Timothy Schaffert’s latest novel, The Swan Gondola, is a rollicking adventure set during the Omaha World’s Fair of 1898, and starring a romantic and rapscallion cast of vaudevillians, actresses, snake oil salesman, and all around ne’er-do-wells. Inspired in part by The Wizard of Oz, Schaffert’s tale is jam-packed with so much drama, intrigue, and delight that you will finish the book begging for more.
Here, as an exclusive to Ploughshares, Timothy shares further tales of The Swan Gondola, from the weird to the wonderful.
Q: The Swan Gondola has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster: action, mystery, romance, and the all-important super-cool period costumes. Who should direct the movie adaptation, and why? Michael Bay or Baz Luhrmann?
A: I think they should both do competing versions. Bay hasn’t done a period film since “Pearl Harbor,” and “The Swan Gondola” would be an opportunity for him to show his softer side while also incorporating his digital expertise in recreating the Fair, and the streets of 1890s Omaha. And the book seems to fit nicely in Luhrmann’s oeuvre, with its fireworks, burlesque theaters, runaway horses, grand mansions and less-grand tenements and garrets. He seems particularly interested in the tensions between the haves and have-nots. And both Bay and Luhrmann could do it in 3D. They have my blessing.
Q: Thanks to your exhaustive research, The Swan Gondola features an array of strange and wonderful sideshows that were actual exhibits at the Omaha Trans Mississippi & International Exposition in 1898—not least of which was the tent featuring actual premature babies in incubators. What’s a bizarre discovery from your research that didn’t make it into the book?
A: There’s so much strangeness, and yet I’ve grown so accustomed to it all it’s become increasingly difficult to identify that which is most strikingly bizarre. And when you really think about it, there are many parallels between the amusements and insecurities and preoccupations of the 1890s and those of today; historical research just ends up making the modern day seem more antique.
But one of the darker components of turn-of-the-century Omaha: the depths of the prostitution. There was a neighborhood known as The Cribs, where, if I’m remembering correctly, men paid a fee at the gate, and there were little shacks where women—and likely young girls—sat waiting. The men looked in the window, and chose their date. At one point, the city itself took over when the owner of the Cribs failed to pay taxes—Omaha collected directly from the pimps and prostitutes.
Q: The Swan Gondola and Bride of Chucky both feature a ventriloquist’s dummy who seems to have a mind of his own. What else do they share in common?
A: I’m embarrassed to say that I have only a passing acquaintance with Bride of Chucky. But perhaps both The Swan Gondola and Bride of Chucky have plots that hinge on complicated love affairs and elements of spiritualism?
Q: The clothing in Swan Gondola is terrific, from Ferret Skerrit’s lilac suit and snakeskin slippers, to August’s petticoat and seashell necklace, to pretty much every dress Cecily throws on and transforms. If you had to give readings wearing period costume (which I highly recommend), describe what you’d wear.
A: Of course men’s fashion doesn’t change all that radically—you could wear the clothes of the period and seem fairly au courant. I’d definitely want to see how I might look in a straw boater, or a bowler. I actually did consider going to a costume shop and trying on period costumes—both for men and women. I wanted to learn the weight and heft of them, especially the women’s clothes, to see how one might negotiate all its various frills and encumbrances.
But I eventually found my way into the clothes through the fashion writing and illustrations of the day. When you figure out how the characters deal with their daily routine—such as how much their clothes might make them suffer—then you can start picking apart their psyches.
Q: Your Swan Gondola Tumblr is packed with fantastic photos, news items, and advertisements from turn-of-the-century Omaha and beyond. What souvenir or advertisement do you most dream of finding in a dusty small town junk shop?
A: Imagine finding a personal diary of someone living in Omaha during the Exposition’s run. I would love to stumble across that. But as for souvenirs from the Fair—there was once film footage of President McKinley giving his speech at the Expo; copies of the film were printed on paper, and there are no known copies extant.
Q: One of your main characters, August Sweetbriar, is a popular peddler of tonics and aphrodisiacs, all of which are completely ineffective. What was the most curious ingredient from tonics of yore, or the most curious ailment needing curing?
A: This would have been before FDA regulations, so you could promise all sorts of miracles and deliver on none of them. The patent medicine companies attempted to pathologize everything, especially anything concerning women. Ladies, are you feeling tired? Hungry? Depressed? Human? Then you’re suffering from female troubles, and this remedy (and the consistent consumption of it) will alleviate your problems. But the men were also targeted with ads for drugs promising to cure “lost manhood”—a kind of early Viagra. Something called catarrh was also of concern, and blood poisoning.
I’d say the best patent medicines were those that did nothing, while the ones that contained cocaine, or morphine, or grain alcohol could be addictive and fatal, especially when given to children.
Q: Swan Gondola serves in part as a bittersweet reminiscence of Omaha’s fleeting time as the glittering (and slightly dusty) center of the universe. Did Omaha ever recover?
A: In the years after, with the new century, Omaha fell into the grip of crime-lord and political racketeer Tom Dennison, who likely set the city back decades with his wide-spread corruption. He oversaw gambling, prostitution, saloons, lynchings. His reign ran for decades. One of his political protégés, Dan Butler, became mayor in the 1930s and took things in the opposite direction, seeing himself as a moral crusader. He sought to censor plays and performances; he banned the Hedy Lamarr film “Ecstasy” and had the Mari Sandoz novel “Slogum House” removed from the public library shelves. He kicked Gypsy Rose Lee out of Omaha, too.
Omaha World’s Fair card for stereoviewer. See more period images at http://theswangondola.tumblr.com.