Midwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Theodore Wheeler about his debut novel, Kings of Broken Things, the advantages of youthful perspective, tackling the challenge of writing a novel, and more.
SC: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
TW: I was born in Iowa and have lived my entire life between that state and Nebraska—mostly in Nebraska. Along the way I’ve lived in a small town (pop. 1500), a college town, and for the last twelve years in the prairie metropolis of Omaha.
SC: Your debut novel, Kings of Broken Things, is a historical fiction piece set in the tumultuous Red Summer of 1919. The novel focuses specifically on the Omaha race riot of 1919 and discusses themes of racial violence, nationalism, and immigration. Almost 100 years later, these themes are still salient in the American sociopolitical landscape. How, if at all, was your exploration of the tensions in 1919 influenced by contemporary instances of race riots and political unrest? How does your novel offer historical perspective on these issues?
TW: Kings of Broken Things was influenced a lot by the current troubles, though mostly in nuanced ways, the most significant being how perspective functions in the novel. When I started working on the novel, Obama had just been elected and there was a lot of discussion about the post-racial age we’d begun. Of course, our days of supposed racial harmony didn’t last long. I worked on the book from 2008 to around 2015, to give a frame of reference. The first drafts focused mostly on how anger and prejudice were directed at German-Americans in the Midwest at the beginning of World War I, as the Tea Party movement was ascendant and the anti-immigrant Minutemen vigilante group was very active. That mantle, Minutemen, has been taken by numerous anti-immigrant groups over the last century, so it was interesting to think about the phenomenon while trying to tie together anti-German sentiment during WWI to anti-immigrant movements now—though that didn’t really hold together as much as I thought it would.
When police killings, race riots, and the BLM movement became prominent while I was working on Kings, I felt it became incumbent on all of us to think about our complicity in this system, so that spurred a lot of changes in what the novel focuses on, after being compelled to think about privilege and personal freedom in uncomfortable ways. The main thing was to stop viewing my main characters as these precious figures who were incapable of committing horrid acts. The race riot and lynching of Will Brown comes at the end of the novel, but it never really felt like the story was done well until I put some of my main characters (in particular, Karel Miihlstein, a teenage boy who was displaced from Austria by the war) right in the midst of the riot and lynching.
Since the book has been out, a few readers have told me they were unsettled by the story because they didn’t know who the “good guys” are, or were caught off guard when a character who they saw as the “hero” of the book did something unforgivable. The point is to unsettle, so hopefully the story helps give perspective on these issues along these lines.
SC: Interestingly, you approach the context of your story through the point of view of three young men and women. How does youth offer a unique space in which to explore morality and identity? How would your novel be different if the protagonists were adults?
TW: Oh, good question. In some ways a youthful perspective feels more natural and is more easily consumed because identity is more fluid in children and young adults, and their metamorphoses maybe a little more poignant. Showing young people being corrupted has a little more teeth than showing adults losing their way, like how we see the Eden myth playing out over the course of our early lives, that we all experience a fall at some point.
More specific to the plot, the mob that lynched Will Brown began when a group of teenage boys marched to the courthouse and demanded that he be handed over to them, and many boys were party to the raids that eventually got to Will Brown. Knowing what was coming at the end of the novel, it allowed me to play around with good-old-boy and sowing-wild-oats rituals that invoke more traditional ideas of maturing and juxtapose that with the riot and lynching.
SC: Evie, the only female protagonist, is a kept woman indebted to her male keeper. This concept is both old fashioned and largely prominent today in the form of human trafficking. How did you go about depicting the female condition? What was your purpose in writing Evie’s narrative and how does her experience fit into the larger story?
TW: At the time the story takes place, women had a limited place in society, of course, but there was a lot going on to change that during these years. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 and Progressive Era advances were largely powered by women like Jane Addams, Ida Tarbell, and Ida B. Wells. The headway Evie Chambers makes in the book toward controlling her own destiny is representative of this in some ways. Ruth Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, Josie Washburn’s The Underworld Sewer, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun, and Willa Cather’s Nebraska novels were invaluable while depicting Evie. In particular, I was interested in how fallen women were able to rise in society at the time, even though it was rare, as part of a broader preoccupation over who gets to move on after the riot and who doesn’t. Starting from when she’s a teenager, Evie’s life is about gaining will to power with the intention that she will someday have economic freedom and freedom of movement. Everything she does (down to presenting herself as a flighty waif) is actually very practical.
SC: What interests you specifically about the geographical-political intersection of race relations in the Midwest? How does Omaha in 1919 contradict or reinforce your personal relationship with and ideas about the city?
TW: It surprises a lot of people to learn that Omaha has a long history of race troubles, including efforts to drive out Irish and Greek populations that go back to the city’s founding, through several riots in the 1960s and continuing issues with police and lack of economic opportunity today in the traditional African-American neighborhoods on the north side. It’s no secret that Omaha has been the most dangerous city to be black over the last decade, but it’s not something to be talked about in polite company here, and Omaha doesn’t have enough national prominence to matter on a bigger scale. These pervasive, macro issues don’t get a lot of play unless a riot breaks out.
As far as personal relationship with the city and these issues, it goes back to the idea of being complicit in the system. Though I’m not a bad person, you can trust me, I do enjoy my privilege and the spoils that go along with that. A lot of my interest while writing the book—beyond learning the history itself in a deep, meaningful way—was the idea that many people who live in Omaha now have a family connection to the race riot in 1919, whether they’re aware of it or not. This suspicion has borne out in these two months since Kings of Broken Things was released, as there’s usually somebody who steps forward at the end of an event to tell me about their uncle or great-grandparent who participated in the riot in some capacity. Not that I’m walking around the city staring at people and wondering what their ancestors were up to in 1919. Well, I guess that’s kind of what I have been doing after all.
SC: While you have a rich repertoire of successfully published short story fiction, Kings of Broken Things is your first full-length project. How was the process of writing a novel different from writing short stories? What surprised or challenged you about this process?
TW: Not to sound too simplistic, but the main challenge is that novels are a lot bigger. My typical process with a short story is to work from an idea (usually some inciting conflict, a bit of dialogue, or abstract idea) and pound out a first draft over a week or two, then agonize over the key scenes for a few weeks until a voice is established, then rewrite the story in that voice and perspective. It’s pretty succinct, I think, for process, and while it’s somewhat similar for how I write a novel, a part that might demand a couple weeks for a short story demands about a year when it comes to a novel. As an example, it took me about five years of tinkering to figure out what perspective my novel should be told from. There’s an astonishing number of variables that have to be held in one brain to pull a novel together, and constantly that mental process is being assailed and distracted. The surprising thing is how enjoyable tackling this challenge is, once I get over my nerves about being able to finish a book, getting it published, not wasting my life, etc. There are few things more satisfying than tackling that challenge and coming out on the other side with a solution.
SC: In describing your award-winning collection of short stories, you write “the herd can’t always outpace the predator.” What does this mean in the context of the themes present in the book, including domesticity, family, and the human condition?
TW: I think my editor at QFP, Erin McKnight, actually wrote that, to be honest. It’s a nice thematic summation of the book, though, in how many of the characters are overwhelmed by their troubles—whether that’s childhood, illness, mortality, or even a rocky marriage or two. Like most characters in short stories, these are folks on the brink of change. The wolf is already amidst the sheep, so to speak. That’s also literally the case with Aaron Kleinhardt, who reappears throughout the collection to spread his misery and general unsavoriness.
SC: You also report a civil law and politics beat for a news group in Omaha. How has your journalistic knowledge and experience influenced your writing?
TW: I’ve learned solid research skills. My beat mostly involves checking court dockets, searching for a specific type of case, and tracking them down. I’m comfortable in archives now and had to develop the kind of interpersonal skills that appeal to bureaucrats—that is to say, being patient and trying to understand how to make the lives of clerks and librarians more pleasant, rather than just imposing my needs on them. Beyond that, reporting and fiction writing share a lot of the same challenges: finding compelling stories that people will actually read, being able to get at the heart of an issue and effectively communicating why that issue is meaningful. The form and style vary, but it’s all storytelling.
SC: Who are some writers you admire, and how does their work inspire your own?
TW: Specifically for this book, my big influences were Ralph Ellison, to see the politics of race and the eruption of a riot; Marilynne Robinson, for her depictions of quiet do-gooder Midwesterners trying to make small differences in the world; Don DeLillo, for his lyric to the Bronx, both the current one and one that’s disappeared; E.L. Doctorow, James Weldon Johnson, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather. Reading Uwe Johnson and Denis Johnson always recharge my batteries and challenge me to be a better writer than I am, mostly just because I love reading them so much. The possibility that somebody could love my work in that same way is intoxicating.
SC: What’s next for you?
TW: Earlier this summer I finished a first draft of a new novel that’s set in Omaha and Chicago in 2008 and deals with loss, family, and a sense that humanism has failed in the decade following the economic collapse, all narrated in the context of a post-9/11 domestic spying campaign. It’s been a challenge to combine some high-concept elements within the smaller drama of a domestic betrayal novel, but I feel like it’s coming together.
Theodore Wheeler is the author of the novel Kings of Broken Things and a collection of short fiction, Bad Faith. His work has appeared in Best New American Voices, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Cincinnati Review, Boulevard, and Midwestern Gothic Issue 8, and has been recognized with an AWP Intro Journals Award, a Marianne Russo Award from Key West Literary Seminar, and a fellowship from Akademie Schloss Solitude. A graduate of the MFA program at Creighton University, he currently teaches writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.