Omaha author Timothy Schaffert delivers again with his new novel, The Swan Gondola.
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 Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, Devils 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 until Gondola 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.”
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 Gondola were 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 http://www.timothyschaffert.com.