Writer Chit-Chats: Ted Wheeler, Kings of Broken Things

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.


1) Hi Ted, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today! Congratulations on the release of your new novel. Can you tell the readers about Kings of Broken Things?

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!

Thank you!

MFAs and TFF

Go to grad school, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

No, MFA does not, in this instance, stand for “Motherf***ing Awesome”, though, it must be said, that acronym does occasionally apply to certain aspects of my life. And me.

Only occasionally, though.

In this case, I’m talking about Master of Fine Arts. As in the graduate degree. As in the thing I’ve agreed to devote two years of my life to pursuing and, hopefully, obtaining come May 2017.

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I remember it clearly: last April, my best friend and I (really, this is all her fault) were hanging out. She’d driven an hour to come stay with me overnight while Hubby attended a month-long course at Fort Lee, VA. We’d run a 5K race at one of my favorite wineries, we’d done some shopping, and we’d done a lot of pigging out. The next day, as we lazed about before she went home, we were chatting about life and things. You know, like, “Now that we’re thirty, we’d better start figuring out what we want to do when we grow up.”

And she was all, “You should go to grad school.”

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In 2012, she started her master’s program in Art History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also her alma mater (and mine). I thought it was so cool that she was in grad school, studying something so cool.

Then, the same year, my husband enrolled in his MPA program. And then later that same year, another good friend enrolled to get her MBA.

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All around me, it seemed, the people in my life were rushing toward graduate educations, not satisfied with their bachelor degrees alone. Admittedly, I could appreciate that: nowadays, jobs are competitive. Once upon a time, a job posting requiring a bachelor’s degree used to produce a smug smile on the incumbent’s face. Now, that’s child’s play. Want to catch an employer’s attention? Want to write your own checks? Want to sob in frustrated misery for two to four years?

Better go to grad school.

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I staunchly resisted. More school was not for me, I said. I was one of those “smart, but would be a better student if she applied herself” kind of people in school. I did what was needed to get by, except in my English, lit, and writing classes (where I learned the beauty of the Oxford comma). Math, my greatest academic nemesis, bested me twice before I managed to eke out the necessary “C” to graduate. On the last day of math class, when I learned I’d passed by department standards, I refrained from hurling my T-78571032324867 graphing calculator at the professor and enjoyed a private, celebratory weeping in the ladies’ room. I never had to take math again.

But I did have to take microeconomics, macroeconomics, biology, geology, religious studies, astronomy, and meteorology to name a few. You can guess how well those went for me.

My best friend was one of the first people to encourage me to apply for a grad program, my husband the second. “But I don’t want to go to school again,” I patiently explained time after time. “I’m in the corporate world. I’ve got a good job.”

I was running at a steady pace in the corporate rat race. I’d once had a misguided notion that I should try to “live my dream” where making money was concerned. I crashed and failed. Wounded, I told myself (much like after riding The Prowler at Worlds of Fun), “Never again.”

A passionless, predictable gig, day-in and day-out, was the safe way to go about things. Steady income, benefits, meetings, and graphs, and charts, and POs, and stuff. Forever. Or, like, until I was 60-something.

But, as fate would have it, that was not in the cards for me.

The company I worked for underwent a series of lay-offs and downsizing. There were three rounds plotted for the head-chopping, and I managed to squeak through the first two. The third go-round, however, I was not so lucky.

So, with the same air of resigned dignity that Anne Boleyn displayed on her day of reckoning at the Tower of London, I knelt (figuratively) on the scaffolding to receive the (figurative) blow.

Actually, I cried all the way home. Then I started figuring out what I’d do next with my life.

The mention of grad school was brought up again, but I swiftly dismissed it. School? School? I had a job to find!

I ended up with a few prospective offers on the table all at once, and ended up taking a chance on a small, privately owned business. My husband had just been accepted to the Omaha Police Department Academy, his dream for many, many years, so it all felt new, fresh, exciting. My job was new, fresh, exciting. The city was new, fresh, exciting. My life was new, fresh, excit–

Then it wasn’t. The small business I worked for had been experiencing a sharp decline in sales (something they’d conveniently neglected to mention during the interview process) and they could no longer afford my salary. Or, like, me.

So there I was, again, without a job and down on my luck.

That fateful weekend in April that my best friend visited me was a couple of days after my most recent job loss. She said, “Dude. Grad school. Creative writing. You can do it.”

This time, I actually gave it some thought. I did love to write. I’d been writing stories and poems since I was a child. I was in the midst of writing not my first novel, but the first one I wanted to seek publishing for (what has now become my MFA thesis, actually. So I will have to finish it at some point). The first novel that marked my decision to be a professional writer when I grew up, whenever that would be. But I needed direction. I knew I was a talented writer, but I also knew I was, for all my years of writing, a novice.

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There’d be the education, the sharpening of my writing skills, the networking, the accomplishment.

What did I have to lose?

A month later, I had applied to Creighton University. And a month after that, I got accepted. And about two months after that, I started school for the first time in eight years.

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I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first day of classes. I felt like a freshman at UNL all over again, trying to find my way around a brand-new campus, trying not to be the last person through the door, trying not to be stuck in the front row. On that first night of class, meeting my professor and my fellow students, I was struck with one thought: Here I am, back at school, again. Here I am, doing this all over again. 

The first day of the rest of my life, and all that sh*t.

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Two four-hour classes a week, for two eight-week quarters a semester. Plus, working full-time. Plus, writing my book. Plus, writing another book. Plus, you know, staying alive and stuff.

And that brings me to the “TFF” part of this post. No, not “The Freaking Fabulous”. I mean “The Freshman Fifteen”.

Yeah, it happened to me. AGAIN.

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I’d convinced myself that I’d be able to maintain my fitness program while going to school. Heck, I was a gym rat, after all! Four to five days a week, and three half-marathons and dozens of months of training runs under my belt. NO SWEAT. (HA! PUNZ. See what I did there?)

But, I had no appreciation for how tired I would be. How much work there would be. I loved it, I loved the work, because I got to read awesome things and write (hopefully awesome) things and read the awesome things written by my classmates. But it was a lot of work I was unaccustomed to, and it drained me. Lack of energy + lack of motivation to cook + lack of motivation to eat healthy = pounds gained.

I don’t know if it was a full fifteen. Maybe it was more. All I know is, things ain’t right.

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Another Freshman 15 meme featuring Sean Bean, different program. Hmm.

Now that summer’s here, I’ve got a goal of hitting the gym at least four days a week. Used to be child’s play for me, but now, it can be a stretch. I’ve got a goal to eliminate my sugar addiction, another big culprit in TFF. And I’ve got a goal to maintain it for the coming year ahead. Now I know what to expect, what it’s like to work full-time and go to school full-time. And now, to add to the fun, I’ve got a part-time editing job with an indie publishing house. And they have lots of authors who are prolific writers, and I’m sensing my workload is about to get cray-cray.

But slowing down is out of the question. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “There will be sleeping enough in the grave.”

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If I’m feeling motivated enough, perhaps I’ll try that old Military Diet I posted about last year. And by motivated, I mean desperate and filled with self-loathing. I’m not there yet, though.

Now that the first year of my two-year program is over, and the second year is starting in a couple months, deciding to pursue my MFA has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I’ve met some really awesome people, some really talented writers, and some really great teachers. I’ve learned that I can balance a metric crapload of stuff at the same time. Sometimes not gracefully, sometimes not graciously, but I can do it.

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Sometimes–like my classmates in the same boat as I am, like my best friend who’s now getting her PhD from Cornell, like my husband who’s a proud MPA holder and one of the rare people to realize his life’s dream–I’m really MFA (re: alternate definition).

One year down, one year to go.

 

Welp, it’s been a while. 

And by “a while”, I mean a hot minute. And by “a hot minute”, I mean almost a friggin’ year.

In a nutshell: I started a new job, then grad school, then, like, five writing projects, and then everything went black. When I woke up, the smoke was clearing around me and Hodor was dead.

Which, just wow, by the way.

“So I can kill them dead.”

Quick digression: Hodor’s death was the noblest, most heart-wrenching thing I’ve seen on TV in a looooooooong time.

Quick digression: Has the release date for Winds of Winter been pushed up from Twenty Years From Now? Anybody know?

I apologize for my absence, if it was noted or missed (please hold your sarcasm at bay). I had quite a summer, quite a remainder of the year, and this one is shaping up to be as balls-to-the-wall busy as the last one.

But it’s been a year of accomplishment, and for that, I can’t apologize. In addition to starting a new gig (which offers FREE donuts every FriYay, by the way. Which has contributed to my weight regain, along with the Freshman Fifteen. More on this later.), I started graduate school at Creighton University. I’m getting my Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, and I’ve got one year under my belt and one to go.

I also published my first two books, Pas de Deux: Parts One and Two on Amazon under the pen name of Wynter S.K. (“But isn’t M. Allison Lea your pen name? How many pen names do you have? Are you batshit crazy?” More on this later.), and I’ve served as editor on a couple of books by Nik Angela, one of which is on the ZON and the other is forthcoming.

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I’ve entered and lost writing contests, I’ve submitted to and gotten rejected by The New Yorker (an accomplishment in itself, in a strange way. More on this later.) and I’ve kept it pushin’.

My husband also graduated from the police academy in December, and is now a full-tilt Bad Boy po-po. It’s been a wild ride, but seeing him do what he was truly born to do never ceases to punch my right in my feelz every time he puts on his uniform (which, Hottie Alert, btw).

Hashtag dreamboat. Hashtag lucky lady.

My kids, a.k.a. The Judgmental Kitty and The Pushy Pomeranian, continue to fill my life with joy, humor, and annoyance when I’m woken at 4:30 every morning for feedings.

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“*nomnomnom* KITTY FEETS! *nomnomnom*”
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“Play with me! NOW!”
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“I just can’t even…”
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“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Only for naps, doe.”

In forthcoming posts, I will expand on these points individually and in detail. For now, though, I just wanted to assure anyone who was concerned about my abrupt departure from this blog that 1) I did not get dead, 2) I did not get kidnapped, 3) I did not get abducted by aliens.

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Oh, hai. Yes, I’m alive. And not abducted by aliens.

This summer I’m hoping to go back to a couple posts a week. I’ve got a lot to share–a whole year of crazy has just been bouncing around inside this head.

With the voices, of course.

Cheers!

New Work: Capturing Hell and Hope

I mentioned in my first post that I’m a writer. And I am. I write. Je suis un écrivainNot professionally yet, but I am steadily working on my first book with the intent of getting it published.

This book is something I’ve been wanting to write for long time. I’ve always been a writer, but the subject matter in this book is new ground for me. Typically, I write romance and fun adventure, new adult-y type stuff. This book is far more serious, though it has elements of romance and elements of adventure. This book deals with war; the war that we as a nation have found ourselves immersed in for over a decade. The war that has sacrificed thousands and thousands of servicemen and women’s lives. The war that stemmed directly from the day we know as 9/11.

This is a story of self-forgiveness, a story of personal growth. There’s romance, because I can’t not write a little romance, but more than that, this book brings to life the ugliness of war, and the reality of evil. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but the journey through the darkness will be trying.

There are excerpts from the first couple of chapters posted on my website, http://www.mallisonlea.com, and there are more to come. Take a read, and leave me a comment to let me know what you think.

Take care!