About Writing and Politics in Six Parts

1-4-00-courtesy-of-the-durham-museum-600x491Somehow I missed when this essay was posted in September, but it seems so much more appropriate to post here on the eve of Election Day anyway–an essay on the relation of politics and art within my work. So please finds my contribution–“About Writing and Politics in Six Parts”–in Schlossghost #1, a year book for the 2014-16 fellows of Akademie Schloss Solitude.

The essay is a response to two questions posed by the editors of Schlossghost, Paula Kohlmann and  Clara Herrmann. “Would you say that your (artistic) practice is political? If so, how would you describe its political dimension?”

Find the whole response at the link above, and here’s a sample for now:

In May, earlier this year, I covered a Donald Trump rally that took place in an aircraft hangar near the Omaha airport. At first I was a little worried about even going, as there had been quite a bit of violence at Trump rallies the month before and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a party to all that ugliness. But, on the other hand, of course I did. That’s a big part of my job description, the part of the job I like, to be witness to these things.

The rally itself was mostly dull. Trump spoke for a long time about Japanese tariffs without much insight, and the biggest part of his speech was a 20-minute anecdote about this time he handed out trophies at a charity golf tournament. During the rally a few protestors were thrown out. His supporters for the most part looked bored throughout, except at the beginning and end, when his helicopter landed and when they could chant »build that wall.«

I wondered about my feelings of disappointment after the rally. What was I expecting? Wasn’t xenophobia on display enough? Were the protestors dragged out too peacefully? Or did I miss something, the feeling of the event, the undercurrent? Did I feel the way I did because I wasn’t in the crowd? I sat up in the press section – a platform with tables where journalists were corralled behind a fence. By accident I sat between a Fox News anchor and his producer, to comic effect. Seeing their frustration with having to follow Donald Trump made me a little grateful for my obscure lot, for not having to spend all day working a story and then being told to reduce it to a ten-second clip of a long-haired young man shouting »fuck you« at the police.

In the Contributor Spotlight with Midwestern Gothic

issue12Check out a new interview posted today on Midwestern Gothic, as I talk with Allison Reck about vulnerability, Bad Faith, and finding voice among a diverse cast of characters, along with my thoughts on napping and what is an appropriate time to eat supper on the weekend.

Friends of the blog may recall that my story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” (the opening story in Bad Faith) was published in Midwestern Gothic 8 back in the winter of 2013. At the time I was also featured in their Contributor Spotlight, which makes for an interesting comparison with the latest interview. (It’s particularly funny that when asked what literary figure I would like to meet (living or dead) that I responded with George Saunders–as I had actually met George Saunders before. Maybe I forgot that I’d bumped into him at the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012–or maybe it was that our conversation then was limited to whether or not the pasta salad looked edible–but somehow that must have slipped my mind.) Thanks so much to Allison Reck for conducting the interview, and Midwestern Gothic for posting it.

Read the entire interview here, but in the meantime, here’s a highlight:

AR: In the advanced praise for Bad Faith, fellow authors hailed you for your “nuanced understanding of human nature” and said that your stories revealed the “malice, confusion, and ultimate frailty of us all.” Do you agree with this commentary, that your collection exposes humanity as confused, malicious and frail? What did you hope to convey about humanity in writing these stories?

TW: I didn’t really intend to write a mean-spirited book, and I don’t think it is. There’s something really compelling to me about vulnerability, particular those who are willfully exposed and those who try to cover up weakness by being cruel to others. There are a few malicious characters in Bad Faith — notably Aaron Kleinhardt, a criminal element who appears in two stories and seven between-story vignettes — but for the most part these are people who are vulnerable and different, but not really that interested in covering up their frailty.

“Violate the Leaves” Published in Boulevard

tumblr_o59mwifpuo1tx58ago1_1280According to the Internet, the new issue of Boulevard has arrived from the printers and is headed out to subscribers as we speak! In addition to my story “Violate the Leaves” the Spring 2016 edition features new work from Stephen Dixon, Amit Majmudar, Miriam Kotzin, Adrian Matejka, Phong Nguyen, Joyce Carol Oates, William Trowbridge, and Mary Troy, and a symposium on the future of literary publishing.

To get the issue, head to the Boulevard web site, where you can get a three issue subscription for $15. If you want a real steal, go for the three-year subscription, 9 issues for $30.

“Violate the Leaves” is a story I kicked around for a long time, with the original pages written circa 2003 when I was an undergrad at the University of Nebraska. It’s something I picked at every once in a while until the right elements finally came together during the summer of 2014 when I was at Akademie Schloss Solitude. It’s a father-and-son story about how the two deal with each other during a summer when the boy’s mother is overseas in Iraq. A spare, reticent voice has almost always been a hallmark of my work and this story pushes things even further in that direction. Also, it seems notable that this was the first thing I worked on while a resident of Schloss Solitude. It should come as no surprise that the major features include: 1) a parent who leaves his/her family for an extended period, 2) a central character who is nearly incapable of expressing himself verbally, 3) an examination of nationality, and what it means to be a an American, if anything. There you have it, autobiographical fiction!

This is the fifth time I’ve had a story published in Boulevard, something of a milestone, I guess. I can’t wait to get my copy.

Here’s an excerpt from “Violate the Leaves”:

In the evening there were video calls with Mom. She was just getting up. Or just going to bed. I don’t remember what time it would have been over there. She was tired. My father dialed in the PC that sat on the floor next to the television, but he went outside before she answered. I brought the fishbowl downstairs to brag how I was keeping my goldfish alive.

She talked about the food she ate, once the PC was dialed in, the kinds of equipment she had around her neck and in the pockets of her med kit. Her stethoscope, her thermometer. Rubber gloves. Her voice digitized, sometimes doubling over itself in echoes. She always wore her hair up, over there, wore khaki tee shirts that fit tight around her. She smiled big when she saw me. So big the video broke up in pixilation. She asked how my day went and told me about her day. She tried to tell me about the people she worked with, or the bunker she rushed to if the Sense & Warn detected incoming, she said; and the geography, the mounds of desert that blew in under the doorways; and on the airplane going over, watching the sunset and sunrise only three hours apart over the Arctic Ocean.

I didn’t hear any of that. 

If she told me to shut up about asking when she was coming home, I would.

The Rumpus Interviews Vivian Lee

vivian-lee-alt-2-2809-200x200Over the weekend The Rumpus featured an interview with Vivian Lee, my editor at Little A. In addition to a shout out for Kings of Broken Things (coming in August 2017 from Little A) and some hilarious recollections of how the Pizza Hut Book-It program spurred on a lifetime of reading and a career as an editor, the space gives a glimpse of Vivian’s take on race and publishing. After getting together last Thursday at AWP in an L.A. ping-pong bar, I couldn’t be more excited to be working with Vivian and the Little A team on this book. This interview provides some insight as to why I’m so enthusiastic.

Be sure to check out the full interview. Here are a couple highlights:

Rumpus: I love how unapologetically blunt some of your tweets are when it comes to race. Like this one: “This may come as a surprise but the onus is not just on POC editors to acquire books by writers of color (esp bc there are so few of us).” What’s your MO as an editor?

Lee: When I tweeted that, it was because someone made a passing comment about how I could be known as the editor who only publishes Asian American authors. It was so othering to me. It made it seem like the only reason I was publishing authors was because we had a similar background. I’d like to think I’m publishing quality books—and it just so happens that a lot of these writers are of Asian descent. If it is a good narrative with an emotional core, then it’s a good book.

As far as my MO as an editor, I am interested in the beauty and transformational power of language and a good story and that’s what I gravitate towards. My list is predominantly writers of color mostly because I’m surrounded by wonderful communities of them and I want to be able to go to more readings and panels that aren’t comprised of all white or almost all white writers. I think I’m in a very good position at Little A as an editor of color to publish these voices and experiences that are not often heard. It’s a unique place to be in and it’s something I take very seriously.

Rumpus: What’s at the root of the diversity problem in publishing? What do you think needs to change?

Lee: There’s a lot of hand-wringing over the “diversity problem” but not a lot being done yet. I think the root of the problem goes back to my tweet earlier. Everyone in publishing needs to take accountability for diversity—not just POC editors. From the ground up we have to hire diverse editors, designers, marketers, publicists, etc. I do think once we change from the “inside out,” then publishing will realize that Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, etc don’t have to be the sole voice of an entire group of people. I can’t speak for other houses, but I am excited to say that Little A is committed to publishing diverse stories, voices, and authors.

In my dream scenario as an editor, if we all seek out more writers of color and diversify our list, then agents will have to also diversify their list and seek out more writers of color, and readers will get more of a chance to read stories they normally wouldn’t read, and then more books by writers of color will be published. I’m pretty direct with agents about what books I want and it forces them to look at their own list and see where they can improve.

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!

“The Missing” is Nominated for a Pushcart Prize

Some exciting news to share today, as my short story “The Missing” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize!

The story was nominated by Mark Wisniewski, a contributing editor with the anthology series, and author of the novel Watch Me Go.

“The Missing” is featured in the current issue of The Southern Review. (Go here thesouthernreview.org/issues/detail/Autumn-2015/233/ and used the code FRIEND514 for a 25% discount off the cover price.) It was such a thrill to see my work in The Southern Review, which came out just last week, and to have “The Missing” get some love already is amazing. (Read more about the story here.)

This is my fifth nomination for a Pushcart. “Welcome Home” (originally published in Boulevard and anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009) was listed as a “Special Mention” story in the 2010 Pushcart anthology.

Here’s hoping that this is the year!

Happy Book Birthday – Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee

Congrats to Vanessa Blakeslee on the publication of her first novel, Juventud! Fresh off the success of her 2014 story collection (Train Shots, Burrow Press) Vanessa is back with her second book quickly. I had the pleasure of meeting Vanessa at the 2012 Key West Literary Seminar, then ran an essay of hers (“First Job”) back when I was web editor with Prairie Schooner, and it’s been awesome watching her career blossom.

Curbside Splendor Publishing is still running a pre-order special as of right now–click over a grab a copy ASAP! She’s also booked quite a few dates on a tour–so check out her website to see if she’s coming to a city near you.

Growing up as the only daughter of a wealthy landowner in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, teenaged Mercedes Martinez knows a world of maids, armed guards, and private drivers. When she falls in love with Manuel, a fiery young activist with a passion for his faith and his country, she begins to understand the suffering of the desplazados who share her land. A startling discovery about her father forces Mercedes to doubt everything she thought she knew about her life, and she and Manuel make plans to run away together. But before they can, tragedy strikes in a single violent night. Mercedes flees Colombia for the United States and a life she never could have imagined. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia seeking the truth, but discovers that only more questions await. 

In the bristling, beautiful prose that won her an IPPY Gold Medal for her short story collection Train Shots, Vanessa Blakeslee’s Juventud explores the idealism of youth, the complexities of a ravaged country, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. 

Solitude Atlas Arrives in Omaha

My copy of the Solitude Atlas arrived in the mail today, so I thought I’d share a few photos with you all. See below for those. I already wrote about the publication at length back in August–so see this post for more information on how the book came together to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Akademie Schloss Solitude. It’s interesting stuff. Also, here’s the webpage for the book, where you can order a copy of your own.

I’m happy to finally have this in hand, and am of course proud to be one of the 145 authors of this atlas of Solitude. Also, it’s always gives me a little extra thrill (or is that self-importance?) to see my work translated. So there’s that too.

Thanks so much, Jean-Baptiste, for sending this copy my way.

Pageturner’s Pub Quiz Starts October 7

Another quick announcement this week. I’m pretty stoked to share that, along with MFA buddies Ryan Borchers and Drew Justice, I’m starting a literary-themed pub quiz at Pageturners Lounge in Omaha. This is a pretty traditional trivia night–21 questions, teams competing for prizes–with the twist that we’ll also feature a celebrity guest to introduce to the community via a short interview and a special category wherein the guest will be asking the questions. This should be fun, I think, and hopefully widen the literary community in Omaha a bit. While at Creighton the past couple years, I thought a lot about how to present authors and their work in a different way than what can sometimes seem like the sterile environment of a reading. This format should allow for a little more interactivity and playfulness. In addition to asking their five questions, the authors will play along in the game (with a five point handicap, of course) and will be around to sign copies of their books or chat or talk trash about who knows more than who. We’ll see how it goes.

Our first night is Wednesday, October 7 at 9pm. Pageturners is at 5004 Dodge Street–where the release party for my chapbook was held earlier this year–with Timothy Schaffert as our esteemed guest. If you can’t make it to the first go, we’ll be back the first Wednesday of every month. (See below for the schedule through February.)

Here’s a link to the Facebook event page if you require more information. Otherwise I’ll just see you there!

PTL Pub Quiz Schedule

October 7: Timothy Schaffert, author of The Swan Gondola & The Coffins of Little Hope
November 4: Jen Lambert & Liz Kay, editors of burntdistrict poetry journal & Spark Wheel Press
December 2: Todd Robinson, author of Note at Heart Rock & noted boulevardier
January 6: Cat Dixon, author of Our End Has Brought the Spring & Too Heavy to Carry
February 3: Wendy Townley and the 1877 Society, young lions of the Omaha Public Library