Author Q&A: Theodore Wheeler

Theodore Wheeler is the author of the forthcoming novel Kings of Broken Things (Little A, Aug 2017) and a collection of short stories, Bad Faith (Queens Ferry Press, 2016). His short fiction has appeared in Best New American VoicesNew Stories from the MidwestThe Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review, among others. He lives in Omaha with his wife and their two daughters.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Theodore Wheeler

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

Probably like most writers, I’ve always had an inescapable urge to tell stories. Some of my earliest memories are of using a George Washington paper-doll my mom made to recreate scenes from a Time-Life series of American history books we had in the house, and I was writing some of these stories down by the time I started elementary school. That’s not a career event, of course, but where things started. For most of my childhood I planned on being either a sports writer for a newspaper or a comic book writer for Marvel when I grew up. What I do now isn’t too far off from that—my day job is as a reporter (but on civil law and politics, not sports) and I write literary fiction instead of super hero comics. Most of my life has been following an impulse to write, which led to different jobs and styles that allow me to keep going in ways that are fulfilling. I don’t think there was ever an epiphany, more just doing what has kept me engaged and happy.

You’ve published Bad Faith, and with the upcoming release of your first novel Kings of Broken Things in August—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

Early on in grad school I had a bunch of stories and was pretty aggressive about sending them out. Since my stories didn’t have a very well-honed narrative voice or topical focus, and I didn’t know much about the journals I was sending to, the volume approach is what had to work for me. Over time, as a more refined sense of voice has developed in my work, I’ve slowed down some in submitting, going a little slower in sending something out, doing more revisions first, and going after bigger markets. This approach is also a consequence of the fact that I’ve mostly been writing novels over the last decade, as there just isn’t all that much time to work on short fiction when my thousand words a day are going into a single long-form project. That being said, success breeds success, and those early publications helped build a platform that’s helped give me a shot at having my books published. It takes a lot of luck to have success publishing. But it’s hard work that puts you in position to take advantage of whatever chances end up coming your way. I’m not sure if it was Seneca or Vince Lombardi who said it, but, basically, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Terms like platform reek of marketing and the business side so much that people usually don’t like talking about it, but the idea is helpful. Besides the gratification and fulfillment of writing and publishing short fiction, which I really treasure, having a solid record of small successes is pretty crucial to getting someone to publish your more ambitious projects.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

Almost all my writing anymore is topical in a narrow sense—that is, it’s set in a particular place and time, during a specific crisis. As I mentioned above, since I was a little kid I’ve been interested in history and I really enjoy contemplating historical events within a fictional plane. My novel Kings of Broken Things is set in Omaha during World War I and the subsequent year of race riots and lynchings, a dark period that James Weldon Johnson called the ‘Red Summer.’ I’m generally a progressive, but studying local history and how modern times have remained flat and circular is fascinating too. There are so many things about Kings that could be recast as a contemporary story and nobody would notice, unfortunately. As we’re a society that’s obsessed with the news in different ways, tapping into the collective experience in this way is a great opportunity for a novelist. Thematically: shame, guilt, and our humanist obligations to each other are all things that come up often in my writing. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to write a story with these in mind, but they always seem to be there.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

Ralph Ellison and Marilynne Robinson, along with George Saunders, Denis Johnson, DeLillo, the films of Robert Altman. More recently Uwe Johnson, Patrick Modiano, and Roberto Bolaño. Uwe Johnson in particular really has changed me a lot the last couple years. In my early twenties I wrote a bunch of stories that riffed off Ovid’s Metamorphoses in different ways; though the stories didn’t end up being all that great, having it ingrained in my mind that stories are about change was a great thing to learn.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a short story or a novel, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?

I pay a lot of attention to setting—for the reasons stated above, and because my first creative writing professor in college, Jonis Agee, taught me to build from the soil up—but really I think voice is the most indispensable part of any story, at least for the author. Voice is the key that unlocks everything else–where the narrative eye focuses, pacing and rhythm, what the structure will be. Most of the work writing a story is flopping around listening for voice. I might have a draft or two finished even, but I’m never too sure that I’m doing anything right in the story until I can hear it clearly being told. Then it’s much easier to decide what else needs to be done or undone. 

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? Bad Faith, as well as your upcoming novel, have all been published by different publishing houses. I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses.

The first thing is seeing what writers they publish. The process is more a matter of seeing where writers I admire are publishing and building from there, paying more attention to the places that pop up a lot. This is what drew me to Queens Ferry Press for Bad Faith—that Erin McKnight was assembling such a solid roster of writers. You can also look at book covers to make judgments on their aesthetics and commitment level, based on the style and attention to detail put into a cover image and packaging. Browsing covers feels a little shallow, but it’s pretty effective. Even walking around the a book fair you can get a good idea of what publishers and journals you feel an affinity for, and then can follow up to see if it’s a good match. The process was all quite a bit different with Kings of Broken Things, as my agent (the wonderfully talented Stephanie Delman) took the novel to publishers and found the best home for it. I was involved in preparing the submission list, but could then sit back and wait until it was time to talk to editors. At that point it was more about seeing if an editor has the same vision for what the book can do, or at least a compatible vision. Being out on submission is notoriously stressful, but I’ll say that going through whatever rigmarole was definitely worth it to work with a publisher like Little A. All you want in the end is to find people who are committed to bringing your book out into the world in a thoughtful and enthusiastic way. Having an agent and an editor who are dedicated to this process is an amazing experience.

Many new writers consider enrolling in an MFA program, what can you tell us about your experiences as an MFA student?

I had an enjoyable and beneficial MFA experience, if one that felt a little odd, mostly because I already had an MA in creative writing and twenty-some publications when I walked in the door. That being said, I think my prior experience really freed me to focus on the basics of writing in a deeper way and rebuild myself into something better than what had first walked in. The one thing that MFA grads I know always say, especially those in two-year programs, is that your time there goes by so fast. Basically, you have one frantic year to get your feet on the ground then one frantic year to wrap things up and figure out where you’ll head next. I think this is why you see a lot of people getting a second degree, whether MFA to PhD, or even a second MFA. It’s not so much needing a second chance to do things right as it is having a little longer in the incubator, and approaching the study of craft with a little more self-assurance and confidence. I’m not sure if that answers the question for new writers. The point, I guess, is that if you want to get better at the craft of writing, a graduate writing program is a good place to do that. I met a great group of friends who I still meet with for a monthly writing group and I ended up pushing my work to places I don’t think it could have gone without being there. 

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

The second year of my MA program I had a short story selected for an anthology called Best New American Voices that purported to publish the best short stories from graduate writing programs in each calendar year. It’s now defunct, but the series was a pretty big deal then for a young writer, particularly for getting noticed by agents. That being said, at the time, I’m not sure I was all that ready to take advantage of that particular opportunity. It takes most writers a long time to bloom—see Ted Solotaroff’s “Writing in the Cold” or Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule—and it turned out I was no different, despite many hopes and prayers to the contrary. What having some success in my twenties did, however, was give me the confidence to keep working every day. Even when those early successes dried up for a while around my thirtieth birthday, I still had a few merit badges to sustain me. Flags fly forever, I guess.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

To take your time. Be tenacious, competitive if that’s your personality, but don’t let your drive consume you. The idea is to be the best you can be, eventually. Isak Dinesen said, “I write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” That’s probably my favorite advice for writing, for anything in life, really. Maybe you only have twenty minutes a day to practice your art—so do that. Give as much as you can, as often as you can give it.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I’m getting close to finishing a new novel, by this summer if everything falls right, and my goal is to have it published and hopefully do a little better than the book before it. The new novel is more complex in structure and voice than my first, and it’s kind of terrifying to think that I’ve extended myself too far artistically. But we’ll see. Being a little scared, hanging out over the edges, I feel like that’s my due at this point. Soon I’ll have two books published. It was my life’s dream to publish a novel, and while it took me eight years and a lot of soul-searching to finish Kings, I’ve just about reached the other side, not too much worse for wear. The reward is getting an opportunity to try something more challenging.

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