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.
I’ve had a few requests for book club discussion guides and decided to give it a shot. First, here’s a discussion guide for my newest novel, In Our Other Lives.
1) The novel’s main story is driven by the fact that, since the Patriot Act, Americans have had their personal lives under constant surveillance via the technology we surround ourselves with. After reading In Our Other Lives, do you feel differently about domestic spying? Does it matter when its the government who monitors you, as opposed to a corporation?
2) Do we have a right to privacy? How far should these rights go? Is national security more important than civil liberties? In the context of your answer, is Elisabeth Ahls better or worse off because of the impact (or lack thereof) of being spied on by her government?
3) Several characters, Nick Holland, in particular, are touched less by domestic spying, mostly because he has opted out of the consumerism of our modern society. Thinking about this, to what degree are we culpable for being spied on by opting in on technology we often don’t understand?
4) In your view, is the structure of the novel into “files” effective storytelling with a fractured narrative? Do the italic sections (the snippets of recorded surveillance) add to the narrative? Are they distracting?
5) Living the so-called Information Age, do you feel that the consciousness of the modern person has changed? What differences do you notice in how we consume news, politics, and do business that has changed from when you were younger? Do these trends change how you think about the world, or even how you think?
6) The book gives a few different views of religious extremism and invites readers to think about what aspects of religious expression they view as acceptable in different contexts. What significance is there for the divergent ways Elisabeth and Tyler end up as adults after both growing up in the same environment? In what ways to you identify with one Ahls sibling more than the other?
7) Did Tyler need “reformed” as a young man? Was he a threat to national security? Do you view his activity as religious extremism?
8) Along those lines, does the experience of Khan Khalili (the Pakistani PI) and how he gets by in Peshawar change how you see characters like Elisabeth and Nick and how they get by in their own culture? In this context, does the novel make you feel more or less free as a citizen?
9) The Safe Haven child adoption crisis is dramatized in the novel. How do you see this element working in the story? What connections are there between Elisabeth’s experience and that of Cary Junger, the father who gives up his children? What dissonance is there is a society that expends billions of dollars to systematically record the lives of its citizens, but still has a significant portion of its children fall through the cracks?
Here are some photos of my opening weekend events to celebrate the publication of my new novel In Our Other Lives! A special thanks to Brent Spencer for conversing so intelligently with me on mic at OutrSpaces, and to Ryan Borchers for doing the same at the Bookworm. It was such an affirming weekend surrounded by friends, family, books, informative visual aids, and cakes!
(For those who were at the events, if you have any more photos, please send them to me and I’ll add them here.)
This morning Lit Hub published a personal essay I wrote that they titled “Writing and Confronting Terror in the Form of a Color: Theodore Wheeler’s Notes on Blue.” (I’d titled it the much pithier and more mysterious “Ten Things About the Color Blue,” but I digress.) The essay delves into the many ways I’ve tried writing about creating art while being a parent and, in particular, trying to work through the trauma we experienced when our second daughter turned blue in the delivery room shortly after being born.
In the years since, I’ve written several short stories, a novel, and now an essay that uses the color blue as a leitmotif. There’s some discussion about the real life stuff that is behind my new novel In Our Other Lives, but mostly it focuses on the healing process and why this became such an obsession for me.
Read it on Lit Hub today!
An hour after my second daughter was born, she turned blue in my arms.
The first time it happened I didn’t say anything. Her skin tinted bluish, just a little, but she pinkened right away and that was all fine. She was healthy and large, we were happy. Minutes later, my wife holding her this time, her skin blued again and my stomach sank. “Do you see that?” I asked my wife. “Does she look a little blue?” But Cee was apparently breathing; her chest rising and falling. “Should we ask a nurse?”
When the nurse answered our call, she immediately slapped a button on the wall that announced a code blue over the entire floor. Cee was snatched from our arms by a dozen doctors and nurses and taken to an incubator across the hall. Although her chest was rising, Cee was not taking enough oxygen to stay alive. In less than an hour she would be moved downstairs to the neonatal intensive care unit, then would undergo a spinal tap to make sure she didn’t have meningitis. There were alarms that chimed when her oxygen levels dipped too low, something that happened over and over her first hours. There were a lot of things that happened over the next four days, too many to mention. We stayed in the NICU until her lungs cleared and we could take her home. And then she was fine. After she learned, Cee has never forgotten how to breathe.
It’s publication day for my new novel, In Our Other Lives!!! Writing this book took me to Stuttgart for three months, Lisbon, Jaipur, New Delhi, many times to Chicago, and to new places with my writing in creative and personal ways I doubted were possible. It’s always strangely bittersweet to publish a new book—but I’m excited for you all to read the story and hopefully love it at least a tenth as much as I do.
This is the book I began while on fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude, writing around 200 pages of the first draft over an intense seven-week period. Special thanks to Maxi Obexer and Jean-Baptiste Joly for bringing me there. Also, to the creative writing department at Creighton University, where I was an MFA student during this period and was encouraged to experiment with voice, perspective, and other ways to manipulate reader experience. Also, to the emergency department at the University of Nebraska Medical Center for letting me shadow ER nurses and doctors for a day. This was a fun one to research.
Since November I’ve been waiting to tell you all that I’ve been awarded a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts–and today is the day it’s official!
The fellowship–which grants winners $25,000 over a two-year period to advance their career and develop a new project–comes at an especially fortunate time for me to actually address that dictate. My new novel In Our Other Lives comes out on March 3, of course, so having travel funds available to get out an promote the book is such a boon. The opening chapter of Other Lives was part of my winning application packet and it’s nice to get that boost of confidence too.
I’m also in the early stages of a new novel project that’s set in Western Europe during early years of World War II and follows a group of foreign news correspondents as they report on and address a rise of Fascism. I’ve been trying to start this novel for a few years while crawling along through research, character sketches, and the opening lines of narration (a completely normal process). The fellowship will enable me to jump into this book in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
It’s a fact that Kings of Broken Things wouldn’t have turned out so well and that I might not have been able to write In Our Other Lives at all if it wasn’t for the three-months I spent as a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in the summer of 2014. It’s a dream to have such generous support to dive into a more ambitious new novel. And to be able to write much of it while in Europe near the sites where the history occurred… I don’t know what else to say, except, THANKS, NEA!
Also, congrats to the other 35 winners! Our work was selected from nearly 1,700 applications. This was the fourth time I’ve applied. The first time, a decade ago, I felt so honored to even be eligible, as you need one book or five recent journal publications to even throw your hat in the ring. To be included with the other winners, and the tradition of authors before us, is very humbling.
After sitting on the news for about two months (Nicole wanted it pointed out that this is the longest she’s ever kept a secret) it feels a little funny to have this become official. I’m bursting with pride, of course, and soaking in all the kind wishes while they last. But I want to mention too that my day actually started off by getting a rejection notice in my e-mail. This was just a garden-variety magazine rejection, so nbd. And though it was a form rejection, it was the nice kind that said they admired my work and would like to see more from me in the future. Those are a kind of victory, something to feel encouraged about as I move forward. It’s a good reminder how humbling the business of being a writer can be, and that usually its rewards are not financial.
Something Nicole and I talk about sometimes–as we’re doing work with our Dundee Book Company book cart and, especially, coordinating Omaha Lit Fest–is that we’re usually the only parties involved who aren’t getting paid to be there. Don’t get me wrong, I love our partners and appreciate all the work they do for writers, literature, and the city, and I know they put in hours well beyond what they’re compensated for, but it is something we notice from time to time. It’s an issue among both booksellers and event organizers, this whole thing of how to pay yourself and keep your venture above water. My point, I guess, is that I feel like things always even out for me. Maybe I volunteer my time for Lit Fest, but I was paid a stipend to attend grad school (twice!) and having my name tied to events maybe helps books sales, so whatever. I get to spend most of my time around books and writing my own books, I have a beautiful family that loves and (often) respects me, I get to travel around the world, so I try to never put a hex on all that by complaining. Plus, every once in a while, some money comes along unexpectedly and helps balance the scales in an enormous way. Today is one of those days.
OMAHA—Today, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that Theodore Wheeler is one of 36 writers who will receive an FY 2020 Creative Writing Fellowship of $25,000. These fellowships enable the recipients to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement. Fellows are selected through a highly-competitive, anonymous process and are judged on the artistic excellence of the work sample provided.
“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support our nation’s writers, including Theodore Wheeler, and the artistry, creativity, and dedication that go into their work,” said Mary Anne Carter, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Theodore Wheeler was selected from nearly 1,700 eligible applicants. Fellowships alternate between poetry and prose each year and this year’s fellowships are to support prose writers. The full list of FY 2020 Creative Writing Fellows is available here.
Theodore Wheeler is author of the novels In Our Other Lives (Little A, March 3, 2020) and Kings of Broken Things (Little A, 2017), and a collection of short stories, Bad Faith (Queens Ferry Press, 2016). He has been recognized with a Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar and a fellowship from Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. A graduate of the creative writing program at Creighton University, Wheeler teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, covers a civil-law and politics beat for a national news service, co-directs Omaha Lit Fest, and sidelines as a bookseller for the Dundee Book Company roving book cart, one of the world’s smallest bookstores.
An excerpt from Wheeler’s new novel, In Our Other Lives, was featured in his winning application. More information about the novel, which will be published on March 3, is attached.
Since 1967, the Arts Endowment has awarded more than 3,500 Creative Writing Fellowships totaling over $55 million. Many American recipients of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Fiction were recipients of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships early in their careers.
Visit the agency’s Literature Fellowships webpage to read excerpts by and features on past Creative Writing Fellows and recipients of Literature Fellowships for translation projects. For more information on literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, go to arts.gov.