Nodding to the Unknowable: A Conversation with Theodore Wheeler
Nebraska and domestic drama probably aren’t things you think about when you think about September 11th and government surveillance. And yet Omaha is primarily where Theodore Wheeler has set his new novel, In Our Other Lives. It reads as a dossier on the lives of Elisabeth and Nick Holland, a young couple whose seemingly happy marriage comes apart and whose infant son dies unexpectedly. Normally, a story like this might not interest the federal government, except that Elisabeth’s long-lost missionary brother has resurfaced in a recruitment video for Afghani terrorists. Throughout his career, Wheeler has displayed a talent for conveying the depth and complexity of soft-spoken, often Midwestern, characters who aren’t quick to discuss their emotions. Maybe that’s what makes In Our Other Lives such an intriguing book.
Wheeler is also the author of the novel, Kings of Broken Things, and a collection of short stories, Bad Faith. A current National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellow, he is graduate of the creative writing program at Creighton University, co-directs Omaha Lit Fest, and sidelines as a bookseller for the Dundee Book Company roving book cart, one of the world’s smallest bookstores.
In Our Other Lives is great for its clean, crisp prose alone, but what makes the book truly special is the insight it offers regarding how people feel and act when they’re at their loneliest and most vulnerable. I met up recently with Ted at the Joslyn Art Museum so we could discuss his latest novel, government surveillance, crafting point of view, and the city of Omaha.
The Rumpus: What made you want to write this book?
Theodore Wheeler: When Edward Snowden publicized how deep NSA surveillance campaigns go I didn’t care much about the revelations. I felt, probably like most people, “If they want to spy on me, then they’re going to be bored. I’m not doing anything illegal, so why should I care?” But I later read an article in The Guardian about NSA contractors and how they get emotionally involved with their targets, almost like it’s a soap opera, because they watch someone’s private life so much. Hookups, breakups, running off to Syria. It’s like the spy is on the edge of their seat about the drama that plays out. This seemed bizarre, and it also made me think back to that question of why should I care if someone was watching, but with the twist that they’re recording during the most dramatic moments of my life, the most traumatic. That changed how I felt about spying, knowing that when you find out a family member has died or your marriage is falling apart, those moments are being recorded and saved on a server somewhere in Maryland. I wanted to express this feeling of awe and violation somehow.
Rumpus: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Wheeler: The challenge was to tell the story in a humanized way while maintaining the knowledge of an NSA server. I had the basic story of a couple who loses a very young child and their marriage falls apart, one I’d been toying with since undergrad, but it never came together very well. It felt cliché in its own way to write this loss-of-a-child, end-of-marriage story, one we’ve seen before. But once I started rewriting their drama within the context of the investigation, that the government might be recording their tragedies, the narrator immediately took a different tone that was so compelling. By that point, the story was grounded in human experience and it didn’t feel like a story about machines. It’s a story about people and how our experience is changing because of machines.
Rumpus: Okay, I wanted to talk about the point of view and the way that the narration unfolds. It’s a very inventive perspective, one of the most inventive I’ve ever read, because it’s not a third-person omniscient, per se. It unfolds as a series of files about these characters, and at times the narration speculates about what the characters are thinking and feeling and why they do things, then other times the narration seems to go right into their heads and tells us. What was it like putting that together, and what effect were you going for with this style of narration?
Wheeler: That was one of the decisions I had to make very early, if I wanted to keep the perspective strictly in that point of view where we’re solely watching these people and we don’t get to go into their heads at all. That’s more realistic in a limited way, right? On the other hand, aren’t computers always speculating what we might be feeling or thinking at a given moment, through algorithms? The main problem was that a limited perspective made for a boring story to read and didn’t take advantage of the form of a novel. The best thing about fiction is that you get to go into someone else’s head. I worked to find the voice of a narrator that would go rogue a little bit more, where it would speculate about what people might be thinking and feeling, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I stuck to a camera-lens style of narration.
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.
Rumpus: How do you come up with your characters?
Wheeler: Usually it’s finding a person within an interesting conflict and then building around them. Like, who would they be dating or who would they marry, what people in their family would be important to them. With In Our Other Lives, bringing in a law enforcement angle helped as well. So, who would be interested in the action and why? Spy stories and police stories are so interesting because the act of writing them is pretty similar to what they depict. Both are investigations. In this book, I left a lot of those author-process questions on the page, and it was like, Well, why would they do this? or, Where did they come from? What were they like in high school? Who have they slept with? As a writer, these are questions I’m constantly asking myself about characters. I like when these questions stand out in the narration, because it’s the narrator who wants to know these things. The narrator just happens to have a different motive than storytelling. But not exactly all that different of a motive from storytelling.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write this book?
Wheeler: Four years from when I started to when my agent, Stephanie Delman, sold it. I had two books come out within that time, so it wasn’t a solid four years. I was lucky enough to start In Our Other Lives when I was on a summer-long fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany. I spent about seven weeks writing most of a first draft there, then three years after that piecing it together into a whole book. Most of my editing and revising consists of reading aloud to myself, and that takes time.
Rumpus: Who are your primary influences?
Wheeler: The German writer Uwe Johnson was super influential for this book. His novel, Speculations about Jakob, about a rail worker in East Germany in the 1950s who is more or less a regular, unassuming guy, until an investigator in the Stasi takes an interest in him. The book is narrated from the point of view of the investigation, that’s the big thing. I thought it was brilliant to have a crime novel where it wasn’t the point of view of the inspector but a collected system of knowledge that’s telling the story. I was already thinking about the intelligence aspects of my book when I came across Uwe Johnson. It was serendipity. I thought his first name was cool and the paperback edition of the novel has a rad cover. That’s all it took! It was such a huge gift to find that book. After that I started thinking about this idea of the NSA itself being a story-gathering instrument, and that it was similar to the mind of God in our conception of how we think about information. It’s doubtful I would have arrived at the perspective if I didn’t come across this book from 1959 by an East German novelist with a cool first name.
Rumpus: Funny how that works.
Wheeler: Yes, it is.
Rumpus: Your book is set primarily in 2008, and obviously we’re twelve years past that. How do you think things are the same, or how do you think they’re different, from then to now?
Wheeler: I’m not sure the current situation is so much different now from 2008. We’re more aware about how the internet intrudes into our daily lives; we just don’t care about these effects, which is frustrating. People have more innocence if they don’t know what’s going on and don’t do anything about it than they do when they do know what’s going on and just don’t care.
Rumpus: In that vein, what do you hope readers will take away from In Our Other Lives?
Wheeler: Hopefully readers will want to be more conscious. I’m not trying to be prescriptive about message. If a person sees how the world works a certain way and they’re fine with that, then, you know, that’s okay. But I think most people don’t see the world all that clearly and that’s where art helps. I like to ask, What if you were being filmed or recorded at your lowest moment? That seems to catch people’s attention and makes some think about the issue in a different way, like it did for me. All a novelist can ask is that readers engage with the material. Whether it changes minds or not, that’s their experience.
Rumpus: With that being said, on the record, by the way, do you feel like you’re more careful around your phone and your computer now?
Wheeler: [Laughter] A little bit. I’m not always as careful as I should be, because it is so easy not to be. But I’m more aware of not giving out information all the time, going through my phone settings. I have electrical tape covering my computer webcam and microphone, even though the computer says they’re disabled. My wife works in online advertising, so how much information different companies and government organizations have on each of us is something we talk about all the time. What the ethics are, how people can protect themselves if they so choose.
Rumpus: Your first novel, Kings of Broken Things, was a historical novel set in World War I-era Omaha, and In Our Other Lives is mostly set in Omaha, too. To what extent, if any, do you consider yourself an Omaha writer?
Wheeler: To a pretty large extent. When I started, I didn’t think of myself as an Omaha writer, because I grew up in Lincoln and to most Nebraskans there’s a huge divide between the cities, like we’re not of the same people. When I moved to Omaha, most of my writing was trying to learn about this new city. How I see the world is always a product of how I process it through fiction. Doing historical research to know who the people around me are, and why is our city set up the way it is. In that process, I’ve written a couple thousand pages about Omaha. So, yeah, I’m solidly an Omaha writer.
Rumpus: Other than the fact that you live here, what makes Omaha a rich place for stories?
Wheeler: The city does have a pretty contentious history, and present, for that matter. It’s a divided city, segregated even among class and race. This is fascinating as a writer, to be able to help people cross borders, and to cross borders myself. Fifteen years ago, when I started publishing stories about Omaha as a grad student, it felt like not that many people had done it before. Willa Cather never wrote about Omaha and Tillie Olsen moved away. More influential was being in high school and college when Saddle Creek Records was in its heyday. Growing up, I never for a minute thought anything that happened in my state was worth talking about. One time our governor dated Debra Winger, but, after that, nothing. But then I started going to shows at Sokol Underground and hearing songs by Conor Oberst, Tim Kasher, Simon Joyner, then Maria Taylor and Jenny Lewis moved here, and the songs were so good, life-changing good. Almost overnight I saw how we could talk about this place in a significant and moving way. Honestly, part of this is due to the novelty of it, telling a story that hasn’t been told a thousand times already. The first chapter of the new novel I’m working on is set in Paris and it’s a different challenge to say something new about Montmartre, especially as an outsider.
Rumpus: Tell us a little about the new project.
Wheeler: This is historical fiction again, in the days before World War II, and follows a group of American foreign correspondents, particularly one named Jane Anderson, who was a real person. She had been an Atlanta debutante, had some success as a fiction writer in her twenties, then was one of the first women to report from the trenches in World War I. She ended up being tortured while reporting from the Spanish Civil War and became a virulent fascist thereafter. By World War II, she did radio broadcasts for the Nazis. I have an idea for a crime novel narrated by a young female journalist who came to idolize Jane Anderson as a trailblazer and then chases Jane across Europe to stop her broadcasts. Patrick Modiano and Anna Seghers are two of my favorite authors, and being able to do a project that engages this period that they write so eloquently about would be pretty righteous.
Rumpus: What sort of things help you write? Do you have to write in a certain place, or does there have to be music? Do you have to eat something specific?
Wheeler: I have a pretty set daily routine that works for me. I do a couple hours of reporting in the morning, followed by a long walk of at least an hour, if not a couple hours, with an hour for lunch before I get started on some fiction for a few hours, before finishing up my day-job work. I write in bed quite a lot when working on a new draft. I like to edit at my desk. The walking helps so much, carrying around a notebook, or just rearranging lines in my head until I have them memorized and can write them down when I get home. A lot of times the good phrases and insights are things that surprise me when I’m walking my dog in the park, miles away from my desk. I consider walking as writing time, too, always being prepared for something good to come along.
Rumpus: I think that’s a comfort to everybody who feels like they’re not doing work because they’re not sitting at the computer, or if they’re stuck in a prolonged stretch of writer’s block. It’s like, no, this is writing time, this is thinking time.
Wheeler: I try to cut myself a break often and just do the best I can, and you should too. If it doesn’t work out one day, maybe it will the next.
Photograph of Theodore Wheeler by Nicole Wheeler.