According to native Nebraskan Timothy Schaffert, his fifth novel, The Swan Gondola (Riverhead, Feb.), which is about star-crossed lovers and is set against the backdrop of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, was inspired by The Wizard of Oz. Like generations of children, Schaffert, who is now 45, grew up watching the classic 1939 film on television when it aired during the holidays each year. “It was always a kick to see the Wizard spirited away in a balloon emblazoned with the words, ‘State Fair Omaha,’ ” he recalls.
I met Schaffert at a noisy hotel bar in Denver, crowded with booksellers and authors in town for the annual Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association regional trade show. He says it wasn’t just the magic and exuberance of that particular scene that appealed to him—it was the local shout-out and the visual blooper: he and his family had gone to the Nebraska State Fair many times, and he knew that the fairgrounds were in Lincoln, not Omaha. Schaffert was raised on an 80-acre farm 150 miles west of Omaha, the son of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mother.
In 2006, when Schaffert was living in Omaha and working as an adjunct instructor in the University of Nebraska’s English Department, having already published the novels The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (Penguin/Blue Hen, 2002) and The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (Unbridled, 2005), a local newspaper commissioned him to write a piece on iconic characters in literature and film with links to the Gate City. At the same time, he was writing a ghost story set in Victorian-era Omaha. While researching the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair for his ghost story and researching the Wizard of Oz for the newspaper story (in L. Frank Baum’s original novel, published in 1900, the Wizard hailed from Omaha, where he had worked first as a ventriloquist’s apprentice and then a balloonist), Schaffert had an idea. “I became curious about what the Wizard might have been before Oz, when all his magic was only sleight of hand; I was captivated by the notion of a magician/ventriloquist in the turn-of-the-century Midwest, among the vaudeville acts, clairvoyants, and humbug artists who capitalized on the unexplainable,” he says. “It seemed so natural. I was surprised that it hadn’t been considered before.”
In a not-too-subtle homage to Dorothy’s landing in Oz in the movie, The Swan Gondola opens with the crash landing of a hot air balloon in a field owned by two elderly sisters, who have moved to Nebraska from Maine. The balloon holds a young ventriloquist con man named Ferret Skerritt, who is nursing a broken heart, along with the broken leg he sustains after his tumble in the balloon. As Skerritt, tended by the two sisters, heals from his physical wounds, he tries to also recover from the emotional wounds of his doomed love affair with the mysterious and enigmatic Cecily, a member of a traveling troupe of actors who are in town to work the fair. Cecily plays Marie Antoinette in the Chamber of Horrors, ascending the guillotine every hour to be beheaded before crowds of gawkers who’ve paid to watch the gruesome spectacle.
The love affair between these two damaged people, who survive by deceiving others, mirrors the artifice of the fairgrounds, with its splendid facade hiding the seediness that lurks beside and beneath it. And, like the fair itself, the relationship between Ferret and Cecily turns out to be a fleeting melodrama, as she eventually leaves him for William Wakefield, a wealthy entrepreneur.
“I always knew the novel needed to begin with that falling balloon, and with that balloon landing on that farmhouse smack dab in the middle of America,” Schaffert says. “But I didn’t want it to be a prequel to the Wizard of Oz. I wanted a realist approximation of what might compel the Wizard to hijack a balloon and fly out of Omaha.”
Ferret and Cecily were introduced to Schaffert’s fans in the short story “Swan Gondola,” which he wrote in 2006. Schaffert says that after his third book, Devils in the Sugar Shop, was published by Unbridled in 2007, he decided to write a full-length novel about Ferret and Cecily, which required extensive research on 1890s Omaha.
“I needed to proceed with a firm basis in Nebraska’s history before I could twist it,” Schaffert says, adding, “That was a bit daunting, so I wrote The Coffins of Little Hope in the meantime.” It was only after that book was published by Unbridled in 2011 that Schaffert seriously delved into the archives at the Omaha Public Library, poring over photos taken at the World’s Fair. He began reading 1898 editions of the Omaha Bee newspaper via the Library of Congress’s Web site. In addition to the official reports about the fair, Schaffert says the Omaha Bee included in its back pages all the “more interesting stories—the little stories of thievery and sex and saloon brawls” and of “all the debauchery” stirred up all by the fair and the people drawn to it.
The characters “really evolved from the research,” Schaffert explains, describing how 1898 fashion trends found their way into Swan Gondola—including such trends as women carrying handkerchiefs bejeweled with the backs of beetles and pins with loops that doubled as leashes for attaching live chameleons to their clothing.
Such details “cast a sort of magic” over the tale and informed the development of the characters, Schaffert says—even as they remained grounded in the harsh realities of life for women, the poor, and minorities during that era, when Omaha drew hordes of people to the frontier looking for opportunities that did not often materialize.
“I really wanted to give a sense of the day-to-day life of the people of Omaha in 1898,” Schaffert notes. “At the heart of it are these characters who have very small lives, few opportunities, but they see possibilities. They can imagine themselves stumbling into great things. They think of themselves as being people with good luck.”
In contrast to his four previous novels, which are all set in contemporary Omaha and its environs, for Swan Gondola, Schaffert had to develop characters who are authentic to their period, but with whom modern readers could nevertheless empathize. “There’s a real balance between remaining true to the 1890s and the very specific and particular concerns of people living then, and writing a compelling story for today,” he explains. Schaffert notes that with his contemporary novels, he can include stories and details culled from his own experiences, whereas with a historical novel, that’s more difficult.
Schaffert is still researching Omaha’s history in local archives, and he says he’s working on another historical novel, this time set in the silent movie era. He points out that 1890s Omaha stands in marked contrast to 2013 Omaha, where he and his partner, Rodney Rahl, have been living together for the past 15 years, and where he has had so many opportunities and successes—including being promoted to assistant professor at the University of Nebraska. “I’ve been really fortunate,” Schaffert says. “I’ve been able to write what I wanted to write, and I’ve been able to get publishers behind it. I’ve been incredibly lucky, especially having grown up on a farm. I had to find my own way and figure out how it’s done in Nebraska, pretty far from the world of publishing.” But not that far from Kansas.