Omaha-based author and local literary favorite Timothy Schaffert will release his latest novel, The Swan Gondola, next week. The writer’s fifth novel is a love story set during the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, or Trans-Mississippi International Exposition. To celebrate the launch of his book, Schaffert will visit Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark Main Library next Friday, February 7, 2014 to discuss his work and sign copies of his book.
Schaffert’s appearance is part of an opening reception event for an exhibit showcasing OPL’s collection of Omaha’s World’s Fair memorabilia. The opening event is free and open to the public, as is the exhibit which runs February 7-28 in the Michael Phipps Gallery on the first floor of Main Library.
The writer took time out of his busy schedule to chat Omaha, libraries and The Swan Gondola with OPL as part of our 5 Questions series. He has a lot to share, so enjoy!
1.) How would you describe Omaha?
I’ve been so immersed in research, I probably have a better sense of Omaha at the turn of the century than I do of Omaha today. But during the most recent turn of the century, at the turn of the millennium, I worked for some newspapers in town, and wrote a great deal about Omaha. For me, the city had a charming rough-and-tumble quality — we loved writing about the dive bars and the steakhouses and the down-on-their-heels pizza parlors. We worked in a decrepit former radio station (my office had a burnt-out “on the air” sign) across the street from the 49’r, where there was only one martini on the menu: stiff. This was, and still is, the character of the city for me. There was something glamorous about the city’s indifference to glamour. But these days I’m most interested in the efforts of the artists in town, and art projects, like the Union for Contemporary Art, and the new haunts for the Blue Barn Theater. I look forward to seeing plays at the Blue Barn, then going down the street to Cascio’s for hash browns and gin.
2.) Thoughts on public libraries?
Libraries are vital and serve diverse purposes to diverse communities within a city. Because of generation after generation of libraries and librarians, and the history they’ve preserved and made available, I’m able to conduct research, and to follow so many different paths into various archives, whether I’m at the library or at my laptop. If it wasn’t for librarians and the archival work they’ve done, and the information they’ve sought and provided, Google would answer far fewer questions for us.
3.) Could you walk us through the evolution – from inception to print – of The Swan Gondola?
If you’re going to write a novel set in 1898, you really oughta know something about 1898. So that kept my pages blank for a long time, as I knew so little about the era. I knew I wanted to write about the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, but it took me awhile to find my way to the characters and their stories. I needed to get to know the people of the time, to understand their challenges, their delights, their perspectives, their habits, their fashions. So I started with the Expo itself, checking books out from the library, visiting OPL’s Trans-Mississippi website, searching through Google Books, looking at photos. I read books on the Spanish-American War. And I was able to read facsimiles of the Omaha Bee, one of the dailies, on the Library of Congress website. But a lot of this I was doing as I was writing the book — it was like I was a stage manager following the actors with a script. When they called for a line, I’d have to riffle through pages to see what they should say, and how they should say it. I’d hand them their props.
Once I reached the end of it, I sent it to my editor, and she had many notes and suggestions, and I returned to the book to add some scenes, revise some others. Eventually it went to the copy editor, and she did a very rigorous fact check. Though I had thought I’d looked practically everything up, she found some anomalies here and there. People didn’t say “sourpuss,” for example, or “flophouse.” In my novel, a rich man’s money clip figures prominently in some scenes; but I learned people didn’t really have money clips. I kept the clip in, but changed the wording a bit, so that the rich man’s use of the clip is an innovation.
4.) What five words describe Timothy Schaffert?
I don’t have an answer.
5.) Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
I just pay attention. I mean, I’m not always paying attention to those who are calling for my attention. But it’s often on the periphery of your sight that you find the stories that most interest you.