Otis Twelve / Otis XII









By Jim Minge

Last week, former Omaha radio and TV personality Otis Twelve was in England collecting his award as the new “Lit Idol” at the renowned, annual London Book Fair.

This week, the 55-year-old Otis – aka Doug Wasselmann – was back at his home in rural Walnut, Iowa (pop. 897). That’s where he’s been the past two years since leaving Omaha and his long career in broadcasting.

When he moved to Walnut in 2002, Otis left behind the limelight. He had been a No. 1-rated morning radio host with longtime partner ‘Diver’ Dan Doomey on Z-92 and CD-105, and he also hosted talk shows on KFAB and KKAR. In addition, Omahans knew Otis as a movie critic, first on KETV-Channel 7 and then on KPTM-Channel 42.

Fans of cult-pop hit-makers, such as Ogden Edsel, will remember Otis – who has also traveled as a standup comedian and spent time working at a mental hospital – from his role in that band, which had a national hit with the song “Dead Puppies” in 1979 (see Dr. Demento’s “20th Anniversary Collection”).

However, Otis left all that behind for a new life, and now is a fulltime novelist. Nevertheless, Otis couldn’t escape the spotlight – this time it’s in Brit land, where Mr. Twelve was No. 1 last week in the eyes of the Lit Idol judges. You see, in merry ol’ England, writers are treated like rock stars.

Take the Lit Idol competition. It’s like “American Idol” (which originated in England), but for authors. Heck, even the brother of “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell, Tony Cowell, is a judge for London’s Lit Idol awards.

Third-Time Charm

Otis traveled to London’s Book Fair twice before attending last week’s edition. He had been on the short list for the prestigious Debut Dagger award for an unpublished author in 2003 and 2004, but came in second.

The third trip was a charm, as Otis’ book, “On the Albino Farm,” won the top prize in the Lit Idol contest.

“ It is a competition, and a weird format that opens itself up,” Otis said this week during a visit at his Walnut home, about 50 minutes east of Omaha. “The Brits really love books. They put this thing on TV.

“ For all the hype they raise for it, it gets people excited about books. It makes books as much fun as popular music – and why not? Why should books have to be stuffy?”

And what did Tony Cowell have to say about “On the Albino Farm”?

“ A unique, undependable, charmer of an anti-hero brought to life with confidence by a writer who deserves major notice,” Cowell said of the book, set in the fictional Midwestern town of Tirawa.

“He (Cowell) is a totally different guy; he’s a great guy, although he did rip a few of the other people,” Otis said.

Light-Skinned Farmers

Those who have been in the Omaha area for a while likely have heard of the ‘albino farm.’ There’s allegedly one in Bellevue, and another at Hummel Park, and on West Maple Road, and probably a couple other places. All of the tales revolve around a family of pink-eyed and pale-skinned humans who live on compounds and reek havoc on society.

“ I’ve always liked the story of the albino farms, and I’ve always liked urban legends, and every town has its own little quirks,” Otis said.

“ And when I came to Creighton in the ’60s, when I first came to town, is when I first heard about it. Of course, it’s a giggle.

“ I had a body. The body had to be somewhere, and I thought, ‘Well, why not on the albino farm?’ And then I thought, ‘What a great title.’”

The plot is described as “a sociopath who manipulates a psychopath to kill a pedophile.” It’s a crime story, but also much more than that, Otis explained.

Criminal Activity

Otis said he aimed for the crime genre after a friend, also a novelist, pointed him in that direction.

“ Crime is the biggest of the genres,” Otis said. “But genres are kind of artificial. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a crime novel. Does it get put on the crime novel shelf? No, but it’s a crime novel – it’s about a murder and a trial. Shakespeare was a crime writer.

“ So it’s the largest genre, and it applies across the board to almost all great literature – a lot of it is crime, if you really look at it.”

Death and revenge are two themes Otis has enjoyed writing about.

It’s great fun. I kill off some people I don’t like, certain types, my crime stuff is really quirky and on the edge of satire,” Otis said. “It’s real, but the protagonist (in ‘Albino Farm’) is a guy called ‘Tools,’ because he can open locks – he can open anything, mostly low-rent thievery – but his hands are the tools.

“ The novel starts out, ‘I’m a really smart guy.’ That’s the first line. He’s a smart ass; he’s always got an opinion about everything. So I just let him go, and he’s just awful.”

The hundreds of people – read, characters – that Otis has come in contact with over the years have been fuel for Otis’ literary fire.

“ In radio I met all kinds of types, all sorts of politicians, business and industry leaders, musicians, artists, street people,” Otis said. “Radio is cool in that sense, especially in Nebraska where you know the governor as well as the derelict on St. Mary’s Avenue – you know ‘em. Those worlds are not that far apart in Nebraska, you know what I mean?”

Life After Radio

Otis Twelve’s exit from the Omaha radio scene to move to Walnut to become a fulltime writer left many in the Big O scratching their head. After all, Otis is the guy behind such Omaha radio classics as the Mean Farmer and Space Commander Wack.

“ It wasn’t that I quit radio,” Otis said. “I think radio and I decided that that’s it – the run’s over. It was mutual decision. It wasn’t like I magnanimously decided one day to quit.

“ Radio has changed, and it came time to go. I was lucky, when I got to radio it was like, Otis, there’s a mike, go do what you want, with Dan and everybody, and we had some success at it.

“ And then new (station) owners would come in … we were doing fine, but corporations come in and they need to control things. It’s not good or bad, but the atmosphere changed and the approach changed in radio.”

Otis began in radio in Omaha in 1977 on the now-defunct Sweet 98, which at the time was a rock station. From there, Otis joined Z-92, 1980 to 1993. He had a one-year stint at KFAB before taking over the morning show with Diver Dan at CD-105, where he stayed from the end of ’94 to ’99. Otis ended his radio career on KKAR, when he was host from 1999-2002.

“ Sometimes I wish I could just go on (radio) and just scream or yell or make fun of somebody. But I get to do that with the writing now because I have this character. I’m still looking for that public voice.”

Enjoying small-town life

Otis, who grew up in Philadelphia and Kansas City – while working on his grandparents’ farm in Remsen, Iowa, in the summers – thought about opening a restaurant prior to moving to Walnut.

“ Of course, my friends in the restaurant business kept telling me I’m nuts, and they were right,” Otis said.

“ So at that point, my wife, Debbie, turned to me and said, ‘You’ve always wanted to write.’

“ You can see the books everywhere; I read everything. And in radio and adverting and PR I was always writing. For 30 years I was writing for stage, and for Ogden Edsel.”

Otis, the unofficial mayor of the Dundee neighborhood in Omaha, said it was tough to leave the cozy area.

“ We had a real nice house in Dundee. I loved it,” he said. “But it’s a heavy burden. Do you own the house, or does the house own you? It was a cool house, but it was huge. All the kids but one are gone, so …

“ Deb still has her (psychotherapy) practice (in Omaha), but it was a matter of simplifying things. So we started looking at houses and we discovered the 40-mile rule. If you go 40 miles outside of Omaha, the prices on houses drop, the cost of living drops.

“ And we’d been here before, stayed at a bed and breakfast; it’s such a cool little town. And my family roots are in small-town Iowa.”

Getting Published

Otis writes about eight hours a day, he said. It took him just 10 weeks to write the first draft of “On the Albino Farm.”

“ It’s gone through a lot of changes, and I’ve gone through the struggles of getting to know this business,” Otis said. “Since then I’ve finished two other novels and I’ve been working on short stories.”

In 2004, one of his shorts (which he writes under his given name), “The Goodness of Trees,” was awarded a Templeton Foundation prize of $10,000. While the Lit Idol award doesn’t come with a lump of cash, the benefits of wining the annual contest are priceless.

As the winner, Otis will now be represented by English literary agent Ali Gunn of the Curtis Brown Agency, one of the biggest publishing agencies in the UK that will now shop Otis’ book to a publishing house. In the states, Otis is represented by Donna Levin of New York’s Manus & Associates, whom Otis credits with taking “Albino Farm” to a new level.

“ She is an editorial agent, which is cool,” Otis said. “It’s been great for me, and she’s really turned the book into something. It was good, but she leveled it way up.”

Now that he’s won the Lit Idol award, Otis is ready to take his writing career to the next level.

“ This is like climbing a mountain, getting to the summit and the wind blows some clouds away and you realize you’re 1,000 feet short of the real thing,” Otis said. “I told my son, it’s like a video game. You kill that boss and then all you do is level up and the monsters are bigger, but it’s fun.”


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