In Conversation with The Rumpus

Check out this new interview of me in conversation with Ryan Borchers that’s up on The Rumpus. Thanks so much to both Ryan and the editors for making this happen. The Rumpus has been kind enough to publish reviews of my two previous books (here and here). That kind of support means so much.

This was an interesting one to revisit, as our conversation took place last January, then we edited the interview over February and March. I was really interested to see if my thinking was noticeably different here in a pre-pandemic way. Nothing stands out too much, really. But it’s worth thinking about how the notion of cyber-security and privacy from the government has evolved considerably over the last year. In the rush to find ways to keep people safe and get the economies rolling, we’re also in the process of giving up even more of our privacy than before. In that way, among many, we’re transitioning to a post-9/11 zeitgeist to a pandemic zeitgeist. It will be worth watching how the issues of privacy rights evolve as we one day move into a post-pandemic world. As I’m fond of saying, the government isn’t in the habit of giving back powers that it assumes in emergencies.

The interview itself has plenty of gems about the craft of writing novels and what it means to be an Omaha author. Please give it a glance.

Here’s a taste:

Rumpus: That’s what’s so interesting to me; the book makes the reader rethink their relationship to the characters in any novel. You think you’re reading about somebody’s life, and you feel like you’re getting into that person’s skin, but this novel almost makes me stop and think, Well, how close does a reader get to any fictional, made-up character? Does that make sense?

Wheeler: I think so. There are moments in any novel—and any person in real life, too, you know—when you’re not the same person you were three years ago and the person you’re going to be in three years is different from the person you are now. Thinking about that in terms of character, it comes off false when we make our characters too consistent, instead of just letting them go through their trials. And doing that from the point of view of surveillance, where you have these transcripts of what people said in emails and phone calls, then letting them be unreliable within that, too, letting them change or contradict what the record suggests, that was exciting for me. The narration is meant to be very self-aware and playful in how it plays out on the page. And maybe the perspective helps us feel more human in a way, because even with a catalogue of all existence, there are still mysteries, exceptions, things we can only feel and not know. For a novel that’s suspicious of religion and fanaticism, this nod to the unknowable was important to do.

NAC IAF

Some bright news as the worst of winter settles in. This week I was awarded a literature fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council! It’s really such an honor to be included with so many great Nebraska authors whose work I admire and who I consider friends.

The program recognizes “exemplary work by Nebraska artists” and rotates through different art forms on a three-year cycle. This is the fourth time I’ve applied for the fellowship. Only a decade of futility there before breaking through–so not too bad!

I’ve been hard at work on a new novel over the past year, the last few months especially. This recognition is a great validation of that project and will help me with research at some point. Of course, this comes a year after I won an National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to work on the same project. Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to use these awards to fund the travel for which they were intended. Last March I made it to Paris just before everything shut down, with that trip having to be cut a few days short because of uncertainty that I’d be able to get back into the US. I’d had things lined up to return to Paris and visit Bad Nauheim and Stuttgart toward the end of 2020, but you know the rest. Someday–hopefully before the book is published–there will be some travel to Hesse, Baden-Württemberg, and Salzburg, and maybe the Extremadura region of Spain.

Thanks so much to the Nebraska Arts Council for helping to make those trips possible, once they’re possible again. Cheers!

John H. Ames Reading Series

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.

Book Club Guide for In Our Other Lives

In Our Other LivesI’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.

Discussion Guide

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?

Photos from Other Lives Launch Weekend

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.)

Ten Things About the Color Blue

Winter BabyThis 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.