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)


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


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


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.


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


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.


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).


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.


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

Bad Connections

As I was working on my review of Marcy Dermansky’s excellent novel Bad Marie (up on The Millions, by the way) a few ideas popped up that didn’t really fit in the review. They were mostly questions about how authors connect with readers through “bad” characters—bad meaning anything from those lacking a sense of acceptable morality, to liars, cheaters, criminals and abusers of different kinds, to those characters who are just basically losers, to curmudgeons and those who can’t keep their mouths shut. They are tricksters mostly, as they function in a literary sense.

I should note that as I began working on this post, I came across this awesome essay by Emily St. John Mandel on The Millions (“In Praise of Unlikable Characters”) which nearly silenced me here. She says many things I was thinking, and in much more lucid terms than I could manage. It’s a great read and you should check it out. Anyway, as I said, it nearly convinced me to forgo this post. Nearly. But her essay is framed around likability, which isn’t exactly what I mean to get at.

It seems counterintuitive that we would be drawn to characters of poor moral fiber, but it does make a certain amount of sense when one thinks about it. In any intimate communication, we often connect more readily with others when revealing our faults. This is why relationships bloom much quicker when we’re under the influence or on the Internet, right? It’s how we give ourselves an aura of humanity, by painting in the shadows behind us; and for a writer, it’s how we make a character real. Moreover, in both cases, it makes for a much more interesting narrative that we’re trying to sell someone on. Exhibiting faults, or having a sense of honest dishonesty, creates an intimacy that is far more satisfying than you could have with any character who’s approaching perfection.

On one level, it’s hitting at the secret fears of readers. The fears we have about what kind of people we really are—not who we try to convince others we are, or who we want to be. These are the memes attractive to introspective, personal guilt readers—a group I often fall in with—those in search of catharsis. These are the kinds of faults one cannot help, like Gregor Samsa waking from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic insect. It hurts others, it’s bad, but he can’t help it. That’s life.

On another level, admissions of badness provide a sort of fantasy. It’s an enactment of guilty pleasure taken to extremes. This is why it’s so interesting to see a character like Marie in Bad Marie get drunk at work, or indulge in taboo sexual relationships. You get to go along for the ride, without endangering your own livelihood or marriage. I’m not sure if it’s necessary that these kinds of characters get their comeuppance in the end, but my instinct tells me that it is.

I don’t mean to suggest that you can’t interact with a text on both of these levels at the same time either. Curb Your Enthusiasm is an excellent example of this. The character Larry David, a classic trickster, has a profound capacity to expose the foibles of the society he lives in. He says what we all wish we would say—to a degree anyway—in response to the hypocrisy and idiocy we’re confronted with on a daily basis. Maybe you wouldn’t want to say it exactly like Larry does, but having the daring to speak your mind is something we all wish for at one time or another. Larry certainly has that. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The plot must be satisfied, and the fact that Larry is a spectacular screw-up means that the plot always will be satisfied. No matter how astute he may appear in pointing out the shortcomings of others, the fact remains that Larry is still a card-carrying member of the same idiotic society. He’s the one standing outside a hotel after an earthquake, draped in a bed sheet with a hole cut in it; he’s the one who must apologize to a smug Ted Danson, or sleep alone, or who embarrasses himself beyond all expectation; he’s the loudmouth who reminds you why it’s usually better to keep your mouth shut. The end of those long winding plots is where guilty pleasure and catharsis meet.

For those who read like I do, or watch TV like I do, or meet people on the street like I do, a struggling character of poor moral fiber is always more interesting. Someone who falls short of doing the right thing, whether they’re actually trying to do the right thing or not. Then it’s better if they can improve, or at least instructive if they don’t even try to. It’s more honest, and maybe more familiar to how we see ourselves and others.