Monday, March 8, 2010
A Book of Historical 'What Ifs'
East Atlantic Beach author writes time-travel novel
By Joseph Kellard
What if the Hindenburg had never exploded over Lakehurst, N.J.? If President Lincoln had been unable to deliver the Gettysburg Address, would the Confederacy have won the Civil War? How might history be different if Amelia Earhart had completed her ill-fated Pacific flight?
These are just some of the 10 scenarios Robert McAuley, an East Atlantic Beach resident, plucks from history and develops in his first book, “The 1800 Club,” published by Publish American last month.
If the Wright Brothers hadn’t invented a man-powered and controllable flight system that is heavier than air, McAuley posits that the Germans could have, particularly for military purposes. “That would mean Germany wins World War I through their innovative use of air power,” McAuley said.
As the recently retired art director of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine at McGraw-Hill, McAuley understandably has a particular interest in writing about aeronautic figures in his 500-pages-plus time-travel book, but he knew enough not to pack them all into his first book of a planned trilogy.
“In each scenario I ask, What if this or that didn’t happen?” McAuley explained. “In so many cases, it changes the power structure of the world.”
To thicken his plots, McAuley conjures up an 1800 Club that is set in the present and whose members go back in a time portal to fix history so that it turns out as it did, to keep his tales historically accurate.
Members are unaware that the club was started by people from the future. These guardians of history discover that famous figures from the past strayed from their well-known decisions and actions, which makes it necessary for the members to guide them back, unbeknown to the subjects.
“What I’m doing throughout is looking at and teaching history in a different manner,” said McAuley, who is quick to point out that seeded throughout his book are little-known facts about each subject.
In “The 1800 Club,” McAuley postulates that if Ronald Reagan had never been born — if his great-great-grandfather had been pressed into the British Royal Navy and died before fathering his children — the Soviet Union might not have fallen when it did.
“Many believe that Reagan was the president who shut down Russia,” McAuley said. “In my scenario, if another president took his place, maybe he would have been too soft and the Soviets would have been here occupying the U.S.”
Throughout his book, McAuley fictionalizes people he knows, from former coworkers to childhood friends, into club members who go back in time. Rocko Terna, a friend of McAuley’s from his native Park Slope neighborhood, goes back to fight the Royal Navy, then the world’s most powerful fleet. “How he does it by stealth and subterfuge I think is amazing,” he said.
The figure he most enjoyed writing about was Mark Twain, who dies in a steamboat explosion that destroys a levee and causes Katrina-scale flooding in New Orleans, leaving unwritten such classic American novels as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”
“If he passed away before he wrote most of his stories, imagine what would have happened,” McAuley said. “He wouldn’t have inspired so many great writers in the literary field, and he was also such a fair person and gave the black man a chance.”
McAuley found inspiration for his trilogy in Jack Finney’s “Time and Again,” a 1970 novel whose modern characters travel back to the 1880s, which he calls one of the best books he ever read. After he retired from McGraw-Hill, McAuley discovered that he wanted to try his hand at writing. He started working on “The 1800 Club” about two years ago, for Publish America, a company that publishes first-time authors.
He is also a landscape and portrait painter whose work adorns the walls at his Clayton Avenue home. He aims to attract readers to his trilogy in the same way he attracted readers of the magazine he worked on for 17 years.
“My job as the artist was to stop readers from going past a particular page and bringing them into that page, and as a writer I found I was doing the same thing, writing intelligently but descriptively,” McAuley said.
He’s hard at work on his second book, averaging about a chapter every two weeks, which will feature scenarios involving the Titanic, the 1849 gold rush and Judge Joseph Force Crater of New York, who disappeared in August 1930. He expects most of his figures will be from the 1800s, a century that he likes to honor.
“That’s the age of the Industrial Revolution, and is what freed up enough creative time for the average person to come home, at least when it was light out, and work on their creations,” McAuley said.
* Photo by Joseph Kellard