Karen Gettert Shoemaker wears many hats: writer, teacher, business owner, wife, mother, grandmother. Now she may add to that list “Omaha Reads author.” Her novel The Meaning of Names was selected by public vote as the Omaha Reads book selection for 2014.
Shoemaker is a Nebraskan through-and-through. She grew up near O’Neill, a town of 3,500 people 185 miles northwest of Omaha. She received her Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1997, is a writing mentor with the University of Nebraska’s MFA in Writing program, owns a business in Lincoln with her husband, and released Nebraska-set The Meaning of Names, her second body of work, earlier this year.
Every September, Omaha Public Library encourages the community to read one book as part of the Omaha Reads campaign. The announcement for this year’s selection came on August 11, 2014. Naturally, the news had Shoemaker giddy.
“I was sitting at my sister’s kitchen table when I [learned] my novel had been selected for Omaha Reads 2014,” Shoemaker shared. “I immediately jumped up from my chair and began bouncing up and down with excitement. My sister… joined me in a happy dance all around her kitchen. Waiting for the announcement has been like being five years old and waiting for Christmas morning.”
Names is set midst the World War One era and follows the fictional story of Gerda Vogel and her family in 1918 Holt County, Nebraska. Even the quiet calm of farm country cannot shelter the American family of German descent from prejudice, violence, and a plague unlike the world has ever seen. Wrote the Lincoln Journal Star of the book: “This slender volume is deceptive in size. It is a book of big themes, true history and serious art, focusing on our Nebraska of not so long ago.”
The novel, released earlier this year on the centennial of the First World War, had been in the works for some time. Shoemaker underwent an intense research process, one that eventually required taming in order to get words onto paper and the novel to fruition.
“In one sense, I’ve been researching this novel my entire life,” Shoemaker confessed. “The impetus for it was the family and local stories I heard while growing up in Holt County, where most of the novel is set. When I first took up fiction writing I was pretty sure I didn’t want to write about Nebraska of the early 1900s. Willa Cather had already staked a pretty solid claim on that territory and I didn’t want to pitch my artistic vision against that formidable wall. However, what I knew about that time and those people from the stories I had heard would not let go of me and so I started digging deeper, searching out the context of those stories. I started out reading about the flu epidemic and that led to reading about WWI. Research led to more research and I began seeking not only information about the times, but also information from the times. I began reading primary documents – newspapers, journals, letters, – anything I could find written by the people who had lived then and who had written it down during the time period. The research process was so fascinating I almost never got a word written. I finally had to put a sticky note on my computer that read, ‘Research is Not Writing!’”
Nebraska plays an incredible role in the novel, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the state runs through the author’s veins. “The beauty of Nebraska is the kind that unfolds slowly,” Shoemaker shared. “Nebraska is a kind of ever-changing canvas: our seasons, our people, our landscape even, are never quite the same from one day to the next.”
“I’ve walked many times with new visitors to the state along the trails at Spring Creek Prairie … as we walk, the chaotic noise in our heads quiets down and our other senses come alive, our vision clears … you begin to see what is here instead of what you expected to see, Nebraska begins to unfold its real nature, a study of dramatic contrasts.”
Just as Nebraska has played a big role in Shoemaker’s life, so have books and libraries. “I can’t imagine how much poorer my life would have been without libraries,” she said. “I have always loved books – my mother used to tell me she wouldn’t know me without a book in front of my face – so I spent many happy hours at the public library in O’Neill, and later in the libraries at St. Mary’s school. I remember walking home from the library with my sisters, each of us carrying as many books as we thought we could read in two weeks before they were due back, and wanting either to walk faster so I could get home and start reading or just sit down under a tree and start reading right away.”
The author still frequents libraries as an adult. “My late fees become a form of financial support for our local library. There may have been talk of including me in the annual budget in some way,” she joked. Officially, she’s on the board of the Nebraska Literary Heritage Association at Lincoln City Libraries and volunteers with the Lunch at the Library speaker series.
Plenty is on the horizon for Shoemaker, who has several projects in the works. One includes a novel that “is in its fifth or five hundredth incarnation.” She has produced complete “unsatisfactory” drafts of two other novels and has files of research ready for another, the latter being perhaps what she’s anticipating the most. “What’s holding me back is that it has the potential of pulling me in so deep I’ll forget how to live in real time, so I keep setting it aside until I can get some extended time and space around me. I find I write best on writing retreats when I can get away from daily life.”
Wearing all those hats keeps Shoemaker busy. “I can find any number of excuses not to write, but I persist at ploddingly following the dream of writing the kind of books I’d like to read.”
Congratulations to Shoemaker on this year’s selection of her novel; we hope to see Names in the hands of many readers in Omaha come September. Reserve your copy today and plan to meet the author at a special event on Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at the South Hall of the German-American Society. Click here for a list of other pertinent events happening in September.