One University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor is making waves in LGBTQA+ literature with his Los Angeles Times Top 10 Best Book of the Summer.
In his recent release, “The Perfume Thief”, professor of English and director of Creative Writing Timothy Schaffert tells the story of Clementine, a 72-year-old woman who settles down in Paris after a life of crime. Following an entanglement with an espionage plot, Clementine finds herself in a relationship with a Nazi in possession of a book of perfume recipes she is seeking to reclaim.
According to Schaffert, the inspiration for this intriguing plot line came from his interest in discovering what a career in perfume would be like. From there, Schaffert said the rest came together during research.
“Initially I just had an idea, the concept that someone might make a career devoted to perfume,” Schaffert said. “That sent me into a lot of contemplation and research. The more I learned about perfume and scent and how that has informed so much about world politics, it eventually led my character to occupied Paris.”
Not only does this novel follow perfume and World War II history, this novel also contains an aspect of LGBTQA+ literature. According to Schaffert, this aspect of the novel is rooted in his queer protagonist.
“As a first-person narrative, Clementine is talking about that life experience and the loves that she’s had,” Schaffert said. “As a thief, she’s lived on the margins of society, and as a queer woman, she’s also lived on the fringes. She contemplates a romance from the past that really informs her life in 1941.”
According to Schaffert, exploring the queer identity of his main character led him to learn more about queer history in WWII.
“There are stories of a queer resistance that went on in France during the war,” Schaffert said. “There were great figures who were openly gay who were part of the resistance, like Josephine Baker who was working as a spy during the war.”
According to Marco Abel, Willa Cather professor of English and film studies and chair of the department of English, this is not the first time Schaffert has uncovered stories of queer history in one of his now six released novels.
“He has increasingly become one of the most renowned queer writers in the United States,” Abel said. “He has made it his specialty to write stories about queer lives that have been forgotten. His work, at large, can be described as recovery work, recovery of queer stories.”
The inclusion of this recovery work in his novels stems from his fascination with queer history, Schaffert said. More specifically, the fact that there is gay history to uncover.
“I’m just fascinated by gay history and all the lost stories,” Schaffert said. “The fact that we have any gay history at all is fascinating to me considering how people had to live their lives quietly and secretly. We’re still uncovering stories from the past. That is what I had in mind when creating Clementine, that she would be one of those people whose stories were lost.”
In addition to the intrigue of LGBTQA+ literature with “The Perfume Thief,” Schaffert’s protagonist is also distinctive due to her age, according to Abel.
“It is not so common for older women to be the primary protagonist in fiction,” Abel said. “Perhaps even less so in fiction written by men.”
Schaffert invites members of the UNL community to read his new novel, and he said he hopes they will enjoy getting lost in the story of perfume.
“As a writer, I love atmosphere; I love setting the scene; I love description,” Schaffert said. “This realm of perfume and fashion and Paris and New York historically provided so much rich material. I hope that people would enjoy being immersed in that world.”