John A. Heldt on Time Travel Fiction, Historical Research, and the Northwest Passage Series
John A. Heldt independently published his debut novel, The Mine (reviewed 10/12) , in February of 2012. The novel told the story of Joel Smith, a fresh-faced college student whose trip into an abandoned mine sends him back in time to Seattle in 1941. Heldt continued his time travel series in November with The Journey (reviewed 12/12), which saw forty-something Michelle Preston lost in the 1960s with her high school self. Now, just over a year later, Heldt is releasing his third title in the Northwest Passage series, The Show. I’ve greatly enjoyed this series and I’m looking forward to reading The Show in the next few months, but today I’m very excited to be hosting the author for a Q&A to discuss the writing and researching that goes into a time travel story and his experiences with the Northwest Passage series at large. Many thanks to John for taking the time to share his answers!
The Mine, part one in the Northwest Passage series
How did the idea for the Northwest Passage series come about?
The idea for the series followed the enthusiastic reception of The Mine. I gave the matter a lot of thought and ultimately decided that I could produce an entire series around modern-day protagonists who travel back to a critical time in the twentieth century and confront people and problems that they still consider recent history. I chose to set each of the books in the Pacific Northwest because that is the region I know. It is home.
While time-travel is enduring among readers, it’s also a notoriously daring medium for a writer to take on. What has the experience of writing time-travel stories been like?
For the most part, it’s been a profoundly positive experience. I’ve been able to write the kind of stories I’ve dreamed about writing for years and market them to readers who truly appreciate them. But I have encountered a few bumps along the way. By choosing to write time-travel stories that elevate the fiction over the science in science fiction, I have run afoul of some who believe that time-travel novels should follow rigid rules. I do respect that school of thought, but I do not feel bound by it. As an author, my first priority is to provide readers with an entertaining story. I want my readers to laugh and cry – hopefully in the right places – as they follow my characters through time and not get bogged down by the technical aspects of something that even physicists in 2011 declared was impossible.
The Journey, part two in the Northwest Passage series
One of my favorite things about the books in the Northwest Passage series is the terrific period detail. Has your historical research ever prompted you to take a story down a different road? Do you have a particular process for researching a novel during the book’s development?
I take great pride in this. Little things matter to readers, which is why I have tried my best to take care of the little things. When I wrote The Mine, I consulted no fewer than a dozen subject experts on things ranging from the flora on Mount Rainier to the particulars of the peacetime draft to the costs of goods and services in 1941. When I wanted to know whether it was possible to fly commercially between Seattle and Montana in 1941, I found an answer by emailing a man in Sweden who collected old airline schedules. I did similar research for The Show, set primarily in 1918 and 1919. I poured through old newspapers, yearbooks, and photographs and contacted librarians, archivists, and subject experts. I didn’t do as much for The Journey because that story was set in a time (1979-1980) and a place (eastern Oregon) I know like the back of my hand. On a few occasions, I have made minor changes in a story in the name of historical accuracy. In The Mine, for example, I originally had “Chattanooga Choo Choo” streaming out of Tom Carter’s car radio on a date with Ginny Gillette in July 1941. But the hit by the Glenn Miller Orchestra did not become a staple on the airwaves until weeks later, so I substituted another song.
The Show, part three in the Northwest Passage series
The Mine gave us a love story in 1941 while The Journey focused on the friendship between time-traveler Michelle and her younger self in the 1970s. What can readers expect from The Show?
They can expect the best-written book of the three and a thoughtful story told by a young but mature female protagonist. The Show is a roller-coaster ride that moves from 1941 to 2000 to 2002 to 1918, but it has one constant that keeps the reader grounded – and that constant is Grace Vandenberg. We see her in various stages of life – as a friend, a wife, a mother, a niece, and, oddly enough, a daughter. She is as much the heart and soul of The Show as Joel Smith is of The Mine. The Show is also very closely tied to The Mine. Several lingering questions from the first book are answered in the sequel and several characters from my debut novel are cast in new roles. The Show is a book that takes risks and heads down paths that some might find unsettling. But like the other two books, it has a powerful positive message.
Lastly, what can we expect to see from you next? Do you have plans to write additional novels in the Northwest Passage series?
I plan to publish the fourth book of the five-part series by the end of this year. In that book, Kevin Johnson, the son of Brian and Shelly Johnson of The Journey and a student of Professor Joel Smith’s, will travel as a 22-year-old in 2013 to Wallace, Idaho, in 1910. He will see Halley’s comet, fall in love, and experience the Big Burn, the largest wildfire in U.S. history. The fifth book also will feature the grown children of characters from an early book, the twin daughters of Joel and Grace, but it will be set in Seattle in 1964. After that, I will probably move on to historical fiction.
About John A. Heldt
John A. Heldt is a reference librarian who lives and works in Montana. The former award-winning sportswriter and newspaper editor has loved reading and writing since writing book reports on baseball heroes in grade school. A graduate of both the University of Oregon and University of Iowa, he is an avid fisherman, sports fan, home brewer, and reader of thrillers and historical fiction. Heldt is the author of THE MINE, THE JOURNEY, and THE SHOW, the first three novels of his Northwest Passage time-travel series.