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Timothy Schaffert Gets Down and Dirty with his New Novel “Devils in the Sugar Shop”

August 29, 2010 1 comment

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This is one of the latest stories I have written about author and literary maven Timothy Schaffert of Omaha, whose first three novels (The Hollow Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, and Devils in the Sugar Shop, which was just coming out when I wrote the piece, have all received high praise from reviewers.  He has a fourth novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, due out next spring, and I expect it will only add to his reputation as a first-rate talent.  His work is very funny and very insightful, and the literary festival he runs, the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, is a superb concentration on the written word. The 2010 event is September 10-11 and as usual features a strong lineup of guest authors and artists from all over America and representing many different kinds of literary work.  Schaffert also runs a summer writing workshop at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that also attracts top talent. He is at the forefront of a dynamic literary scene in Nebraska, a state that has produced an impressive list of literary icons (Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, John Neihardt, Loren Eiseley, Tillie Olsen, Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Kurt Andersen).  He’s a sweet person, too.  I look forward to attending the Omaha Lit Fest (a link for it is on this site) and to reading his new novel, and especially to seeing and talking to him again.

The story below originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  You’ll find more of my Schaffert and Omaha Lit Fest stories on this site, with more to come.

Timothy Schaffert Gets Down and Dirty with his New Novel “Devils in the Sugar Shop

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

An interview at the Papillion home he shares with his longtime partner found 38-year-old Omhaha author Timothy Schaffert in his usual no-fuss mode — bare feet, jeans, T-shirt, stubbled face, his two dogs panting for affection. Curled up on a sofa in the untidy, tiled, windowed sun room, his voice rose and fell with catty gossip and sober reflection, punctuated by a rat-a-tat-tat laugh. He’s one part John Waters and one part John Sayles, a duality expressed in his tabloid-literary roots.

Schaffert is hot-as-a-pistol these days. His much buzzed about new novel, Devils in the Sugar Shop (Unbridled Books), officially debuts in May. After the rural American Gothic goings-on of his first two books, Devils wryly explores an urban landscape of morally bankrupt subcultures. That the setting is Omaha makes it all the more delicious.

As the author of a third acclaimed novel in five years, the Omahan is a rising literary star. As founder/director of the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, he’s a tastemaker. As a creative writing, composition and literature teacher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he’s an academic wheel. Much in demand, he’s asked to do readings/residencies around the country. Closer to home, he’s been invited to conduct workshops at the Nebraska Summer Writer’s Conference.

On a lazy Saturday morning he discussed various aspects of his rich writing life.

Before the novels he made waves on the local alternative journalism scene, first with The Reader, then Pulp. His assured literary style, imbued with sharp wit and imaginative whimsy and full of exacting details, unexpected digressions and eclectic references, set him apart. Schaffert still freelances — witness a current piece in Poets and Writers — but his attention is now firmly on fiction writing.

Besides novels, he writes short stories. He adapted one story, The Young Widow of Barcelona, for a Blue Barn Witching Hour-Omaha Lit Fest collaboration, Short Fictions and Maledictions, that melds literature and theater. Schaffert helped workshop the script before giving it over to the WH troupe, whose work he finds “invigorating.” The show runs April 28 through May 12 at the Blue Barn.

His first two books, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2002) and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005), brought him much recognition. Devils is doing the same. Often noted is the splendor he finds in his characters’ imperfections. Ordinary people sorting through the chaos of their dysfunctional, interconnected lives. Dreams run up hard against reality. Desires conflict. Relationships strain. In true American Gothic tradition, Twisted humor and heightened language create a raw poetry. Never has neurosis seemed such an emblem of Americana.

Sisters is being reissued next fall by Unbridled Books. Daughters was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick in 2006. Now a candidate for the Omaha Public Library’s Omaha Reads citywide book club, Daughters is also being adapted as a screenplay by Joseph Krings, a music video/short filmmaker from Nebraska.

Devils already boasts strong advance press courtesy of comments like these from Publishers Weekly: “…consistently surprising and vibrant…Schaffert walks an uneasy line between the amusingly sexy and the scabrous.”

As Schaffert says of the book on his web site, “I’d say it has undertones of Woody Allen, overtones of old-school soap opera, duotones of Pedro Almodovar, halftones of Robert Altman, and dulcet tones of Mrs. Dalloway.”

He considers Devils “a modernist novel” in keeping with his “sense of the world” as “funny and absurd.” It’s the antithesis of the kind of “formulaic or prescriptive” approach he abhors. “What will cause me to put a book down is if it’s just too insufferably clear-eyed and its characters too level-headed,” he said. “I don’t want to use the words sterility or banality, but…

“I think sometimes our sense of what is typically called realism in fiction is not real at all,” he said. “It’s a construct. When we actually look at our lives and the lives of people we know, there’s all kinds of strangeness. It’s definitely messier than some of the contemporary fiction you see now. And I think part of that is because contemporary fiction tries to avoid melodrama and soap opera. It’s all about understatement, whereas mine is overstatement — more clawing our way through this existence until the day we die.”

Devils’ seven point-of-view characters propel us through a farcical, fun house tour of Omaha in Heat. Via a cast of artists, dilettantes, slackers, Old Market types and suburbanites we careen from Sugar Shop, Inc. sex-toy parties to erotica writing workshops to provocative art works to swinger parties to illicit trysts to homophobic rants to a stalker’s threats to a “reformed” dwarf’s advances to some drag queens’ credos. The effect of all this acting out is not titillation but illumination.

“We have these deep psychological stews and yet we all appear we’re salt-of-the-earth,” Schaffert said. “We’re all convinced we’re doing the right thing all the time. We’re representing ourselves exactly the way we should represent ourselves, meanwhile we’re just flailing.”

He hones in on human desperation, setting in relief the conflicts that rage within and that separate us from others, whether it is, as he says, our “fear of getting hurt or being violated in some sense or having different expectations from other people. That’s the stuff that fascinates me…trying to puzzle all that out.”

For the naughty bits he drew on a sex-toy party he attended and on interviews he did with swinger couples for a Reader article. The thought of soccer moms and dads getting silly over vibrators and lubes is something Schaffert finds irresistible. “It’s so hilarious that it’s become so non-sordid. It is almost like having a Tupperware party.” In his research on swingers, he said, “what surprised me was how many couples are part of this subculture. The people I talked to were pretty frank about why they’re involved with it and very little of it had to do with sex.”

His book touches on the schizoid place sex holds in America. “It’s blatant and ubiquitous and yet we want to pretend we’re all virgins and that the multi-billion dollar porn industry doesn’t have anything to do with us,” he said.

Other taboos are dealt with, too. The overtly gay Lee sleeps with both his girlfriend and boyfriend, a reflection, Schaffert said, of how young people “see sexuality as more fluid and flexible” than past generations. “Who they sleep with today is not going to effect who they sleep with tomorrow, which is an interesting thing to witness. And it makes sense. It’s cool to see young people expressing themselves in this Puritanical society in a way that doesn’t fit explicitly with the social structure. It’s certainly a more imaginative way of pursuing your relationships and your self-identity.” That doesn’t mean people still don’t get hurt, he added.

Lee’s homosexuality distresses the women in his life. “That was an interesting thing to explore,” Schaffert said. “These women are so invested in his heterosexuality that his being gay ends up being kind of life altering for a couple characters.”
Sex may drive the story, but the actual act is never depicted. “As I was working my way towards this,” he said, “I was like, Well, what do I portray about this? Do I have to write sex scenes? I didn’t really want to because that’s been so overdone that it’s almost impossible to do it in any way that’s not obnoxious. I modeled my approach after Edward Gorey’s in his great novel The Curious Sofa, where everything takes place behind a screen or a sofa, so you see a leg or arm or something.”

Like any good writer, Schaffert doesn’t make moral judgments about his characters. He said as he exposes flaws he takes pains to not let his humor turn a cruelty at his characters’ expense. Even though some readers may interpret it that way, he doesn’t intend to make fun of the predicaments that befall his dear misfits. He can’t afford to, as he gets too close to them during the creative process. He said, “When I’m writing I’m inhabiting these characters’ lives like an actor getting into character, figuring out exactly what they would say and how they would react to certain situations based on what I know to be true about the world — that it’s funny and absurd.”

As Devils’ assundry subplots unfold, there’s the added fun of identifying real-life Omaha figures and places dressed up in fictional clothes. In the book the work of a black female painter named Viv, whose edgy art, Schaffert writes, “tends to make people nervous,” is a barely disguised reference to the effect Omaha artist Wanda Ewing’s racially and sexually-charged work evokes. Ewing is a friend of Schaffert’s, who borrowed some of her work for inspiration. The book store Mermaids Singing, Used & Rare run by twins Peach and Plum is clearly the Old Market fixture Jackson Street Booksellers, which he adores.

His swingers expose may end up in a new project he’s developing that he said charts, “in a kind of fictionalized memoir,” the vagaries “of working as an editor for an alternative news weekly in a conservative town.” He was with The Reader, first as a contributing writer, then as managing editor and then editor-in-chief, from 1999 through 2002. He left over creative differences and soon thereafter headed up Pulp, the short-lived but lively salon mag. For part of his Reader tenure the paper was owned by the late Alan Baer, an eccentric millionaire who turned a blind eye to certain irregularities. Beyond a memoir, what makes this a departure for Schaffert is that it’s designed as a comic book, one he’ll both write and illustrate. He’s only taken notes thus far, but he’s eager to explore the form.

“I grew up loving the Dick Tracy comic strip and Fantastic Four and Archie comics. My entree into writing was comic books,” he said.

He’s become “more and more interested” in the graphic novel, citing the work of Chris Ware, Alison Bechdal, Sophie Crumb and Ivan Brunetti. He said his project “might end up being a series of mini-comics that I eventually collect into a book.”

 

 

He’s also taking notes for a new novel that, he said, is “picking up on some of the themes I’ve explored before: relationships between parents and their children; faith and religion; strained marriage.” Another short story or two and he’ll have enough for a collection.

With so much breaking his way, Schaffert could be excused for playing the big shot, but he doesn’t. Like one of his bemused characters, he looks with incredulity at all the fuss being made about him. He undercuts the floss by self-deprecatingly dishing on himself and his success. He calls the Lit Fest an act of “arrogant self-promotion.” Imagine the gall it takes, he went on, “to create a literary festival to bring more attention to myself.” In truth the fest focuses on all aspects of the written word, drawing much attention to the strong literary scene here and to dozens of writers not named Timothy Schaffert.

Any mention of the warm embrace given his work is quickly deflected.

“It’s been mainly through my publisher and my editor. I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. As Unbridled only publishes a few books a year, Schaffert reaps the benefits of a pampered author with name-above-the-title pull. “The press I work with approaches their works with the same vigorous attitude commercial presses do for their best selling authors, and in that sense when you only publish eight or ten books a year, a lot of attention gets shoved my way. They’re kind of a boutique press, but they’ve been in the business for years and years and so they know their way around in the publishing industry.”

Co-publishers Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson formed Unbridled in 2003 after stints at MacMurray & Beck and BlueHen Books, then a literary imprint of Putnam Press. BlueHen published Schaffert’s first novel. From the start Unbridled has gained a rep for publishing new talent. For public relations and tax purposes, the press is based in Denver, Col., but it is in reality a virtual press whose administrative and creative team live and work in disparate spots.

Schaffert appreciates the extra mile Unbridled goes, including the late spring-early summer Devils book tour they’ve scheduled, which will find him going to all the usual places in the Midwest, but also New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

“It’s such a luxury to have a publisher get behind the book in that way,” he said.

Much like the home he’s found at Unbridled, Schaffert enjoys the comfort of working within the very writing community he sprang from at UNL.

He’s discovered he teaches as he was taught. “That’s exactly my approach,” he said. “My philosophy about writing in general  was really developed or helped along by professors I had in college — Gerry Shapiro and Judy Slater. My professors were very sensitive to this idea of there not being a right way or a wrong way to write fiction. Instead, you approach it on a story-by-story basis and examine what’s working within a particular piece to help it work better.

“It’s interesting to be going back to the university where I studied, you know. Every day I go to work it feels like a nostalgia trip a little bit. It feels like such a rare experience to be able to be mentored as a teacher by the same people who mentored me a writer. I mean, I talk to Gerry and Judy a lot about teaching, about students, about experiences in the classroom.”

Teaching was long in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t try it until he was ready. “You have to develop a body of work before you can be taken seriously as a teacher,” he said. Now that he’s doing it, he said, “I love it. You have a fair amount of freedom there in how you want to interpret the class, so I appreciate that.”

Having to articulate craft is instructive for a writer like himself. It’s not so different than “when I was a student in that studio workshop environment where you’re expected to read other students’ work and comment on it,” he said. “Obviously when it’s your work that’s up you benefit from the constructive criticism. But you also benefit from examining…and developing an aesthetic, really, of certain critical criteria that you discover as you’re talking about other people’s work.”

He said appraising his own work is something “I feel more adept at than I have in the past.” It’s vital, he said, “in order to seek out bad habits that I may have practiced in previous work and to see it happening now or to recognize it.” Besides the analytical discipline that informs his work, he said journalism makes him more discerning. “I think it comes from writing about dining and style, doing book and movie reviews, writing features about subjects you know nothing about. You develop insights into writing along those kinds of lines.”

All this work-for-hire’s left him undamaged. He said, “I have mostly made my career as a writer at some level and it seems like that can be potentially distracting when you’re trying to write fiction but you’re adapting another style. I think the fear is you could ruin yourself by writing work you don’t really care about, especially if you have to write in a particular kind of way that’s perhaps not good writing. I think it’s good for a writer to compartmentalize as much as possible. It’s a matter of figuring out those ways to slip back into the creative process.”

He’s found a way to protect himself from cross-contamination.

“Part of that is just the space I write in,” he said. “I have a home office where I do ‘paying work’ at a desk at a computer and I tend to write fiction in here,” he said, meaning the sun room. “I write on a laptop, with music going, pacing a lot.” The music he plays to induce a fugue-like state “depends on what I’m writing,” he said. “For Devils, I found myself listening to a lot of old pop and jazz standards. Typically, Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’ is on constant rotation no matter what I’m writing. I also tend to listen to Rickie Lee Jones, Erik Satie and Joe Henry.

He doesn’t miss “the 2AMers” that came with being a news weekly editor, when he’d awaken in the middle of the night, panic-stricken over the status of that week’s cover story. The strain of putting out a paper with “no staff writers” and “no budget” grew tiresome. The saving grace, he said, was taking “a creative approach” to the work and always “wanting the story to be exactly what it needed to be. Editing is a creative act all by itself.”

Until his summer book tour he’s doing local readings and commuting to Lincoln for classes. Those I-80 hops allow ideas to seep in. Once, while en route to Hastings, the characters for The Young Widow of Barcelona came to him as a Neko Case CD played. “I’m always tossing around things,” he said. “I have to spend a fair amount of time to have an idea gestate before I can write anything down.”

Acclaimed Author and Nebraska New Wave Literary Leader Timothy Schaffert

May 18, 2010 3 comments

Omaha and greater Nebraska own a strong literary scene, and one of its leading lights is novelist Timothy Schaffert.  I wrote the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) after the publication of his second novel. He’s since had a third published and will soon have a fourth out. He and the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest he founded and directs may not be what a lot of folks associate with this place, but his acclaimed work and the work of other notable Nebraska authors make clear this is a vibrant space for writers.  I’ve had the pleasure of reading the work of many of these writers, also of interviewing the authors and profiling them.  I’ll be posting more articles about Timothy, his work as a novelist, and his lit fest as well as more articles about other Nebraska writers whose work you should know.

 

NOTE: The 2010 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, Curiouser & Curiouser: The Book in Flux, is September 10-11 and as usual it features an impressively talented and quirky roster of guest authors and artists.  You can find a link to the fest via my links roll.

 

Acclaimed Author and Nebraska New Wave Literary Leader Timothy Schaffert

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

Author Timothy Schaffert is in the vanguard of a literary movement that finds Nebraska writers like himself all the rage for their high craft and wry style. For the recent (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest he organized, he touted Omaha as “a town of writers” and invited many of its literary lights to take part in readings and panel talks.

But with an acclaimed novel to his credit, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2002, BlueHen), his soon-to-hit second novel already generating heat and a third under way, this leader of the Nebraska New Wave is taking some time to speak about his own work.

Reared on a Hamilton County farm 60 miles from Willa Cather’s Red Cloud, Neb., he grew up in a rough-hewn place unkind to the artist’s bent. The feeling of outsidedness he wore like a badge of honor permeates his work, replete with characters who revel in their own alienation. In his debut novel, the emotionally scarred but resourceful Rollows are rural Nebraska orphans scrapping a life together from the ruins of an antique shop. In his follow-up, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005, Unbridled), set in the same fictitious county, low-rent lounge singer Hud tries reforming the shambles of his broken family, including a son gone off with a touring gospel music act. All of Schaffert’s characters ache with the sweet melancholia of oh-so-sad country songs. Their earnest, whimsical longings are both plaintive and funny in a world where dreams held fast haunt folks.

Not unlike how the sisters feel estranged from their enviorns and misunderstood by family and friends, Schaffert felt adrift as a budding writer in corn country.

”Oh, I didn’t think anybody understood me. I never felt like I fit in. I felt like I’d come from some other plant and been dropped onto this farm. I was pretty much a loner. I mean, I’ve always been close to my family, but there’s no secret I’m not quite of the same sensibility,” said Schaffert. ”All through school I was scrawny. I didn’t play sports. I had chronic acne. I had scoliosis. And I had ulcers, so I was worrying about everything in addition to just sort of scrabbling through life. I was a complete physical and mental wreck. So, I always felt kind of strange.”

 

 

 

 

Just as dispirited Mabel Rollow finds satisfaction in imagining her demise, Schaffert wallowed in adolescent angst as a kind of guilty pleasure and act of rebellion.

“I used to fantasize some dramatic suicide that I would then oversee as a
ghost, to see how people regretted letting me slip away,” he said.

Much like the elaborate stories the girls concoct to explain or justify their eccentric straits, Schaffert found solace in the stories he loved to read and write from a young age. “I read whatever I could get my hands on.” An inveterate comic book fan, he created his own characters and spun his own tales. He even began writing plays in junior high, once directing his own work.

“Even then the act of writing was a kind of salvation,” he said, “and I found some comfort in that. It was something people thought I was good at, so that was rewarding  because when you’re this scrawny kid who can’t play football in a small town in Nebraska, where football is king, you wonder what your worth is. Something I learned at a difficult time was that well, yeah, maybe I do have some talent I can explore. Maybe this is something I do care about and something I can learn more about it. And, you know, that kind of carries you through.”

While an artist’s life was in little evidence between his over-the-road truck driver father and blue collar surroundings, Schaffert’s mother was “an avid reader” whose book club selections became fodder for her bright and curious son.

”I ended up reading these really terrible, raunchy best sellers by Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susan and Sidney Sheldon when I was in the 6th grade. I appreciated them for their drama and melodrama and all these events that happened in them.”

His “developing appreciation of literature” took flight in high school, when he read such signposts of youthful disaffection as 1984Catcher in the RyeFarenhite 451 and Lord of the Flies. He loved Roald Dahl’s work. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied journalism and English, his “sense of language” flowered under mentors Judy Slater, Gerald Shapiro and Marly Swick. Notice for his work came early. He was published in the Prairie Schooner as a University of Arizona grad student. He paid bills writing career guides and filling editorial posts at alternative papers, including The Reader, all the while penning his award-winning fiction.

“I guess I really started paying attention to language when I started reading (William) Faulkner, (Flannery) O’Connor, (Eudora) Welty, (Tennessee) Williams and all the great Southern writers. Their language really amazed me. Early in college I was trying to write in that vein, but mine was highly overwritten, purple prose. Then that tabled out and I found my own voice. I played a little with language in different ways. For me, the writing process begins with the concept or the character and…coming up with situations. Then there’s bringing it to the page. Putting words to it is a whole other dimension. You learn how language can actually change the direction of a book on a sentence to sentence level.  Then there’s the way characters talk to each other and the discovery of who the characters are and what the novel is. So, for me, language is pretty powerful.”

The figures populating his novels first percolated in his head years ago, appearing in short stories he later drew on for his books.

“I sort of pictured the characters in a place where I grew up. There are details from the landscape where I grew up and probably some of the people I grew up around. But for the most part I just indulged my imagination, taking bits and pieces from what I heard, from the newspaper, from daily life, and worked them into the fabric of the novels. I always feel like there’s something perverse about my imagination. I don’t think I could ever just write directly from life. I need to filter it through this warped perspective.”

His penchant for seeing the quixotic and mysterious in the seemingly mundane lifts his Midwestern gothic stories to a state of grace. Whatever acts of folly his protagonists commit, they do so in affirmation of their own existence, choosing inevitable disappointment to feeling nothing at all.

In Phantom Limbs, Mabel and Lily make holy relics of objects their father, who killed himself, left behind. Where no facts exist to explain their abandonment by, first, their father and then their mother, they invent details to suit their own devices. Mabel and others make regular pilgrimmages to a farmhouse, where a paralyzed girl tells them what they want about their lives from the totems they bring. Lily embarks on a road trip that is a pilgrimmage of another kind — to find and confront her mother. In Daughters of God, Hud and company are trapped in a maze of memories, places and things that define them. All around him, Hud’s reminded of his shortcomings — the failed marriage he can’t restore, the prodigal son he can’t bring back, the daughter he can’t fully possess and the best friend he can’t forgive. Each figure bristles at being confined to limited possibilities. Each rebels in their own way. Hud won’t let his family slip away, even as they resist his efforts. Ozzie, his former pal, resorts to breaking stained glass windows, so that he can repair something, anything, unlike the damage in his own life he cannot fix.

Schaffert enjoys giving his lost souls refuge from “realty” in flights of fancy that reveal universal sensitivities, vulnerabilities, absurdities and ironies. “It’s very easy to convince ourselves that we are the only people on Earth. We do take ourselves very seriously. The writer Paul Auster makes the argument that realist fiction is not real at all. It doesn’t resemble real life, but that the more fantastic and more magical fiction actually bears a closer resemblance,” Schaffert said.

His in-progress new novel marks a departure in some ways. First, its events unfold in the space of a day. Next, it’s set in an urban, rather than rural, milieu filled with rich, spoiled characters miserable despite their wealth. Finally, its tone is more “overtly comic” than his earlier work. The episodic story reveals the conceits and hypocrisies of privileged snobs preparing for a party. It’s the sort of delicious fun house that a gifted satirist such as Schaffert loves to play in.

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