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"The truth, but not the whole truth": A Debut Novelist Roundtable, Pt. 1

Prairie Schooner is widely known for featuring up-and-coming writers within the pages of our magazine. What isn't so widely known is just how many talented people have been invovled with our editorial team over the years. Four such contributors-- Devin Murphy, SJ Sindu, Theodore Wheeler, and Nick White-- all had novels come out recently, and exchanged some ideas over email about the strange work of becoming a debut novelist. This is part one of the conversation, stay tuned for part two!

Theodore Wheeler: So I’ll get us started. All our novels can be called topical in one way or another, which can shape the way the book is framed in the media and determine how readers approach the text too. What has the experience been like for you all to be batched in with similar books, whether that be LGBTQ or historical fiction? Personally, it can be kind of a conflicting experience, as it feels like I spend more time talking about Omaha race riots than I do my characters. Of course they're intertwined to a great degree and Omaha during World War I is a topic I love to talk about, but something feels off or unfulfilling. Maybe it's my vanity as a literary writer showing through.

Devin Murphy: I’d like to say that it is just you and that I’ve handled this whole process with grace and aplomb… But, it did take a bit to understand why books need to be batched together. When the larger book industry gets involved it is a good strategy to reach wider audiences so I’m now grateful for that aspect of the process. I also find the larger cultural context of my book allows for a greater platform to connect with readers and then branch out to the more nuanced aspects of why I wrote the book I did.

SJ Sindu: I have that same vanity. I spend a lot of time telling people that I am not my protagonist, and that although I used elements of my own life, this is not my thinly veiled memoir.

I'm curious if you get that question, Nick? I feel like it's often asked of writers, but is particularly a pernicious question when it comes to writers who are marginalized in some way or another.

Nick White: Sindu, YES. I get this question a good bit, but - most of the time - it comes from a good place, from people wondering if I had experienced the trauma that my narrator has. I like to position the novel as an “alternative history” - a term I think I got (but not sure) from comic books. The kernel for the book began with my wondering how my life would have turned out had I been outed, or realized I was gay, as a teenager. I am sure there are several answers to this, but the one that frightened me the most was how I would have responded. I know I would have done anything and everything to break my body and mind, to destroy myself, in order to be more pleasing to the Southern Baptist version of god I was raised to believe in.

Sindu, one thing (among many things) that I loved about your novel was your ability to close a chapter and leave me wanting to keep turning the page - I was wondering, in crafting your book, how you came to structure. I am currently teaching a class on queer narratives (and your book is on the list!) and one of the questions for the class is, Does queer content affect the form of the story, the way that it is told, and if so, how? I know that’s a large question, probably one for a dissertation, but I would LOVE to hear how you put your book together.

SJS: It took a long time for me to come to the structure of the novel. And I think, absolutely, the queer content does affect the structure. I wasn't sure how to organize the novel for a long time, but I did have a vague idea that I wanted it to take its cues from John Rechy's City of Night. Finally, because of so many people assuming my novel would be like a Bollywood movie (because I'm South Asian and so is my main character), I decided to turn that assumption on its head--I did structure it like a Bollywood novel, but only superficially in that it starts with an engagement and ends with a wedding. But at every turn I tried to subvert the Bollywood tropes (I wrote more about that on Lithub). I was, in essence, trying to queer the Bollywood narrative, not just by having queer characters and queer love as the focus, but by having my characters play with and subvert common tropes.

NW: Ted and Devon, I was wondering if you could chat about how (if) (when) research affected the story - either content wise or structurally.

TW: Research definitely shaped the structure and content of my book, which starts in the spring of 1917 when the US made a formal declaration to enter World War I and ends with the Omaha Race Riot of 1919. I spent a lot of time reading old newspapers on microfilm, so it was a lot of fun to see how events I discovered altered the path of the fiction I was writing. Like how there was something called the "Kick the Kaiser" parade in downtown Omaha in 1917, or that Knute Rockne brought his Notre Dame "Irishmen" football team to Lincoln for a Thanksgiving Day game in 1918, or that there was an annual baseball game that pitted a team of black players from the north side of the city against a team of white players from south side. All this made it into the novel, and the last one turned into a major set piece and turning point. Two months before the riot and lynching of Will Brown, there was a huge melee on the field during the interracial game that almost broke out into a riot, provoked when there was a collision at first base. I was six years into Kings of Broken Things by then, struggling with a third draft--the one that would ultimately be published--and was blown away by this discovery, as it encapsulates the amity between races and different working-class groups amid this great backdrop. I researched throughout the entire writing process, and that habit turned out to be a real stroke of luck.

DM: Research became the lifeblood of The Boat Runner. Finding little facts about what kind of music, food, and clothes were popular at a time I was writing always helped. What was essential however was finding historical moments I could hold up and imagine my characters alive within. If I could find an event that brought my character’s inner lives some conflict then I could write a substantial scene to help propel the plot along. It was a wonderful surprise to me that research could serve as such a driver of plot.

Now that my book came out I’m getting lots of questions about my research methods, and many of them lead back to personal events that sparked an interest in doing research in the first place. I’m finding that I have to emotionally brace myself for random questions touching on those raw parts of my own inner life that I’ve kept private or masked by fiction. Is this something you three are having to deal with as well? How are you coping?

TW: This hasn't really come up for me. Kings isn't really all that personal, though it was more of an issue last summer when my short story collection came out. Bad Faith features a couple stories that are deeply personal. I usually read from the story "The Missing" at events and it deals with fatherhood and mortality in a transparent way. Nobody ever asks me questions about that aspect of the fiction, but I often get these knowing, empathetic looks from an audience when I read about the main character's daughters. Truthfully, I wrote the story in a confessional way and choose to read it in-person because it's engaging on that level. Most writing somewhat involves the telling of secrets to strangers, so I try to not be self-conscious about.

SJS: The telling of secrets has really come up for me in a big way when I do readings, mostly because of the nature of my subject matter. People assume all the time that my novel is my own personal story--that it's autofiction or fictionalized memoir. And people do ask me strange personal questions like how my family responded to my coming out, or whether I've had an arranged marriage (and the worst is when they assume I have). But I knew that would happen--I'd braced myself for it, considering the subject matter of my book. I tell them the truth, but often not the whole truth, just small bits of my own personal story that will satisfy their questions.

Devin Murphy’s book, The Boat Runner, is about a Dutch family trying to weather the morally complex realities of WWII and the idea of redemption in the wake of such a disaster. He’s been working on it steadily since he left Prairie Schooner, but also took a post as a Creative Writing Professor at Bradley University and had three children, so busy, busy, busy.

SJ Sindu’s novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is about a Sri-Lankan American lesbian who is in a marriage of convenience with a gay man so that they can present a heterosexual facade to their conservative families. It's her late-in-life coming out story, dealing with issues of family dysfunction, immigration, racism, and homophobia. Since Prairie Schooner (when she was getting my BA and then MA), Sindu has gotten a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University, and is now a faculty member at Ringling College of Art & Design.

Theodore Wheeler’s novel, Kings of Broken Things, follows a group of young immigrants in Omaha during World War I and is set around the true events of a race riot and lynching, with the initiation of the main characters into the criminal underworld of Omaha braided with the history of the city from that time. In the five years since he left PS, Wheeler received an MFA from Creighton University and also published a collection of short fiction called Bad Faith. He’s also worked as a journalist for ten years and recently began teaching creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Nick White’s novel How to Survive a Summer centers around a young man from the American South who must come to terms with a summer he spent at a gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi. When the novel opens, he is living in the Midwest and has tried to suppress the trauma of that time in his life, only to have it resurface when he learns that a slasher flick based on his experiences at that camp is being released in theaters. I worked on Prairie Schooner as a senior fiction reader during my years as a Ph.D. student. I now teach creative writing at The Ohio State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.