An Interview with Timothy Schaffert, the final judge of Psychopomp Magazine’s Short Fiction Contest
Timothy Schaffert is the author of five novels, most recently The Swan Gondola (forthcoming from Riverhead/Penguin in February). He is also the author of: The Coffins of Little Hope (Indie Next pick; starred review from Publishers Weekly);Devils in the Sugar Shop (New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice); The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick); and The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (currently in development as a feature film). He has won the Henfield Award and the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, and has been short-listed for the O. Henry Prize; his story, “Lady of the Burlesque Ballet” was listed as notable in Best American Short Stories 2013. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and serves as a contributing editor for Fairy Tale Review and director of the (downtown) omaha lit fest.
PP: Can you talk about the importance of place/ landscape (particularly Nebraska) in your work? How has your upbringing and place of residence played a role in the characters and worlds you create?
TS: I grew up in rural Nebraska, and most of my novels have been set there, and are, I hope, particularly distinctive of that place – but most of my towns are fictional, and if you set out to chart a map based on the landmarks I provide, you’d be hopelessly lost. I might reroute a highway, or rename a town, or slightly redirect a river. The characters tend to shape the places around them, going wherever they need to go – even their houses end up a bit jumbled in my mind. Until a character needs to walk through a door, there really aren’t any doors. But certainly the characters’ sensibilities and habits are informed by the surrounding culture, and those characters are influenced by the sights and sounds of the region.
But when writing about turn-of-the-century Omaha for The Swan Gondola, I did set out to remain true to the specifics of the place – its businesses and the conditions of its streets and buildings, and its demographics — and took some pleasure in incorporating that research and allowing the vagaries of that existence to inform the psychology of the characters and the conditions of their lives.
PP: Your forthcoming novel, The Swan Gondola, centers around the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. We’re certainly looking forward to the book and it seems to be joining a grand tradition of circus/ carnival/ fair novels (almost a genre in itself). Can you us a little about the conception of this book? Why do you think there is such staying power with such events as a focal point or backdrop?
TS: I’ve always loved that the Wizard of Oz is from Omaha – we see his city’s name emblazoned across his balloon in the movie, but we learn a bit more about his past in the original novel by L. Frank Baum, published in 1900: he studied with a master ventriloquist and generally made a living as a humbug artist. When I learned about the Omaha World’s Fair of 1898, the details of that world dovetailed nicely with my sense of the Wizard’s life before Oz and with Baum’s portrait of turn-of-the-century America and his concept of a “modern” fairy tale. Though my book isn’t a prequel, per se, it is a kind of retelling or revision. But the only fantasy in “The Swan Gondola” is limited to all the mechanical invention, spiritualism, and medical experiments that were taking place at the time.
As for the genre of carnival fiction – perhaps its appeal rests in the hodgepodge of it all. Our concept of an American carnival brings to mind childhood delights, but also an element of the seedy, the deceptive, and the decidedly adult. A carnival is a bit of a fever dream – it’s all cotton candy and sex, on a dirt lot.
PP: While geographically often staying close to home, your books often escape everyday reality and embrace the quirky, outlandish, and sometimes even fantastical. These forays into the eccentric and surreal are entertaining (and poignant) lenses with which to comment on and view the wounds and layers of your characters and their relationships. For you, how important is it to consider stranger worlds even when writing about the realities of this one? And where do you find yourself turning to most often in terms of finding inspiration and flavor to enliven your characters and plots?
TS: There’s a quote from Paul Auster (or I think it was Auster) in an essay somewhere (the title of which I’ve forgotten) that speaks to this very succinctly (much more succinctly than I will here). And I wish I could remember it, or even remember where to look for it. In essence (if I have any of this right at all) Auster suggests that our concept of realism in fiction is warped, while our sense of the warped in fiction is perhaps closer to the real. In other words, that which is most real in our everyday reality is, quite frankly, rather unreal. And that which looks like reality in fiction can sometimes look like a peaked facsimile of the perversity of human nature. The world is stranger than some “realistic” fiction would have us believe (and I think we often feel compelled to put the word “realistic” in quotes for that very reason; with those quotation marks, we can call forth a touch of ironic distance so everyone knows that we’re not so foolish as to think that reality can be properly qualified, or that we purport to have authority over the mercurial nature of realness).
And Auster wrote of these distinctions many years ago, before the dramatic climate changes that have opened up the skies and rained hellfire down, making our own world even more alien to us. So to answer your question, I’d say that the stranger worlds I’m considering are worlds that seem quite familiar to me, and that any quirks and perversities are reflective of the “real” world and its own outlandish social constructs. This may sound disingenuous, when you consider some of the logic my characters follow, and some of the fates that befall them; the brief prologue at the beginning of The Swan Gondola, after all, opens with a hot-air balloon falling onto a farmhouse. It’s an unlikely incident, certainly, but the characters treat it as such. It troubles them, they address it, and soon enough it’s no longer a bit of strangeness but an actuality in their lives. Before, they lived in a world in which they would not have expected to see a hot-air balloon deflate and engulf their house; afterward, they live in a world where such a thing has happened. But it would seem unlikely to them for another hot-air balloon to fall on their house – no matter how many twists their existence holds for them, they still adhere to a “reality,” which proves to be a sensible illusion that’s hard to shake, even when the nearly impossible comes along every now and again.
PP: Which writers would you say were your biggest influences in your development as a writer? Who are you especially excited about now?
TS: When I was in high school, in the 1980s, there were these new adaptations of Tennessee Williams plays – Ann-Margret as Blanche Dubois, Jessica Lange as Maggie the Cat, Joanne Woodward as Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie.” I adored them all, and decided, right there on the farm, that Tennesee Williams was my spiritual godfather. I just loved the things his characters said to each other, and how hot and bothered they all were. I loved the stifling, sweaty atmosphere too, the domestic trappings that were suffocating these exotic creatures. And my love for Williams led me to the other Southern writers, especially Faulkner and Welty who were really the ones who inspired me to study the lyrical invention of their narratives. (And when I say “study,” I mean read and re-read and marvel and swoon.) In my own work, I wanted to do what they did, and devise ways for a description, an image, to be both vivid and musical, to be good to both the eye and the ear.
Right now I’m most excited about a novel coming out from Maud Casey, “The Man Who Walked Away.” I can’t stop telling people about it. So haunting and moving and profound – set partly in a French mental hospital in the late nineteenth century, partly in the villages and countryside, mostly focused on the affliction of the man of the title and the young bicycle-riding doctor determined to save him. And I have to also mention the brilliance of Kate Bernheimer, who I’ve been fortunate enough to work with on some projects here and there throughout the years, and whose novels and stories (particularly the novels about the Gold Sisters) are such a dream. And, of course, through her editorial work, she has led a revolution in the way we look at fairy tales in the 21st century.
PP: I’ve noticed that you’re a fan of American Horror Story. We’re big fans ourselves––The deft storytelling, the recurring cast, the fact that we finally have a horror series on television that breaks free from teenage romance and has the freedom to explore the genre in different ways each season. What is it about the show that gets you excited?
TS: I suspect I would love “American Horror Story” even if Jessica Lange wasn’t in it, but luckily she is in it, and it’s such a pleasure to watch her every gesture and flinch. Her characters are so venal and sharp and vicious; and there’s more than a touch of the Southern gothic, most directly this season, with the story set in New Orleans. And it’s a kind of artful camp, I think: comical and witty without being glib; grotesque without being morbid, with a good bit of soap opera. It’s the kind of series that Bette Davis would have done in her “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” days. I’m also madly in love with “Masters of Sex,” which is such a delicate and insightful exploration of infidelity and curiosity and heartbreak. And the character of Virginia Johnson just seems like one we’ve never seen on TV before; I’m mad about her.
PP: Let’s say you’re judging Psychopomp Magazine’s first fiction contest. What kinds of things first grab your attention when you read a story? As a writer do you find yourself drawn to certain kinds of openings?
TS: Voice. If I’m captured by the narrative voice, whether it’s first person or third, I’m immediately hooked. But I’m certainly not drawn to any particular kind of opening; I don’t have to be hooked by the opening. I want to be intrigued, I want to be curious, but I don’t have to be excited from the get-go. Sometimes it takes several paragraphs for a story to build the foundation it needs.
PP: What advice would you give to submitters regarding the opening paragraphs?
TS: Sometimes your story starts in the second paragraph. So many times the first sentence of the second paragraph is a great opening line. You don’t have to establish everything in the first paragraph; toss us in, and let us catch up.
PP: What are instant deal breakers for you when you read a story? Conversely, what elevates a story to become more than the sum of its parts?
TS: I don’t think there’s an instant deal-breaker. But I do generally tell my students not to have a character wake up at the beginning of a story, or at the end of a story. I’ve seen too many alarm clocks ringing in first sentences, and too many characters evaluating their appearances in the bathroom mirror after rolling out of bed. And, of course, too many characters waking from a dream at the end.
PP: Any other advice to writers submitting to contests?
TS: If you lose, it means nothing. I predict that some of the stories that I don’t reward will go on to great success. Literary tastes are blissfully ethereal.