Brief Interview with Timothy Schaffert

I’ve known Tim for several years now, ever since I moved to Nebraska and met him there, this onetime UNL undergrad who was then coming out with his second novel while also editing an Omaha alt-weekly.

Now, his fourth novel has just been released from Unbridled Books. The Coffins of Little Hope is about a small Nebraska town with a mystery, a missing girl, a little newspaper, the pending final book in a series of young-adult novels involving the escapades of sisters Miranda and Desiree, and an octogenarian narrator who finds a way to hold it all together.

Tim’s a great writer and a nice guy and agreed to answer some questions about his book and writing process.

1. I’m going to start by quoting your book at you, from page 7:

Some of you may say I’m just as bad as the worst of the people who’ve exploited the summer, fall, and winter of Lenore, that I’ve played this story like a accordion for the purposes of melodrama, squeezing and stretching, inflating and deflating scenes and events at will. You’ll say I wasn’t everywhere; you’ll say there’s no way I can know all that I’ve depicted. But I stand behind all the truths in this story of deception. Maybe because I’ve so long looked so old, even when I was relatively young, that people feel they can be revealing around me, that they can unbutton their lips and let slip intimate facts and trust that I have the maturity to keep my mouth shut.

Here you pull off a very neat cake-and-it-eat-too move, combining the breadth of omniscience with the intimacy of a first-person narrator. It’s an enviable thing you’ve done. Essie, your narrator, links this narrative combo to her age. Can you talk about where or when in the process of writing this book such a narrative stance occurred to you? How connected was it to your selecting an elderly narrator?

The point-of-view began as a collective first-person… a kind of “first-people” in the vein of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides.” But after only a few pages of this, I realized it was the wrong approach; I knew the novel wasn’t only about a town in crisis, but also about a family within the town having its own domestic turmoil. Nonetheless, I wanted to maintain that communal voice of authority, so Essie emerged; her age, her relationship to the town, the obit writing, this all contributed to the liberties she might take as a narrator. But, of course, she’s doing more than just telling us about things she didn’t witness—she assumes the role of a third-person narrator for the most part, giving the perspectives of other characters. It’s all complicated by the fact that she also enters the mind of Daisy, who is a woman who clings closely to her delusions and eccentricities, a woman at the heart of a local mystery. A third-person narrator would have too much access to Daisy, perhaps, and might be expected to give too much away too early on. So a first-person narrator in the act of piecing together a story in her recent past seemed the perfect solution. I think of Essie as taking inspiration from Truman Capote, and his “nonfiction novel,” “In Cold Blood.” Essie is definitely bent on building suspense, and weaving her tale with careful consideration of what to conceal and what to reveal.

2. Your book is 61 chapters long (an odd, inelegant number) divided among eleven books (which of course ties into the titular book within your own). Some are as short as a full page. This is a departure, structurally, from your earlier novels, right? How did the form of the book present itself to you?

I didn’t originally set out to write 11 parts in order to reflect the 11-book series at the heart of the novel; I think I ended up with 10 parts, and decided I might as well make it 11, as an afterthought and a nod toward order, so I futzed with things a bit. As for the chapters: the way the story was told, the way things were revealed, leant itself to the staccato rhythm of quick chapters. But I’m always curious about how other writers decide to break up their chapters, and about the other surface details that end up contributing to a reader’s relationship with a book. I think I might have been focused on these particulars of presentation, and the physical shape of the book, because the novel is about books, it’s about printing, and publishing, and plot, and readers, and writers.

3. With “The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters” and “The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God” and now this book, you’re like some kind of savant at coming up with titles, which remain one of the hardest parts of the writing process for me. When and how do your titles come to you? What rejected titles did this novel have before you decided on “The Coffins of Little Hope”?

The problem with long, peculiar titles is that no one can remember them. Add to that the complications of my name, which appears to have mysterious pronunciation with its collision of consonants, and the whole endeavor fails to trip off anyone’s tongue. But the titles usually come early in the process, and I quickly become attached to them. I worry sometimes that they might seem too giddy, especially within the utterly serious realm of literary fiction, but I don’t have long lists of titles that I consider. If I hadn’t called the first one “The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters,” I don’t know what I would’ve called it. I had come up with no other possibilities. But I did consider another title for “The Coffins of Little Hope”; for a while I was considering “The Crippled Eighty,” which is the name of a farm in the novel. But I preferred “The Coffins of Little Hope,” which had been the title of a novel I started, and quickly abandoned, years ago, based on a short story I’d written called “The Key to Her Little Coffin” (the title of which I thought I’d stolen from a 19th century book called “Agnes, and the Key to Her Little Coffin,” but I’d had the title wrong: the book was actually “Agnes and the Little Key, Or Bereaved Parents Instructed and Comforted”).

4. Finally: I should congratulate you on all the book’s successes and great reviews. What are you working on now/next?

I’m working on a novel set in 1898, during a world’s fair in Omaha—it’s part ghost story, part love story. I’m also researching a nonfiction book, about a controversial short story and its deteriorative effect on the life and career of its author.

You can buy The Coffins of Little Hope here.

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