In case you missed it last week, here’s my full appearance on the Lives Radio Show with Stuart Chittenden. Settle in!
I’m very excited to share with you all the cover for my new novel In Our Other Lives!
The cover turned out so great, especially the layers and texture at the top. Thanks so much to Hafizah Geter, Carmen Johnson, Stephanie Delman, and Vivian Lee for their work in shepherding this along, and for designer David Drummond for all his hard work.
We’re getting so close to launch!
A provocative novel about abandoned faith, heartbreaking loss, and inescapable government scrutiny in the heartland of a post-9/11 nation.
American missionary and ROTC cadet Tyler Ahls, long missing in Pakistan, has just surfaced, proselytizing in an Afghani terrorist propaganda video. For Omaha nurse Elisabeth Holland, it’s a shock that her brother is even alive. Now she must ask herself a more grave question: Is he a hostage or a traitor?
Seasoned FBI special agent Frank Schwaller is asking this too. He’s come to Nebraska armed with countless hours of video, audio, and email surveillance. The object of his unyielding gaze is Elisabeth. But the more Schwaller uncovers about her—from her and Tyler’s evangelical Christian upbringing to her shattered youthful dreams to her broken marriage to a drifter—the more mystifying Elisabeth and the two men in her life become.
To find out the truth about these entwined lives—and the desperation that comes from love, fear, and the need to disappear—Agent Schwaller will discover how even the most lonesome corners of the Plains can be darkened by the long shadow of war.
From Kings of Broken Things author Theodore Wheeler comes an exploration of love lost, the failure of humanism, and the revelations of how deeply the US government spies on the personal lives of its citizens.
“A captivating, thought-provoking, and sweeping novel filled with power and depth. Set against the backdrop of America’s near-decade long war on terrorism, this is a novel to be read and re-read, to be treasured and remembered.”
-Kassandra Montag, author of After the Flood
“Powerful, provocative, fascinating and deeply unsettling: this novel about the threads that connect our lives and those who would hold to account this haywire of memory, love, faith, reason and understanding.”
-Robert Olmstead, author of Savage Country
“Taut, knuckle-whitening, and full of intriguing questions. An FBI agent visits Omaha, Nebraska, to gather information about a radicalized young man who was either captured while on a mission trip to Pakistan, or who voluntarily joined up with a group of terrorists, only to find that in this Midwestern city everyone keeps a secret; that disappearances and deaths pervade their lives as surely as it does for those in the Mideast; that the war abroad is nearer than anyone imagined.”
-Phong Nguyen, author of The Adventures of Joe Harper
A few weeks ago I went down to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which educates about lynching in America and how its legacy of racial violence echoes through our society today. Unsurprisingly, the visit was such a powerful experience. As a result of the research I’ve done over the past decade, some of which is posted here, I arrived knowing many of the facts about lynching in America, but the memorial is an effecting piece of art in the way your physical perspective changes while walking through, so that the hanging casks (each of which represents a county where a lynching was committed, and which features the names and dates of those murdered) start off at eye-level and are hanging above you by the end. It’s a devastating piece, in a necessary way. Here are some photos I took:
For almost a year now I’ve had the privilege of working with a coalition of folks here in Omaha to bring a replica of the Douglas County cask that’s on display in Montgomery. Thanks to the tireless work of people like Vickie Young, Chris Whitt, Franklin Thompson, the Kingfisher Institute at Creighton, and many others with the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, there will hopefully be a dedication of the cask near the site of the Will Brown lynching this September, which of course is the centenary. Keep an ear out for that.
Here is the poem “Invocation” by Elizabeth Alexander, which is featured at the end of the memorial and is of an emotional coda for the experience.
The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul I look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost,
each name a holy word.
The rocks cry out—
call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song,
a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are luminous.
You are not lost to us.
The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.
I’m very excited to share that my next novel will be coming out with Little A in the Spring of 2020! It’s a pleasure and a privilege to again work with editor Vivian Lee on the book.
This is the novel I started working on in 2014 when on fellowship that summer at Akademie Schloss Solitude. I began with the basic idea that I wanted to tell a story from the perspective of an NSA spying investigation after reading about how government contractors became so acquainted with some targets of surveillance that it became like a reality TV show for them, except surreptitiously through a web cam, and without consent. And not just the vulgar things they witnessed, but when relationships started and ended, when siblings or children died, jobs were lost, etc. I’d just read Uwe Johnson’s Speculations About Jakob, a novel that features a Stasi detective who becomes enmeshed with the lives of the East German family that’s the object of his surveillance, and the premise seemed so alive and relevant that I had to try my hand at the contemporary American equivalent. My novel didn’t exactly end up like Johnson’s, and it was turned by dozens of additional influences, but Speculations made for an invigorating model, particularly as I wrote that first draft of the book in Germany.
A much-deserved thanks goes to my agent Stephanie Delman for her tireless work in helping me get to the heart of this story and working out a deal to have the book published with Little A, my second with them, of course, after Kings of Broken Things. Many thanks to those who helped this book along with notes and emotional support, including Nicole Wheeler, Amy O’Reilly, Drew Justice, Kassandra Montag, CCB, Ryan Borchers, Felicity White, Bob Churchill, Ryan Norris, Doug Rice, Jean-Baptiste Joly, Jeff Alessandrelli, Trey Moody, Brent Spencer, Dave Mullins, the creative writing program at Creighton University, and many others I’m surely forgetting. More soon!
This has always been one of my favorite stories, as it was from a prolonged period when I was dreaming and writing about what our neighborhood in Omaha (near Dewey Park) would have been like 20 to 30 years before we lived there. My car died around then, so I spent a lot of time walking back and forth between home and Creighton, or home and the Douglas County courthouse, for work, which meant I spent a lot of time talking to guys hanging out on street corners and on the steps of rooming houses. As a young writer, meeting folks who ended up in less-than-best circumstances was gold. Midtown was still pretty rough then. It was great.
His room at the Kellogg has a big window, which is what he watches after work now, the downtown buildings reflecting the last light of sunset. And then he watches the fluorescent lights of the offices as they pop on after a while. It’s a drowsy sort of happiness this gives him.
Later in the morning he sits outside on the edge of a flower box and waits to be picked up and taken to where he will work for the day. Rodney has mowed for the city a long time, fifteen years or more. The man Rodney works with has learned a lot about him over the years, but even he doesn’t know Rodney’s mother was a white lady, that she came from Hastings and moved east to work for Mutual of Omaha in the fifties. She held more than a few jobs for them, over three decades, all clerical stuff before there were computers on every desk. Rodney’s father worked at Mutual too, that’s how they met. He was a custodian. They lived together for a few years in the Leavenworth neighborhood. It wasn’t such a great place to live, just as the Kellogg isn’t now, because there were junkies on the sidewalks and slumlords let most of the houses go to shit. But the people who lived there would let you be. They wouldn’t hassle you for doing things differently than most folks wanted you to. Rodney knew this, he understood it well.
His father left their midtown house when Rodney was thirteen years old, but he came back to visit most weekends, even when his life was running short, living alone by then in some innavigable parcel of land north of Cuming, south of Ames, east of 40th, west of the river. The man died and was buried during the three years Rodney was away in the army. Rodney could have had a furlough to return for the funeral, if he’d requested one, but he didn’t. His mother had moved back to Hastings by that time too, since he was in the military and she’d retired early. She was fifteen years older than Rodney’s father, and she worked a long time even after she retired from Mutual, simple stuff she was used to doing with insurance forms, for a while at the hospital in Hastings, a few years after that for a shyster lawyer.
Rodney wished someone would have been there to meet him when he came back from the army, but it wasn’t a big deal. In those days men still had to drive up from base after serving, which was from Arkansas in his case. He rode with a few guys he knew that were heading his way, one other from Omaha and a couple from Sioux City who had the car. They stopped at the dog track in Council Bluffs because the two with the car wanted to gamble. The family of the other guy from Omaha was waiting outside, and he wanted to give Rodney a ride.
“C’mon, buddy. Get in the car,” the man said, but Rodney shook his head and jogged after the two from Sioux City who were entering the track. “I’ll find a ride,” Rodney yelled back. “I’m going to bet some.”
Rodney did like to watch the greyhounds run and that’s what he did for a few hours, even after the guys with the car decided to head on. He sat inside the smoke-dense building with a smattering of others, men bent over the seats to study the odds. Rodney distracted himself by watching the greyhounds pound the earth on the other side of the glass, those long, graceful dogs chasing a mechanical rabbit along the rail. They went around the track and then back into a box.
He hadn’t thought about it in real terms until then, that his father was dead. It made him sad that his dad died young—he didn’t even know what had done it. Rodney wondered if he was a man then, since he no longer had a father.
During an intermission he walked out of the building and across the parking lot, jumped a fence near the interstate, and jogged across the bridge to Omaha. He was in fatigues still, a rucksack sagged over his shoulder. Rodney couldn’t keep his breath running over the bridge and had to stop every so often to look down at the river, as if he were lost in a strange country, a new man in a lonely and desolate place.
The NBA (no, not that one) (no, not that one either) (yes, this one) announced in a press release that Kings of Broken Things has been named the Fiction Honor selection for the 2018 Nebraska Book Awards!
Myself and other winners will be honored at the Celebration of Nebraska Books on December 1 in Lincoln at the Nebraska History Museum, 131 Centennial Mall North.
To add to the fun, one of my old classmate’s from Creighton, Andy Hilleman, will be honored for his novel World, Chase Me Down; and another friend and all-around amazing person, Lydia Kang, won the YA category for her novel The November Girl. Congrats all around!
It has been a while since I’ve published an honest-to-God real short story (as opposed to an excerpt from my novel) so it’s feels great to get back in the saddle and share that my story “Little Me” is now up as the Story of the Week on Narrative Magazine!
“Little Me” was a finalist for the Narrative’s 2017 Fall Writing Contest and I’m very pleased that they wanted to publish the story. After a few near misses as finalist for the Disquiet Literary Prize and the Summer Literary Seminar’s Fiction Contest, it’s great to have the story out in the world.
Read online here. (You will need to create a free account to read the whole story, fyi.) In the meantime, here’s a taste:
YOU SHOULD KNOW that I didn’t own the house on Brentwood. I was only staying there, like a house sitter. So when Teddy rang the bell and stepped inside the foyer, I hesitated, I didn’t tell him to get lost like I wanted to. He was just as much inside the house as I was, if that makes sense—uninvited, without a word of welcome. All existence was tentative those days, the month I lived on Brentwood, so what else could I do but let him in.
Teddy was eleven years old. He was stocky, chubby, his cheeks so fat his eyes closed when he smiled and barely slit open even when he wasn’t smiling. His hair had been buzzed some time before and sprouted in mutinous blond wings off the sides of his head, like he’d slept on it and hadn’t showered. We sized each other up in the foyer. He in jean shorts and a too-tight T-shirt; me cinching the sash of a monogrammed silk robe I’d found upstairs, a robe I wore most all night and day over my own shorts and T-shirt. Teddy must have been a familiar sight to the people who owned the house. The Sinclairs were family friends, and that month they were touring Tuscany. They’d mentioned their travel plans during a party my parents had hosted a few weeks prior. I let myself in through an unlocked patio door when they were gone because I needed a place to stay.
You see how it was. I had no standing to refuse entry to Teddy.
He was probably a neighbor kid anyway, or a nephew dropping by to get the mail, so I should be nice. Then again, maybe neither of us belonged there. We were both a little strange.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“That’s my name too,” I said. “I’m Ted.”
Teddy nodded, smiled politely, then gazed into the house, inhaling in heavy, rapid breaths through his pug nose, like he’d run up the hill to the door. He went up the stairs to the living room, and I let him. I shrank away so our arms didn’t bump. I didn’t want to be near Teddy, not when he snooped around the living room, the dining room, not when he went to the kitchen, got a Pepsi, and downed the whole can in frantic gulps that were interrupted only when the fridge door swung into his back.
“How about we call you Little Ted and we call me Big Ted? How about that?”
I could tell he was against the idea. He smiled, a grimace-smile. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Then what do you suggest?”
“My name is Teddy,” he said, still not looking at me. He was so quiet I could barely hear him. “We can call you Hans.”
“I don’t get it. Why should I be Hans?”
“I made it up.”
“I’m Hans?” I asked him.
He called me that from then on.
Please go vote for Kings here. We’re up against some heavy-hitters and can surely use your support.
If you’re not familiar, Omaha Reads is the city’s largest book club and marks a great opportunity for increased visibility. In addition to increased sales and library checkouts, of course, OPL also hosts numerous discussion and author events. Here’s a little background from Omaha World-Herald entertainment reporter Micah Mertes.
Friend of the blog (and one of my great mentors) Jonis Agee saw her novel The Bones of Paradise selected last year. It was a lot of fun seeing Jonis get the attention she deserves locally, and I’d be floored to earn the same noteriety for my book too.
I’m proud to report that I’m being featured this month in Association of Writers and Writing Program’s In the Spotlight feature! Basically it’s an interview to highlight writers who “are making exceptional contributions to the literary community.” So that’s cool.
Mostly we talk about my work with Dundee Book Company, PTL Literary Pub Quiz, working as an adjunct creative writing professor, the literary scene in Omaha, and, of course, my own writing. I’ve done more than a few interviews over the last couple years, and I’d have to say this is my favorite so far. Being able to address so many different parts of my life in one forum is gratifying. Especially as the promo cycle for Kings of Broken Things is pretty much over, it’s nice to sit back a little bit to appreciate how much we’ve done of the last year. And then, surely, get back to work…
What is your organization’s vision? How do you see it growing ten years from now?
Many times I’ve imagined a future where the projects I work on could come together more seamlessly under a single roof, under the auspices of a bookstore-bar and community space that’s somewhat similar to The Wild Detectives in Dallas. Our bookstore has only been an entity for eight months, but I’ve been creating literary programming for years, most notably the three-years-and-counting run of Pageturners Literary Pub Quiz at our neighborhood bar, which just so happens to be in the spot of a former used bookstore and has a loose literature theme. Combining these efforts into a neighborhood retail bookstore that goes heavy on events and features a bar space that caters to readers and writers would be a dream come true. Book and bottle pairings, a basement or back-room pub that serves as a meeting place for the writing community: what’s not to love? Realistically, for now, we’re still trying to get our feet wet as booksellers. And waiting a couple years to see how this whole retail apocalypse thing plays out is probably wise as well.
When do you find time to write?
Despite working full-time as a legal reporter, teaching adjunct, owning a pop-up store with my wife, and raising two kids, I find at least a couple hours a day to write. A big part of this is that I work from home for my day job. It’s much easier to sneak away to my other laptop at home than if I was in an office. (Or to skip a shower, for that matter, if that’s the only time left.) It’s also how I was raised. My parents were always busy with some home project or an amateur construction job or volunteering at their church. I’ve heard Joyce Carol Oates talk about how she’s so prolific because she grew up on a farm and learned to use every waking moment for labor. Not that I’m remotely in her orbit, but the idea resonates with me. I live a very different life than my ancestors, but I guess the essential avoidance of idle hands has made it through the generations.