Ten Questions for Theodore Wheeler
What comes after graduate school? To a graduate student, life after your MFA can seem nebulous and uncertain. What will you do with everything you have learned? Theodore Wheeler earned an MFA in Creative Writing as a fellow at Creighton University. This month, Queen’s Ferry Press has published his debut collection of short fiction, Bad Faith. To get an idea of what came next for this writer, we asked Mr. Wheeler ten questions about life after grad school, the process of getting the first book published, his writing process, and more.
1) Your book, Bad Faith, is out this month from Queen’s Ferry Press (QFP). What can you tell us about it?
Bad Faith is a collection of short stories that, while not a linked collection, is unified around the presence of Aaron Kleinhardt, a recurring character and pathetic ladies’ man who gives a sinister element to the book.
2) A recent press release describes Bad Faith as a collection of characters who “flee the trappings of contemporary domestic life.” Was this a concept you deliberately set out to realize, or did you discover this reoccurring theme organically as you wrote the stories?
Organic. That was something that came together when working on the book. First, in finding a core of stories that really worked well together, then figuring out the reasons why they worked together and building off that conceptually. I’ve been publishing in journals for a while, so it’s been fun to put the collection together and share these stories under one cover.
3) Can you tell us about your process? Your writing habits, good and bad?
I write every day for a couple hours, usually right after lunch. My day job (I’m a legal reporter) offers some flexibility and I work from home. That certainly makes things easier. Besides that, I’ve always found that doing pushups works wonders for breaking loose mental cobwebs. If that doesn’t work, writing in bed is a nice change of pace.
4) For many new writers, the process of finding a publisher interested in their work is intimidating. Can you tell us how you found a home for your writing at Queen’s Ferry Press? Maybe a brief summary of your writing career to date and how your relationship with QFP developed? Finally, any advice for writers seeking out a publisher?
I came across QFP in somewhat of a traditional way—the press was publishing more than a few writers I knew and respected, so I submitted my own book. A few weeks later, the publisher, Erin McKnight, got back to me and said she wanted to publish the book. Not that finding a publisher for the book was this easy overall. I’d been submitting different versions to contests for six years before QFP accepted the manuscript. There was a fair amount of rejection, as is always the case, and the book changed significantly from the first time I sent it out to the last.
I first published a short story ten years ago, during my first year of the MA program I was in. By the end of my second year and graduation, I had a couple other stories accepted, including a story that won Boulevard’s contest and was anthologized in Best New American Voices. It was a great stroke of luck to lead off with a nice success, as that gave me a good deal of confidence to keep going as a writer and imagine a trajectory that included publishing books. Like a sea turtle, those first few steps outside the shell can be treacherous, but I didn’t have to explain to anyone why I was still writing and that was tremendous. Not that there haven’t been a lot of bumps along the way. Having some success to point to never hurts, though.
5) When did you first “discover” writing? That is, when did you begin to recognize your own passion for it and consider it as a vocation? Was there ever a time when you considered giving it up? What inspires you to write, these days?
I went through a rough couple years while writing my novel, Kings of Broken Things, which comes out in August 2017 from Little A. I’d been working on the novel for about four years then, had completely rewritten the first draft, starting almost from scratch, but still couldn’t find an agent to represent the book. It was becoming obvious that I’d have to start over again with a third draft if I ever wanted to see the novel published. This is a pretty common path for a novel, particularly a first novel, though that didn’t bring me much comfort. My collection, Bad Faith, was in similar disarray. I had published a lot of stories, but they didn’t really fit together. The concept and frame were there, just not the kind of “star” stories that would sustain a reader.
I turned thirty around then and a lot of my friends who’d gone on to traditional careers seemed to be hitting their stride, being promoted, making good salaries, having nice haircuts, better fashion, etc. I was more worried about being washed up at a young age. The flip side of all the confidence I felt at twenty-five, I guess, was that it was bound to bottom out at some point. I thought a lot about quitting writing and getting a career-oriented job, a business job, I guess. Ultimately there just wasn’t anything else I felt like doing. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid; some of my earliest memories are of writing and proto-writing. I felt like being a writer is who I am—I just had to be better. I started over again with both books, experimented more with voice, perspective, allowed my characters to be more dynamic and honest, and that really started to work. Within a month, during the last semester of my MFA, Queen’s Ferry took Bad Faith and I found an agent to represent my novel. Seven months later Little A bought the rights to Kings of Broken Things. Things started to move pretty fast once I found the right formula, or found my voice, however you want to say it. Once my literary carburetor was properly adjusted. But there was a lot of soul-searching and dog work that went into that.
6) In addition to your writing, you’re pretty involved locally, organizing and taking part in literary and writing events around Omaha. Can you tell us about them?
I co-host a literary pub quiz at Pageturners Lounge with a couple buddies from grad school. We have guests participate, writers and book people from the area, and include some live readings and interviews. It’s fun, and hopefully earns me some citizenship points as far as the local book community goes. This year I’m also chairing the judges committee for the 1877 Society Writing Contest to help promote the young professionals arm of the Omaha Library Foundation.
7) Looking past Bad Faith, you have a novel forthcoming from Little A, Kings of Broken Things, right? How far along is it, and is there anything you can tell us about it, yet?
Kings in in edits right now and is due out in August 2017. It’s set during World War I and follows two young immigrants who become mixed up with different elements involved in the Omaha Race Riots of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse in downtown Omaha.
8) Having published a short story collection, a novella (On the River, Down Where They Found Willy Brown), and soon a novel, what can you tell us about the differences between forms? Did your process and/or technique change with each medium? If so, how? How did the process of editing differ among them, if at all?
The biggest difference is time. Most days, during my writing hours, I just write a lot of fragments and figure out where to put them later. I like working from notes, not an outline. Editing is a lot different, of course. It’s very difficult to hold an entire novel and all its possible variations in one mind. Writing novels takes a lot of time, space, and patience. I’m usually an advocate of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid), but that’s easier said than done.
9) We understand you’re going to be travelling a bit in the weeks to come, promoting Bad Faith. Can you tell us about that? Not only where you’ll be, but what you expect out there on the road. Is this the first time you’ve travelled to promote your work? What was the process of setting up your tour like, working with QFP?
I just got back from the Midwest leg, seven cities in seven days with fellow short story writers Dave Madden and Tyrone Jaeger. The trip was a blast. There were some nights that we didn’t get much in terms of turnout or enthusiasm, but that’s somewhat expected for a tour like this, literary or otherwise. Having a couple of compatriots along who are in the same boat made a huge difference. That, and booksellers are amazing people. Even if there weren’t hordes of adoring fans waiting to get their books signed, it still made for a nice trip to stand around and talk about books with other people who love literature. We did have a couple stops with great turnout. It’s always a thrill to read to a full room. With the first readings done, I’m headed out to the West Coast next month for a few more: San Francisco (Green Apple Books on the Park, Aug. 2), Berkeley (Pegasus Books Downtown, Aug. 3), and Portland (Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, Aug. 4).
10) You recently graduated from Creighton’s MFA program. Can you tell us a bit about your MFA experience, how it may have changed your writing or helped/hindered you? Do you have any advice for people enrolled or considering enrollment in an MFA program?
I came to the MFA already having an MA with an emphasis in creative writing. So I’d already spent two years in graduate-level workshops, with an equal amount of time spent in graduate-level lit and theory classes. I learned a ton in my MA and that experience has served me very well as a writer. I also had published quite a number of stories. My profile as an MFA student was different than my classmates’ but they accepted me nonetheless and I really treasure my experience in the MFA as well.
As for advice, take as much as you can from the experience without exhausting yourself. Read two to three books a week, write for at least an hour a day, listen to as many authors talk about writing in person as you can. If you’re working a job this can be difficult, of course, but do what works for you. The level of intense study found in an MFA isn’t easily replicated after you leave the program. Enjoy it while you can. Also, be nice to people. Everything is better with friends along, and you’re going to need your classmates to sustain your writing even more after graduation than you do while a student.