Check out this interview of me that’s new on Midwestern Gothic today! Thanks so much to Sydney Cohen for her great questions about writing novels, the geo-political landscape of race relations in the Midwest, and some other themes from Kings of Broken Things that I feel like are often overlooked, like how the female condition and the ideal of youth are addressed in the novel.
SC: What interests you specifically about the geographical-political intersection of race relations in the Midwest? How does Omaha in 1919 contradict or reinforce your personal relationship with and ideas about the city?
TW: It surprises a lot of people to learn that Omaha has a long history of race troubles, including efforts to drive out Irish and Greek populations that go back to the city’s founding, through several riots in the 1960s and continuing issues with police and lack of economic opportunity today in the traditional African-American neighborhoods on the north side. It’s no secret that Omaha has been the most dangerous city to be black over the last decade, but it’s not something to be talked about in polite company here, and Omaha doesn’t have enough national prominence to matter on a bigger scale. These pervasive, macro issues don’t get a lot of play unless a riot breaks out.
As far as personal relationship with the city and these issues, it goes back to the idea of being complicit in the system. Though I’m not a bad person, you can trust me, I do enjoy my privilege and the spoils that go along with that. A lot of my interest while writing the book—beyond learning the history itself in a deep, meaningful way—was the idea that many people who live in Omaha now have a family connection to the race riot in 1919, whether they’re aware of it or not. This suspicion has borne out in these two months since Kings of Broken Things was released, as there’s usually somebody who steps forward at the end of an event to tell me about their uncle or great-grandparent who participated in the riot in some capacity. Not that I’m walking around the city staring at people and wondering what their ancestors were up to in 1919. Well, I guess that’s kind of what I have been doing after all.
Hey, loyal readers. I hope you’re doing well. Things have been busy here around the Wheeler homestead, what with a few more readings to promote Kings of Broken Things, I spoke with Mary Hartnett on Siouxland Public Radio about Tom Dennison’s legacy in Omaha, saw Kings named as having one of the best book covers of the year by Book Riot, and most recently appeared on the Writing Fun YouTube channel to talk about the process of writing historical fiction and whether or not I’m into the MLB post-season even though the Royals didn’t make it this year. (Meh.) Along with teaching fiction writing at UNO again this fall, starting Dundee Book Company, and that whole full-time job and family thing, I’ve been busy.
A couple more things.
First, I’d like to point out that the hardcover edition of Kings of Broken Things is now 49% off at Amazon. I know many of you already have the book, but if you don’t yet have a copy, or don’t yet have the beautiful hardcover version, and have been waiting for the price to drop online, here you go.
Lastly, Carrie Meyer from the Durham Museum was kind enough to send along some images from our awesome Objects of Inspiration event at the museum a few weeks ago with my fellow Omaha historical novelists Timothy Schaffert and Andrew Hilleman. It was such a fun event, made even more special by the select artifacts that Carrie had pulled from the Durham’s archive. Specifically related to Kings, there was a WWI-era doughboy uniform and an amazing zither. See below for the full gallery. (All photos were taken by Dawn Myron and appear courtesy of the Durham Museum.)
I’m so stoked about this rave review that appeared in the Kansas City Star a couple weekends ago!
You should read the whole thing yourself, but these are especially encouraging:
“Wheeler’s at his best during set-piece descriptions that bring the flavor of the time and place, and the people who inhabit it, vividly into focus… The riot scenes, especially, are propulsive and harrowing. Just reading it can make you feel complicit in the violence.”
“As a novel that brings a little-known or forgotten past to life, it succeeds in showing us a glimpse of where we’ve come from and how we came to be.”
Really, it’s a very knowledgeable review and I’m grateful that Omaha-native Christine Pivovar was able to chime in. Getting some press in my second-favorite city isn’t so bad either!
A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going in-studio with Lincoln City Libraries director Pat Leach to talk about my new novel Kings of Broken Things on NET’s All About Books program. On Wednesday the interview aired statewide on Nebraska’s NPR affiliates!
If you happen to be out of broadcast range, fear not, you can take a listen to the podcast version on the NET website.
This is the third time I’ve done a radio interview, this being the biggest by far, all of which have been recorded in studio. It’s a lot of fun, specifically learning some of the tricks of the trade and of course getting the exposure. Actually hearing my voice on the radio was a little jarring at first (The producer promised he’d make me sound smart!) though that too was pretty cool. The reception to Kings of Broken Things has been great so far, in particular having the opportunity to talk about the book in venues like this.
Stay tuned, as I spoke with Mary Hartnett of KWIT Siouxland Public Radio over the phone on Friday and will be making my Iowa public radio debut soon.
In case you missed it on Sunday, the Omaha World-Herald had a huge feature on my book Kings of Broken Things and the history of the summer of 1919 here in Omaha that serves as the backbone of the novel.
It’s really a great portrait of those months that led up to the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and lynching of Will Brown, from the labor struggles and use of scab labor to a spike in the cost-of-living to the political intrigue and machinations of boss Tom Dennison to the migration of African-Americans to Omaha.
Honestly, it was a great relief to see that my research lined-up with theirs on all these important factors. (I’d feared that when this day came and the article came out that it would focus on how much I’d messed up the details–this the showing-up-to-the-first-day-of-class-only-in-underwear nightmare for a historical novelist.) Anyway, it was heartening to see that all my fears and attention to detail paid off.
Thanks so much to Micah Mertes and OWH for running the feature and for all the work they put in to bring attention to this important part of Omaha, Nebraska, and national history.
Many years later, Wheeler worked as a reporter for Courthouse News Service, the job bringing him to the Douglas County Courthouse several times a week. Repeatedly at the scene of one of Omaha’s most shameful acts, Wheeler once again became fascinated with the story of the 1919 riots.His fascination led to his newly released debut novel, “Kings of Broken Things.” The book, which took Wheeler seven years to write, takes place in Omaha during and before the “Red Summer of 1919,” tracking three key characters in the tense days prior to the riot. “It really was a powder keg,” Wheeler said. “The riot itself was completely irrational, but the fact that it happened was somewhat logical based on everything else that happened.” “Everything else” included union strikes and economic hardship, migrations of blacks from the South to Omaha, yellow journalism that stoked the flames of racial resentment and a corrupt political machine led by Tom Dennison, who would stop at nothing to discredit Mayor Smith and his reformist government. It was an era rife with drama, and it now serves as a compelling backdrop for a novel.
Here are a few more photos from my events this month. Between the release of Kings of Broken Things and the launch of our “roving” bookstore (Dundee Book Company) I took part in an even ten events this month, ranging from traditional readings to launch parties to street fairs, radio spots, a cocktail party, and finally setting up last Sunday at my grandparents church. It’s been exhausting and exhilarating to talk to so many people about the book, and the events start up again this Friday when touring-author Zachary Schomburg and I will read from our debut novels at Solid Jackson Books. See you soon!
Special menu for 1887 Society event at Mercury Lounge. (Photo by Omaha Public Library)
Waiting for studio time at NET before recording my NPR debut.
Gallery of authors at the 1877 Society event, including Tosca Lee, Cat Dixon, myself, Liz Kay, Lydia Kang, and Leo Biga. (Photo by Omaha Public Library)
My nephew’s favorite authors.
Dundee Book Co. book cart in action.
Working the room at the 1877 Society cocktail party. (Photo by Omaha Public Library)
A warm welcome to the Lincoln launch of Kings at Indigo Bridge Books.
Check out this interview about my new book and a range of other topics that Creighton MFA alumna Meredith Allison Lea was kind enough to post on her blog this evening!
3) What challenges did you face writing not only historical fiction, but also about this topic in particular?
Depicting the riot was the biggest challenge, on craft and personal levels. In a practical sense, it was difficult to write a series of scenes that depicts an over 10,000-person riot that took place over twelve hours and nearly destroyed downtown Omaha, with the struggle being to let the riot be as big as it was without swallowing up the book’s characters in the process. I like to think about telling a story as building a house, and the ending should be contained within the structure without blowing the roof off. Just by its nature, the riot kept blowing the roof off the house I was trying to build in the rest of the book.
Some exciting news for a Tuesday, as Kings of Broken Things was recognized by Book Riot as having one of the best book covers of the year! Check out the full list for what look like some great books, and kudos to Book Riot for going there and judging a bunch of books by their covers. As I mentioned last week, it’s a beautiful cover, so I’m glad to see it get some much deserved recognition.
Some other news:
-An excerpt from Kings was posted this morning on Schloss-Post. Thanks to Akademie Schloss Solitude and online coordinator Clara Herrmann for putting together the post. Most all the promotion for the novel has focused on the race riot, so it’s nice to bring a little focus to one of the more character-driven elements. In this case, the chapter introduces Evie Chambers, the female lead in the novel, and sets up her life as a kept woman on Omaha’s Capitol Avenue.
-I have a few events in Omaha and Lincoln coming up in the next week or so, which includes being on a panel of historical novelists at Oak View Barnes & Noble on Sat Aug 19, a reading at Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln on Tue Aug 22, and a cocktail reception with the 1877 Society and Omaha Public Library Foundation at Mercury Lounge on Wed Aug 23. If you’re in the area, come on out and say hi.