Omaha Lit Fest and Literary Bibliophilia
If you’ve lived in Nebraska for very long, you know that there aren’t very many days here that are “perfect.” The second day of the Omaha Lit Fest was one of those very rare days. It was also a Nebraska football game day. Both of these facts made me really have to push myself out the door to head downtown to sit inside all day. So, I promised myself an Old Market break at some point in the afternoon and headed across town.
The first panel I went to was “Literary Bibliophilia,” in which the influence of classic characters on contemporary authors was discussed. Each of the panelists has written a novel with some basis in other works. The panel was led by Omaha author Mary Helen Stefaniak, whose latest release, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Gerogia, takes some of its cues from One Thousand Nights And A Night (also known as the Arabian Nights). Other panelists were Alice I Have Been author Melanie Benjamin, Lit Fest organizer Tim Schaffert, and illustrator/artist Peter Kuper.
As with the panel I was at on Friday night, the conversation centered on how dark so many of the “old” stories are, including Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Kuper talked about the sanitization of children’s books, but said that he feels that books may be starting to go back the other way; kids just seem drawn to the “scary” in books. Stefaniak pointed out that all of the stories in the One Thousand Nights seem to end happily every after but actually have an ending to the effect of “and so they were happy…until…”
After my lovely break (including a little time in my van to catch up with the Huskers!), I headed back into the KANEKO for readings by Benjamin from Alice I Have Been and Kevin Brockmeier, author of several books including A Brief History of the Dead.
Benjamin spent some time talking about how she came to write the story of Alice Liddell and Alice’s relationship with Lewis Carroll. She read from the prologue of the book and did an excellent reading, completely inhabiting the character of Alice. It was very much like watching an actress on stage.
Brockmeier spoke about his influences and said he has wanted to write a modern story with a classic twist. He read a short story, a “fable,” about a man who buys a used coat and discovers that it was God’s coat and people’s prayers appear in the pockets on small pieces of paper.
The two authors had very different ideas about writer’s block. Brockmeier said that every word is a wall and the he works through the dark. He recommends going deeper into the book if you’re struggling. Benjamin, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in writer’s block. She said that when she can’t find inspiration to keep working on a book, she believes it’s time to put the book aside. Benjamin once gave up on a book after she had written 50,000 words!
The next panel was again readings, this time by Shaffert, Brockmeier, and Kate Bernheimer from the collection of modern fairy tales My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, which Bernheimer also edited. Schaffert’s story took as its influence Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Little Mermaid. Brockmeier’s story was actually written when he was a 22-year-old college student and was a kind of follow up to the story of Rumplestiltskin. Bernheimer’s story was informed by both a 17th century fairy tale novella and a piece by Edgar Allen Poe.
The panelists were then asked about favorite contemporary fairy tale authors. Both Bernheimer and Schaffert cited Joy Williams, in particular her story “The Changeling.” For Brockmeier, favorites include Augusto Monterroso, particularly the translation of his The Black Sheep and other Fables.
I knew my son, who is majoring in Studio Art, and his friend would enjoy the final event of the Lit Fest, a presentation by Peter Kuper, so the two of them joined me for the last two events. My son’s friend was delighted to get a chance to speak with Bernheimer after her reading; a story he had once written was also based on a Poe story.
Kuper’s presentation was accompanied by a Power Point showing of his many works. He started drawing/writing as a response to fear (in particular the A-bomb). More than 30 years ago he and a friend started a magazine, World War 3, which they self-publish and which allows Kuper an unfettered chance to explore his fears and really let his liberal flag fly. He also spent 14 years illustrating Spy vs. Spy for Mad magazine and he’s done many covers for Time magazine, as well as a number of other publications.
Kuper’s work is very political which made me wonder if there were people in the audience who might have been uncomfortable. I bought both of the boys (okay, young men but to me they are still boys) graphic novels to have signed (Metamorphosis and The Jungle). Kuper does the most amazing “signatures.” In each book he drew a picture in the style of the book as well as signing his name. Very impressive for a couple of aspiring artists and avid readers!
Would I give up another weekend for the Omaha Lit Fest? Of course! I was so impressed with what the organizers were able to put together and by the panelists they had gathered. I’ve even offered my services to Schaffert to help with next year’s Fest. I’d love to be able to help try to get more people into seats; I know there are a lot of people in Omaha who would enjoy it. We’re fortunate to have such an event here—let’s make sure we support it!
(you can read about Lisa’s 1st day at the 2010 Lit Fest here)