Q&A With Ted Wheeler
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Q&A With Ted Wheeler
This afternoon is my Q&A with author, bookseller and college professor from Omaha Nebraska Ted Wheeler. Ted is the author of In Our Other Lives, King of Broken Things, and the short story fiction collection Bad Faith. Coming on November 14th is his latest novel The War Begins in Paris.
Q: Ted would you like to tell the readers of the blog and I about your upcoming novel The War Begins in Paris?
A: The War Begins in Paris is a historical noir novel about strained friendship and lost family, set among a cohort of American foreign correspondents who gather in Europe in 1938. The story explores how a young woman’s life is propelled by a series of visions that take her from a Mennonite farm in Iowa, to a job as a foreign correspondent in Paris, to what she comes to see as her destiny to assassinate a Nazi propagandist in wartime Germany. The novel is structured as a series of dispatches filed from around Europe—from a spree through the Right Bank of Paris during the Kristallnacht pogrom, to a gala in Berlin meant to brainwash foreign correspondents, to a bombing raid in Stuttgart—and the lives of my characters are mapped onto historical events.
The idea for this story was born out of my experience as a political reporter during the 2016 presidential elections—a dispiriting time for journalists in this country. As reporters had their integrity questioned—in addition to being attacked, spat on, and worse—I wanted to write a novel that would help people appreciate the importance of the Fourth Estate to democracy. So I set out to do just that.
Q: Why did you choose to write historical fiction specifically? What genre would you write if it wasn’t historical fiction?
A: I’ve always been drawn to history and often think about how historical forces shape our experience in the present day. So writing historical fiction is fun, I think, in addition to how it helps us form meaning. The War Begins in Paris is my fourth book and my second historical novel. My other two books are set in contemporary times. Often I’ll jump back and forth between historical work (that requires a lot of research) and stories that I can write based more off observation and my own experience in the world.
Q: When did you realize that your calling was to be an author? Who encouraged your talent and dream growing up?
A: Some of my earliest memories are of writing. My mom taught me how to read and helped me write little stories at a young age. She has encouraged me ever since, along with many teachers. Because of this encouragement, I’ve always considered myself a writer in some way. Growing up, that evolved through a whole spectrum of daydreams, but mostly settled on being a sportswriter or comic book artist. Toward the end of high school, and early in college, I began reading classic American novels and really fell in love with the form. The great novels contain so much characterization, setting, history, pop culture, that they felt more expansive and significant than anything else I had read until that point. I began to dream that I would do something similar, and then began working to learn how to write stories. It feels weird now to tell people that I’m a novelist—like that’s something people only do in movies—but I’m never quite as happy as when I’m in the middle of working on a new book.
Q: In your bio on your website it says you are a bookseller as well as a college professor. How do you juggle being a bookseller, college professor and an author? Which book store are you a bookseller at?
A: My wife and I own Dundee Book Company in Omaha, a small shop that’s located on the first floor of an old house in a historic Midtown neighborhood. Having my attention divided can feel a bit overwhelming sometimes, but I have a great support system that helps me juggle all these ventures, including our amazing staff at the bookshop.
My first full-time job was as a mechanic at a roofing company and that’s something I think back on from time to time. I put in some late nights and long hours to make everything work now, but these are all things I love to be doing, and they feed into each other. Even on my busiest, worst days, this sure beats working on a roof.
Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to your novels? The entertainment industry is severely lacking in creativity and could use more book ideas for original content.
A: We haven’t sold the rights to any of my novels, though there have been some conversations with producers in the past. I’d love to see something adapted one day. The historical stories would be a lot of fun and would come alive on the screen, I think. I love shows like Boardwalk Empire and the German Babylon Berlin. It can be tempting to dream too often about my writing getting similar treatment, though I know the process is notoriously random. Someday, perhaps.
Q: What is your advice to anyone on writing great historical fiction?
A: The thing I love about writing historical fiction is seeing how the real-life elements come together with the fictional characters. It’s more than just plot points—characters should come out of the story as well—otherwise the project will feel shallow, like it’s only set in a period for fashion. Figuring out how all the elements can fit together as something new is really exciting.
The hardest thing for me to learn, however, was about voice. Don’t forget that your audience is contemporary and modern, no matter when your story is set. With this in mind, your narrator should be engaging and dynamic in a way that meets the expectations of modern readers.
Q: What is the research process like when writing your historical fiction books?
A: Largely it depends on the project. For my first historical novel, Kings of Broken Things, I spent a lot of time reading history books about German immigrants and the Great Migration, then wading through old newspapers to learn what it was like to live in Omaha during World War I. The history of Omaha was sparse, so I spent a lot of time with primary sources.
For The War Begins in Paris it was a bit simpler, as there’s so much written about World War II and the lead up to the war. There are numerous memoirs and diaries published by American journalists from that time, so a lot of what I was looking for was easy to find. One of my main characters, Jane Anderson, a real journalist who turned fascist and did radio work for the Nazis, was harder to track down. For Jane I had to look in court filings and her declassified FBI file, and even then there were many gaps in her biography. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, as I could fill in those gaps with fiction. The best characters to write about are provocative but not completely known.
I did a lot more traveling in this novel too. In 2020, I won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship with the idea that I would spend a big chunk of that year doing research on the book in Europe. That didn’t work out exactly as planned, but, over the next few years, I was able to take two trips to France and one to Germany to experience in person some of the places from the novel. I get a lot out of going to the spot where a story takes place and taking in the physical experience of being in a certain space at a certain time of day.