100 Years

soil-collection.jpgThis weekend marked the centenary of the lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha. There were a number of events and memorial services to mark the occasion, including a gathering and soil collection ceremony outside the courthouse yesterday morning. (The soil collected from the site will be on display in Montgomery, Ala. at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.) It was an emotional morning on many levels. Standing in that spot, my mind wandered while the politicians spoke and played back over the events. It has been a few years since I walked around the grounds and imagined what it would have been like to be there during the riot. The morning was also a culmination of the work of so many people in Omaha over the past seventeen months to bring together the community for a commemoration like this in a meaningful way. So it was heartening to see that labor bear fruit and to have the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation be at center stage.

As part of this effort, at the invitation of the Kingfisher Institute, I delivered a lecture earlier this month at Creighton University that focused on some of the reasons why I wrote Kings of Broken Things, how I came to see myself in relation to the book, and why the story is told from the perspective of bystanders, rather than, perhaps, Will Brown himself or other victims of the violence. If you’d like to watch a recording of the presentation, you can here, with the action starting around 55 minutes the recording of the livestream. Alternatively, I’ll paste below an essay version of the presentation.

I’ve been at a loss for how I should personally observe this dark anniversary. Hopefully this will suffice.

On Whiteness and an Omaha Race Riot: 100 Years Later, a Writer Reflects on the Lynching of Will Brown

A long section of my novel Kings of Broken Things describes a race riot in World War I Omaha and the subsequent lynching of Will Brown, a 40-year-old black man who’d been dubiously accused of raping a white woman. It’s troubling material, to say the least, and how the country has changed (or failed to change) since I started working on the book a decade ago makes the history even more troubling. Focusing solely on Omaha—where major riots haven’t erupted in decades—violence and segregation remain endemic. These are difficult things to talk about in mixed company and, as it relates to the relevant history, many here would rather forget the bad times. During the first few weeks after publication, online comments questioned why I was “stirring up trouble” by revisiting the riot, and some expressed opinions similar to a Facebook user who addressed a post about the riot by saying, “History like this is hidden for a reason.”

It’s an important question to ask ourselves, if we agree that history should be hidden—or if we think that acknowledging our history is an important part of reconciling with racial violence in Omaha. Generally, I side with the famous William Faulkner line from his novel Requiem for a Nun—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—but, honestly, it’s a little murky even to me why I worked so stubbornly to finish and publish this particular novel. I’m not a native to Omaha and have no family connection to what happened here a hundred years ago. I could have largely shrugged off the troubles detailed in Kings of Broken Things if I wanted, as many do; it’s generally easy enough for white Midwest Americans like me to walk away from what can be seen as other people’s problems.

To a certain degree, I did turn away. I saw myself as a bystander: that I never meant harm to anyone and was therefore pardonable. Yet throughout the process—writing the book, researching the lynching of Will Brown—it became impossible to ignore the complicity that bystanders like me have in the violence that yet plagues our nation.

An estimated 15,000 people participated to some degree in the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. That is to say, a colossal mob of white people took over a city that was then one of the largest west of the Mississippi River in order to murder an innocent black man in retribution for a crime that likely didn’t even occur. In the process, the Douglas County courthouse was nearly destroyed, along with the rest of downtown, and Omaha’s reform mayor was also hanged when he attempted to disperse the mob, though he was cut down and would survive. Will Brown was a 40-year-old itinerant laborer who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. There isn’t much known about Brown beyond his connection to these crimes, except that he came to Omaha from Cairo, Ill., and was a “hunchback” and physically disabled. He lived in the same house with another black man and a white woman—a fact that was principal in his being accused of raping a white teenager that September. There had been dozens of white women raped earlier that summer—mostly by white men in blackface who were part of a criminal organization run by Tom Dennison that was undermining that new reform mayor by whipping the public into hysteria about “black criminality”—so after Will Brown was identified to police by the alleged victim, an angry mob nearly lynched him on the site. Though he was whisked to the courthouse without being harmed that evening, two days later, on Sunday, September 28, 1919, Will Brown would be lynched in downtown Omaha without ever being arraigned on charges.

Many of these events happened in places I walked by every day for the near-decade it took me to finish the book. (I work as a reporter at the courthouse where the riot occurred.) And once I knew that a man had been lynched and hung from a light pole on a particular corner, it was impossible to not wonder about that each time I was on the spot. Not only what happened there (what it would have sounded like, what it would have felt like to be in that crush of fanatical anger) but also the eerie experience of standing in that space a hundred years later. Knowing the history of a place can haunt you, much as that very place can be haunted.

My first writing professor, the prodigious novelist Jonis Agee, often talked about what she called “the psychosis of the land”: how trauma was experienced in most all places on the prairie, and even if you no longer see the direct effect of that trauma, it has left a mark. So I wondered what it meant that a man was lynched on the spot where now there’s a crosswalk I use to get to work, that the light post he was hung from has been replaced several times since then, but that there’s still a light post. Particularly as time passed, writing this book, as the destruction of black bodies again became a generational dilemma for our society, as we learned names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others, how could you not wonder about what kind of nation we are, what kind of people we are, that this keeps happening?

In some ways, writing about the Omaha Race Riot was a matter of craft—incorporating primary historical sources in order to portray the riot as horrific in fiction as it was in real life—but there was some personal involved too, of course. In this case, I had to put myself in a mindset to depict the mob, to get inside the psyche of a person who would shoot at a hanged man until he was disemboweled, while also imagining what Will Brown might have had running through his mind as his hours dwindled. In the progression of the riot, I think this dehumanization comes out in excerpts like these:

1. Everybody had a theory about how these things happened, especially later, when a mob caught one, a black man who did bad things to a girl. They would wonder about it in Omaha for years after the fact. What went through his mind? What was he thinking when the cops handed him over? This one they caught, this Will Brown. They’d wonder if his ears worked, if he was able to hear what that mob promised to do to him. They’d never know. No more than fifty people had even heard of him the day he was arrested, but the day after, Will Brown’s name was on the lips of every person in Omaha, after what that girl said he did to her.

2. They got Will Brown. The raiders. Karel was there. He reached up at Will Brown but couldn’t touch him. Men had taken over again, their arms longer than Karel’s, their hips heavier when he tried to move them. Karel stretched but couldn’t reach—all at once Will Brown fell, and it was Karel’s hands that tried to catch the weight of the man and pass it off. But Karel couldn’t hold. The weight crashed through him, crumpled him into a corner. Will Brown on top. Karel saw Will Brown’s eyes as the raiders grabbed and lifted him and carried on. Will Brown’s white eyes popping out of his skull. Raiders lifted Karel to his feet, but Karel’s legs didn’t work. His legs and hands were numb where he touched the black. He flattened against the wall to watch raiders tear off down the stairs. He couldn’t follow. They held Will Brown out a window. They ripped his clothes off. They had him.

Both the causes and effects of the lynching of Will Brown remain with the community. In many ways, the old ghetto boundary lines codified by Red Lining and other racist governmental policies still segregate society. And though the city and its suburbs consistently rank among the best places to live and raise a family, and the area is praised for its suburban public schools and low unemployment rate, these features aren’t enjoyed equally. While this situation is not uncommon nationally, the gulf in Omaha is wider than most anywhere else.

In a recent series on change in the African-American community over the last decade, the Omaha World-Herald interviewed a prominent community activist, Willie Barney, who described his experience coming to the city like this:

At first he and his wife, Yolanda Barney, saw Omaha as ‘a gold mine,’ with low unemployment, strong public schools and a vibrant downtown. But where were all the black people? Not leading corporations. Not very prevalent in civic leadership. Not even present in his neighborhood […] As he looked more closely at the city, he began to see what had been hidden. Omaha might have a low jobless rate overall, but black unemployment was in the double digits. The public housing projects didn’t look as bad as in other cities, but the poverty was deep. Plus the geographic separation was stark. (OWH, 8/9/17)

While the city touted revitalization and economic success, the homicide victimization rate for African-Americans in Nebraska was highest in the nation for several years, and twice the national average, which led to Omaha being tabbed three times in this decade as the most dangerous place in America to be black. The numbers suggest how different life still is across races here.

I moved to Omaha around the same time as the Barneys and noticed many of the same things, if in a more general, clueless-white-guy kind of way. Coming of age in Lincoln, there was a persistent sense that Omaha was an outlier in Nebraska, and not in a good way. The capitol city is part of the state-at-large—a bigger actor in pioneer history, home to the state’s beloved Cornhusker football team and flagship university—yet, across the divide, broad swaths of Omaha aren’t party to the Nebraska I grew up knowing. Omaha’s urban struggles and shootings were as far away from the cul-de-sacs of my childhood as those we saw fuel the L.A. riots in 1992. What I did hear about Omaha, the parts inside the byways, communicated a consistent message: look away.

Though the lynching of Will Brown is the most explosive incident of race violence in Nebraska, it isn’t talked about all that much and has been treated very much like settled history. More palpable are a series of riots, lootings, and fire-bombings that began in 1966 and devastated the Near North neighborhoods. These riots peaked in the summer of 1969 when black, fourteen-year-old Vivian Strong was shot in the back and killed by a policeman near the projects where she lived. This is a familiar story, how riots broke out after Vivian Strong was killed. Red-lining was in full effect by then and the construction of the North Freeway in the 70s would further segregate the peoples and economies of Omaha—but the way I’d always heard it growing up was that members of the black community had destroyed north Omaha during the riots and that its prolonged depression is therefore the mess of the black community to clean up, regardless of why the riots started, regardless of anything, really. Punitive sentiments likes this have not exactly left us either.

Whoever owns the legacy in this political sense, it’s true that such unleashed anger and destruction sealed a certain fate for many neighborhoods. And, as like everywhere, suburban flight showed who could walk away and who could not.

When I moved to Omaha after college, in 2005, my fiancée and I ended up in a diverse low-rent neighborhood in midtown, one that was pretty rough around the edges. Like many in our generation, we were trying to reverse suburban flight, if for no other reason than we didn’t want to live in the middle of a parking lot. Those days, there was quite a bit of violence on our block—a friend mugged, a few acquaintances jumped outside bars, two ex-cons across the street who fought drunkenly with baseball bats—though most of what made the papers was related to drug deals gone bad and, really, I never felt all that unsafe. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t talk shit, so why should I worry?

I was right about that. We were just starting out, my fiancée-then-wife and I. That’s how the prevailing narrative for folks like us goes here—not exactly rags to riches, but along those lines. Soon after marrying we had our first kid, bought our first house, got our first good jobs, had another kid, bought a better house in a better neighborhood that has better schools. More or less how it’s supposed to go. We didn’t stay in the low-rent neighborhood much longer than we had to, because, honestly, the calculus changed and we were mobile. Why wouldn’t we move twenty blocks west if it made life easier? We weren’t fleeing, we were recalibrating.

The toughest question I struggled with while writing Kings was why I was the person who should write this book. There was a little voice inside my head that told me to be quiet. In truth, although it’s much too late to turn back now, I’m still not so sure that I was the right person. The instinct is to hold tightly to the good things I have in life and forget the rest. However, as I was writing the novel, I struggled with appropriation issues and finding the best perspective to tell the story, there was another little voice that told me I couldn’t use my position or race as a way to get out of writing about these issues; or, for that matter, contemplating how ethnicity and whiteness have been elemental forces in the development of Omaha. Failure was always an option, of course, but I had to try my best to write and publish this novel, so I didn’t feel like I’d copped-out when given an opportunity to do good work. For me, Kings was always about reaching—to understand ideas bigger than me… to compose a novel beyond my abilities… to write a story that’s more than the sum of my fears, misconceptions, and prejudices, these things that comprise the worst face for all of us. There are lots of reasons to write, the most tangible for me has always been the process of creating something from myself that’s better than myself. This, and I believed that someone could tell about the lynching of Will Brown in a way that would draw more attention to the story than straight history. On my good days, I believed that I could be that person.

Even at the start, armed with this high-mindedness, I wanted to use certain immigrant narratives and the shaky status of German-Americans during World War I to set up what I knew was coming at the end of the novel. (German immigration and the settlement of the West is a big part of my family’s legends, as you might suspect.) The literal placement of whiteness in the riot was a key part of this strategy, insofar as the riot had to involve diverse notions of whiteness. Not only belligerent working class louts who storm the courthouse, but also reviled hyphenated German-Americans eager to improve their station, political movers-and-shakers who wield prejudice to get what they want, and, just as important, a bunch of pleasant folks who are there to be nice to their neighbors, who desire little except to remain pleasant. Those Nebraskans who want to live on the fringes, just out of reach of the troubles of other folks. Bystanders, like me.

Yet, in the early drafts, no main characters were actively involved in the riot. I worried a lot about making my characters likable, at least those who were precious to me, who resembled me, but the novel was flat, written this way, particularly because I didn’t want to implicate my “good” characters in such an evil act by even having them inside the courthouse, much as I wouldn’t want to implicate myself. The novel only really began to make sense after I transformed teenage baseball prodigy Karel Miihlstein into an active participant in the riot and let him find his way to the spot where Will Brown is seized by the lynch mob.

After letting Karel evolve into a fallible being, his emotional darkness and struggle to be accepted by others became organizing principles. By making Karel a courthouse raider, this was no longer disembodied whiteness that merely observed evil acts. Karel was there, he touched Will Brown. (But Karel couldn’t hold. The weight crashed through him, crumpled him into a corner. Will Brown on top. Karel saw Will Brown’s eyes…) It took me a long time to willingly go to this place with one of my precious characters. Of course, from the beginning, none of the characters in Kings of Broken Things were ever clean. There was no purity to protect.

During those specific months of revision, I found myself more and more interested in the group of boys who surround Karel in his working class neighborhood and come together because of their love of baseball. Because of this, Kings of Broken Things spends a lot of time reveling in the hijinks of young white men. Petty theft, brawling, sneaking into bars, trying to catch a glimpse of a girl’s pubic hair, barging into neighborhoods where black people live and returning to “tell the tale.” Traditional good-old-boy lore. Of course, I too went through similar initiation as a young man—the vastly more restrained 1990s Lincoln version—and what I remember most are the times we should have got in trouble for whatever we were up to, but we were almost always let off the hook. The argument in favor of this cycle is that we were shitheads once, sure, but we grew up, we’re balanced and successful men now, so what’s in the past no longer matters.

Around when the final draft was nearly done, in February 2015, I was talking with a friend from those salad days. He asked, “Do you think we would have been part of the riot if we were teenagers then?” At first we both said, “No, not ever.” But given a moment, we admitted that we would have been there. Not as raiders who snatched Will Brown, but amidst the teens who took advantage of the chaos to smash out a window in the courthouse and slur police without consequences. Of course we would have been there. We’d have nothing to lose. Not in a physical sense, not in terms of our freedom.

It makes me sick sometimes to think about all the things my friends and I got away with, not because our misadventures were so terrible, but because not every young man in this country gets to walk away from petty crime.

I’d never thought to use Kings of Broken Things as a way to vindicate anyone for what happened—the lynching of Will Brown was an irredeemable act—but even for those who weren’t perpetrators, even for bystanders, there is a degree of complicity. From walking away, from looking away. I couldn’t have written this novel without appreciating that. In my author’s note I mention that I consider this novel an “act of remembering,” which is to say it’s a call for ownership of that history, and in a similar, maybe more important way, it’s also an act of seeing where we live, who we are, and who we live with.

 

 

Kings Under the LJS Microscope

wheeler ljsThe Lincoln Journal-Star has quite a lot of coverage on my new novel Kings of Broken Things on the front of its (402) lifestyle section this Sunday, with a book review and an interview. Be sure to pick up a copy of the paper if you’re in the Lincoln area and check out for yourself the two photos of my giant head. (May not be to scale.)

Thanks so much to features editor Jeff Korbelik for interviewing me, and Andrew Willis for his well-considered review. I especially like how the review mentions that Kings of Broken Things briefly features a Nebraska-Notre Dame football game from 1918, when Knute Rockne brought his Irishmen to Lincoln for a Thanksgiving Day game and my character Jake Strauss was in the crowd.

Be sure to check out the interview and I’ll post a link to the review if it goes online. In the meantime, here’s a little taste:

Theodore Wheeler’s nearly 10-year journey ends Tuesday when publisher Little A releases the Omaha author’s first novel, “Kings of Broken Things.” Wheeler, 35, admitted he’s anxious, having spent seven to eight years writing the book and another year and half to two years working through the publishing process. “I have a 9-year-old daughter, so when I started working on it she was still a baby and now she’s going to fourth grade,” Wheeler said in a phone interview to discuss the novel’s release. “It kind of puts it in a little more perspective.”

Kings of Broken Things Cover Reveal!!!

I’m so excited to share with you the front cover of my new novel Kings of Broken Things, out from Little A on August 1!wheeler-kings-of-broken-things-final-front-cover

The cover turned out so well, I couldn’t be more pleased and excited to share the book with you all this summer. Thanks are due to Christina Chung, who did the illustration, and Vivian Lee, my editor at Little A, who painstakingly worked through many versions until this was just right. Their hard work paid off big time, in my opinion. What do you all think?

The book is now available for pre-order in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and audio editions. The audio edition is a new addition, for all you road warriors and commuters out there. If you’re so inclined, put in your order now and have the book arrive on August 1.

 

Solid Jackson Reading on Nov 4; More News

14606434_2126155184276951_2120107325737057729_nHi, all. A few notes to update, including that I’ll be reading on Friday November 4 at the new Solid Jackson Books location at 3925 Farnam Street in Omaha, starting at 7pm sharp. (See here for more info.) Joining me on the bill are poets Trey Moody (author of Thought That Nature) and Jeff Alessandrelli (author of This Last Time Will Be the First). The three of us were senior readers together for Prairie Schooner a few years back–more than a few now, I guess–so it will be great to share work from our first books and a special night all around, as Jeff and Trey recently moved back to Nebraska, and are new to Omaha.

In other Bad Faith news, a strong review of the book recently appeared on Necessary Fiction. Many thanks to Greg Walklin for his analysis here and excellent riffs off of the Nebraska Nice ad campaign. “Most of the characters in Bad Faith aren’t nice, and Wheeler plumbs that not-niceness throughout. The Pythagoreans talked of good as definite and finite, and evil and indefinite and infinite. Niceness may make for a slogan, and a friendly face to provide directions, but it is often just a veneer.”

Check out the Bad Faith book page here on the site for links to all the reviews and press the collection has received to date. I’ve been pleased with the reception the book has received, especially as a small press book, and am very grateful for the coverage. The book has been out for three months now, with a couple events still on the agenda. In addition to the November 4 Solid Jackson reading, I’ll also be reading at East City Books in Washington DC on Wednesday February 8, 2017, an off-site during the AWP Conference. This is the Key West Literary Seminar Workshop Alumni reading with Amina Gautier, Paula Whyman, Jay Desphande, and Sam Slaughter, something I’m thrilled to be a part of.

Also, if you check out my events page you’ll notice that I’ve already booked the first appearance to help launch my debut novel next year, as I’m scheduled to read from Kings of Broken Things on Friday, September 15, 2017, at the Writers Place in Kansas City.

Speaking of Kings of Broken Things, there’s been a lot of activity behind the scenes to get the book ready for publication next year. You can pre-order the Kindle edition for one thing, if you’re so inclined, with the bones of the page coming along over there. The publication date is set for mid August, and an audio edition of the novel is going into production too. How cool is that?! Copyedits were finished up last week and the process is moving along apace, with a cover and galley editions not too far off. !!! !!!

“The Hyphenates of Jackson County” Published in Artful Dodge

dodgeheaderMore late spring publication news, as my story “The Hyphenates of Jackson County” was published late last week in the recent issue of Artful Dodge!

Get your copy of the issue here.

Thanks so much to editor Daniel Bourne for all his work with the story, and to Erin McGraw, who selected “Hyphenates” for an AWP Intro Journals Project award while I was a student in the Creighton University MFA program. The story was nominated by CUmfa, so thanks to Dave Mullins for that.

Long-time friends of the blog will surely recognize the title of the story, as this was the original title of my World War I novel, what has since become Kings of Broken Things. In its earlier versions the novel focused entirely on the character of Jake Strauss (fka Jacob Strauss fka Jakob Strauss fka Jacob Bressler) and his introduction to the underworld elements of Omaha after being forced to flee his rural home of Jackson County. This short story is basically the opening scenes from that iteration of the novel.

More generally, the story is set in a fictional Jackson County, Nebraska, during World War I, and deals with a German immigrant and his two sons’ struggle to hold together their family, church, and farm amid threats both local and global.

Here’s an excerpt:

With the war in Europe raging late that summer, Jake was awakened by his father in the middle of the night more than once, the Pfarrer compelled to voice a worry that the German army would claim Fred and Jake, somehow, conscript them into service over on the Eastern Front, because that’s the side of Germany the Pfarrer was born to, in West Prussia, south of Danzig. There were always rumors of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reach, but the Pfarrer’s mania was peculiar and unfounded, as it always boiled over in the middle of the night. With all that had happened, he felt something was lacking in their connection to the Lord. “There’s a debt there,” was how the Pfarrer put it.

Jake and Fred agreed. But what was there to do about it?

That August, Jake found his father sprawled in the creek on the other side of their claim, water damming up and washing over his naked body. His clothes lay out on the grass. The jacket was on top, a shirt showed under the lapels. His pants were below with a shoe at the bottom of each leg, laces tied. It looked like the Pfarrer had been sucked out of his clothes, the way they’d been arranged. Two bottles of wine nearby, a half empty jar of horse cleaner. Jake didn’t know if his father had poisoned himself or not, if he’d soon die. Jake had heard of people doing that—eyes lost pigment after drinking horse cleaner, hair fell from heads. It hurt horribly. His father was naked in the cold creek, rolling to be facedown. He was pale, his breathing slow as Jake yanked him from the water and demanded to know what he’d done. He woke looking into Jake’s eyes. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “The horse cleaner?” Jake asked. “No. I didn’t.”

Jake lifted the Pfarrer to his shoulder and carried him up the hill. His father was large, but Jake showed no struggle. He had urgency on his side and his muscles responded to the charge. The Pfarrer glanced to Jake, almost shy in his drunk, tepid and put-off as he was set to the porch, surprised again at how his younger boy had grown. Jake felt it well up in his gut, in his muscled shoulders and forearms, the anger and guilt, the tension of struggle. What did his father want to accuse him of?

Wheeler’s Debut Novel Sold to Little A

The last week has been pretty exciting around here.

First off, the announcement from Publishers Marketplace:

Creighton MFA Theodore Wheeler’s KINGS OF BROKEN THINGS, that follows two young immigrants to and through the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, shedding light on a tragic period in American history, to Vivian Lee at Little A, for publication in spring 2017, by Stephanie Delman at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates.

I couldn’t be happier that Kings of Broken Things has found a home with Little A, and I’m thrilled to be working with Vivian Lee. After spending eight years researching the history and creating characters who could not only live within the existing history, but also bring out the events in a compelling way, I’m finding great comfort that Kings has found a home with a publisher who can both push the work further artistically and find a wider audience to expand its reach. (Check out The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses for a standout example of a book Vivian edited.) If you’ve followed this blog over the years, you’re with me. From the first drafts of The Hyphenates of Jackson County to the middle stages of The Uninitiated and the brief term of Red Summer and now Kings of Broken Things, a lot of well-meaning words met their ultimate demise to make this possible.

Friday happened to be my birthday. Receiving an offer to publish my novel was quite the way to celebrate! (Publishing this post from the press file room at the DNC debate is kind of cool too.)

Really, it’s been quite a year. A second trip to Germany to perform Omaha Uninitiated: Stateside Race Riots & Lynching in the Aftermath of World War I, which coincided with the publication of my chapbook, On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown, by Edition Solitude; Queen’s Ferry Press accepting my short story collection Bad Faith for publication (in July 2016, it’s coming up!); a string of publications highlighted by my first story to be featured in The Southern Review and more of my historically-based “hyphenates” fiction about German-Nebraskans winning an AWP Intro Journals Award; some amazing travels in Europe, New York, Chicago, Kansas City; the Royals winning the World Series; Notre Dame in the hunt for a national championship. I’m one lucky dude, obviously.

The success I’ve had the last couple years in getting this story about the Omaha Race Riot and these old immigrant communities has been very encouraging. The three months I spent at Akademie Schloss Solitude in 2014 were instrumental to refining Kings of Broken Things in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise. My experiencing Esprit Solitude really did wonders for this novel, and for my next novel, which was largely written while I was in Germany. Beyond that, Akademie Schloss Solitude helped create a wonderful platform to gain exposure for this historical project of mine, this redemptive art, as we called it, by publishing an excerpt of the novel in chapbook form and supporting a multi-media performance (Omaha Uninitiated) that focused on historical and cultural documents as objects of creation. Thanks to Director Jean-Baptiste Joly and literature juror Maxi Obexer for bringing me to Stuttgart and facilitating my work in such a generous way.

This is about to get sappy, but there are so many people to thank for their help reading, critiquing, and talking about the manuscript, and their sticking with me through the grueling process of writing a novel. Obviously this is far from over. But I should take this opportunity to thank my wife Nicole. She puts up with a lot, being married to a writer. I don’t know what I had to endure in a previous life to deserve her generous and enthusiastic love, but I’ll take it. My mother-in-law Karen West was instrumental in my writing process, tending to our girls during the day when they were little and understanding that time is something very precious to a writer. My own mom too, Marta, for being there and helping out whenever help is needed, and for teaching me to read and write, and for imparting the belief in storytelling as something sacred. My grandmother, Cleo (Blankenfeld) Croson, for all the work she’s done passing on a rich family history, and for her openness and honesty when discussing the finer, sometimes tawdry, elements of our history, a rare quality. My agent Stephanie Delman for championing the book and her tireless work in finding a great home with Vivian Lee and Little A. Also, “Country Club” Bill Sedlak, Amber Haschenburger, Ryan Borchers, Drew Justice, Sam Slaughter, Gregory Henry, Nabina Das, Mary Helen Stefaniak, Brent Spencer, Susan Aizenberg, Dave Mullins, Jonis Agee, Kwakiutl Dreher, Bob Bergstrom, Shannon Youngman, Jenn Ladino, Dave Green, Devin Murphy, Doug Rice, Darren Keen, Timothy Schaffert, Nicole Steen, Travis Thieszen, Miles Frieden, Arlo Haskell, Mary Morris, Richard Burgin, Lee Martin, Robert Stone, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Key West Literary Seminar. I’m sure I’m forgetting to include some vital people in this cloud of gratitude, but this is just the pre-acknowledgement acknowledgments.

So I’ll stop with this: It feels pretty great to be able to remove the aspiring part from aspiring-novelist. I can’t wait to bring this book to you in Spring 2017!

More soon. For now, cheers!

Pub Updates: Southern Review, Artful Dodge, Boulevard

Since we’re on the backside of summer and the days again are speeding up, a quick update on my forthcoming publications.

The Southern Review will publish “The Missing” in their autumn issue. I recently went through some edits with editor extraordinaire Emily Nemens and am really excited about how the story came out on the other side. Not that I wasn’t super excited about this before, but to have a journal editor spend two weeks working over every detail with me is pretty special. I appreciate all the hard work and can’t wait to share this one. Be sure to subscribe now to get the issue featuring my story delivered to your doorstep later on this year.

Artful Dodge will publish “The Hyphenates of Jackson County” in their autumn issue. This story won an AWP Intro Journals Project award earlier this year, a series that honors the best work coming out of MFA and other writing programs each year. Erin McGraw selected the story as a winner. I wrote a longish post here in April when the announcement was made, noting in particular how this piece was the opening chapter of a former iteration of my novel-in-progress, and expressed my gratitude and relief that this story brought home some hardware. I’ve still been playing around with this material now and again (the Strauss family in Jackson County, 1910-1917) and can easily see a novel coming out of what I have started and outlined. (Not that a novel ever comes easy.) Maybe if the first novel is published and does well The Hyphenates of Jackson County could be a followup book. Something to dream on anyway. Anyway, be sure to subscribe to Artful Dodge now and get in on the ground floor of this story.

-As announced last week, Boulevard will be publishing my story “Violate the Leaves” in their spring 2016 issue. I won’t repeat myself too much. If you’re interested in subscribing to Boulevard (and, yes, go for the trifecta) you can do so here.

Other than that, I’d just like to remind that my chapbook On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown is still available in Kindle and bound form from Amazon, and from my publisher Edition Solitude (if you get giddy about receiving mail from overseas, this option is for you!), and from the following fine booksellers. If you happen to be in Omaha, Lincoln, Des Moines, ChicagoFruita, Seattle, Vancouver, Montreal, or Paris, please stop in at one of the stores that I’ve linked here and pick up a copy. They’re wonderful venues, so be sure to check them out.

Hanging out with my chapbook at Quimby's, an essential stop for fans of counterculture books in Chicago's Wicker Park.
Hanging out with my chapbook at Quimby’s, an essential stop for fans of counterculture books in Chicago’s Wicker Park.

Keep an eye on the Books page here for an updated list of where to find my work. I recently had to do a second printing of the chapbook to replenish my stock and have been thrilled with the response. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from having a chapbook published, but getting to do three big events (with at least one more coming this fall) and to find a high level of interest in the subject and my treatment of it, this has been a lot of fun. I’m really excited to get out next summer and promote my book of short stories (Bad Faith, Queen’s Ferry Press, July 2016) after learning a lot about presenting myself and my work to audiences both live and in cyberspace.

Cheers!

“Hyphenates” Story Wins an AWP Intro Award & Will Be Published in Artful Dodge

The string of good news continues, as I learned late last week that my story “The Hyphenates of Jackson County” has won an Intro Journals Project award from AWP and will be published in a future edition of Artful Dodge!

Check out the announcement here, with the results for the three winners in fiction about halfway down the page. (Fyi, from the page: “The Intro Journals Project is a literary competition for the discovery and publication of the best new works by students currently enrolled in AWP member programs.”) (And if you don’t know what AWP is, check here.)

Thanks so much to Creighton University for nominating “The Hyphenates of Jackson County” and judge Erin McGraw for selecting it.

I’ve mentioned a few times how good it feels to have some of my Germans in Nebraska during World War I material published–as it has been in Boulevard, in The Four Quarters Magazine, and most recently in my chapbook On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown. Seven years into that project and with no publication in sight for the novel, things like this help keep me from feeling too much in the woods with the project.

So, of course, I’m very thankful to have “Hyphenates” recognized by such a prestigious award series.

Long-time friends of the blog will surely recognize the title of the story, as this was the original title of my World War I novel, what has since become The Uninitiated. In its earlier versions the novel focused entirely on the character of Jake Strauss (fka Jacob Strauss fka Jakob Strauss fka Jacob Bressler) and his introduction to the underworld elements of Omaha after being forced to flee his rural home of Jackson County. This short story is basically the opening scenes from that iteration of the novel.

More generally, the story is set in the fiction Jackson County, Nebraska, during World War I, and deals with a German immigrant and his two sons’ struggle to hold together their family, church, and farm amid threats both local and global.

More on all this later, particularly as the publication details are worked out with Artful Dodge. For now, I’ll let good feelings suffice and wish congrats to the other winners.

That, and here’s an excerpt to tide you over:

With the war in Europe raging late that summer, Jake was awakened by his father in the middle of the night more than once, the Pfarrer compelled to voice a worry that the German army would claim Fred and Jake, somehow, conscript them into service over on the Eastern Front, because that’s the side of Germany the Pfarrer was born to, in West Prussia, south of Danzig. There were always rumors of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reach, but the Pfarrer’s mania was peculiar and unfounded, as it always boiled over in the middle of the night. With all that had happened, he felt something was lacking in their connection to the Lord. “There’s a debt there,” was how the Pfarrer put it.

Jake and Fred agreed. But what was there to do about it?

That August, Jake found his father sprawled in the creek on the other side of their claim, water damming up and washing over his naked body. His clothes lay out on the grass. The jacket was on top, a shirt showed under the lapels. His pants were below with a shoe at the bottom of each leg, laces tied. It looked like the Pfarrer had been sucked out of his clothes, the way they’d been arranged. Two bottles of wine nearby, a half empty jar of horse cleaner. Jake didn’t know if his father had poisoned himself or not, if he’d soon die. Jake had heard of people doing that—eyes lost pigment after drinking horse cleaner, hair fell from heads. It hurt horribly. His father was naked in the cold creek, rolling to be facedown. He was pale, his breathing slow as Jake yanked him from the water and demanded to know what he’d done. He woke looking into Jake’s eyes. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “The horse cleaner?” Jake asked. “No. I didn’t.”

Jake lifted the Pfarrer to his shoulder and carried him up the hill. His father was large, but Jake showed no struggle. He had urgency on his side and his muscles responded to the charge. The Pfarrer glanced to Jake, almost shy in his drunk, tepid and put-off as he was set to the porch, surprised again at how his younger boy had grown. Jake felt it well up in his gut, in his muscled shoulders and forearms, the anger and guilt, the tension of struggle. What did his father want to accuse him of?

The Uninitiated Makes Inkubate’s Long List

More good news this week, as my novel The Uninitiated was selected for the long list in Inkubate’s “Literary Blockbuster Challenge!”

You can find the whole list on their blog, but the gist of it is that initial readers whittled down to twenty-one finalists from the over six hundred novels submitted to the contest. (Congrats, Domini.)

Here’s what one of the readers, Nathan Feuerberg, had to say about the process:

“For two months all we did was read. There were detective novels and coming of age stories, mysteries and science fiction, historical and even some erotic literature. There were so many great entries that narrowing down our selections to just a few became a daunting task. In the end, I think we found some writers with exceptional talent, and that made all the reading worthwhile.”

Ten winners selected from the long list will be announced in August, with $10,000 in prizes divided among them–$5000 of that to the first prize winner. Each of the final ten will also receive feedback from publishing executives.

If you’ve never heard of Inkubate before, it’s certainly an interesting concept. The idea is to basically rethink the slush pile process of authors submitting queries and manuscripts to agents and publishers by creating a platform where agents and publishers instead browse author-created profiles, thus allowing the gate-keepers to narrow in on the genre, experience level, what have you, that they’re interested in. The value here seems to be for young writers just starting out and established writers who may have lost the eye of publishers for some reason or another. Basically, those with a bare-bones cover letter, or a stale one.

It’s a cool idea, although, as with anything, it’s yet to be seen how the service funds itself. Participating agents and publishers are to pay a fee to browse the site–it’s free for authors to create a profile–but will publishing professionals pay for something they already get in abundance for free? TBD, I guess, and something to watch evolve. In the meantime I’m happy to be a part of it.

After bringing home Tarcher/Penguin’s Top Artist prize earlier this year, it’s exciting to have this draft of the novel in the running for another competition. I’ll try to get an update on where I’m at with the novel later on this month, but today let’s enjoy this victory and hope that there’s more to come.