Omaha is a bit off the beaten track for big name author events, but the past year or so has been an especially rich one in terms of really good literary events (or perhaps I have only belatedly started paying closer attention to what's on offer!). Most recently Margaret Atwood came to speak, Andrea Wulf was a really engaging speaker to listen to (and her book an excellent read by the way), and both Francesca Segal and Jennie Fields were fascinating to hear (must check if the latter two have new books forthcoming). This past week I had not one but two opportunities to hear authors read from their works, answer questions and sign books.
Last week Karen Shoemaker, whose book The Meaning of Names is this year's Omaha Reads selection, spoke at the university where I work as part of their Writer's Workshop Reading Series. It was held in the campus art gallery, a really attractive space, and was well attended. There were quite a lot of students who came ready with questions which I enjoyed hearing, though unfortunately I had to bow out early.
I had another opportunity to hear Karen speak at the Downtown Omaha Litfest, which has been going on since 2005. It is an annual event held every fall which I have somehow managed to miss until this year. Along with Karen there were seven other writers in attendance as well as a number of poets. I was only able to go to the Saturday afternoon panel discussions, so I missed the previous night's opening events as well as the Saturday night poetry reading.
Authors (L-R): Karen Shoemaker, Pamela Carter Joern, and Margaret Lukas. (Top photo shows past posters from previous LitFests).
Authors: (standing in front of table) Tomothy Schaffert (LitFest Director and he led the panel discussions), Rainbow Rowell, Pamela Carter Joern and Karen Shoemaker.
Authors: Timothy Schaffert and Melanie Benjamin.
This year's theme was "Warped: Historical In/Accuracy: Navigating Fact in Fiction Past and Present" and there were four panel discussions: "Midwestern Mythmaking: Nebraska in fiction", "Mixtapes and Jazz Standards: Exploring the past through music", "Past Tense, Future Perfect: Research, history and writing for readers in the present" and "The Aviator's Wife: fiction and biography".
I didn't get a chance to really look around at the space design (that's what happens when you come in late!) but to go with the theme there was a curated exhibit "Museum of Alternative History" which you can see in some of the photos. The Exhibit brings together "a curio cabinet of artists to create and display their own distorted commentaries on the historical aspect of person, place or thing." The displays looked really cool.
It was fascinating to hear the authors speak about their work, the difficulties and challenges they come across in their craft, their inspiration for writing and their experiences in writing and getting published and in some cases helping with the promotion of their books. I found it interesting that one author noted it was harder to stay published than get published in the first place. Melanie Benjamin's first two books "tanked" and she found it much harder to get her next book published and essentially had to reinvent herself. It's worked as her last three books have done well, with her third and most recent giving her the most notoriety.
Omaha author Rainbow Rowell was one of the big draws for the event as her book Eleanor & Park, a YA novel, has done really well and it's obvious from the the full house during her panel discussion that she has quite an impressive fan base. She was paired with another Omaha author, Rebecca Rotert (I had hoped to get photos of all the authors but some of the pictures I took are too out of focus to share) whose book Last Night at the Blue Angel is about Chicago's 1960s Jazz scene. There was an interesting discussion about copyright and using songs/lyrics in novels as well as music in audio books (words from songs are fine but if they are actually sung it is too costly for publishers since they have to pay to use them).
As historical fiction was the overarching theme for this year's LitFest (a type of book I love reading) there was a lot of discussion about period setting and how it might date a book (Rainbow Rowell found that publishers were concerned with pop culture references dating her book--she's quite bold, however, and is willing to take risks with her work so dismissed concerns--and luckily has a supportive editor).
The authors spoke fairly extensively about how they go about writing and the sort of research that goes into their books and how it can be a fine line they walk between using research to support their characters and allowing a story to hang off too much research (a criticism I hear often from readers who are not especially fans of the genre). They face the question of how much research to use and how much to leave out and it is an issue they grapple with. It's an obvious concern for them and I often find myself (at least inwardly) getting impatient with reader's criticisms at times--though I know some authors manage it much better than others.
It was intriguing to hear the authors speak as each had many things in common but each was also entirely unique in terms of how they want to tell a story. In some cases writing about what you know and what you love is their motivation, but others mentioned they write about what haunts them, or they tell stories they would like to read themselves or write purely for their own pleasure getting totally caught up inside themselves when writing a story.
I've barely touched on all the topics discussed but only took very brief notes, so am pulling impressions from memory. This was such a great and interesting conversation with lots of really good questions. It was a really impressive show of talent. Although not all the authors are Nebraska-natives, I was impressed by how many talented local authors Nebraska can boast having.
And, oh yes, the books. It really was my only intention to just go and soak up the atmosphere and listen to the authors (not acquire more books), but when I began hearing about their books I really couldn't resist buying them (I already had Karen Shoemaker's which I am reading now). Here's what I brought home (all the authors who were guest speakers):
The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker -- set in WWI Nebraska about a German-American family and the prejudice they experience.
Farthest House by Margaret Lukas -- a family tale of love, suspense and secrets narrated by a ghost!
In Reach by Pamela Carter Joern -- a collection of interlinked stories set in the fictional Nebraska town of Reach -- I've started reading the first and they look to be very well done, if all the stories are as impressive as the bit I read of the first I am going to be in for a real treat.
The Man Who Walked Away by Maud Casey -- story set in 1880s Europe based loosely on the real-life case history of Albert Dadas who suffered from an uncontrollable urge to wander (and literally set off on foot from Bordeaux to as far as Russia)--this sounds really fascinating as it takes place just at the birth of modern psychiatry.
The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin -- a fictionalized biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She was such an interesting woman I am looking forward to this one--especially after hearing about Melanie Benjamin's experiences writing it--a challenging work since AML's family is still around so Melanie had to be particularly senstive to that.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell -- a book I've been meaning to read (not least as I grew up in the 80s and look forward to a story set in that period--a happy time in my life and I expect to recognize a lot of the story). Had not the lines for copies of this book been so long at the library I would have likely gotten to it much sooner.
Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert --set against the Chicago Jazz scene of the 60s but also a story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship. One of the authors mentioned this was a favorite read of theirs this year so I'm really looking forward to starting it soon.
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert -- already on my wishlist of books to read this year, it is set during the 1898 Omaha World's Fair.
I managed to get all but one of my books signed by the authors. I especially love the bottom one--isn't that drawing great?
This was such a wonderful event--now I have to wait a whole year for the next one (though it may take me that long to read through this pile of books!). Needless to say I will keep an eye out for more literary events, though it might be hard to top this one. Next year I think I'll do a little planning and preparation in anticipation, however, as I went into this one without knowing much about some of the authors. As you can see I made some wonderful new discoveries. I'm already reading Karen Shoemaker's book, but I have itchy fingers to begin one of the others, but where to begin?