When people talk about going back in time, it’s often to correct a mistake they or someone else made. But in Tom Kratman’s new urban fantasy flavored / sci-fi novel Dirty Water (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), the main character is instead a grandfather just taking his kids on a field trip to see the world of his youth. In the following email interview, Kratman discusses what inspired and influenced this novel, as well as his plans for future fictional trips to the past.
To start, what is Dirty Water about, and when and where is it set?
Set in 2023 +/- and in 1965. The short version is that there’s a toy store, in South Boston, Massachusetts, that happens to have a gate to travel time, though the store owner uses it to create toys, and, after his granddaughters discover it’s real, the grandfather takes them and his grandson to show them the very much nicer Boston of his youth.
Where did you get the idea for Dirty Water?
The biggest single factor would be that my grandkids will never have the chance to see an old fashioned, huge department store, or a Christmas in a city that loves Christmas deeply as opposed to just superficially, or to take a train to Chicago in a parlor car or any of a thousand things we’ve lost.
That said, there was a toy store in South Boston — finally closed in 1990 after nearly a century in business — that couldn’t have held all the toys it did, and about which we kids were firmly convinced had some kind of gate to another dimension that allowed it to have all those toys stashed away.
Along with the grandpa and his grandkids, there’s also a calico cat in the mix. Why a calico as opposed to some other kind of cat? Or a dog? Or a parrot?
Because I like calicos? Because the animal has to earn its keep for centuries, and a clever cat can find a (very) long term job in the big city more readily than a dog can? Because cats are more independent than dogs, where independence is needed here?
Dirty Water sounds like a mix of sci-fi and alt history. Is that how do you describe it?
Sci fi with a bit of urban fantasy flavor. I say “flavor” because there’s no magic in it; it just looks like there is, here and there.
Not alt history because, frankly, I reject that whole notion of crush a butterfly and the world changes 100%. Little change with the entirely of the world as it is weighed against it? Nothing changes; the little change is overborne and snuffed out. That said, I think it’s possible to screw up smaller things, like one’s own family, if one is not careful.
It also sounds like Dirty Water might be humorous. Not in a jokey way, but like maybe lighthearted.
It’s a bit lighthearted with some overtones and undertones of terror. A fan and online friend who read a snippet on Facebook had this to say: “You know I never thought I would apply the adjective sweet to your writing, but this really is a very sweet paean to a city or the memory of a city you clearly love.”
Then, too, it is to some extent an old fashioned Christmas story. And those trend lighthearted, no?
So, who would you consider the big influence on the lighthearted tone of Dirty Water?
That I get funnier as I get older? That from every new ache and pain springs a joke? That’s actually kind of true; you have to laugh or you’ll cry.
But, honestly, the real factor is that the damned thing wrote itself to the tune of 95% + and the book insisted that it be somewhat lighthearted.
Dirty Water is far from your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Dirty Water but not on anything else you’ve written?
Well, Whitey Bulger had his part to play, as did our old family friend, career criminal, Pat Nee. (Pat was really more of a friend of my uncle, the cop.) I think there was some influence from L. Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall, but mostly in a negative way, insofar as my main character does not want to change anything.
But you mean a specific written and fictional story or stories? Nothing really comes to mind. My reading has seriously slowed down with age…well, my reading for enjoyment has; I’m still a fanatic for research. At a guess I’d say I’ve probably read on the order of twenty-thousand books in my life. At that density they all become a part of the reader, and it would be the rare reader who could pick out any particular one and say “this book was a huge influence on me for X, Y, and Z.”
And then there’s the confirmation bias issue. Example: one of the dozen best books I’ve ever read was Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. But part of that is that I spent some hours lecturing my fellow law students on Haidt’s thesis, some decades before the book was written. Not from time travel, but from personal observation and reason. Yes, I have witnesses to this. Did Haidt influence me when I already believed, from personal observation, the things he derived from painstaking study? No, not really.
What about non-literary influences; was Dirty Water influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
There, too, nothing really comes to mind.
Now, novels about time travelers are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes they’re the first of many adventures. What is Dirty Water?
I’m thinking first in a series. Why? Because if the technology existed I’d spend what remains of my life exploring and studying the past. So why not spend what remains of my life exploring and studying the past?
So, what can you tell us about this series? For instance, will it be an ongoing thing or a set number of books?
I’ll probably write it at the rate of a book every other year until I or my fans, or both, get tired of it. That, or I die. One reason is that I want to explore the notion of subjective temporal paradox, which is where, yes, indeed, you can fix the past, provided you don’t know you’re fixing it. The other reason is to have fun.
No set number, in any case; as I think of a fun cross time adventure I’ll go for it.
Now, Hollywood likes making time travel movies. Do you think Dirty Water could work as a movie? Or maybe a TV show?
Movie, I think, though I don’t expect it to happen. Most of my books have too many characters to make a movie or TV show out of them; I think only The Amazon Legion, Caliphate, The Romanov Rescue, and this one, have few enough. Though I shudder at the cost of the sets, given how much Boston has changed since 1965.
If someone did decide to adapt Dirty Water into a movie, who would you want them to cast as grandpa, his grandkids, and the other main characters?
This is so far out of my area of expertise that I really can’t answer. I was given the opportunity to have input on the reader for the audio version and had to say, in effect, “You people are the experts here, not me. I’ll trust your judgement.” And I don’t actually care about Hollywood, less still about actors, though the occasional actress I may find interesting for totally non-thespian / aesthetic reasons. And child actors? The stupid look on my face is sincere.
On the plus side, that also means I wouldn’t be second guessing the producers, no?
So, is there anything else people need to know about Dirty Water?
It’s probably the most fun and the least political story I’ve ever written. Even where politics is mentioned, I’ve avoided plugging for one side or the other, though I did have the main character mention to a girl from 1965 that, in her future, the Democratic Party would have abandoned its working class roots.
Finally, if someone enjoys Dirty Water, what time travel novel or novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
L. Sprague DeCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall, if only to compare the attempt at creating change versus avoiding it.