The Big Idea: Rob Hart
Sometimes, to get a Big Idea, all you need is an instigating inspiration, a neat idea… and maybe a Google doc or two. Rob Hart shows us how it all comes together in this piece on his new novel, Paradox Hotel.
“Time travel hotel.”
I wrote this into a Google Doc after seeing Sleep No More, an interactive theater experience in New York City.
It’s a hell of a thing—audience members are given masks, and you follow actors putting on a version of MacBeth. It starts in a hotel, but walk through a doorway, and you’re in a cemetery, or the woods, or a psych ward. You’re welcome to chase actors from room to room and follow the branching paths of the story, or you can just rifle through drawers, read letters that have been left out, look for secret rooms…
And as I wandered about, I was struck by this thought: What if there was a hotel where you entered a room and it was five minutes in the future, or ten minutes in the past?
That’s it. That’s all I had.
Whenever I have an idea I think has legs, I create a Google Doc for it. Sometimes they develop into projects and sometimes they don’t and sometimes I look back at them and wonder what the hell I was thinking.
“Time travel hotel” sat there for a while, and after I wrote The Warehouse I started an entirely different novel, which never came together. That whole time, the idea of time travel was in the back of my head. I love a good time travel story. I’m fascinated by quantum physics, and while I’m not expert, I’ve done a bit of reading in that area.
Then—and I don’t remember exactly when—I got another idea. I bet if we invented time travel it would be hugely expensive. And I saw a potential parallel with space travel: how billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Richard Branson are investing money into making space a tourism industry.
Which, if you dig a little deeper, there’s a lot of money to be made in space—control of communication networks, shipping and manufacturing could be improved by zero-G environments, the average meteor contains trillions of dollars in precious metals…
Once I got some billionaires involved in this thing, I knew I was cooking with gas. Writing about classism and inequity is my wheelhouse—there’s no better villain than a billionaire. So, at this point it was easy to draw out the idea of time travel starting as a government project, growing so expensive as to become unwieldy, until a bunch of uber-rich jerks swooped in with plans to privatize it.
At that point I realized that while time travel is a theoretical concept, so is money. It’s a nonsense thing we created to make it easier to hoard wealth. Financial markets are made-up things; a legalized form of gambling so rich people can use our money to get richer.
Now I had all these building blocks. And here’s where we get into the part of the process that crosses over into the divine. That unknowable part I can’t really explain.
In turning all this junk over in my head, I was struck by an image of this woman stepping off an elevator, wearing a boho hat. She was angry and sad at the same time. She was harboring a lot of grief and regret and didn’t know how to process it. She needed to face herself, which she was unwilling to do—because it’s the hardest thing any of us have to do.
Her name was January.
I refer to it as divination so I can have a little plausible deniability. January is me, and the shit I was dealing with, or felt like dealing with, in that moment. And there were some mechanical things that attracted me to her as a character: I previously wrote a five-book series featuring a tough-talking, hard-hitting private investigator, and it felt like a fun challenge to write a book with a female character filling that role.
That’s the secret sauce for me. I never have a deficit of ideas. But they’re all pretty much useless until I have a character to hang them on. And once I have my character (or, in the case of The Warehouse, my three characters), the whole thing tends to snap into place real quick.
And it’s a matter of finding what I want to process. What I want to say about the world (billionaires will let the world burn to make a profit, we need to stop privatizing shit), and then what I want to say about myself (sometimes you have to be able to say ‘I’m sorry’ to yourself).
But I’m also going to add robots and dinosaurs because if I’m going to write a time travel book, you better believe I am going to have my cake and devour it too.