Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Shukert’

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

October 7, 2011 13 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 (www.thereader.com) 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

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

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.

 

 

Timothy Schaffert

 

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 omahalitfest.com.

 

 

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com


Advertisements

Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent’s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour

September 5, 2011 2 comments

Here is the latest story I’ve done on author Rachel Shukert, this one about her second book, Everything Is Going to Be Great, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour. If you don’t know her work, make a point to discover it. If you do, well, then, I’m preaching to the choir.
Rachel Shukert

 

 

Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent‘s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.coom)

 

Playwright, essayist, blogger and author Rachel Shukert (Have You No Shame?) mines “the ruins” of her life again in her new Harper Perennial memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great. Its subtitle, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, gets to the heart of her expatriate experience.

In her early-20s the Omaha native did what many aspiring writers do: go off on a a finding-one’s-self spree. A theater gig landed her in Amsterdam, where the meta self-indulgence of her new book takes place. The surreal life that ensued provides the arc of her sardonic, self-deprecating narrative. This borderline debauched interval abroad served as her coming-of-age and rude awakening.

While her first book consisted of short stories, this one, she said by phone from her New York City home, is “more traditionally a memoir, but I think of it like a true novel.” She said even in the midst of this “fairly action-packed” interlude, it felt like “living in a novel.” The book’s characters are emblematic of that time.

The book charts her penchant for falling into weird, risky situations. She said, “I’ve always been sort of an adventurer. I’ve always gone looking for that stuff, but I also have always been a magnet for that kind of thing. When I was younger I hadn’t quite figured out where my boundaries were just yet. I think a lot of that has fallen away as I’ve gotten older and my life has gotten more settled.”

Getting away from it all was an act of emancipation from parental purse strings. Her new found independence allowed her to get lost in a way not so easy to do today.

“The particular couple of years when this story happened was kind of the very last gasp of that ability to not be connected to everyone you know all the time. It was before Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t WiFi everywhere yet. No one had a Blackberry really. I didn’t have a cell phone. There wasn’t Internet banking. It would have been really different if this had happened just two or three years later.”

 

 

She also found herself as a writer there.

“There’s something about being removed from the mainstream culture that makes you retreat into yourself in a way that’s really productive,” she said. “You don’t get as distracted the way you do here, you just don’t have as many options for procrastination. And you also need to keep yourself company a little bit. Even if you know some people and have friends it’s still a bit of a lonely state of being, and writing alleviates that.

“For the first time I was really enjoying writing. I’d always written, I knew I was sort of good at it, but I didn’t like it and was really resistant to it. I discovered writing could be really satisfying and joyful. I think that’s the most important thing that happened there as far as me being able to eventually write books.”

It wasn’t until back stateside, regaling friends with stories of her mishaps, she said she realized she had material for a book. “Some of the deeper, more painful stuff I never really talked about until I wrote this book,” she said. “I feel like the reason is I needed enough distance to really excavate it.”

Shukert feels she took away as much as she gave up from her grand tour.

“I think it was an even trade. I left behind a lot of illusions which are both beautiful and harmful. I left behind a lot of self-destructive tendencies. I think I proved to myself I was maybe more self-sufficient and resilient than I thought. That I could get along in relatively difficult circumstances. I mean, I didn’t survive the Holocaust or anything, I just didn’t have a credit card.

“I feel like i did a lot of growing up while I was there.”

Through it all, her high-low humor resounds.

“For me when something is spinning out of control, and I think this is a very Jewish thing, if I make a joke of it it, it doesn’t seem so big and scary, and you can ultimately not be destroyed by it. A lot of my sense of humor and the humor of my work comes from that juxtaposition of using sort of very high prose to describe a situation that is really terrible or even vulgar.”

She just sold a three-book young adult series. She has a new play opening in New York and she’s working on an adult novel.

Visit her website at www.rachelshukert.com.

Related articles
 

Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories

September 5, 2011 3 comments

Author Rachel Shukert is every bit as entertaining to interview as her books are to read. For being quite youbg she has a remarkably developed sense of style and a satiric voice that is hers and hers alone. What follows are two short pieces I wrote about her and her first book, Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories, one for the Jewish Press and the other for The Reader. I look forward to chatting with her again and to reading more of her work. In a separate post, you’ll find a third story I did about Shukert, this one about her seconod book, Everything is Going to be Great, An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour.

 

 

Starstruck by Rachel Shukert (Image Credit: Rachel Shukert) / Tweet (Image Credit: Maureen Johnson's Twitter) / Rachel Shukert (Image Credit: www.rachelshukert.com)

 

Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

Omaha native Rachel Shukert is coming home to face the music after the publication of her first book, the nonfiction Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories (Villard). In it, the New York-based writer applies her unsparing satire to growing up a rebel and Jew here.

She’s appearing at two local events to promote her book: Thursday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library at the Jewish Community Center; and Saturday, June 28 at 1 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village.

For a long time she was hell-bent on being a sassy stage/screen actress for the X-Y-Z Generation. In New York she grew disillusioned by the business of acting. She turned inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, and funneled her imagination into writing. The words poured out. Fast forward a few years later and the late-twentysomething is now enjoying her new status as a produced playwright, published journalist and acclaimed author.

Shukert, who enjoyed writing English themes at Central High and sporadic diary entries at home, thought like a writer before becoming one.

“I certainly always made up stories in my head. I would sit in my room for hours and talk to myself and they were very much like constructed stories with these perfect sentences…but I just never really wrote them down.”

Despite a love of words, she said, “I actually did not begin to write seriously until college.” Writing reinvigorated her artistically and healed her emotionally.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder for a time while I was in college,” said Shukert, whose book humorously recounts such struggles. “And it was at that time when I retreated into this shell — my own world. It was really kind of writing that brought me back to life from being sick because I suddenly felt I have this thing to say. It’s not dependent on all these things in the way acting is — like how you look. Then I wrote my first play when I was about 19 or 20, which was performed, and everyone was like, ‘We had no idea you did this.’”

After graduating New York University with a theater degree her writing superseded her fledgling thespian career.

“My writing seemed to have momentum,” she said. “…people were really responding and suddenly I felt like I had this path to follow. I kept writing plays and plays turned into stories. It all sort of snowballed.”

On the heels of getting her plays staged and essays published in NerveHeebMcSweeney’s and Salon, her agent struck a deal for the book. Its irreverent stories focus her withering wit on everyone and everything, especially herself.

“I think you can’t really try to skewer other people unless you’re willing to turn the same eye to yourself, otherwise you’re just a bully. Right?”

The stories express the dissatisfaction she felt growing up a brilliant, defiant free spirit. “When I was younger I was extremely rebellious,” she said, “and really pretty unhappy. I mean, that was very much just me. I don’t think it had anything to do with my surroundings. But I certainly felt limited and under a microscope.”

She refers to Omaha as “the little shetel on the prairie.”

“I have kind of a contrary nature. It’s like whatever’s popular, whoever’s in charge, I always want to do the other things. It’s almost compulsive, like even when there’s no reason to be at odds with something I have a certain sort of combativeness.

“I think that’s mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older but I always do kind of find myself, no matter what situation I’m in, feeling like I’m the kid in the back of the room making wisecracks about how ridiculous it all is.”

Shukert’s now outlining her next book and working on a new play. She’s also co-starring with friend, actress and comedian Julie Klausner in a serial soap parody they wrote, WASP Cove, that finds them playing Dynasty’s Linda Evans’ and Joan Collins’ characters, respectively.

 

 

 

 

 

Rachel Shukert Gets Personal with Her Satiric First Book

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

For a long time playwright/author Rachel Shukert saw herself not as a young literary lioness but as a sassy stage/screen actress for the X-Y-Z Generation. Picture a Jewish Marisa Tomei. Then reality hit. In New York the Omaha native grew disillusioned by the business of acting — making the rounds, et cetera.

Unable to find monologue material to suit her satiric bordering-on-absurdist tastes and suffering from anorexia, she turned inward, where she’s most comfortable anyway, and funneled her imagination into writing. The words poured out. Fast forward a few years later and the late-twentysomething is now enjoying her new status as a produced playwright, published journalist and acclaimed author.

Her first book, the nonfiction Have You No Shame? And Other Regrettable Stories (Villard), is lauded for its collection of unsparing satire. Shukert will schlep through town for two book events: Thursday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library at the JCC; and Saturday, June 28 at 1 p.m. at The Bookworm in Countryside Village.

Reinventing herself as a writer both liberated and tested her.

“I was having a hard time as an actor in New York,” she said by phone from the L.A. Book Fair. “I’m not particularly castable and I also really dislike the process and the dues you have to pay as an actor. All of the things actors have to do to get started I found completely anathema to my way of being. I’m a total narcissist but I’m not a narcissist in the right way.

“I have a really hard time sending photographs of myself to people and constantly being up and being really hungry for roles I have absolutely no interest in. I hate going to the gym. I hate doing hair and teeth and skin. The actual day-to-day grind of being a professional actor did not sit very well with me.”

Shukert, who enjoyed writing English themes at Central High and sporadic diary entries at home, thought like a writer before becoming one.

“I certainly always made up stories in my head. I would sit in my room for hours and talk to myself and they were very much like constructed stories with these perfect sentences that I would repeat over and over again but I just never really wrote them down.”

She’s always been an attentive reader. She counts Phillip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jonathan Franzen, David Sedaris, Truman Capote, Kingsely Amos and F. Scott Fitzgerald among her favorite authors.

“I’ve always been very turned on by very elegant writing — people who are really wonderful stylists.”

Despite a love of words, she said, “I actually did not begin to write seriously until college.” Writing reinvigorated her artistically and healed her emotionally.

“I had a pretty bad eating disorder for a time while I was in college,” said Shukert, whose book humorously recounts such struggles. “And it was at that time when I retreated into this shell — my own world. When you’re imprisoned by your anorexia there’s not a lot else you can do. You don’t want to go out and eat or drink with people. So to keep my self company almost through this I started to write a lot.

“It was really kind of writing that brought me back to life from being sick because I suddenly felt I have this thing to say. It’s not dependent on all these things in the way acting is — like how you look. Then I wrote my first play when I was about 19 or 20, which was performed, and everyone was like, ‘We had no idea you did this.’”

After graduating New York University with a theater degree her writing eventually superseded her fledgling thespian career.

“My writing seemed to have momentum,” she said. “I was moving forward at a rate I never had for the two years I was trying to be an actor. I felt like I was getting all this traction, things were moving really fast and people were really responding. And suddenly I felt like I had this path to follow.”

One thing led to another. “I kept writing plays and plays turned into stories. It all sort of snowballed,” she said. “

Her theater influences include Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, Charles Ludlam, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady.

With her plays getting staged and assignments flowing in from online magazines Nerve, Heeb, McSweeney’s and, more recently, Salon and Jewcy, she said she decided, “Well, maybe this is what I should be doing instead of struggling at this thing I don’t really like and that doesn’t really do it for me creatively. But I definitely had like a mourning period for my acting, just because it had been like who I thought I was going to be for so much of my life – from the time I was 7 or 8. But now I really haven’t looked back.”

The transition’s not all roses.

“I’m not a writer that finds writing particularly easy. It can be pretty torturous, like extracting teeth or driving needles into my hand. So I have to give myself a lot of time. I’ve never been able to just knock it out.”

The book produced a breakthrough.

“This is a project where I think I really figured out a lot about my writing style and rhythms because I never had…such a protracted process before. What’s been kind of a nice surprise is that writing is a lot easier than it was at the beginning. I’m a pretty good editor of my own work. I have a pretty sharp eye. I’m pretty down with cutting things and getting rid of things that don’t work.

“I write every day. I’m pretty disciplined about that and I won’t stop until I have something. When I was writing the book I really tried to do about a thousand words a day. I’m pretty good about punishing myself. If I slacked off and didn’t write a thousand words then I wrote two thousand words the next day.

“I remember there’s one section I wrote after I woke up in the middle of the night. I wrote 15 pages in like four hours and that’s one of the sections of the books that’s the most unedited and unchanged.”

That section, about the bacchanal of a Jewish youth convention she attended, elicited negative feedback when a shorter, harsher version of it appeared online.

“That was one of the very first pieces I wrote as a freelance assignment,” she said. “I think I was still like trying to make a splash. I mean, I still think it’s a good piece and I totally stand by it but I’m glad I got to do it over again and give it a little bit more perspective and space. The chapter in its extended form is a lot gentler…”

The book’s irreverent stories focus her withering wit on everyone and everything, especially herself.

“I think you can’t really try to skewer other people unless you’re willing to turn the same eye to yourself, otherwise you’re just a bully. Right? While obviously that kind of satire is part of my work and it’s sort of the way I see the world and the way I write, it’s very important to me to not be unnecessarily cruel or hurtful…And I find turning that critical gaze on myself sort of tempers that.”

Her book’s partly an expression of the dissatisfaction she felt growing up as a brilliant, defiant free spirit.

“When I was younger I was extremely rebellious,” she said, “and really pretty unhappy. I mean, that was very much just me. I don’t think it had anything to do with my surroundings. But I certainly felt limited and under a microscope.”

She refers to Omaha as “the little shetel on the prairie.”

“I have kind of a contrary nature. It’s like whatever’s popular, whoever’s in charge, I always want to do the other things. It’s almost compulsive, like even when there’s no reason to be at odds with something I have a certain sort of combativeness.

“I think that’s mellowed a bit as I’ve gotten older but I always do kind of find myself, no matter what situation I’m in, feeling like I’m the kid in the back of the room making wisecracks about how ridiculous it all is.”

A maddening thing about the Midwest she still can’t shake is how one’s Jewishness is made an issue here by gentiles. “Like they need to point it out. It’s very weird.” It’s one reason why she prefers New York. She and her husband Ben, an advertising creative director, reside in Manhattan on the Upper East Side.

All of the pieces in the book long simmered in her.

“I think I’ve sort of been writing them in my head for most of my life. I mean, it’s funny how a lot of my close friends have been reading this book and they’re like, ‘I know about this. This is the way you always told this story.’”

Her stories invariably throw in stark relief our shared human frailties. Life’s comedy and tragedy exposed side by side.

“That’s kind of my thing. I try to combine the two,” she said. “I want them to be hilariously funny and you only realize how serious they are afterward.”

The title chapter ends the book on a warm, funny, sad, graceful note describing the final days of her beloved grandmother. Shukert’s love for family shines through.

An autobiographical work is a rite-of-passage for first-time authors. “It’s almost like you have to get it out of your system before you can do something else,” she said. “Like you have to tell your own story before you can tell other people’s.”

Today, she’s busy writing essays and cultural criticism for online mags and, increasingly, for print publications. “I really like journalism,” she said. “It’s a chance to exercise your craft without having to like think it all up yourself, which can be intimidating. It’s nice to have that jumping off point, even if it’s something editorial like a movie review or a blog post. At least you have that information to analyze. I really like analyzing everything.”

Her penchant for picking things apart may be a function of being the daughter of a psychologist mother and urban planner father. Shukert’s now outlining her next book and working on a new play. She’s also co-starring with friend, actress and comedian Julie Klausner in a serial soap parody they wrote, WASP Cove, that finds them playing Dynasty’s Linda Evans’ and Joan Collins’ characters, respectively.

 

Related articles

%d bloggers like this: