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.
Here’s a taste of the article:
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!
My nephew’s favorite authors.
Dundee Book Co. book cart in action.
Special menu for 1887 Society event at Mercury Lounge. (Photo by Omaha Public Library)
A warm welcome to the Lincoln launch of Kings at Indigo Bridge Books.
Working the room at the 1877 Society cocktail party. (Photo by Omaha Public Library)
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)
OWH print edition.
Waiting for studio time at NET before recording my NPR debut.
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.
Earlier in the process of putting together Kings of Broken Things as a book, there were a number of sketches from artist Christina Chung that we went through before the team zeroed in on the concept that would become the image that’s on the cover. Personally, I really fell in love with the idea of the riot igniting a fuse that runs under the institutions of the city, in particular the level of detail that went into depicting actual buildings from that era of Omaha. The kind of attention makes the cover so very special to me, and, along with the image being mirrored on the actual hardcover itself, takes the packaging to a new level. All the great work put in by Christina, my editor Vivian Lee, and title sequence designers Faceout Studio is very much appreciated. Still, it’s interesting to think about the other early concepts we didn’t pick and what it would have looked like if one of them had evolved into the final cover.
Talking over email this week, Christina Chung sent me a gif of another of the sketches that she developed into a full-fledged piece of art. It’s so cool I wanted to share it with you all as well!
Of the image, Christina said, “A personal piece drawing parallels between the events of the summer of 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska to the problems we face as a society in 2017.” Check out a sharper version of “Omaha, 1919” on more of her work at www.christina-chung.com/2017/2/7/2017/2/7/omaha-1919, and, in the meantime, wonder what might have been.
Have a great weekend! I’ll be back with much more in this space soon, including some photos from my book launch party and my first Kings of Broken Things reading at the Bookworm on Sunday!
I was so stoked yesterday when Largehearted Boy posted the playlist I made for Kings of Broken Things. I’ve followed the Book Notes series for years now. It’s often a fun way to think about authors based on what music they see as an addendum to their books. The lists can be kind of hit-or-miss, honestly, depending on how much effort the author puts into the playlist and explanatory summaries, or if they have comically bad taste in music.
Given that I’ve long dreamed of having a playlist of my own featured, and that I didn’t want to embarrass myself, I spent many hours picking out songs that were important to me while writing the novel and arranging them in what’s hopefully a pleasing way. The list is somewhat eclectic, ranging from Scott Joplin to Rachmaninoff to Jenny Lewis. A DJ I am not (in fact, I was never a mix-tape kind of guy either) but I like what resulted.
Check out my playlist and let me know what you think!
A new review of Kings of Broken Things was posted on the website of the Historical Novel Society!
The heat and violence are vivid, and although almost one hundred years in the past, the political machinations that stirred up the mob and the racism feel all too contemporary right now.
I felt disquieted at the end of this book, in part I think because Karel, Jake, and Evie had done nothing to stem the violence, and Karel actually participated in it. There are no heroes because in extraordinary circumstances, many ordinary people will still do ordinary things. It’s a bleak conclusion, but a prescient one. Readers who like their fiction gritty and realistic will appreciate this book.
The day is here, it’s pub day for Kings of Broken Things!
Thanks to all of you who have supported me throughout the process of writing this book and now through its publication. In particular, quickly, my agent Stephanie Delman and editor Vivian Lee, two rising stars in the industry who I’ve been so blessed to work with; my whole team at Little A who have been busy perfecting and promoting Kings; the faculty and staff at Creighton University, especially Mary Helen Stefaniak for working with me clause by clause on straightening out the early drafts of the book; my mother-in-law Karen West, who for years made sure I could both have time for family and to write; Akademie Schloss Solitude and Key West Literary Seminar; and of course Nicole and my family for always sticking with me and showing me that we’re worth too much together to settle for less than the best. And, last but certainly not least, thanks, Mom, for teaching me how to read and to appreciate the importance of good books. I’ve dreamed of this day so long and am not sure what more to say. So, CHEERS will have to suffice.