In Jason Heller's Taft 2012, the late president runs again
Taft 2012, the debut novel from erstwhile Westword writer Jason Heller, hits bookstores today, and Heller will be reading from the book at 7:30 tonight at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue.
Taft to the future!
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.