The Big Idea: Steven S. Drachman
People! I am traveling in time (literally, as I wrote up this entry last night and then scheduled it to go live in the morning) to tell you about Steven S. Drachman’s latest book, Watt O’Hugh Underground — the second in his series about a time-traveling adventurer. And here in the present, Drachman is here to tell you what it is about time travel that makes it such a fine subject for fiction (and for his series).
Why are time travel books so popular? It really has nothing to do with meeting George Washington. (You wouldn’t get a meeting with him anyway, even if you could time travel!) And the idea of wandering through Paris in 1742, while thrilling, has the same sort of exotic tourist appeal as any locale you will never visit – the mountains of Kazakhstan, for example. Rather, we love the idea of time travel because as human beings, we inevitably try without success to undo the mistakes of the past, or the missed opportunities. The longer we live, the more we have to undo. And for most of us, it all comes down to one foolhardy instant after which everything changed. We are regret machines.
Most people have that moment; does the human race have one too, a split second after which nothing can ever be the same again?
I’ve written a couple of books about a late19th century gunslinger named Watt O’Hugh. Watt is a man who occasionally must (reluctantly) shoot people, and even more occasionally (but less reluctantly) engage in a bit of “pully hawly.” We called hanky-panky “pully hawly” in the 1870s for reasons today remembered only by G-d, and it was more frequent than you might think; note the success of Madame Restelle, abortionist to the children of the wealthy, who earned herself an imposing mansion on 5th Avenue and 58th Street. So: in the 1870s, everyone loved a bit of pully hawly.
My books have demons and oracles, floating silver orbs, a woman who can turn into a swarm of butterflies, a mysterious world with two moons, and flying peacocks. They’re books about shooting, time Roaming, terribly evil villains, valiant but flawed heroes, punching, spitting, dragons and PG-rated sex. They are books about robbing trains and prison breaks. The biggest idea in the series is that pully hawly is more fun than shooting a guy. The shooting makes the yarn more ripping.
When I started the series, its structure – a nonagenarian writing the fantastical story of his life as fast as he can – was an amusing framing device. Now as an older man, I’m more reflective; next to my inevitably comical death, this is what I will be remembered for. And some ideas have slipped in there somewhere.
Time Roamers (a group Watt O’Hugh eventually joins) can visit the future and the past, but unless they have an “utterly pure heart” – which the redoubtable Watt certainly does not – they can leave not so much as a footprint, and they float past you like a breeze.
This is, after all, what we all do, Roamer or not. We revisit that moment in the past, and we can change nothing.
For Watt, that day is May 13, 1863, when, still a New York city clerk in his early twenties, he takes the beautiful socialite Lucy Billings on a midnight boat ride across the Upper Bay, docking on a highly fictional towhead with a rocky shore and a couple of trees. While he has asked the glamorous Miss Billings to marry him on many occasions, it should be clear to him that tonight is the night. Still he stays quiet, and two months later, the Draft Riots take Lucy from him forever, and, with her, a life of love and also tremendous wealth.
He will go on to fight in the Civil War and in a now-forgotten battle in the Chinese Hell of the Innocent Dead, run cattle across the plains, roam Time to its very dawn, feud viciously with J.P. Morgan, lead a spectacular Wild West Show and escape a deadling-infested Leadville, Colorado in the company of Oscar Wilde and a Tzadik from Kaifeng. His life will be heroic, but filled with regret over a few words not uttered during one Magic instant. Of course, once he learns to roam Time, Watt will revisit that evening, hiding among the trees, impotently urging his younger self to say the words, just as you or I might revisit such a pivotal moment, just as hopelessly, in our minds.
When did humanity itself jump the shark?
For my novel, I chose a day in October, in the First Century, in China.
In the year 9, upon ascending the throne, Emperor Wang Mang ordered that every peasant should be a landowner; he abolished the slave trade; he decreed that the power of the moneylenders be broken; and he commanded China to begin working as one family, and to grow great together.
The Yangtze overflowed its banks, famine ensued, and not only did Wang Mang lose his throne and his life during the following October’s Red Eyebrow rebellion, but historians repudiated his ideas. They vilified an Emperor whose arrival into this world was heralded by the flight of a thousand dragons in the early morning skies, and whose ideas grew naturally from the Earth, like a lovely blue dragonberry flower.
Without Wang Mang’s murder at that one fateful second, my novels surmise, the peasantry and the aristocracy would have become like brother and sister, and other nations would have sought to emulate China’s success.
We would have been spared Communist revolutions that ended with purges and bloodshed. Spared our corrupt, murderous, extremist, bloody and heartless capitalism, and the quick toxic death from which only roaches and gigantic sheep-sized rats will emerge alive a hundred years from now.
My novels imagine a character named Billy Golden, the one Roamer with an utterly pure heart, who sees a future that could have been and grows obsessed, over thousands and thousands of lifetimes, with undoing Emperor Wang’s murder; and my novels imagine the reincarnated bastard son of the Emperor’s crippled court poet, Yang Hsiung, traveling the 19th century globe to save humanity.
“Here was Wang Mang, the one for whom we’d been waiting,” sadly sighs the Tzadik from Kaifeng. “The one for whom we still wait.”
We all still wait for the past.
Lest my Big Idea sounds too serious, I will assure you again that Watt O’Hugh’s Memoir is mostly a series of weird books about derring do, flitting through time, flying in the clouds, fighting various monstrosities (including a ferocious pond monster), shooting people, and enjoying the occasional pully hawly.