In the new London Review of Books, Deborah Friedell has a great article about the life and times of Dorothy Thompson. It’s really fascinating stuff and you should give it a read. A towering journalist at the time, Thompson was the second most famous woman in America in the 1930s (after only Eleanor Roosevelt) and she was one of the main driving forces of getting the US into World War II as a defender of democracy. She was famously the first American journalist who was expelled from Nazi Germany, after she offended Hitler by portraying him as “the quintessential small man” and assuring the world that a maniac like him could never become a dictator, since the powers that be would never allow it.
I’ve also linked to an LRB podcast that features Friedell talking about Thompson, her life and career, that’s well worth a listen, if that’s more your jam.
Coincidentally, a fictionalized version of Dorothy Thompson makes a couple cameos in my new novel–The War Begins in Paris, out this November, by the way. I’m working on getting permission to use an excerpt from Thompson’s famous column about Herschel Grynszpan and the November Pogrom inside the novel as a way to ground the fiction in history while paying homage to pioneering journalists like Thompson and others. Fingers crossed that this comes together.
The broken marriages, unsatisfying affairs, alcoholism and psychoanalytic adventures of her male subjects kept blurring into one another, while Thompson stands apart, and not only because she was a woman. She had her breakdowns too (and three marriages), but she seemed tougher than her peers, and they knew it. ‘She could always step over the corpses and go on, steadily, resolutely,’ Sheean claimed in the book he wrote about Thompson and Lewis, Dorothy and Red (1963). Thompson almost never talked about sexism – she often pretended it didn’t affect her – though in one of her columns she admitted that if she had had a daughter, she probably would have told her not to try to have a career: it cost too much. Besides, ‘society’ had a ‘greater need of good mothers’ than it did of writers of the ‘second-rate novel’. But she never thought of herself as a second-rate anything. On the radio, she was introduced as a ‘cross between Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nurse Edith Cavell’. She didn’t disagree. She wrote that her father had taught her that the world was in a ‘continual struggle between good and evil, virtue and sin’, and that ‘progress was furthered only through creative individuals, whose example and achievement leavened and lifted the mass.’ All her life, she had wanted to be one of those individuals; now everyone was telling her that she was. She had a platform; she wanted to see what she could do with it.
We talk about our favorite Nebraska novels, how we tell stories about ourselves, the differences between writing contemporary and historical fiction, how to make space for (and why to remember) oral storytelling. So much good stuff! This is going to be a very interesting series. Thanks, Pat, for including me in the series, and for all you do!
While things may have looked slow around here the last couple years, I’ve been busy writing away on a new novel. With that in mind, I couldn’t be more pleased to share that my fourth book will be published by Little, Brown & Company!
The War Begins in Paris is a suspenseful work of literary noir, equal parts Patrick Modiano and Lara Prescott, about two female foreign correspondents—a provocative American fascist and an introverted young pacificist—whose fates intertwine behind enemy lines during World War II. As hostilities intensify following the November Pogrom, Mielle’s life is propelled by a series of prophetic visions that take her from a Mennonite farm in Iowa, to a job as a foreign correspondent in Paris, to what she comes to see as a secret mission to assassinate a Nazi propagandist in wartime Germany. Similar to my previous work, The War Begins in Paris blends historical and fictional characters amid a backdrop of true events.
I started writing this book in earnest in 2020. The project was aided by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Nebraska Arts Council, which funded research trips to Paris and Germany. The War Begins in Paris will mark my “Big Five” publisher debut and a reunion with editor Vivian Lee, whom I previously worked with at Little A. Vivian made the move to Little, Brown a couple years ago, and I feel very lucky to be following her.
More to come. Much, much more. In the meantime, CHEERS!
Check out this new interview of me in conversation with Ryan Borchers that’s up on The Rumpus. Thanks so much to both Ryan and the editors for making this happen. The Rumpus has been kind enough to publish reviews of my two previous books (here and here). That kind of support means so much.
This was an interesting one to revisit, as our conversation took place last January, then we edited the interview over February and March. I was really interested to see if my thinking was noticeably different here in a pre-pandemic way. Nothing stands out too much, really. But it’s worth thinking about how the notion of cyber-security and privacy from the government has evolved considerably over the last year. In the rush to find ways to keep people safe and get the economies rolling, we’re also in the process of giving up even more of our privacy than before. In that way, among many, we’re transitioning to a post-9/11 zeitgeist to a pandemic zeitgeist. It will be worth watching how the issues of privacy rights evolve as we one day move into a post-pandemic world. As I’m fond of saying, the government isn’t in the habit of giving back powers that it assumes in emergencies.
The interview itself has plenty of gems about the craft of writing novels and what it means to be an Omaha author. Please give it a glance.
Here’s a taste:
Rumpus: That’s what’s so interesting to me; the book makes the reader rethink their relationship to the characters in any novel. You think you’re reading about somebody’s life, and you feel like you’re getting into that person’s skin, but this novel almost makes me stop and think, Well, how close does a reader get to any fictional, made-up character? Does that make sense?
Wheeler: I think so. There are moments in any novel—and any person in real life, too, you know—when you’re not the same person you were three years ago and the person you’re going to be in three years is different from the person you are now. Thinking about that in terms of character, it comes off false when we make our characters too consistent, instead of just letting them go through their trials. And doing that from the point of view of surveillance, where you have these transcripts of what people said in emails and phone calls, then letting them be unreliable within that, too, letting them change or contradict what the record suggests, that was exciting for me. The narration is meant to be very self-aware and playful in how it plays out on the page. And maybe the perspective helps us feel more human in a way, because even with a catalogue of all existence, there are still mysteries, exceptions, things we can only feel and not know. For a novel that’s suspicious of religion and fanaticism, this nod to the unknowable was important to do.
Some bright news as the worst of winter settles in. This week I was awarded a literature fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council! It’s really such an honor to be included with so many great Nebraska authors whose work I admire and who I consider friends.
The program recognizes “exemplary work by Nebraska artists” and rotates through different art forms on a three-year cycle. This is the fourth time I’ve applied for the fellowship. Only a decade of futility there before breaking through–so not too bad!
I’ve been hard at work on a new novel over the past year, the last few months especially. This recognition is a great validation of that project and will help me with research at some point. Of course, this comes a year after I won an National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to work on the same project. Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to use these awards to fund the travel for which they were intended. Last March I made it to Paris just before everything shut down, with that trip having to be cut a few days short because of uncertainty that I’d be able to get back into the US. I’d had things lined up to return to Paris and visit Bad Nauheim and Stuttgart toward the end of 2020, but you know the rest. Someday–hopefully before the book is published–there will be some travel to Hesse, Baden-Württemberg, and Salzburg, and maybe the Extremadura region of Spain.
Thanks so much to the Nebraska Arts Council for helping to make those trips possible, once they’re possible again. Cheers!
Among one of my events that I was most looking forward to this summer that ended up being scuttled was the John H. Ames Reading Series in the Heritage Room of the Lincoln City Libraries. I went to a couple of these when I was a college student in Lincoln and was honored to find a place among the history of Nebraska authors who have read in the series. Then Covid complicated things. Instead of pushing it back indefinitely, we decided to record the interview and reading in person, without an audience.
The program will run on the City of Lincoln’s cable channel over the next couple weeks, or can be seen now on YouTube. (Fyi, the Heritage Room website has an archive of almost all the readings in the series back to 2004.)
Thanks so much to curator Diane Wilson for setting this up and finding a way to make things work.