In the Spotlight
Owner, Dundee Book Company; Adjunct Professor, UNO-Creighton
Omaha, Nebraska Member Since: 2006
About: Theodore Wheeler is the author of the novel Kings of Broken Things (Little A, 2017) and a collection of short fiction, Bad Faith (Queen's Ferry Press, 2016). His work has also appeared in The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, Post Road, and Boulevard. A winner of the AWP Intro Journals Award and a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany, he currently teaches fiction writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and hosts a monthly literary pub quiz and author series at Pageturners Lounge. With his wife, Theodore owns Dundee Book Company, a pop-up bookstore housed on a cart made from rescued barn wood that began rolling to events around Omaha last summer.
Photo Credits: Nicole Wheeler
What is the importance of having partnerships in the literary community and partnerships with other literary organizations?
The main point of DBC is to build literary community and connect readers to books we believe in, so partnering with writers and literary groups is essential. In many ways the community in Omaha, as in most cities, is limited by the fact that it's broken into numerous cliques that don't necessarily overlap. Different reading series, university allegiances, poets versus fictionists, bookstore enthusiasts versus library patrons, etc. Our goal with the pop-up bookstore is to be that overlap, or at least to facilitate an overlap of different cliques as much as possible. We want to bring awareness to what different people and groups are doing in the community and hopefully consolidate audience in a way that grows what we're all working toward in a significant way.
What is your organization’s vision? How do you see it growing ten years from now?
Many times I've imagined a future where the projects I work on could come together more seamlessly under a single roof, under the auspices of a bookstore-bar and community space that's somewhat similar to The Wild Detectives in Dallas. Our bookstore has only been an entity for eight months, but I've been creating literary programming for years, most notably the three-years-and-counting run of Pageturners Literary Pub Quiz at our neighborhood bar, which just so happens to be in the spot of a former used bookstore and has a loose literature theme. Combining these efforts into a neighborhood retail bookstore that goes heavy on events and features a bar space that caters to readers and writers would be a dream come true. Book and bottle pairings, a basement or back-room pub that serves as a meeting place for the writing community: what's not to love? Realistically, for now, we're still trying to get our feet wet as booksellers. And waiting a couple years to see how this whole retail apocalypse thing plays out is probably wise as well.
When do you find time to write?
Despite working full-time as a legal reporter, teaching adjunct, owning a pop-up store with my wife, and raising two kids, I find at least a couple hours a day to write. A big part of this is that I work from home for my day job. It's much easier to sneak away to my other laptop at home than if I was in an office. (Or to skip a shower, for that matter, if that's the only time left.) It's also how I was raised. My parents were always busy with some home project or an amateur construction job or volunteering at their church. I've heard Joyce Carol Oates talk about how she's so prolific because she grew up on a farm and learned to use every waking moment for labor. Not that I'm remotely in her orbit, but the idea resonates with me. I live a very different life than my ancestors, but I guess the essential avoidance of idle hands has made it through the generations.
What does your office look like?
A desk loaded with notebooks, binders, legal pads, and a laptop; a few bookshelves, double-stacked; shipping supplies. Our dining room, which doubles as a staging and storage area for the book cart, is where most of the action happens beyond my own writing. Since we're a pop-up business, we spend a lot of our time packing and unpacking boxes. Staging the book cart before an event to specially curate the selection of books for the events that week is one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. I could probably do without having a listing stack of cardboard boxes and bubble wrap looming over my shoulder at dinner, but the reward is definitely worth the mess.
What does your community seem to want the most from your organization?
This is something we're always negotiating. Though we have some recurring events, for the most part we pop up in spaces where it's an unexpected place to find a bookstore—like a coffee shop, dive bar, local theater company, or church. The idea is to start conversations about books and how literature fits into a modern person's life—and to do this in a specific way, in a specific place. There are always people drawn to see what titles we brought along on the cart. It's a challenge, a game, for them to be surprised by what titles we felt were appropriate for the venue and for them to suggest what we forgot. Of course we're looking to sell books too, which we also do from our website, but a lot of the fun is occupying space and seeking out our community.
Can writing be taught? Why does creative writing belong in the academy?
I'm not so sure some important parts of writing can be taught—voice, lyricism, an innate sense of drama and tension—but an understanding of structures, traditions, and how to read as a writer certainly can be. In my classes we often talk about the importance of learning what elements of writing you're good at and focusing on those. Basically, it's important to find what makes an individual special. Of course, I challenge students to try new things, to improve, and to be as versatile and complete as possible—but ultimately no writer is going to be great at everything. It's more a matter of being self-aware and telling stories in a way that emphasizes their strengths and conceals their weaknesses. In this way, I think creative writing instruction might be closer to coaching than teaching.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them? Do they have broken spines and dog-eared pages? Notes in the margins? Or do they still look brand new?
If it's for enjoyment, typically the book still looks new. I enjoy shelving books and respect them as objects, my collection of grimy thrift-store paperbacks as much as the pristine first editions. Still, if it's a book I'm reading for research or as a model, it's dog-eared with notes penned all over the margins. In that case, the book has crossed over into becoming a part of my own work and earns a spot on the shelf nearest my desk, or maybe even on my desk amid my notebooks, in a real seat of honor.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I'm working on a new novel tentatively called From the Files of the Chief Inspector that’s set in Omaha, Chicago, and Peshawar, and deals with loss, family, faith, and a sense that humanism has failed in the decade following the economic collapse in 2008, all narrated in the context of a post-9/11 domestic spying campaign. It’s been a challenge to combine some high-concept elements (an FBI agent investigating a potential terrorist) within the murky drama of a domestic betrayal novel, but the process is invigorating and certainly brings some vitality to the work.
What would be your advice to new AWP members, on how to make the most of their membership?
The Opportunities section at the back of every Writer's Chronicle has always been helpful to me, particularly as a beginner. Once I was ready to send some stories out into the world, it was an overwhelming experience to figure out to what journals and contests I should be submitting. As I advanced as a writer, going through the listings of contests, awards, residencies, and fellowships always showed me where I could grow. I've submitted to AWP contests, been a regular at the conference, troll the job listings, and enjoy the craft articles as well, and no matter at what stage of my career I've been, the listings in the back of the magazine have been there to feed me professionally.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
The first AWP Conference I went to was in Denver. I went to see George Saunders give one of the featured readings—and he was great—but it was Etgar Keret who really stole the show that night. I'd never heard of Keret before and became such a fan because his charming reading of his story "Fatso." I miss that feeling of discovering an author. It's a much rarer experience the older I get, so being able to walk into a sterile room at a convention center (with a gaudy auto show across the hallway) and find something new to appreciate and love, it was really quite something.