adventures, but the following piece is about John and two old reporter friends of his from back in the day.  The three men hadn’t seen each other in decades until John arranged for their meeting in Omaha for a panel discussion.  I covered the event and wrote this story for  The Reader (

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


They were three young lions of American journalism when they met far from home, a long time ago. John Hlavacek of Carleton College (Minn.) and Jim Michaels of Harvard were green United Press foreign correspondents based in post-World War II India. In wartime Hlavacek trucked medical supplies over the Burma Road for the International Red Cross. Michaels drove an American Field Service ambulance. Each was imprisoned there: Hlavacek for days; Michaels for months. New Yorker Max Desfor covered the war in the South Pacific as an Associated Press photographer.

The paths of these three men crossed in 1946, when their lives-careers intersected with India’s historic bid for independence from British colonial rule. Last spring, they came together for the first time in 60 years with the publication of a book, United Press Invades India, by Hlavacek, an Omaha resident who invited his colleagues to participate in public forums about their intrepid reporting days. The men shared stories and observations during two panel discussions in Omaha.

After being out of touch all that time Hlavacek began the process of reestablishing contact with his old colleagues while working on his memoir. Facts needed checking and where Hlavacek’s memory faltered, he relied on Desfor and Michaels to fill in the blanks. By the time the book was completed, Hlavacek suggested he and his comrades reunite. The men still correspond today.

John Hlavacek

The book that helped bring the old colleagues together was Hlavacek’s second volume of memoirs based on his overseas adventures in India and China, where he taught English in an American mission school in Fenyang as part of the Carleton in China exchange program. Hlavacek now has a third volume of memoirs out, Freelancing in Paradise, that recounts the years he and his wife Pegge, a fellow journalist he met and married in India, filed stories from the Caribbean for national media outlets. He’s also published two books authored by Pegge about her own far flung news career and the couple’s remarkable feat of raising five children while working in India, New York, Jamaica and Omaha.

For Hlavacek and Michaels, now in their late 80s, India began long, distinguished careers in journalism. As bureau chief in Bombay, Hlavacek built up UP’s presence there and under his aegis the news service proved a formidable rival to their bitter rival, the AP. He won what’s now called the Edward R. Murrow Fellowship for study at Columbia University, he covered the Caribbean and after moving with his family in the early 1960s to Omaha, where he was a television news correspondent/commentator, he filed a series of reports from Vietnam on area residents serving in the war.

Michaels got the scoop of a lifetime when he broke the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. He joined Forbes Magazine in 1954, was made editor in 1961, a post he held until 1999. He’s credited with turning Forbes into one of the world’s most read financial pubs. A VP today, he can be seen Sundays on Forbes On Fox.

Before India, Desfor already made memorable images: of the Enola Gay crew upon their return from the mission that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; and of the Japanese surrender to the allies on the USS Missouri. Soon after his arrival in India in 1946, he snapped a famous picture of Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in an unguarded moment of friendship. “You see the interchange, the compatibility, the simpatico. It’s just an enormous moment,” he said. The iconic pic was used as the basis for a popular Indian postage stamp.

Desfor won a Pulitzer Prize for news photos for his work in the Korean War. In all, he shot five wars, many conflicts and much civil strife. He later served as an AP  photo executive/editor before retiring in 1979. That same year though he joined US News and World Report as director of photos. He made his 1984 retirement permanent, but he’s till snapping pics, only now with a digital camera. He’s 93.

Max Desfor posed in front of picture taken of himself during the Korean War

These young lions turned wise old men of journalism reunited for panel discussions in Omaha in 2006. They took to their role as pundits well. They spoke about the momentous events they reported on, the way the news biz has changed and how the India and China of today differ from the developing nations they knew then.

Hlavacek said the troika may be the only surviving American journalists to have met Gandhi. While his colleagues minimize Gandhi’s ultimate influence, Desfor said “he had a moral effect” of lasting import. Michaels said by the end Gandhi was “almost irrelevant” for opposing “industrialization or modernity. Had Gandhi lived, he said, “he would have been loved but nobody would have paid attention to his views.”

The ascetic led a huge movement yet was quite approachable. Unlike today’s restrictive climate, the press had unfettered access to major public figures then.

“A journalist’s access to events in those days was so much more intimate than it is today,” Michaels said. “Gandhi was a world figure, yet he had these prayer meetings when he was in Delhi that the public could come to. If you got there early you could sit right up in front and ask him questions. Or, as John (Hlavacek) did, you could go right up to him and ask for an interview. Today, you wouldn’t be able to get through the masses of hired guards, spin meisters, the whole lot.”

“Once, I wanted to interview the number two man in the cabinet of Independent India, Vallabhbhai Patel, a very important figure in Indian independence,” Michaels said. “So, I drove up in my little car to his place, knocked on the door, a servant answers and says, ‘What do you want?’ I say, ‘I’m from the United Press of America  — I’d like to interview Vallabhbhai Patel’ He says, ‘Wait a minute,’ takes my card and five minutes later ushers me into the garden, where Patel and I had tea together and I had an interview. That kind of immediacy today simply does not exist.”

When Hlavacek wanted to interview Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a Muslim leader in the free India movement, he simply stopped by his flat. He had similar access to presidents (Nehru, Indira Gandhi), religious leaders (the Dalai Lama), royalty (Aga Kahn) and dictators (Juan Peron of Argentina, Zaldivar Batista of Cuba).

“There are many great stories I had the opportunity to cover,” Hlavacek said. “It was interesting. I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of worries from time to time, too. And you were always in competition. You were always trying to beat someone.”

“It was a wonderful era for being a correspondent,” said Desfor, who with his Speed Graphic made pictures of great personalities that “will live forever in history books. This is what gives me such great pleasure,” he said.

When Michaels arrived at the scene of the estate where Gandhi lay fatally shot, he was among the first there. The grounds were open and he could move freely about to ask questions and make observations. After sending off his first dispatches at a nearby cable office, he returned to find the area cordoned-off by police and a large group of reporters and peasants gathered outside the closed and guarded front gates. The reporters there earlier with him were now inside.

“I thought, Oh, my God, I’m going to get beat on this story. I better do something,” Michaels said. “So I went around the back. I knew the area pretty well. And I climbed through the hedges and, wow, staring me right in the face was an Indian constable. I desperately searched in my wallet for my old Geneva card, which I carried as an ambulance driver during the second world war. I flashed this card, which was very impressive, and he said, ‘OK, sahab.’ So I got in. I saw as they brought Gandhi’s body out on the balcony for the people to see. I saw a famous woman photographer (and correspondent) for Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, thrown out physically when she refused to stop taking pictures.

“I saw all these great Indian leaders sitting around crying. I witnessed Nehru, the first prime minister of India, get up on the wall with tears streaming down his face declaring, ‘The father of our country is dead.’ I witnessed all these scenes.”

The phalanx of competing news groups was far smaller then, too, compared to the unwieldy mobs that descend on news events today.

“The independence of India was one of the great events of the century. It was huge news. Yet it was covered by less than 100 journalists,” Michaels said. “When Hong Kong became independent less than a decade ago, there were 8,000 journalists covering it and the ones that got there had to cover it by watching it on TV. Today, everything is staged. Access to events is tightly controlled.”

In the process, Michaels said, “something is lost between what you read and what happens. The whole nature of the profession has changed — I don’t think necessarily for the better. The news business today belongs more to presenters.” “You have to be an actor,” Hlavacek interjected.” “You have to be a performer,” Michaels agreed, “and what you get is filtered through these presenters.”

Another major difference between then and now is the rate at which news is disseminated. Filing stories from the field in Third World nations once meant getting the news out via mail or cable or teletype, all of which took time. Sometimes just getting from a news event to a dispatch office could take hours of travel. Now, stories can be filed from the most remote or dangerous regions, even war zones, almost instantaneously due to satellite phone lines and the Internet.

“The speed of communication is what’s really changed,” said Hlavacek, who adds “the 24-hour circuit” of news coverage puts hard copy newspapers in a tough spot. “You used to break a story in a special edition. It’s too late now.” Michaels believes the ever growing online info world “is killing newspapers.” To those who worry a point-and-click universe prevents analysis, Hlavacek said, “No, it doesn’t, but this is spot news and it never did. Analysis can come later.” He marvels at “the emergence of the Internet” and is encouraged that “there’s so much information out there. I don’t think you can control it. At least I don’t see that you can.”

The dynamic economies and rising technocracies of India and China have caught the men’s notice. Michaels often goes back to India, where he’s interviewed current prime minister Manmohan Singh. Michaels said India’s ascendancy “is one of the great unheralded revolutions of our time.” He said the planned socialist state under Nehru and his successors resulted in an India that “stagnated from the time of independence right through 1989.” Michaels, who calls  Singh “a very impressive man,” credits him with engineering “a revolution from the top” that urged Indian leadership to abandon the old system in favor of “a free enterprise model.” The result, he said, is a “booming” economy. While India prospers, its caste system’s inequities still pervade the society, said Hlavacek, who’s also been back. The India-Pakistan divide, they agree, is one born of religious-political differences.

Last fall Hlavacek visited the mission school in Fenyang, China he taught at under Japanese occupation. On his 10-day China trip he was most impressed by all “the change,” he said. “That’s the difference.” He said while China is still “ostensibly a Communist country, they’re the greatest capitalists in the world.” “They call themselves Communists,” said Michaels, who’s been there, “but everybody winks and nobody really believes that.” The journalists believe China and India will grow as trading partners with each other and with the U.S. as their economies continue to grow. As the world changes at an ever faster rate, Hlavacek said journalism remains “a higher calling.”

For three old men, a lifetime of curiosity has not waned. The world is still their oyster. The news, their metier.

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