In my first time travel author interview, we meet the man behind the powerful novel “One Red Thread” – Ernie Wood.
Published in November 2014, One Red Thread is an incredible novel with time travel and it’s written absolutely beautifully! Whilst it doesn’t set out to be a scifi novel, Ernie addresses many issues relating to time travel with a completely new angle in the time travel genre – what effect does knowledge of the past have on our present?
Ernie was awarded the “Temporal Jester Award for 2014” by the moderator of the Goodreads time travel group, and in January 2015 Ernie engaged with members of the group in a lively discussion over many aspects of his novel.
Ernie, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule!
Your bio shows that you have a rich and varied experience – what was it that motivated you to write this novel?
Ernie: I’d written journalism, non-fiction books and advertising. I’d had documentary films produced (and a feature film not produced). I wrote my senior thesis in college on poetry (William Wordsworth). So aside from publishing poetry or having a play produced on the stage, I’d written about everything but a novel, so I thought I’d give it a try. As my protagonist Eddy says in One Red Thread, “You can’t ever tell the muse to sing, but when you’re ready to listen she’ll be there. The trick is in knowing when you’re ready.” I guess I was simply ready. I’d accumulated enough life experiences and enough writing expertise that the timing was finally right.
You’ve written documentary film scripts – was there ever any temptation to write a film script for One Red Thread instead of writing it as a novel (or might this be an option for the future?)
Ernie: One thing I discovered doing documentaries is the huge number of people and huge amounts of money involved in making a film, but I just didn’t have that network or those resources. So I never thought of a screenplay first. I went straight to the book. On the other hand, some readers have suggested that One Red Thread would make a good film. Some of that may come from the Southern tradition of “sense of place,” which is strong in the story. Even though a lot of the book is about what’s happening inside Eddy’s head, he’s always out and about, moving to and fro from his house to his office to the greenhouse to the cemetery. And that’s just in the present. The past is an entirely different landscape. So, yes, I agree the visual aspects would make it a good movie, but there haven’t been any overtures on that front yet.
You mention in one of your blog posts that finding the time to write was challenging and that you needed to grab any time that you could. But each time that you did find a moment to write, was it difficult to pick up from where you last left off, and how did you deal with this?
Ernie: I always begin a day’s writing by reading over the last two or three pages I wrote the day before. Sometimes that’s a problem. I can become bogged down in editing the old writing, in trying to make it perfect, rather than moving ahead with the new writing. But it does help me keep the necessary continuity and flow of the story.
Your website shows that you’re very active with book readings, signings and radio interviews. What do you find most enjoyable about these kinds of marketing activities?
Ernie: Store readings are good and can be great fun, but the events I enjoy most are book clubs. Instead of the 10 minutes of reading and 15 minutes of questions I get in a store, with a book club, I read and then we talk for an hour. Most important, the book club people have read the book, so we can talk about anything—including the ending. At a store, where few if any people have read the book yet, I have to be very conscious of spoilers, I have to be very careful about becoming bogged down in backstory, and I have to pick a scene that’s relatively action-packed to hold their interest. All that is fine, but it doesn’t give me the freedom to look closely at my characters and their thoughts and their motivations the way a book club does.
How do you prepare for meeting your readers?
Ernie: I’ve settled into two passages that I read – one from near the beginning for store readings (which you can watch on video, with Q&A as well, on my website here), and one from near the end of the story for book clubs. Each is 9-10 minutes long, which I find to be the optimum length. I’ve heard authors go on and on with long readings and the audience can get very fidgety. By now, I’m very familiar with my passages, so I don’t need much preparation – I just read them out loud to myself earlier in the day once or twice to refresh my memory. Then I wing it with the questions. If the audience is shy, I have a few prepared statements to help get the question going. Occasionally, my wife will sit in the back and if talk is slow, she’ll raise her hand with a prepared question to further encourage discussion.
When interacting with readers at book signings, do you ever hear ideas or feedback that you wish you had used in One Red Thread, or do you come across ideas that you have used or plan to use in future writing?
Ernie: No, no one has ever suggested an alternative story line, and I’ve had only one person ask what I’d do differently if I were starting over. My answer in that case was that I wouldn’t change any of the big things, but I’d probably change a few little things for clarity. (For example, rather than describing an event as taking place in a certain decade, I might put it in an exact year.) My advance readers suggested changes early in the writing process; my editor did the same toward the end. And all along, I put a lot of effort into making sure the world I was creating made sense (which is extremely important in time travel). So I was pretty confident about what I had when publication time came. But watching for errors in continuity and details is a never-ending process.
How do you deal with criticism or negative reviews?
Ernie: Sometimes people offer vague criticisms like “I just couldn’t get into it.” I can’t worry about those, as what they’re saying is not about the book, it’s about themselves. Sometimes people say they didn’t like a character, but that’s OK, too. Almost all the people in One Red Thread (well, maybe not Sheila) are intentionally flawed. In those cases, I actually take the comments as compliments, as they mean the characters were “round” and multi-dimensional, not flat, cardboard cutouts. It means my characters came to life on the page and people engaged with them. But who knows why people don’t like books – sometimes it’s just the mood they’re in that day or it’s their expectations. If you come into One Red Thread expecting a trip into the past to see dinosaurs, you’ll be disappointed. I try not to worry about that.
When your characters go back in time, they don’t always do so chronologically; sometimes, for example, we return to the same moment in history a second time but through the eyes of someone who makes the trip later. Did you write the book from start to finish, or did you also jump back and forth in your writing?
Ernie: In the first draft of One Red Thread, time travel occurred in a random sequence. I was interested in memory and that’s how we remember events—randomly, not sequentially. But that turned out to be confusing. Then in discussing the problem with one of my early readers, I hit on the idea of telling the story backwards – Eddy goes to the 1950s, then to the late 1940s, early 1940s, 1920s and on down the line. I didn’t want him to go back in time indefinitely, however, and when he reached 1906, he was at the “headwaters” of the string of events that came down to the present. But the story wasn’t complete. So I started revisiting places he’d already been to fill gaps, layering in some complexity, telling other people’s points of view, and ultimately presenting a story that was more complete and richer than it would have been if it were strictly linear – even backwards linear.
Did writing a plot that jumped from time period to time period in non-chronological order present any challenges? Did it ever cause you to change the direction of the plot or inform the way you wrote the characters?
Ernie: One Red Thread is the story of a guy in the present remembering something that happened in the early 1990s – and what happened in the 1990s was that he traveled back to still earlier decades and learned things about this family history. So I sometimes joke that the hardest part was keeping the tenses of the verbs straight! Moving from time to time didn’t change the plot, however, as this movement was always my intention. I wanted a time travel story that took place as much in the present as in the past, because I wanted to explore the effect of gaining family knowledge or exposing family secrets on the present – especially on the relationships of people in the present. But you’re correct in suggesting that my writing journey changed characters. As those characters developed, they did and said and thought things that I never would have anticipated when I began.
You use time travel as a tool to take Eddy into the past to learn about his family history, then to bring him back to the present where we see the effects of his knowledge. Why did you choose to use time travel in this way, rather than writing a more ‘conventional’ novel told in chronological order?
Ernie: I could have written a story that begins in 1906 and continues down to the present, but I’ve never been a fan of long family sagas. Of course, those sagas do involve chains of events and we do see those events revealed over time, but I was more interested in Eddy’s discovering past events he never knew had happened or discovering the cause of events he’d often heard about. I sometimes chafe at the saying that “everything happens for a reason” because that suggests predestination. (Eddy also gets furious at this idea at one point in the book.) I prefer instead to think that “everything happens because of a reason,” which is a backward-looking statement. It’s about Karma, the chain of cause and effect that’s not only in our lives but extends back generations – in Eddy’s case to 1906 and beyond.
The time travel method in One Red Thread is unique in that it’s dynamic – the methodology changes within the book and also the intensity of the trip to the past. How did you come to think of such a novel approach?
Ernie: The simplest way to understand the forces that Eddy taps into to make time travel possible is to remember that dogs can hear sounds we can’t. So that raises the question: What else is out there that the human central nervous system cannot sense? I’d been reading a little quantum physics around the time I started writing; that revealed another world of forces and natural laws that humans don’t see. I’d also been reading a lot of Eastern mysticism, which does the same. The Yoga Sutras, for example, talk about going into state where it’s possible to be in two places at one time. So it all clicked: A person who can sense these forces can experience something different. As Eddy says at one point, “Let’s see what happens if we totally open up to all the sounds and smells and moving air that are out there.” But where did those forces some from? If they’re remnants of events in the past—just as light coming from a star shows us the past, an image of the star thousands or millions of years ago when the light left there, not the way the star is today—suddenly there’s a basis for time travel.
The methodology of time travel in One Red Thread is not technological, but more natural or sensual. Do you think time travel into the past is possible, or might be possible in the future? How likely is it that the methodology might be something similar to that in One Red Thread?
Ernie: A woman at one of my book readings asked if I’ve ever time traveled. I said I’d reached a state in meditation where I was very aware that there is a lot more around us than we normally sense. But she said she’d done it. She was a yoga teacher who said she’d also meditated and tapped into these same forces, some of which came from the past. I’m not saying it’s real. But I’m certainly not saying it’s not real. Why not?
I listened to your radio interview with WCHL-FM where you said that you made an effort to read many time travel novels in order to find an angle on time travel which was missing and that you could incorporate into One Red Thread. Out of those books which you read, do you have a favourite?
Ernie: To me, “Time and Again” by Jack Finney is the gold standard of time travel. For crazy goofy fun, try “Borgel” by Daniel Pinkwater, especially the hilarious part where he explains how time travel works by comparing it to a map of New Jersey.
When reading all of the other time travel books, were there elements of those plots that you determined that you specifically wanted to avoid because you saw them as problematic?
Ernie: I wanted a method of time travel that might be real. If I were writing science fiction (which I’m not sure this is), I wanted something akin to science. If I were writing magical realism (which this probably is), I wanted something more or less real. I don’t much care for books that take the easy way out. Wormholes and tears in space and time might be real, so I’m OK with them, but I’m not so interested in time machines, genetic abnormalities or other mechanisms by which POOF! you’re in another time. In One Red Thread, Eddy is an obsessive observer, and I wanted the workings of time travel (which are triggered by his observations) to be an integral part of his personality, his daily activities and the world he lives in.
One Red Thread is your début novel. Many new authors go down the serialisation route and bang out a series, whereas you’ve crafted a complete stand-alone novel. Personally I’d love to read a sequel (or prequel) to One Red Thread. Any such plans? (Please!)
Ernie: There are a few opportunities for a follow-on book. The Epilogue certainly sets the stage for that. And a family history can extend in many directions. Is there a story in Eddy’s parents or Libby’s parents or all of them together? Perhaps. Like you, a few individual readers have suggested a sequel, but unless there’s a real clamor, I’ll probably be exploring other – but related – topics.
How do you spend your free time (if any!)
Ernie: I was a competitive swimmer in my youth and I still swim with a Masters team. In fact, the scene in which Eddy jumps into the river during a thunderstorm, and the sound of raindrops when he is submerged, come directly from my experience one day during the writing when I was swimming in the rain in an outdoor pool. (Says Eddy: “Underwater, I heard each raindrop plonk on the surface. The sound was like crinkling cellophane. On the surface, raindrops stung, as if they were ice pellets.”) I also have a longstanding interest in art, and I’m about to begin a series of a half dozen or so woodblock prints that illustrate scenes or places in One Red Thread.
If you had the opportunity to travel in time, would you? And if so, where and when would you go, and how would you expect that your new knowledge of that time would affect your present when you return?
Ernie: I’ve been afraid someone would ask that. It would be great fun to be young again—for a short time—perhaps to attend some parties and concerts I attended in my youth. But being young again isn’t the same as time travel. I wouldn’t want to go back too far. I’m not interested in observing the Battle of Hastings, for example. And I definitely wouldn’t try to change things. I do think it would be interesting to be a “fly on the wall” for some of my family history, probably during the same period Eddy experiences, say the first half of the 20th century when family memgbers I remember as old were young. There was, in fact, a hanging that one of my great uncles saw as a boy, but I certainly wouldn’t want to see that. I think I’d just like to see everyday life, and return with a feeling of continuity – the red thread – rather than knowledge of any major events.
As I mentioned in my (5*) review of One Red Thread, I was very pleased to receive a hardback copy (and I should thank you again for sending this to me in Holland from the US!). What are your views on ebooks versus real paper?
Ernie: I probably read about 60% e-books and 40% print. E-books have an advantage in pricing and convenience, especially for travel. I have about 35 “samples” downloaded now and when I finish a book, I just go to the list and pick the one I’m most in the mood to read. It’s instant gratification. But especially for long books, I do get lost in e-books – despite the percentage calculator down in the corner, I don’t always feel like I’m making much progress. Right now I’m reading a paper version of Crime and Punishment. It’s wonderful (it’s my first time through since I read it in college) but I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much as an e-book.
International delivery of a paper book. But how do you eat corn on the cob – “around the world” (around the circumference) or “typewriter” (horizontally)?
Ernie: I chew an inch or so on each end “around the world” to give myself a bit of the cob to hold onto, then I eat the rest typewriter style.
If you were a superhero, what would be your special power?
Ernie: Invisibility might come in handy, especially for observing other people’s behavior and researching potential characters for a book.
One Red Thread is attracting many positive reviews (e.g. see Ernie’s website), including my own (5*) review over at time2timetravel where I discuss some of the time travel issues which Ernie has mastered.
As I mentioned in my review, One Red Thread is powerful time travel literature! It’s stylishly written, provocative, and gives the reader a unique view on time travel.
But why take my word for it? Read a copy for yourself! I’d be very interested to know what you think of it – and I’m sure Ernie would too!