Ted Wheeler Interview for Laurel Review Interview Series
Luke Rolfes: I’m excited today to talk with Theodore Wheeler about his new book THE WAR BEGINS IN PARIS from Little Brown & Company. This novel is Wheeler’s fourth book, and it is an historical novel that centers around two American women---journalists Marthe Hesse and Jane Anderson (notorious Nazi propagandist known as “The Georgia Peach”)---and their experiences in Europe as it descends into the chaos of World War 2.
Wow, this is a big project, Ted---an incredibly striking and vivid retelling of a manic time. I’m sure the writing of THE WAR BEGINS IN PARIS involved significant research. Can you talk about where you got the idea for this book and how you went about compiling the information?
Ted Wheeler: A decade ago I started reading about American fascists, mostly because of the rise of neo-fascists in Europe, or at least a wave of populism that seemed like it could become fascism. I came across an old article that famed journalist William L. Shirer wrote for Harper’s about the “radio traitors,” a group of American journalists and actors who ended up doing radio work for Joseph Goebbels during the Second World War. One of them, a woman named Jane Anderson, really caught my attention. The more I read about Jane and her journey from being a pioneering woman journalist in the First World War to being a sort of B-grade celebrity of the day to becoming a fascist mouthpiece, the more I wanted to write a novel about her. Not just her, but a book mostly about a character who fought to counteract what Jane was up to in Spain and Germany. A lot of my work centers around the struggles of American humanism to maintain a foothold in the last century. This kind of story is very interesting to me.
As for the research, I like to consult a lot of primary sources, like reading old newspapers and magazines, and listening to old radio shows. Many of the foreign correspondents who were working in Europe in 1938 wrote memoirs about their experiences and that was very helpful, not only for getting the details right, but also for picking up the nuances of voice that help build a character. As an example, I thought all these journalists came from very privileged backgrounds, but that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, becoming a reporter was a common way for an ambitious person to rise. It was a tough job that didn’t pay well, with bad hours and impossibly demanding bosses. But there was the opportunity for notoriety, however slight or fleeting. Once I understood this it helped define who my main character was, where she came from, and what she wanted out of life.
LR: Here’s a broad question about historical fiction: How does one balance authenticity versus accessibility in things like diction and dialogue? This story is set nearly 100 years ago. How much do you feel compelled to update versus what you want to maintain true to the time period?
TW: Part of the fun in writing historical fiction comes from conjuring these old personalities and putting their voices on the page. But the narration itself can’t feel antiquated, of course. The writing still has to connect and excite readers now. The trick, I think, comes from layering together the archaic with the contemporary, just giving a taste of the old so that it feels archaic. I think of how Bob Dylan did this with folk protest songs, or how cartoonists like Art Spiegelman or R. Crumb approached their style. They’re all deeply indebted to their influences. In some ways they’re so old-fashioned that it feels almost new, but they find pressure points and stylistic quirks that are urgently contemporary.
That’s kind of vague. More or less, I always reminded myself that the narrator was telling this story from now. The year 2020, when I started writing this novel. So the voice of the narrator had to be rooted in this moment. Dynamic in ways that current readers would recognize as dynamic. Aware of the social, cultural, and political concerns that people have now. Maybe the characters themselves sound a bit different, in their dialogue, but only a bit. Otherwise the narrator needs to stay in control.
LR: I’m curious about the inspiration for Marthe, who goes by the nickname Mielle for most of the novel. A fascinating character, truly, whose story could easily be hidden in the shadows of historical record. I couldn’t find any information on her online. How did you go about discovering and bringing to life this protagonist?
TW: I knew that I had Jane Anderson as a main character almost five years before I came up with Marthe, who is not based on a real person. So much of Marthe came from pursuing an idea of balance on the page. From the historical record, I knew that the real Jane was loud and brash, that she made wild claims, that she came from a Southern aristocratic family in Atlanta. So Marthe should, I thought, be quiet and struggle with confidence and come from very humble beginnings. I had her migrate from Iowa because that felt like my entry into the story from a narrative perspective. (I’ve lived my whole life in Iowa and Nebraska, so I know the people, the rhythms of our speech, our collective fears.) Then it seemed best to have Marthe be a pacifist–as Jane is a warmonger–so it made sense that she should have been raised on a Mennonite collective. Her being anabaptist unlocked so much about her character. That she couldn’t go back home again, that she was a true-believer type of person, that she was an inveterate outsider in the modern world. The process took a long time, but is very typical. Just trying to understand what people in her position were like at that time and then balancing that composite with what the story needed from her.
LR: One thing I appreciated in your writing is the specificity in your characters’ food and drink choices. What people eat is a detail that really brings a place and time period to life. Of course, food and drink comes up thematically in Jane Anderson’s falling out of favor with the Nazi party, but I’m curious about your emphasis on food/drink throughout the novel. Can you talk a bit about this as a symbol and/or craft choice?
TW: I love writing about food because it’s a simple way to engage all five senses on the page. It also helps humanize characters in a basic way. More specifically for this book, the part with Jane’s broadcast is from the historical record, as she was kicked off the air by Goebbels because of the public outcry of her talking on the radio about drinking champagne at a fancy hotel bar while most German citizens were suffering from malnutrition and couldn’t even get a beer in the evening. It revealed to the public that the Nazi party was fattening themselves while everyone else starved, so Jane got in a lot of trouble for that misstep.
One of my favorite scenes from Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum is when Oskar’s troupe of performers stops to have a picnic along the Normandy coast with delicacies from each of the nations that the Germans conquered early in the war. It’s such a decadent, masterful way to epitomize the Occupation via symbolism. So that was a big part of it too, trying to pay homage to Grass.
LR: A poignant moment in the novel is when the American correspondent Alden Linder Elder tells Marthe, “You are not an assassin.” He seems taken aback that Marthe thought he wanted Jane killed. I’m intrigued by this moment in the book. Do you think his response has more to do with Marthe’s gender, or perhaps more to do with her role as journalist and upbringing as Mennonite? A combination?
TW: His reaction could be all of those things, though I didn’t think too much about his motivation when I was writing that scene. His sense of shock was just the natural reaction—that Alden wouldn’t have thought of Marthe in that way at all. Also, because he has been courting her, in a way, she would be more object of desire than instrument of destruction. I try to free-write most of the dialogue in my stories without thinking too much about what comes out, with the intention that characters will say surprising things. This isn’t entirely organic, as I know what the plot of the story is, but I think it does help the dialogue feel more interesting. In some ways it’s more about rhythm, two people trying to fill in silences, which is what most actual conversation feels like to me.
LR: Marthe and Jane have a complicated relationship. On the one hand, Marthe is drawn to and, in some ways, in love with Jane, yet, she feels compelled by a vision to end the other woman’s life. Marthe’s conscience, at times, seems torn. She is cognizant of Jane’s earlier trauma as a tortured prisoner during the Spanish Civil War, and the trauma she has seen as a reporter in war-torn Europe. As well, the world around them is being taken over by heinous men, which makes Jane’s treason seem, in comparison, a lesser evil. Still, Marthe feels strongly in the wrongness of what Jane has done. Can you talk a little bit about how you handled the psychology of this narrative thread?
TW: I think it speaks to two central aspects of Marthe’s character. That she is drawn to Jane in a profound way, since Jane was a hero of Marthe’s. She and Jane also understand each other in a way that Marthe has never experienced. But Marthe is also a true-believer at heart and someone who was raised in a radical pacifist enclave. That Jane uses her religious beliefs to justify mass-murder would be unforgivable to most people, as it is to Marthe, but I think Marthe holds on so long because she does love Jane. As someone who hasn’t experienced many close relationships, Jane is irreplaceable to Marthe.
A lot of us have gone through something similar in recent years, maybe becoming estranged from people they love, family members, because of politics. It’s more profound than that when the politics involved are so hateful. I imagine this will be a familiar kind of trauma, a familiar kind of complicated relationship, for many people.
LR: At one point in the novel, Marthe encounters some of the Nazi party’s inner circle. She even watches Hitler speak at a rally. Was it difficult to write these scenes featuring some of history’s most notorious villains?
When I started writing the novel I really avoided scenes like these. In fact, I promised myself that Hitler wouldn’t appear in the book. I hardly ever even used the word Nazi, because everything it represents brought so much ugliness to the page. It’s an ugly word. In this way, approaching the scenes was difficult. But after a while I could see the necessity and start to engage the challenge of creating these tableaus, as it gave me an opportunity to show how ridiculous and grotesque the Nazis were. Norman Ohler has a great nonfiction book called Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich that details how deformed Hitler made himself by taking so many pharmaceuticals and hormones. So it’s factual, but also so ripe for metaphor.
I also worked as a reporter for fourteen years, the last five of which I covered a political beat. Given my proximity to Iowa, I reported from many political rallies in the 2016 and 2020 presidential cycles. I felt like I had some things to say about being around politicians and the duplicity of political rallies in particular.
LR: You sprinkle press releases/broadcasts throughout this novel, one of which is Edward R. Murrow’s description of Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Where did these texts come from? Can you walk us through the process of adding press artifacts (whether found or created) to this book?
TW: All these dispatches, as I call them, came out of the research. William L. Shirer’s from his Berlin Diary, which was an amazing resource about what it was like to be a foreign correspondent in Europe at that time. Dorothy Thompson’s column about Herschel Grynszpan and the November Pogrom (aka Kristallnacht) came from a collection of her reporting during the early 1940s. I came across the Murrow broadcast (link) while doing research in the online archives of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The War Begins in Paris was researched mostly during Covid lockdown, so my only connection to the material were books that I could get from my university library and resources I could find online. Since these sources were so important to me I wanted to pay homage to some of the journalists who actually did fight back against fascism, most of them for a whole decade before the United States entered the war. The best way to do that was to put in excerpts of their own words into the novel.
I wasn’t able to get permission to include all the dispatches that I wanted to, but it worked out for a few. Tracking down who owns the rights to a bit of reporting from 1938 isn’t so easy. (This website run by the Henry Ransom Center is very helpful.) Often I used the version reprinted in books, as publishers have departments to deal with this sort of request. Otherwise it meant trying to get in contact with whomever is in charge of the literary estate of the writer and then negotiate a fee. I had to pay for the permissions myself, so that limited how many I could pursue to those that were important to me in a personal way.
As a result, most of the dispatches in the novel are fictionalized. Either to help build in the professional aspects of Marthe Hess’s character or to give some wider context to what was happening at the moment. They were pretty simple to write. I’d spent much of my life writing little news items and dispatches about what was happening in Nebraska, so it was just calibrating a 500-word assignment for whatever voice made sense in the moment. That muscle was toned, no doubt.
LR: I don’t want to get off topic too much, but one of the reasons I like this book is the subtext that highlights the power/influence of journalism. My grandfather was a newspaper man for fifty years of his life---mostly focusing on local news, which he felt was integral to small communities. He made me realize the necessity of informing the public. Can you give us your thoughts on the importance of journalism, especially in tumultuous times? Where do you think historical fiction texts fit into the spectrum of how we understand the past?
TW: That was my first impulse in writing this book, to make something that could attest to the importance of journalists. The last decade has been a really rough era for journalists, even beyond the tough financial times for newspapers that cover local news, which I think is a disaster for democracy and anyone who cares about government corruption. I spent several years in gaggles and press pits at political rallies, getting booed, being called a liar. Nobody ever spit on me, nobody ever assaulted me, but these things happened to other reporters. The animosity felt so unsettling because every reporter I knew got into the profession because they really believe in the job, in telling the truth in an unbiased way, and the importance of doing so ethically. So I wanted to write a book that, at least in part, highlighted some of the journalists who helped make the world better in tangible ways. I think these correspondents are heroes. If people had listened to Shirer and Thompson sooner, so much misery and death could have been avoided.
As to historical fiction, I think it helps us deal with living in our historical age better than nonfiction, or in a different way than nonfiction, because fiction focuses on the small, interior moments of human experience. There are so many issues that we face that feel overwhelming, but it helps me to think about a bunch of ordinary people rising to the occasion and meeting the challenges of their age. Very often historical fiction (or straight history for that matter) can feel escapist, but I don’t feel that way. Most of the time I’m only interested in history for what it can tell me about the world we live in now, to inform my conception of why things are the way they are at this moment. Maybe that’s self-indulgent, but I don’t see it that way. Understanding history feels very necessary.
LR: What is next for you and your writing? Are there other historical stories you’d like to tell?
TW: The last year I’ve been working on a couple different projects. Mostly research and sketches. One is another war novel set in Switzerland that focuses more on different refugees who were displaced. The other is set in Omaha and follows the orphaned niece of Father Flanagan, founder of Boys Town and noted celebrity priest. I’d like to someday write both novels. I’m not sure what one will be next.
LR: Thanks so much for your time!
TW: Thank you!
BIO: Theodore Wheeler is the author of three novels: The War Begins in Paris (Little Brown, 2023), Kings of Broken Things (Little A, 2017), and In Our Other Lives (Little A, 2020). His writing has been featured in The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Boulevard, Narrative, LitHub, and many more journals. He has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Nebraska Arts Council, and Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. For fourteen years Theodore worked as a journalist who covered law and politics, including the last two presidential elections, and he now teaches creative writing in the English Department at Creighton University. He is also director of Omaha Lit Fest and, with his wife, operates Dundee Book Company, an independent neighborhood bookshop. For more information, visit theodore-wheeler.com.