The Reader on Omaha Lit Fest

The Reader did a cool spread in their latest issue on the upcoming (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest to go along with Leo Adam Biga’s article “Lit Fest delves into what we fear, how we relate in extremis.” The article features some choice quotes from Lit Fest Director Timothy Schaffert and a few participating authors, myself included, for the October 16 & 17 event.

The issue is currently out all over Omaha, so pick up a copy if you see one. Or, read the article here, on the The Reader‘s webpage. Here an excerpt:

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.”PubQuizcheck

Thanks to writer Leo Adam Biga for this.

Also, one last reminder. Opening night for the Pageturners Lounge Literary Pub Quiz (PTLLPQ for short) is this Wednesday, October 7 at 9pm. (Go here for more information. Or here.) In addition to some first-rate trivia, prizes, drinks, etc., we’re also featuring Timothy Schaffert as our guest co-quizmaster for the night. I’ll have a few questions just for Timothy about this year’s LitFest and his own popular novels (The Swan Gondola, Coffins of Little Hope). It will be fun. Even if the trivia is a total disaster, come laugh at me make a fool of myself. You can’t lose!

Treachery at the Omaha Lit Fest

The (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is coming up on October 16 & 17. I’ll be there talking about my chapbook On the River Down Where They Found Willy Brown on the “Treachery” panel at 2pm on Saturday October 17 with Marilyn June Coffey and Douglas Vincent Wesselmann (aka Otis XII) All events are free and open to the public, and are hosted at the downtown branch of the Omaha library (215 S 15th St).

The theme this year is “Nervosa: Science, Psych & Story.” There’s a great lineup of authors participating, headlined by best-selling and National Book Award finalist Emily St. John Mandel. Just having her come to Omaha is a pretty big deal, so you won’t want to miss her or any of the other great writers, like Joy Castro and Julie Iromuanya. Thanks so much to Timothy Schaffert for putting this together.

The panel discussions are the same day as the Holland Stages Festival–so a pretty big day for free arts events in downtown Omaha. Free writers events at the library all afternoon then cross over the Gene Leahy Mall for free concerts by Conor Oberst, Simon Joyner, and Delfeayo Marsalis in the evening. Not too shabby!

Here’s the schedule of events for Lit Fest. I hope to see you there!

FRIDAY NIGHT, OCT 16 (6:30-9:30 pm)

ANXIETY: the opening night party/exhibits, W. Dale Clark Library
(downtown branch, 215 S. 15th St)

WIRED: THE LITERARY BENT-WIRE ART OF JAY COCHRANE

Featuring wire-and-book sculptures based on Gulliver’s Travels, Pride and Prejudice, Misery, Moby Dick, etc…

PINS & NEEDLES: THE PAINTINGS AND DRAWINGS OF ERIC POST AND SHARI POST

Sometimes-tranquil, sometimes-restless portraits in oil and ink.

THE POETRY BROTHEL

Again hosted by literary journal burntdistrict. The journal’s namesake, Omaha’s historic Burnt District, was infamous for its bordellos, gambling tables, and other unseemly underbellies in the 19th century. Relax in the brothel with your own intimate poetry.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON, OCT 17 (1-5 pm)

PANEL DISCUSSIONS, conducted by lit fest director and author Timothy Schaffert. W. Dale Clark Library (downtown branch, 215 S. 15th St).

DIAGNOSIS (1pm)

Featuring doctors/writers Bud Shaw (Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey) and Lydia Kang (Catalyst). Shaw came to Nebraska in 1985 to start a new transplant program that quickly became one of the most respected transplant centers in the world. Kang’s background in medicine has inspired two YA sci-fi novels, scientific thrillers that explore a dark future of genetics.

TREACHERY (2pm)

Authors discuss personal demons, social outcasts, and drastic measures. Featuring: Marilyn June Coffey (Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers: The Unsettling History of the Dirty Deals That Helped Settle Nebraska); Douglas Vincent Wesselmann (Tales of the Master: The Book of Stone); Theodore Wheeler (On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown).

EMPATHY (3pm)

Fiction writers Joy Castro (How Winter Began: Stories), Julie Iromuanya (Mr. and Mrs. Doctor) and Jennie Shortridge (Love Water Memory) discuss emotional depth in novels and stories, sentiment vs. sentimentality, and the process of exploring a character’s psychology on the page.

“STATION ELEVEN”: HEALTH, ILLNESS, AND THE END OF THE WORLD (4pm)

Novelist Emily St John Mandel, author of the best-selling, National Book Award-finalist Station Eleven, with Timothy Schaffert, author of The Swan Gondola.

Happy Book Release Day: The Swan Gondola

Big congrats today to Timothy Schaffert on the release of his latest novel, The Swan Gondola! The book has received quite a strong reception from critics. Publishers Weekly said “it’s easy to imagine this charming novel attaining Water for Elephants–like popularity with readers,” which is quite an endorsement.

The Omaha World-Herald has more on the book here and here, along with information on various local events this weekend to celebrate its publication.

It’s nice to see a Nebraska writer realize such success–particularly with a historical novel set in Omaha. It’s especially fitting for Timothy, as he does quite a lot to advocate for Nebraska authors–through his (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, as interim editor of Prairie Schooner, and in thousands of smaller ways. All this couldn’t be happening for a better guy.

Way to go, Timothy!

Here’s a description of The Swan Gondola:

On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth, isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair.

One of a traveling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpetbag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect.

Weeks of Aug 31-Sept 13, 2009

Novel Work
It’s been kind of a slow couple weeks. For reasons that will become obvious by the end of this entry, I haven’t had a lot of time for writing lately. I was able to finish up work on the first chapter of Part II, which was nice. There are a few spots that need some work before I even start revising, but I’ll probably just push forward into the second chapter before I worry about that. Was able to get some nice stuff down about the prostitution camps of Hell’s Half-Acre, the lowest of the red light districts in the early days of Omaha. It was kind of strange, but I recalled quite a bit of stuff from a history course on the Progressive Era I took in 2004 as an undergraduate. It always amazes me how much of that stuff sticks. No matter how much research I do, the writing usually seems to find its way back to some obscure anecdote I heard years ago—something that has been fermenting for a long time in the mustier parts of my subconsciousness, I suppose. I always did do well on the comprehension and retention sections of the CAT tests in elementary school, however, and it’s paying off now.

Nicole and I spent Labor Day weekend in Portland, which was palpably refreshing. About a half-dozen or so of our friends have moved out there in the past couple years, so we had ample company to enjoy the Oregon drizzle with. Old friend and rising visual artist Alexander Felton (who is apparently “ungooglable,” but you should try anyway) graciously showed us around his studio. We really enjoyed seeing some of his artwork and discussing it in terms of Baudrillard and in other PoMo ways. After two hours and a few Hamm’s, I only knocked over one of his plaster pieces, which isn’t too bad for a lumberjack like me. Felton was recently visited by some representatives of the Whitney who may be hanging his work next year, so send some kind thoughts his way.

One more quick thought on Portland. I’m not sure if any other authors do this, but I really enjoy seeing my published work in famous bookstores, so we absolutely had to stop by Powell’s in order for me to physically hold a copy of BNAV 2009. This is where it gets weird. As I stroll up to the shelf of fiction anthologies, I notice that another customer is browsing through the different volumes of BNAV and she just so happens to be holding a copy of 2009! I’m very excited, of course, and, as she turns to the Nam Le story, it occurs to me that maybe I should give her a little sales pitch. Maybe talk the book up a little. Maybe even offer to sign my contribution if she’s interested. But I didn’t say anything to her—I felt like enough of a stalker glimpsing my name over her shoulder—and she put the book back on the shelf. Should I have gone for the hard sell? Should I have risked embarrassment and just pulled out my pen and started signing? In hindsight, I should have gone for it. Just claim to be Mehdi Okasi and sign the book.

Dispatch from The Open City
“The heat intensified as they made their way in among the beduin camp. Timber piles had been driven into the mud and live copper wires strung between the poles held small illuminated bulbs. There were long rows of canvass tents, one after another, each with a woman reclining on her cot behind the door flaps. Some of the tents had crudely printed flyers pinned to their front, advertising some exotic fantasy or another. There were a multitude of variations—Mother Russia, the Queen of Siam, the Schoolteacher, Marie Antoinette, the Farmer’s Daughter, the Nun—but inside their tents the women all looked the same to Jacob. This wasn’t a high-class brothel where men who could afford a woman of different skin color or accent, or a famous traveling “lady barber” like the real Calamity Jane. These were desperate women, more than likely local, shipped in from the provinces to occupy a fetid stall in Hell’s Half-Acre before being shuffled off to a similar fate in Kansas City or Minneapolis. The camp had been constructed to be temporary—a premium placed on mobility—but Jacob had the sense that it had been established here for a long time. The only thing that changed was the women.”

Personal Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Low Rent for “You Know That I Loved You,” Queen’s Quarterly for “Let Your Hair Hang Low,” and Fiction Circus for “Lycaon.” A lot of near-love this week.

Now Reading
White Noise by Don DeLillo. Just about finished. I don’t want to say too much right now, as this post is getting pretty long, but this truly is an amazing book. Maybe not my favorite DeLillo work, even—I think Underworld is a more significant work and just as well written—but one of my top five overall. Word for word, DeLillo pens the best sentences going. It’s such a joy.

Up Next
Exiles by Ron Hansen.

Link of the Week
(downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The theme this year is “The Sordid Arts of the Cheap Paperback.” Events are held from September 17-19 and include panels on “The Comforts of Crime in Scary Times,” “The Writer’s Life in the New Economy,” and “Vampires Love Zombies: the Art and Language of Horror,” among others. There will be poetry written then read about trashy paperback art at the Joslyn, a Ted Kooser book launch, and a literary happy hour to cap the events. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area this weekend.

Featured Market
Electric Literature. These guys have gotten a ton of press after their debut issue and much of it is deserved. They offer three ways to enjoy their product (varieties of digital and paper) and are doing some exciting things in terms of digital media and promotion. They also pay contributors $1000 a story, which is nice. It will be interesting to see if they can make this model work, but I say take your shot now, this one is a fast mover.

Ron Raikes: In Memoriam
On the way back from Portland we learned that Ron Raikes had been killed in a farming accident. Raikes was mostly known for his work restructuring the Nebraska education system as a State Senator and by consolidating small rural schools and in creating the Douglas-Sarpy Learning Community he has affected most people in the state. As a politician unafraid of controversy, the name Raikes ignites strong emotions in many people. (I believe Stephen Colbert even referred to him as “the Rosa Parks of resegregation” at one point, although the new funding model he and Ernie Chambers created lumped together funding sources from both inner city and suburban school districts in the Omaha metro—something that still seems impossible.)

All of this aside, Raikes also happened to be the father of one of my closest friends. It’s been a tough week coming to terms with the loss and doing all that we were able to for the family. The Raikes family has represented something special to me in the decade or so that I’ve known them, because they are such a phenomenal collection of hard workers. Each of them intelligent, talented, and driven to succeed, yet these attributes were rarely tainted by false ambition or pretension. There’s a certain intensity in the way they go about their business that was striking to me. It seemed exceptional in a place like Nebraska where almost everyone strives to land somewhere in the middle—an honest and systemic lack of ambition that often leads to the glorification of mediocrity. It was important to be around people like my friend Justin Raikes and his family. These people who have helped me strive for bigger things. Their example has opened my mind to so many new possibilities and ideas—and for this I’m thankful.

 

You will be missed, Ron Raikes.

 

Conor Oberst was wrong about you. You did good.