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Jason Heller: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Jason Heller is a regular contributor to The A.V. Club and Alternative Press. His debut novel, Taft 2012, will be released in January by Quirk Books.

So, William Howard Taft's back, and he's running for president. You've covered the campaign: what's he got to offer that our current crop of candidates can't match? And can he win?

Taft comes from a simpler time. His approach to the issues is far more direct and pragmatic. That's not to say he’s naïve or sees things in black and white; he's simply not mired in the ideological myopia that afflicts the rest of today’s candidates. Taft's party, the GOP, was an entirely different entity in 1912—one that openly embraced progressivism. Taft knows better than anyone currently on the ballot just how shifting and arbitrary party platforms can be. That’s why he's running as an independent in 2012: He instinctively knows, as does most of the American public, that something is rotten in the state of politics. That said, he's no outsider. Unlike so many of his grossly underqualified peers, he has the chops and executive heft (so to speak) to back up a substantial candidacy. Also: As the last president to sport facial hair while in office, Taft just plain looks cooler. Herman Cain's puny mustache can't compete. As for Taft's chances of winning: I'll leave that for the book to determine!

How's the candidate dealing with the whole "disappeared for almost a hundred years" thing? Surely he's confused by what we think of as the conveniences of modern life, no?

Certain things definitely do confuse Taft when he awakes in present-day America, a hundred years after his presidency. But he's less disoriented than you might think. Remember, Taft saw many radical innovations in his lifetime—the light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, radio—so it's only natural for him to be open to new technologies. Of course, there are some things he's stunned by, in a positive way; for instance, video games and Google. Overall, though, everyday life isn't that much different from what it was a century ago. We still live in buildings, go to work, eat three meals a day, wear pants and shirts, etc. Taft's clothes just happen to be far more dapper!

The revivified Taft seems to have an almost Michael Pollan-esque obsession with healthy food. Is he trying to suggest there's something wrong with the way Americans are eating today?

He's not suggesting it—he's saying it outright! Food reform, for lack of a better term, is one of his primary platform points. Taft wasn't always as obese as he's remembered; he was a stress-eater, and he gained a large portion of his girth after being somewhat reluctantly elected president in 1908. He's grappled with his weight all his life, and he's therefore very conscious of what he eats. So when he winds up meeting his great-granddaughter, Congresswoman Rachel Taft—a food-industry reformer with a deep interest in "Pollan-esque" concerns such as organics and sustainability—he begins to apply that toward his own habits and health. But he also has a more gut-level reaction (no pun intended!) to today's fast-food-and-agribusiness-based orgy of consumption. After a hundred years of advancement in every other area of life, America is actually eating worse than it did in Taft's time. Today's unhealthy practices and huge portion sizes astound him—and that's really saying something.

How can our readers find out more about the Taft 2012 campaign?

For a man displaced in time, Taft sure is all over the Internet. He blogs weekly on his official campaign website, www.Taft2012.com, and he posts daily on Facebook and Twitter. He also has some campaign spots coming soon to YouTube. For a man pushing 155, Taft is a veritable multimedia maven!

Do you have an all-time favorite political satire?

I've often been asked if I'm related to Joseph Heller. I wish! Especially since his masterpiece, Catch-22, is my favorite satirical novel of all time, political or otherwise. Granted, it doesn't deal directly with things like presidential politics. But it savagely skewers the inherent paradoxes of almost every facet of human endeavor and organization, and it does it with heart, wit, and a sharp literary economy. It's one of those rare satirical novels whose laughs bruise your ribs.

What sorts of books do you like to read? Which have you particularly enjoyed recently?

I love all kinds of books. Mostly, though, I read nonfiction (predominantly historical) and genre fiction (specifically science fiction, fantasy, and horror). In a way, Taft 2012 is an alternate-history book, which is a convergence of these things—and two of the best alt-histories I've read lately are Lev AC Rosen's All Men Of Genius, a steampunk-flavored, 19th-century take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and Jesse Bullington's The Enterprise Of Death, a black-magic-infused tale of 15th-century Europe during the Inquisition. A few other great books I've read lately, in no particular order: Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes, Graham Joyce's The Silent Land, Daniel Polanksy's Low Town, Rob Young's Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, and Blake Butler's Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia>.

Can you give us a sense of your next project?

Not to be coy about it, but my next project is top secret, highly mysterious, and potentially hazardous. And it involves forces on a cosmic scale rather then a merely political one. That’s about all I can safely divulge at the moment… [Cue "Twilight Zone" theme!]

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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