“The Cross-Time Accountants Fail to Kill Hitler Because Chuck Berry Does the Twist” has it all: action, time travel, love, and rock ‘n roll. How did it come together for you? Also, your title is both a hook and quite specific—where did that come from?
I can’t always remember the exact genesis of a story, but this one is easier than most. A couple years ago when I was actively blogging, some editorial minion had complained about their slushpile being full of stories with titles that spoiled the ending mixed with time-travel stories about people trying to kill Hitler. I commented that maybe it wasn’t a good time to submit my story titled “The Cross-Time Accountants Fail to Kill Hitler Because Chuck Berry Does the Twist.” I meant it as a joke, but it was a joke wrapped around a good idea. I was in the middle of writing a novel on deadline so I dashed out a short sketch of the story, just a few hundred words. Mabel was there, and Chuck Berry, and Memphis. Anyway the idea nagged at me for years until I finally fleshed it out. That happens with a lot of stories. New story ideas come to me all the time, far more than I can write. The ones that keep rising in my thoughts again and again over the years are the ones that get written.
What made you come up with the terms “accountant” and “auditor” for the time travellers?
It’s part of the backstory. I’d been thinking for a long time about a resource-depleted future where time travelers stole things from the past. Like if monks in the dark ages could have gone back to take technology and knowledge directly from Rome. It’s a variation on the idea in John Varley’s Millenium, if you know that novel.
Originally they were obsessed, like eco-tourists, leaving no sign of their visit: These were the “accountants,” making sure the spreadsheets balanced, nothing from the future left in the past, nothing from the past (besides information) brought to the future. But as their own present grew shittier and more desperate, they started to send out time auditors—experts in search of errors they could “correct.”
There’s a wonderful treatment of fandom in this story; Mabel’s initial meeting with Chuck Berry is truly moving. Where does this come from in terms of your own life?
I can think of so many examples. I’m a fan of Howard Waldrop’s short stories, and at one of the first Worldcons I attended, when I had only published one or two things myself, I ended up in an elevator with Howard and, I think, Eileen Gunn, who were deep in conversation about something. I don’t remember what. I just stood in the corner, thinking “OMG, OMG, that’s HOWARD WALDROP.” And then there was the time in college when I had just discovered dance. I went to see the ballet and loved one of the dancer’s performances, so I sent her some flowers along with my compliments and phone number. I don’t know why I was surprised when she called me, but she did and I was. I ended up so tongue-tied I’m sure I sounded like a dork or a creep. Most awkward phone call ever. So I drew on all those things.
Why did you choose Elvis as the murderer of Chuck Berry?
Elvis is iconic, and he and Chuck Berry make for such a rich compare-and-contrast discussion. Elvis was accused of stealing black music, and was often described by whites in racist terms, and Chuck Berry was accused of stealing white music, and often described as “that black hillbilly.” Together they show the power of the cross-cultural influences and their music was a harbinger of the integration that was coming in the ’50s and ’60s. I’m also fascinated by the psychological studies of Elvis, including the effect of his twin brother’s death and Elvis’s life as a “walking zombie” who could only feel alive through music. So when I imagined a world where their kind of mutual musical appropriation wasn’t possible, it seemed like we would end up with a very different Elvis, one whose unconscious obsession with death would manifest in a different way. There would also be very different options for Chuck Berry.
Instead of Elvis and Chuck Berry thriving musically, both creative paths would end up annihilated. And once I had decided to write a time-travel alternate world story that touched on race in America, I knew that I had to make a nod toward the influence that Jack Womack’s chilling Dryco novels had on me, particularly Elvissey. Womack is the master.
What’s next for you in terms of writing?
I’ve got half a dozen new stories drafted and two new novels well underway. What’s next is finishing some of them to send out into the world in search of readers.
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