, the debut novel from erstwhileWestword
writer Jason Heller, hits bookstores today, and Heller will be reading from the book at
, 2526 East Colfax Avenue.
Below, Heller talks about his time-traveling William H. Taft and what in tarnation the 27th president makes of our modern political landscape.
Westword: Congratulations, first and foremost, on getting your first novel published. I know it's been something you've been working toward for a long time. Can you tell me how it came to be that this specific idea nudged up ahead of the others you've been working on to become first in line?
Jason Heller: Well, it wasn't my idea at all; it was Stephen Segal's, my editor at Quirk Books. He was my editor at Weird Tales magazine when he worked there, and then became my editor at Quirk, and I wound up doing a Pirates of the Caribbean book for him. When we were wrapping that up in September 2010, he basically said he had already interested the other editors at Quirk in this idea and he had a three-paragraph treatment, which was basically "William Howard Taft comes back to life in 2012 and winds up running for president." At first I was a little hesitant to take on somebody else's premise, but the idea isn't the most important thing; it's how it's executed, if it's done well or not, if you take it to a cool place. Mainly, I was a little worried about putting these other novels I have been working on to the side for a few months, but I was willing to go for it because it seemed like an interesting opportunity.
In your book, there isn't a lot of handwringing over the sudden Rip Van Winkle-like appearance of Taft. He's not only readily accepted, but embraced as a voice of reason and propped up rather immediately as a viable 2012 presidential candidate. Are we really so hungry for a leader so free of bluster that we'd immediately accept someone from the past if we perceived him as a voice of reason?
No, absolutely not, and that's where the speculative and satirical element comes in. This book is supposed to be kind of cartoony and painted in broad strokes, and in a way, I'm trying to openly lampoon the voting public -- but also the media. People believe what they want to believe, and the media feeds that and it becomes a feedback loop. Of course, it's an impossible premise in the first place. So hopefully, right out of the gate I'm establishing that. I went back and forth with my editor about "Are we going to try to come up with a scientifically plausible reason why Taft comes back?" We decided no -- the more we try to explain it in detail, the more we will call attention to the fact that there's no way anyone would ever believe that, DNA tests notwithstanding. So I'm definitely not trying to say that, yeah, people would immediately prop this guy up, but at the same time, if you follow politics -- especially over the last six months or so, with the Republican race tightening up -- it's amazing what people will buy into.
It's certainly been a comedy of errors.
It's amazing! This book was completed before Herman Cain entered and exited the national stage, and I almost wish we could have put off writing the final draft of the book a little bit longer, because if millions of people can rally around a guy like Herman Cain -- remember that at one point he was actually leading the polls -- then, really, anything is possible. That was one of the things I was trying to tap into, this idea that people really do project themselves and their values onto politicians. They see what they want to see and ignore what they want to ignore, and...yeah. It's all completely subjective.
You mention two Taft biographies in your acknowledgments, by Lewis L. Gould and Judith Icke Anderson. I gather that you're a fastidious researcher, and it shows in the book. Between the two accounts of his life and presidency, what did you come to admire most about Taft?
I'm gonna misquote Grouch Marx and Woody Allen here: I'd never want to be a member of any club who would have me. And that's Taft to a T. Taft was so reluctant as a president, and didn't even want the job in the first place. The quote I put at the beginning of the book, from right after he got into office, in 1909, is about him disliking the presidency and what he has to do to be president. It's completely inconceivable nowadays that a president whose sensibilities as a person in our age -- so sculpted by this inherent, embedded, public-relations type of mentality that public figures have, especially politicians -- that someone could be that candid and, as the president, would talk openly and on the record about how they disliked being president and disliked what came with it. There's a lot of ideology that can be argued one way or the other, a lot of historical accounts debating whether Taft was a horrible president or an underrated president. I didn't want to take a stand on those things, necessarily, but what I really did want to show is that Taft was pretty unique, especially in the twentieth century, when it comes to a president who was a completely reluctant politician. I also wanted to show that, you know what, you don't even have to aspire to be the president to become the president of the United States. He never did! It just kind of happened to him. And that, to me, is a remarkable thing, that that can happen in this country.
For most intents and purposes, Taft is alive and well in the 21st century, thanks to you, with his own website and Facebook page, tweeting away his observations of the developments of the 2012 campaign and the issues of our day as actively as anyone currently campaigning. Since you're a writer working primarily in fantasy, science fiction and cultural observation, and since this "Taft 2012" character of yours now exists, in a sense, both inside and outside of the pages of your novel, what has the actual experience of bringing this character to life and, in a sense, becoming him yourself through these 21st-century tools been like for you?
It's been pretty interesting because in the book, Taft struggles with tweeting, and we didn't want to go too heavily into Taft trying to tackle these social media things, but we wanted to put a little of it in there, only because someone who comes back from his time and wakes up 100 years later is going to have to adjust to these things. Of course, the marketing people at Quirk Books were like "This is fantastic, we need to have Taft tweeting in real time in reaction to what's going on leading up to the primary!" because the book was timed for release during the presidential primary season. So it's kind of weird, because I have to tweet and blog as Taft and use his voice and play around with who his character is in the book, and balance that with how he might react to these things actually happening in the real world that I couldn't have predicted in the book. I couldn't have predicted Herman Cain! I couldn't have predicted the Occupy Movement, all these things that Taft is reacting to every day on Twitter. Truth is almost always as strange as fiction.
It's been fun to keep up with his ongoing commentary on it all.
And then, of course, there's the other thing -- I am a liberal, Taft is not. He was a progressive Republican, and being a Republican in 1912 is a lot different than being a Republican in 2012 -- I think a lot of modern liberals would have found things in common with someone like Taft -- but then you've got to view the decisions he and other progressive Republicans made in the context of their own time. For me it was interesting to decide things like "How much am I going to have Taft attack President Obama, who is someone I voted for and definitely have a lot of issues with, but someone I still believe in and in will vote for again, without a second's hesitation?" Here's someone who is ostensibly his opponent, but seeing how Taft kind of gets rejected immediately by the Republican party and sort of becomes an independent in the book, it's much more fun and makes sense for Taft to naturally be outraged by what he sees as the perversion and the subversion of his GOP. This is not the party he knows, and he dislikes it at least as much if not more than the Democratic Party today because it was what he's associated with and it used to be his party. Taft does kind of take potshots at Obama every now and then in the social media I have him doing, but really, there's no primary for Obama -- he's obviously the de facto Democratic candidate -- so all the excitement is in the GOP field as it narrows down, progressing through the primary season.
Why do you think Taft's voice, as you've adopted it, has turned out to be so well suited to observing our times?
It goes back to what I was saying about ... ...what I like about him so much. He was a very plainspoken person. It was one of his many paradoxes that he very much wanted to placate a lot of people and make both sides happy, but Taft was one of those people who really believed that honesty is the best policy -- of course, that came back to bite him in the ass in real life, during his actual term as president -- but I think that makes him an impartial critical observer, in a weird way, of our own times. In the course of trying to placate everyone in his own time and be honest with everyone, he eventually angered everyone and ended up having no friends on any side by the time he ran for reelection in 1912. But when you take someone like Taft out of time, out of place, and uproot them like that, it gives you a wonderful juxtaposition of context, and it gives Taft the ability to be even more honest about what he sees.
— William Howard Taft (@taft2012) January 11, 2012
"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" is an obvious touchstone.
At best, I have 1/500th of the talent that Mark Twain had! But the fun thing about bringing Taft into the future is that he has this perspective of 100 years where he hasn't gradually, as the rest of American society has, become accustomed to the horrible things that have become commonplace. One of his big things that's personal to him that he winds up addressing in the book is America's eating habits, corporate agriculture, and the entire idea that has bit by bit become part of our lives that it's okay to just eat genetically modified, fattening, super-processed, heavily marketed, biologically addictive type of food, and that trickles down to so many other problems we have in America, whether that be the health-care debate or food regulation. That's where Taft becomes uniquely qualified to talk about these types of things, because he fell asleep in 1912 and wakes up 100 years later, and he's had no intervening acclimation to what's gone on. He sees really starkly the differences that have come up. It's not all bad, and there's a lot of things he likes about the 21st century, too -- he instantly falls in love with Wii Golf, for example -- so he's not completely like, "Things were so much better in my day."
In your book, Taft disappears in 1913, still dreaming of landing on the Supreme Court, before being transported to the future. I'm curious what you think we would have lost without Taft's nine years as chief justice and the extent to which that alternate history is reflected in the novel.
Just as my editor and I debated how detailed we wanted to get in explaining Taft's disappearance, we also talked about how much of an alternate history we wanted to make this book. We could do the typical thing, which goes back to Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder, where you change one small thing, and then in history years later, it becomes this massive cause-and-effect chain -- you know, you're hunting dinosaurs and step on a butterfly and change everything. What a lot of people don't remember about A Sound of Thunder, which is one of the archetypal time-travel stories, is that's actually about a presidential race. That's what the frame of the story is: One president had been elected, but stepping on that butterfly while hunting dinosaurs changed the outcome of that election in their current time for the worse.
Do we want to make this a really big, sweeping alternate history and make this world really different? I opted for the other way, flying in the face of what you're supposed to do in alternate-history-type stories:Taft wasn't a butterfly that gets stepped on. He was a U.S. president who disappears. You'd think that a president disappearing on his last day in office would traumatize the nation, right? -- let alone, like you mentioned, what happens when someone who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court gets removed from the timeline.
There are some aspects of the alternate history that I got into. For example, Taft's son Robert Taft became a renowned senator, and he's one of the twelve people profiled in John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. But in my book, because of Taft's disgraceful, bad, horrible, poorly received presidency, his whole family drops out of politics, when in real life there's a whole Taft political dynasty that's been practically unbroken. But for the most part, we decided that we were going to have Taft's disappearance not have that much of an impact.
It's a statement on how underrated and undervalued and neglected by history Taft is that in this alternate history he disappears and no one really cares; it doesn't change anything. I really wanted to cut away the cutesiness of that and make the statement that that's how little people regard him historically.
Speaking of alternate history, we have in the current Republican primary a candidate, Newt Gingrich, who's very much interested in such "what-if" thought experiments in his own fictions, and others whose willy-nilly approach to the basic facts of history is at least as farcical as your own satire. How is it, in the thick of the information age, that our politics have become so detached from reality, so separate from historical fact?
That comes up with New Gingrich so much because he gets painted by supporters and detractors alike, which I find really curious, as being some sort of intellectual powerhouse, above and beyond your average mental midget on the GOP side, like Rick Perry or Herman Cain. Cain hadn't even heard of neo-conservativism before he got into the primary; the mind boggles. But I think it's funny that you call Gingrich's writing "thought experiments." Because Gingrich is somewhat intelligent, he's able to mask all this misinformation, disinformation, and half-truths and quarter-truths, and present them in such an intimidating way that people, even journalists, give him a pass on so much of it. You could go on and on and stereotype the Republican base right now as being virulently anti-intellectual, but that plays into what the Republicans want people to believe about liberals, that they're "intellectual." Just thinking about something and being critical doesn't make you an intellectual. I do believe that there's such a thing as over-intellectualizing things to a harmful degree, including politics.
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If you'd known Gingrich would be a contender, you could have had even more fun with the book?
I think that people like Newt Gingrich get away with it because he forces it down people's throats, and, actually, I don't know if it's really any different than the way it's always been. There's always been that circuitous, duplicitous, rhetorical fuckin' flim-flammery that politicians have always used, and it's been lampooned by satirists for centuries. But it's something else when there are people out there who are going to drag the world to hell, personally, by doing everything they can to try to dissuade people from the idea, for example, that scientists actually know what they're talking about, right down to trying to change what's in textbooks, trying to roll back the last 100 years of science and knowledge. That, to me, is the really scary thing. I think Taft would be horrified by it all.