Interview with Timothy Schaffert
Author of The Swan Gondola
Interviewed by Jack Hill
Your latest novel, The Swan Gondola (Riverhead Books, 2014), set during The Omaha's World's Fair in 1898, has garnered much praise thus far, and many reviewers have written about the authenticity of the Victorian style of the novel—The Washington Post writes: “The jaunty Victorian temperament of the prose rings true to the era, as do its thoroughness and attention to detail.” Can you tell us about the process in which you were able to nail down the Victorian “temperament” as well as how did you approach developing the extremely fresh and memorable voice of your narrator, Ferret Skerritt?
On some level, I've always been inclined toward that temperament, mostly from Victorian novels and films set in the Victorian era. The novels of Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Lewis Carroll, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde; I love slipping into those worlds, whether its through the work itself or cinematic interpretations of the work with their attention to costume and atmosphere. I'll watch every film adaptation of "Great Expectations" and "Jane Eyre" they ever bother to make. But "The Swan Gondola" is set toward the late end of the Victorian period, the belle epoque, so I was reading and rereading the novels of that era: "Sister Carrie," "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets," "The Awakening." And "The Wizard of Oz," of course. But I'd say I was most influenced by the newspapers and magazines of the 1890s, which I accessed via libraries, either on-site or online. Most useful was the Library of Congress website, and its collection of historic newspapers.
There are several thematic threads running through The Swan Gondola such as illusion/delusion, a physical and emotional “outgrowing,” creating new identities through superficial means such as costumes, and a longing for grandeur. Could you tell us about how some of these themes developed and how they might connect to the Omaha/Trans-Mississippi region during the 1890's?
When you look at photographs of the Exposition, or of any of those turn-of-the-century spectacles, you're struck by the extravagance of the attire among the upper and middle classes; and even the poor had to cover themselves top to toe. Within 25 years, all of that would change radically -- its hard to believe that some of those little girls who attended the Expo, in all their ribbons and ruffles, could conceivably grow up to be flappers. When reading about the 1890s, the newspaper pages devoted to fashions and trends and entertainment provided so much insight into the day to day of the lives they led. As did the advertisements that spoke to everyone's insecurities and anxieties -- "lost manhood," "female maladies," any number of named and numbered illnesses that could have easily have come from the way they dressed -- exhaustion, constriction, suffocation. One of my favorite details -- though I can't remember if it made it into the book -- was that a particularly fashionable shade of green was made of a dye that included arsenic. It was a toxicity used in wallpaper and toys. I loved how so many domestic trappings were potentially fatal.
In your Author's Note at the end of The Swan Gondola you encourage readers to visit the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition Digital Archive for which you are Project Director, and you note that The Omaha's World's Fair is a “fictional approximation” of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. Can you tell us about some similarities and differences between the exposition and the fair? And, also, can you tell us about the research process for The Swan Gondola?
The real expo and the one in my novel are very much the same -- so much so, that we included an illustration of a bird's-eye view of the exposition that ran as a centerfold in a popular magazine of the day. At first, I intended on following the facts as closely as possible -- if it rained on a particular day in June, then it would rain in my novel. If the live-baby incubator exhibit was located in the North Midway, rather than the East Midway, then there it would stay, no matter how inconvenient for my characters. I'm not sure how I got that foolishness into my head -- I guess I felt some pressure toward exactitude as I don't think there's ever been a novel set in turn-of-the-century Omaha, and there may not be another one for a while. But the exposition is literally a vanished city, built for obsolescence. Its wrecking contracts were part of the foundation of its funding. So I did strive to maintain the very essence of the event and the city, but did take some logical liberties. I moved exhibits around depending on whether the characters needed to take a long walk or a short one, from one to the other. I shifted the calendar around depending on when it fit best into the plot for President McKinley to visit. There actually was a flower parade, a runaway horse, and choir of orphans -- just not all within the same hour and vicinity.
As for research, I read the Omaha Bee, the daily at the time, religiously, via the Library of Congress website. I did Google Books searches that were limited to the 19th century, so that I was working directly with the historical record in seeking medical treatments, fashion trends, recipes, news of the Spanish-American War, rather than dealing with history filtered through later perspective, though I did read some of those books too. I fell down many rabbit holes, getting caught up in old books on ventriloquism, famous theater personas, etc. I would go seeking one slight detail about superstition, for a sentence fragment, and the whole afternoon would vanish.
On pg. 90 of The Swan Gondola, Alonzo talks about the postcards containing photographs of naked women that he keeps, saying, “If I look at them as much as I want to [. . .] the beauty will wear off too soon.” In that, the romance between Ferret and Cecily was somehow instantly amplified for me—the notion that love is fleeting, or possibly in our heads, or awesomely subjective—and I was completely sucked into their story. Can you tell us more about the romance between Ferret and Cecily and how you developed it? Did research play a role? What sort of inspirations did you draw on?
We learn from the get-go that the romance is doomed; Ferret's hot-air balloon comes crashing down onto the farm, and he's instantly a romantic figure in the village. He writes letters to his lost love, and he cultivates his own legend, as his story is told. I think that all necessarily influences his own perspective. Cecily, and the romance, as honest as it all felt, is so much part of his imagination. When he meets her, he's instantly infatuated. He doesn't understand the obstacles. But for Cecily, everything's all too real. She's poor, a mother, unmarried. She works for a living. Romance would be a luxury for her. A man like him and a woman like her, despite their relative poverty, simply wouldn't be standing on the same ground in turn-of-the-century America.
What are you currently working on?
Another novel set largely in the world of entertainment in the American West of the early 20th century; it's about the rise and fall, and rise and fall, of a character who begins as a child vaudeville star and becomes a dancer in silent-era cinema. And another doomed love affair plays a significant part. As does the Titanic.
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Timothy Schaffert’s latest novel, “The Swan Gondola” (Riverhead/Penguin 2014), is a story of love and ghosts set among the flimflam men, snake-oil salesmen, occultists, and actresses of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. Schaffert is the author of four other novels, all from Unbridled Books: “The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters,” “The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God,” “Devils in the Sugar Shop,” and “The Coffins of Little Hope.” His work has been a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection, an Indie Next pick, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is the director/founder of the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, and is a contributing editor to Fairy Tale Review. – http://www.timothyschaffert.com/