In Jason Heller’s debut novel, Taft 2012 (Quirk), the journalist and author (of The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook, also from Quirk) imagines a present-day campaign for William Howard Taft, whose presidential aspirations have reawakened a hundred years after the end of his one and only term. Tip Sheet spoke with Heller (no relation to Joseph) over the phone from his Denver home to ask the culture reporter, a contributor at Tor.com, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and elsewhere, about his foray into full-length political satire.
Why Taft? Why now?
My editor at Quirk, Stephen H. Segal, approached me in late 2010 about doing a satirical, presidential speculative fiction—it’s such a massive and fertile genre right now!—and had Taft at the top of his list [of potential protagonists]. I was immediately intrigued, mostly because the vast majority of people who hear about this book will think Taft and remember one or two details, most likely that he so infamously large he got stuck in his bathtub. I didn’t know much more than that, and the more I researched the more I realized what an interesting figure he was, both as a president himself and in the context of his presidency, sandwiched between two of the most iconic presidents of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. He was a reluctant president, in many ways he was sort of pushed into it.
And the timing is perfect, it being exactly 100 years since he lost his bid for reelection in 1912, it’s a neat way to frame things—someone from 100 years ago brought Rip Van Winkle-style into today’s political landscape, left to flop around in this bizarre wasteland we have. And it’s a fun and interesting way to lampoon some of the things going on in this election.
How long did the project take to complete?
I started pretty much immediately, I had to put aside some other things—happily so—to jump into this. It took about nine months. One of the pitfalls is that the book has to be done a certain time in advance—I finished in summer 2011—and I could not foresee some of the great and horrible things that have happened in the last few months.
What would you like to have included if you had more time to observe the campaign season?
The Occupy Movement is obviously a really big one. In my book, the populist momentum that carries Taft back into politics is sort of meant to be a reaction to what had been happening with the Tea Party, and in a similar way the Occupy Movement is also an opposing reaction to the Tea Party. So it would have been great to address that more directly.
But I wrote this book as a satire, and what’s happened in the GOP race is far more satirical than anything I could have dreamed up—the insane gaffes and just outright absurdities, I would hope anyone of any political persuasion is able to agree that this GOP race has been one of the most bizarre in history.
Any plans to send another deceased president on the campaign trail in 2016?
We haven’t talked about it, but stray thoughts have gone through my mind, and obviously ex-presidents have been popping up here and there [in popular fiction]. Of course it’s a whole lot easier when you’re dealing with someone who’s deceased—like Abe Lincoln hunting vampires—but really, if there was another president I’d like to write about, and this really has more to do with my childhood, is Jimmy Carter. Again, a misunderstood single-term president, only in Carter’s case it’s maybe already turned around, people have started to appreciate him more. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize helps. So it may be too soon historically speaking. But you never know—we’ll see how Taft does first.