Today, I’m sitting down for a chat with author and Creighton MFA alum Theodore Wheeler, who has just released his debut literary historical novel King of Broken Things, published by Little A.
Thanks for having me! Kings of Broken Things is set in Omaha during the end of World War I and the Red Summer of racial strife that followed, and follows a group of young immigrants and outcasts through the events of the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. Karel Miihlstein is a displaced Austrian boy whose natural talent as a baseball player connects him with the rough men of the neighborhood team; Jake Strauss finds himself mixed up with political-criminal machine leaders who find use of his charisma and violent nature; and Evie Chambers is a kept woman searching for a way out of the underworld before it’s too late.
2) What inspired you to write this novel?
There were lots of reasons that factored in to some degree. For the last ten years, I’ve covered a beat as a reporter at the Douglas County courthouse in Omaha, Nebraska, a building best known as the site of a race riot and horrific lynching in 1919. I first heard of the riot when my fourth-grade teacher displayed a famous photograph from the Omaha World-Herald of rioters posing with the lynched body of Will Brown, a 40-year-old black man who was dubiously accused of the rape of a young white woman. The image has stuck in my mind ever since. Spending so many hours at the courthouse, the riot and lynching was something I thought about every day while walking the halls and surrounding neighborhood.
Beyond that, I was just really interested by the era and wanted to learn more. World War I doesn’t get as much attention as World War II, usually for good reason in the US, as far as the war is concerned. There was no vanquishing of Fascists, no Nazis or atomic bombs. But so much about WWI felt familiar to our time right now, mostly in how little was accomplished by the war, even as the devastation was mind-boggling. The US has been at war my entire adult life, with no end in sight, so the prevailing sentiment that came out of that time period resonates.
3) What challenges did you face writing not only historical fiction, but also about this topic in particular?
Depicting the riot was the biggest challenge, on craft and personal levels. In a practical sense, it was difficult to write a series of scenes that depicts an over 10,000-person riot that took place over twelve hours and nearly destroyed downtown Omaha, with the struggle being to let the riot be as big as it was without swallowing up the book’s characters in the process. I like to think about telling a story as building a house, and the ending should be contained within the structure without blowing the roof off. Just by its nature, the riot kept blowing the roof off the house I was trying to build in the rest of the book. Eventually I finagled the structure, plot, and perspective enough that it all holds together.
On a personal level, it was difficult to place myself within the book. What I mean by that is, having answers to questions like why I should be the person to write this book, what perspective can I bring to the story, etc. For a long time I wasn’t sure that I would be able to finish the book, or that I even should. That kind of doubt is normal, and probably healthy to the process.
4) What research did you conduct prior to writing?
Most of my research was done while writing Kings, but I did read around a dozen history books first. Specifically, books on Omaha history, what life was like in German-American neighborhoods around the turn of the century, and what compelled so many people to emigrate from Germany in the decades before World War I. The Omaha Public Library also has a number of photo books of historic Omaha that I spent a lot of time paging through, along with the great photo archive of the Durham Museum. I’ve long been a fan of music from the era, so being familiar with the kinds of jazz, ragtime, blues, and folk music that were being played during that time gave me a nice base to build from.
5) Tell me a little about the publication process, from working with your agent, to finding a publisher. What do you know “now” that you wished you’d known “then,” and what’s been your favorite part of this so far, apart from the writing?
I’d heard over and over how important it is to have your book finished before sending to agents, but the full scope of this never really sank in for me. Kings of Broken Things took me over seven years to finish, which includes writing three mostly-unique drafts of the entire novel. For the earlier drafts, I thought the book was finished for the most part, though I suspected it wasn’t quite there and that I’d need to get away with some weaknesses to find an agent and publisher. I was too impatient and had to learn for myself that nobody gets away with much.
My favorite part has been sharing the publication process with my family and friends. It’s a little hokey, but there are so many people who helped me along the way and contributed to the book’s success, so it’s been such a warm experience to see how happy these folks are to see the book out. Writing novels can be such a lonely, isolating process. Knowing that there are people pulling for me along the way makes a huge difference.
6) As an alumna of the Creighton MFA program myself, I am so proud of the achievements of everyone who has gone through the program! How has this aided you in your writing, and your knowledge of the publishing industry? What advice would impart to writers interested in publishing novels?
It’s always great to see people from the program publishing, to feel like we’re part of a growing community. A rising tide raises all ships, kind of thing. As for aspiring novelists, I feel like you should write the book you want to write, but be aware that there might not be a publisher who feels the same way about your topic as you do. With that in mind, it’s good to at least be aware of trends in publishing and what kinds of topics and styles are being recognized. There’s no need to obsess about the market while you’re first writing the book, but at some point, you should be able to answer impossible questions about what your book is trying to accomplish, what conversations it participates in, and which specific publishers might be interested. Also, always be protective of your time. If you want this to be your job, then it should demand that respect.
7) Tell me a little about your writing process in general. Rituals? Favorite beverages? Music, or none?
I write every day after a long lunch, a walk, and a shower. I’m not too picky about where I write (in my home office or in bed, usually) or whether I’m typing or writing longhand, but the rituals to clear my head are important. I always have a box fan or space heater going for white noise, so no music, no beverages, or snacks. I don’t keep many personal belongings or photos in my office either, and certainly not on my desk, so it’s easier for me to disconnect and get outside of myself.
All that said, I can write just about anywhere if I’m in the proper head space. I used to carry a notebook all the time, and I write on my cell phone a fair amount these days.
8) Do you have any tips for battling the dreaded writer’s block?
Follow the Isak Dinesen dictum to “write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” I get two or three hours to write every weekday and try to get to at least five hundred words during that time. I’ll indulge in additional writing sessions when grabbed by something on nights and weekends too, but it isn’t mandatory. Sometimes the writing is better than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever been blocked because I feel comforted by this idea of just showing up to work every day.
I also write most scenes in parts–building settings one day, blocking action another, dialogue the next, and finally thinking significantly about gesture. Almost never do I write a scene straight through, which makes for a lot of rewriting, but also simplifies the process. On days that I’m not really feeling it, there’s usually some smaller tasks to be done. Conceptualizing an entire story is so hard. It’s better for me to start with something small and simple, then work to build out nuance and complication.
9) Finally, what are you working on now that readers can look out for?
I’m working on a new novel that’s set around the safe haven child custody crisis in 2008 that deals with loves lost and abandoned, all set in the context of a post-9/11 domestic spying campaign.
Thank you so much for your time, Ted! Congratulations again on your release, and best of luck on all your future projects!