Nebraska author Timothy Schaffert sets his sweeping new novel against the dramatic backdrop of the 1898 World's Fair, where a con man falls in love with a beautiful magician's assistant. We caught up with Schaffert, currently a professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, to ask him a few questions about the book.
Your novel's narrator is Ferret Skerritt, “ventriloquist by trade, con man by birth.” To what extent are you, as an author, a ventriloquist or a con man?
As a fiction writer, you’re creating a kind of illusion, I suppose. And with that illusion, you seek to convince. But unlike a con man (or con woman, as there was great gender equality in the field of thievery in the 1890s), an author doesn’t want to take anything. You want to leave it all behind. So you’re kind of a reverse thief, sidling up to folks so you can leave something in their pockets.
Ferret’s dummy Oscar is a character in his own right. What did you learn about the history of ventriloquism when researching this book?
I read issues of a turn-of-the-century magazine called Magic, which was “devoted solely to the interests of magicians, jugglers, hand shadowists, ventriloquists, lightning cartoonists and specialty entertainers.” Just in that description on the magazine’s front page, you gain insights into the entertainment of the day. But it was a how-to guide by Charles H. Olin that taught me how a ventriloquist of the day would have developed the physical skills required, and I worked some of that into Ferret’s own apprenticeship—things like how to prepare the throat both externally and internally, and how to keep your lips still. I don’t know if any of it was good advice, but Ferret swore by it.
"[A]s a writer, you get into character, like an actor. You explore your own emotions and sensibilities, so that what you’re expressing is genuine."
Did dummies really have hidden bells and whistles—as Oscar does?
There were all varieties of homunculi in the age of the dime museum and vaudeville theater. You would have seen the most bells and whistles in the automaton, which came in all sorts of sizes and characters. One of the attractions at the Omaha World’s Fair was Psycho, a small wax figure that did some meager magic tricks—most notoriously he could win at any game of whist—via remote control and compressed air.
And how about the rest of your research? What were some of the craziest facts you learned about the 1898 Omaha World Fair?
The Fair gave the reporters of the local dailies an endless supply of craziness—at once you had all the high-mindedness of the endeavor with its commitment to art and beauty and majesty, and meanwhile the city attracted all sorts of crime and corruption. One man was threatened with his life when he refused to pay the exorbitant fee he was charged by a local barber for a mustache dye. And, of course, there were the prostitutes who did swift business. But I think my favorite story is about the Salvation Army lieutenant who was so disgusted by the classical statuary of naked cherubs and such, she took a hatchet to them. But the statues were mostly just plaster of Paris, so the woman was arrested and the statues quickly repaired. Her vandalism inspired a cartoon in LIFE magazine.
You’re an Omaha native. Is the World’s Fair still part of the collective consciousness there?
Not really. There are certainly many people devoted to its study, and to its artifacts, but Omaha’s collective consciousness seems mostly focused on the city’s future rather than its past; we’re keen to help shape the national culture. And that was certainly the sensibility that drove the very design and development of the Fair. We wanted the world to take notice. For over a century now, Omaha has been on the verge of discovery.
The threat of war is quietly present throughout the novel. Did you want the sinking of the Maine to play a role in your story?
If you’re going to write a book set in 1898, you’re going to have to write about the Maine. “Remember the Maine” was a national catchphrase—memorializing the Maine was an industry in and of itself, influencing music and fashion and design. But, of course, we’ve forgotten the Maine. The Spanish-American War isn’t a war we study in school, is it? Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how the politics and ambitions of the time so starkly parallel ours today—economic turmoil, big business, agricultural anxieties, populist movements, the role of media in the fighting of a war.
From tornados to emerald cathedrals, your writing seems influenced by The Wizard of Oz. Are you an L. Frank Baum fan?
The Wizard of Oz, we’re told in the original book of 1900, was from Omaha; he worked as a ventriloquist and entertainer, and finally left in a balloon. So that character was an inspiration for my novel, and I definitely drew from Baum’s world, and from the illustrations by W.W. Denslow.
Let’s talk about Ferret’s love interest, Cecily, who has her head chopped off nightly in a traveling magic show. Do you think she’s a tragic character?
Women at the time didn’t have a great number of opportunities if they were unmarried past a certain age. There were few jobs available to them, and those jobs didn’t pay well. There were indeed women who achieved a great deal at the time, and forged the paths for women of the 20th century, but if you were poor—as so many women were then—you struggled.
For a book that’s unabashedly romantic, The Swan Gondola never becomes schmaltzy or melodramatic. How do you strike a balance?
Melodrama was at the heart of so much entertainment at the time; and my characters are in the entertainment business. They thrive on melodrama. They navigate all its possibilities. And the choices they make reflect somewhat the natures of the characters they play on stage. But yes, as a writer, I wanted to avoid melodrama in the writing of the novel itself. But as a writer, you get into character, like an actor. You explore your own emotions and sensibilities, so that what you’re expressing is genuine.
As a creative writing teacher, what’s the one thing you tell your students to never do?
Never stop writing. There are any number of obstacles, and any number of reasons to give up. Even if nobody is publishing what you write, write anyway. My students are all so young—they’re just finding their voices.
What are you working on next?
A novel about a child vaudeville star who becomes the most famous man in America. But, of course, things don’t go quite as he’d hoped.
Read our review of The Swan Gondola.