Please welcome Timothy Schaffert to the blog! His brand new book, THE SWAN GONDOLA, just came out, and he was nice enough to answer a few of my questions!
Congratulations on the new book! THE SWAN GONDOLA is set amongst the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair-what a magical setting! Will you tell us a little more about the book and what inspired you to write it?
I’d had some interest in turn-of-the-century World’s Fairs, especially the one that occurred in my home state, and I got caught up in the photos of the event, and the news stories; the most interesting stories concerned the hucksters and thieves, the pickpockets and vaudevillians. So the character of Ferret Skerrit emerged from all that ruckus – he’s a ventriloquist and magician, and he falls in love with Cecily, an actress. They spend their summer in love, until a rich industrialist complicates things. And ultimately, much of the tale hinges on love letters.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I grew up on a farm in the middle of Nebraska, and as a kid I was always wandering around the fields, coming up with stories, then going to my room and writing them down. So yes, I’ve always been working on something. I wrote plays in high school, directed them, acted in them. In college, I studied with the short-story writers Gerald Shapiro and Judith Slater, and I learned so much from them.
Most people assume that a book’s main character is the one that an author enjoys writing the most, but what was one of your favorite characters to write?
I certainly loved getting into the heads of Ferret and Cecily, but I also took to August, a friend of Ferret’s, a dandy who makes a living selling patent medicines and cure-alls. His every comment is sort of bemused and withering, but he’s perpetually heartbroken.
What kind of research did you do for the book, and what was one of the most fascinating things you discovered?
The Omaha Public Library has an extensive collection of images from the event (and they’re all available via a new digital partnership between the library and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, at trans-mississippi.unl.edu), and I also relied a great deal on the Omaha Bee, which was one of the dailies at the time, and which you can view on the Library of Congress website. But I also read turn-of-the-century books on entertainment (melodramas, vaudeville, ventriloquism, automatons), and fashion magazines of the day, and also some more current books on the Spanish-American War, and studies about opportunities for women, such as “Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York” by Kathy Peiss, and “The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City” by Sharon E. Wood, about the women of Davenport, Iowa. Ultimately, I was most fascinated by the patent medicines, and medicine in general. The advertisements in the Omaha Bee are primarily focused on curatives for all sorts of nonexistent conditions, especially remedies for “female maladies”: these patent medicines sought to convince women they were ill even if they just felt the slightest bit sleepy at the end of a long day. And these nostrums were taxed, and those taxes supported battle in Cuba, so the government was somewhat complicit in all of this. And, of course, some of these medicines – such as those that contained morphine and cocaine – were terribly dangerous.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A little bit of both, but so much shaping and structuring is ultimately done in revision. So I like to have some notion of my direction before I begin, even though I abandon many of those early decisions as I follow the characters’ paths. But it’s not unusual for me to take some of those original abandoned plot points and incorporate them into the novel in the revision process.
What are a few of your favorite authors or novels?
I love Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” and the short stories of Eudora Welty; I love Paul Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky” and Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” Christina Stead’s “The Man Who Loved Children,” and “Enemies, A Love Story,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. “Pedro Paramo” by Juan Rulfo. I fall in love with books all the time, though I don’t know that I have favorites, per se. I guess I probably return to Welty more than any other writer.
What are you reading now?
“A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940” by Victoria Wilson.
What’s something you’ve learned since becoming a published author that has surprised you, and what piece of advice would you give to an aspiring author?
When I first started publishing, the social networks weren’t yet a thing – even book blogging was very rare (did we even yet have the word “blog” in 2002?), so I’ve been surprised by how vital those online book conversations have become, and how passionate they are, and how invigorating they are to the book community. I think they can be credited with helping to keep books vital while other media lament some kind of perceived decline in reading. An aspiring writer should join in on this conversation; and if you can become an expert on something, then you can build a platform online and join any number of conversations. Eventually these people will be your readers, and they’ll be the voices that spread word about your work.
When you’re not busy at work on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
I have a family that consists of my partner and our dog (a St. Dane: a Great Dane and St. Bernard mix). In my free time, I confess that I’m happiest when I’m just at home with them, on the sofa, marathonning through some TV series. Most recently it was the Todd Haynes/Kate Winslet miniseries, “Mildred Pierce,” which was mesmerizing, unsettling, and haunting. I want to watch it all again.
What’s next for you?
My next novel takes place all over the map, and all across the calendar: in an old abandoned train station, in vaudeville theaters in Omaha and New York, on a peony farm, and on the set of a silent movie.
Timothy also wrote a rather awesome guest piece for Carolyn Turgeon, and you can read that here.
About THE SWAN GONDOLA:
A lush and thrilling romantic fable about two lovers set against the scandalous burlesques, midnight séances, and aerial ballets of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair.
On the eve of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth, isn’t quite sure how it will change him or his city. Omaha still has the marks of a filthy Wild West town, even as it attempts to achieve the grandeur and respectability of nearby Chicago. But when he crosses paths with the beautiful and enigmatic Cecily, his whole purpose shifts and the fair becomes the backdrop to their love affair.
One of a traveling troupe of actors that has descended on the city, Cecily works in the Midway’s Chamber of Horrors, where she loses her head hourly on a guillotine playing Marie Antoinette. And after closing, she rushes off, clinging protectively to a mysterious carpetbag, never giving Ferret a second glance. But a moonlit ride on the swan gondola, a boat on the lagoon of the New White City, changes everything, and the fair’s magic begins to take its effect.
From the critically acclaimed author of The Coffins of Little Hope, The Swan Gondola is a transporting read, reminiscent of Water for Elephants or The Night Circus.