tsTimothy Schaffert is the author of four novels: The Coffins of Little Hope (Indie Next pick; starred review from Publishers Weekly); Devils in the Sugar Shop (New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice); The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick); and The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (the Nebraska Book Award). He teaches in the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and serves as the Web Editor for Prairie Schooner, and as the director of two literary nonprofits: UNL’s Nebraska Summer Writers Conference and the (downtown) omaha lit fest.

Q (Meg Pokrass): What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…

I arrived at the University of Nebraska literally fresh off the farm. And living on campus, which was right in downtown Lincoln, nearly ruined me. Instead of studying, I went to the movies. I’d skip classes to see Blue Velvet for the eighth time, or Something Wild, or Lost Boys. I wasn’t having sex, I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t doing drugs. I was even barely communicating. And I’d go to the art gallery on campus that showed independent films and foreign movies on the weekends, where I saw Drugstore Cowboy and Poison and Santa Sangre. Then I’d go sit in the coffee shop and read all the books that I thought I should be reading–particularly, the Southern writers. I wanted to always, always, always be in thrall of a narrative. And I read everything recommended to me in creative writing classes I took with Gerry Shapiro and Judy Slater; I still remember the discussions of the stories they assigned: “Lawns” by Mona Simpson, “A Wedding in Brownsville” by I. B. Singer, “Builders” by Richard Yates. The stories of Cheever and Welty. The 1989 Best American Short Stories (edited by Margaret Atwood) is my favorite edition of that series, though my appreciation of it may be largely sentimental. In class, we carefully analyzed not just the fiction in the anthology, but discussed why Atwood might have chosen it; the anthology felt to me then like a celebration of all the various things short fiction could be expected to do. I couldn’t have learned as much as I did in those few years of creative writing classes if my mentors hadn’t been brilliant and devoted. I shudder to think what would’ve happened had I studied with anyone other than Gerry and Judy. And now I work with them, at the University, and they continue to mentor me. We gather every week to talk about fiction and about teaching. I suspect this situation is extremely rare–a mentorship that has lasted years and years.

What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?

When I say I don’t write every day, it feels somewhat like a dirty confession. But I think “writing” is more than just sitting hunched over your computer, pecking away. I’m always thinking about my characters and their predicaments, running them through my brain, playing it all like a movie, editing it as I go along. But when I plan to actually get words down, get the story committed to the page, I need the whole day, in anticipation of being stuck. I put the laptop on the kitchen counter, I pace, I put on music conducive to whatever it is I’m writing. I make tea. I never sit. If I sit, I’m doomed.

Are there favorite writing exercises you give students that you can share?

My favorite is one I do at the beginning of the semester, and allows everyone in the workshop to get to know each other a little bit, while also allowing some focus on the particularities of introducing characters at the beginning of a story, introducing conflict at the beginning of the story, and the process of fictionalizing details from real life. I share with the students the first two paragraphs of “I Should Worry” by Weldon Kees–a story that quickly and succinctly introduces the characters, without the characters uttering a word. So I ask each student to write an opening of a story (a few paragraphs or so) in which a character has certain qualities of his or her own. The opening has to fictionalize four details from the writer’s life: an article of your own clothing of which you’re particularly fond; a significant object from your past; a unique physical detail of your own; and an ever-present prop in your life (such as a coffee mug, cigarette, iPhone, Chihuahua in a handbag, etc.). The student then weaves them into the introductory paragraphs of a piece of fiction (the character needn’t be based on the writer exactly; he/she just needs to be defined by these details from the writer’s life), and incorporate a line-only a brief mention– that introduces the suggestion of tension/conflict/drama that is going to draw the reader forward (in Kees’ story, he writes: Now, he thought, she would be standing in front of the mirror in the room above him, the room in which his parents had killed themselves, and she would be combing her hair with one hand, her eyes wandering from her distorted image to the pictures of movie actors that she had torn from magazines and pasted on the wall).

Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing? Do you already know these people?

I usually have a good sense of some of the characters before I begin writing in earnest, but not all of them, but even the ones I do know I get to know so much better by the time I’m done, that I’m not really done at all, because I have to go back through and enhance and refine now that I’m more familiar with the characters’ sensibilities and psychologies.

A friend told me the other day that I tend to go into detail about what my characters wear. I guess I knew that, but now that I think about it, such costuming does contribute to the characterization. I find that I don’t spend a lot of time describing the characters’ physical attributes, so contemplating what they might wear helps me find my way toward developing their personalities as well as offering stage props of a kind. The dragonfly hairpin that Essie wears in “The Coffins of Little Hope” just suddenly showed up, she declared it her signature, and it became a device for other things in the novel too (as well as in the design of the book; it inspired the illustration).

What are some good habits for a writer to develop?

Listening, eavesdropping, committing to memory not just the things overheard, but the way things are said-the order of the words, the things half-expressed, or accidentally expressed, through the speaker’s habits and patterns of speech. I don’t always like to pull out a notebook during an otherwise pleasant conversation–it’s a bit conspicuous and undignified, I suppose–so I find myself running the caught phrase through and through my brain, hoping to memorize it until I can subtly jot something down. So I guess, basically, a good habit for a writer is to develop bad manners. Pay attention, but stay unengaged. Something more interesting might be happening across the café.

What’s the best advice you ever got?

You know, I think the stuff that’s presented to a person as “advice” is often so very useless. There’s so much I’ve learned or picked up from other writers, and that I’ve picked up from reading novels, but anytime anybody says “Here’s some advice,” about anything at all, it’s healthy to be skeptical. The best advice is to be skeptical of all advice. That’s the best advice I ever got, and I got it from myself. Just now.

How did your new novel, The Coffins of Little Hope, find you… and/or how did you discover it?

I think a novel, or at least every novel I’ve ever written, has a whole family of sources–a character occurs to you, then later another one does, then a predicament or two, and after a while it all starts to stitch itself together and resemble a novel. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the character of Daisy–the farm woman in the book who lives on a broken-down, overgrown farm. Then I began thinking about the little newspaper in the county, and its struggles, and its flailing editor. Then I started thinking about the whole mad phenomenon of the Harry Potter book releases, and how something like that might fit into this small-town story. But it wasn’t until I found the narrator’s voice-and her occupation (obituary writer)–that it all came together.

What’s next for you?

I’m researching a few things: a nonfiction book about an influential unpublished short story and act of censorship; and I’m also researching a novel set during the late 19th century, early 20th. As you might expect, I’m trying to get a good sense of what they wore back then before I can really place myself there. I do know that one of the characters is a member of the Women’s Dress Reform Brigade.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. David James

    Mr. Shaffert, thanks for taking us inside of how you write, how you think about writing and how you teach writing. As a recovered slack-assed student, I relate well to your early college experiences. Ms. Pokrass, your questions always seem to pull out interesting and thoughtful responses. Thanks to both of you.

  2. Jessica Anya Blau

    Such a great interview! Love what he says about listening to music and making tea while writing. And the advice about advice is brilliant!

  3. Jane Hammons

    Love the beginning of semester exercise.

Leave a Comment