Jason Heller is a Denver-based writer who contributes regularly to The A.V. Club and Alternative Press. His debut novel, Taft 2012, and his Pirates of the Caribbean tie-in, The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook, were published by Quirk Books. Heller is also the nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld Magazine.
In my alt-history novel Taft 2012, a fictional scholar named Susan Weschler—America’s foremost expert on William Howard Taft—is given her dream job: being an advisor to Taft after he wakes from a magical, hundred-year slumber and runs for president in 2012.
I wish I could say there was something of myself in Susan. But there isn’t. Before writing Taft 2012, I didn’t know a damn thing about Taft.
I did research, of course. As it turns out, Taft is one of our least chronicled presidents. That was part of the reason I was drawn to him as a subject. Unlike so many of his fellow presidents—including his immediate predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and his immediate successor, Woodrow Wilson—Taft is not considered important. That’s speaking relative, of course. He was still a president. But the fact that most people had only the haziest image of Taft—you know, the boob who got stuck in the White House bathtub—made it that much easier for a layman like me to write about.
That said: At no point in Taft 2012 am I writing about the real Taft. It’s alt-history. Fantasy. A folktale. In my version of events, Taft disappears in 1913, on the day of Wilson’s inauguration. In most alt-histories, such a huge event—the disappearance of a president!—would change the course of history. Not so with Taft. Barely anyone notices. In real life, Taft had an impressive post-White House career, including becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (Did you not know this? Don’t feel bad. Neither did I.) To underscore, or perhaps caricature, Taft’s unimportance in the grand scheme of our collective consciousness, I chose to make him a forgotten figure. Most of his history, as we know it, never happened.
Which made it pretty convenient for me to muck up that history.
What did I get wrong? What elements of my character, William Howard Taft, contradict the actual, flesh-and-blood president, William Howard Taft? Good question. I wouldn’t know, right? Okay, I’m trying to be cute. I learned quite a lot about Taft as I did research in preparation for Taft 2012. I learned he was a Yalie, a Unitarian, a Progressive Republican (back when before the species became extinct), and a man deeply influenced throughout his life by two women: his beloved mother and his devoted wife. I tried to get to the heart of the man, the root of the guy. What was his motive? His lack of motive? His hopes? His fears? His faiths? His appetites?
Okay, so his appetites weren’t that hard.
My point, though, is this: My Taft wasn’t going to be our Taft. Awakened in 2012, armed with today’s knowledge about dietary needs, the food industry, and the psychology of self-image, he was going to struggle with his weight in a way that was—hopefully—far more profound than how he struggled back in his day. And struggle he did; a stress-eater, in today’s parlance, he gained a large amount of weight after entering the White House in 1909, and he lost much of it after he left. He was an unhappy, reluctant president pushed into the office by his wife, who had always dreamed of being First Lady, and his mentor, Teddy Roosevelt, who had pledged not to run for a third term, and hoped to install Taft as his surrogate.
The more I learned about Taft, the more complex of a man he seemed. Complex and sympathetic. I wanted the reader to latch onto that feeling. How would a man who seemed to be always out-of-place—in his own skin and station—react to the 21st century? I asked myself that question every day as I sat down and wrote Taft 2012.
In doing so, I’m sure I fucked up.
Did I exaggerate Taft’s progressive tendencies? Perhaps. Then again, wouldn’t any good politician—and Taft, in his own idiosyncratic way, was an excellent politician, and don’t let history tell you otherwise—adapt and keep up with the times? Even if those times were a hundred years in the future? The bottom line is, I didn’t feel to guilty about exercising artistic license in my reimagining of Taft. Plucked from our native habitat—our native century—and left with almost no living links to our past, would we necessarily act the exact same way we do now?
Taft doesn’t. Taft wouldn’t. After all, Taft 2012 isn’t about his past. It’s about his future. A future he would never, could never know. In other words: At its best, my book is a decently informed piece of bullshit. I say that proudly. Even though I know for a stone-cold fact that Susan Weschler would vehemently disagree.