Interview with Bill Zarchy, author of Finding George Washington

Welcome to the book tour for Finding George Washington: A Time Travel Tale by Bill Zarchy! Today you’re going to get to know him and his book a bit better via an interview and excerpt. Be sure to ask more questions in the comments section and then follow the tour for even more. Best of luck entering the giveaway!

On a freezing night in 1778, General George Washington vanishes. Walking away from the Valley Forge encampment, he takes a fall and is knocked unconscious, only to reappear at a dog park on San Francisco Bay—in the summer of 2014.

Washington befriends two Berkeley twenty-somethings who help him cope with the astonishing—and often comical—surprises of the twenty-first century.

Washington’s absence from Valley Forge, however, is not without serious consequences. As the world rapidly devolves around them—and their beloved Giants fight to salvage a disappointing season—George, Tim, and Matt are catapulted on a race across America to find a way to get George back to 1778.

Equal parts time travel tale, thriller, and baseball saga, Finding George Washington is a gripping, humorous, and entertaining look at what happens when past and present collide in the 9th inning, with the bases loaded and no one warming up in the bullpen.

Read an excerpt:

A small farmhouse made of tan and brown fieldstone sat in flat bottomland near the creek. The back door opened and a splash of warm light lit the new snow. From inside came the sounds of a party—a fiddle, laughter, and high-energy conversation. A tall man in a heavy cloak and three-cornered hat stepped off the small porch at the rear of the house and into the cold. A sentry snapped to attention. 

“Just getting some air, lad, stand easy,” the Gdeneral said. “No need to follow.” He trudged off north, away from the house, enjoying the brisk chill.

Ah, he thought, it’s fine to have my dear wife here with me these past couple of weeks! She and the other wives provide such a boost to the morale and hopefulness of the men. It’s worth a wee party to celebrate the difference they make … and my birthday. 

The dreadful winter weather and the spread of disease had cost him one-fourth of his army in the early going, but at last there were signs of hope. Foraging for food was still a daily struggle, but now the men were finally housed in hundreds of hastily constructed wooden huts. 

The eager effervescence of the Marquis de Lafayette for the past half year; the appearance of the Polish nobleman Pulaski a few months before; the continued loyalty of so many of the troops; the imminent arrival any day now of the Prussian Baron von Steuben; and the General’s wife coming to stay with him during the winter encampment—all these events gave him hope.

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Describe your book in one sentence or fewer than 25 words.

In 1778, George Washington vanishes from the winter encampment at Valley Forge, oniy to turn up at a dog park near San Francisco in the summer of 2014; now what?

What was the inspiration behind this book?

When I was a kid, I often wondered how I would explain the technology of the mid-20th-Century to George Washington, if he suddenly came back to life. What would he think of planes, rockets, cameras, TV, cars, or trains? Many years later, I decided to find out, and I brought him back to life myself. This book, Finding George Washington: A Time Travel Tale, is the result. Part of the fun of the book is his reaction to our modern world, like a fish out of water.

But it’s not all fun and games. As Washington stays longer and longer in 2014, he and his local friends notice that the world is changing around them, devolving into a poorer, downtrodden, colonialized version of itself. And they begin to wonder what will happen to the American Revolution — and the French Revolution and all the other wars of liberation which took their inspiration from it — if Washington doesn’t return to Valley Forge.

What kind of research did you have to do for it?

I realized very quickly that I didn’t know very much about Washington. Sure, he was the commander during the Revolutionary War and our first president. His picture is on the one-dollar bill. That was all true. But other things I’d heard were not. He did not chop down a cherry tree and admit this transgression to his father. He never threw a dollar across the Potomac, which is about a mile wide where it passes Mount Vernon. And he didn’t have wooden teeth. 

So I embarked on a research program, consulting many books on Washington, the colonial era, the War of Independence, time travel, art, and period clothing. I decided I needed to go to all the places my characters did, so I traveled to Berkeley, Mendocino, New York, Chicago, Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Independence Hall, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Washington Monument, Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, and AT&T Park in San Francisco. I also wanted my characters to take a long train ride, to a destination I won’t spoil here. But I’d never been on an overnight train. When I proposed taking a one-night sleeper train to Oregon from our home near San Francisco, just to get a taste of it, my dear wife suggested instead that I take the same long train trip in the story. So I did, spending three-and-a-half days crossing the country on Amtrak. Because I had a sleeper, I got all my meals in the dining car, and there I got to meet other travelers. Some of them turned out to be characters in my story, though the names were changed to protect the innocent. Some even turned out to be villains!

Which character was your favorite to write?

Without a doubt, George Washington was my favorite character to write. He was a fascinating man, a mass of contradictions: passionate about his nation and his family, but tightly controlled; a charismatic military hero, but soft-spoken; a brave and rugged explorer and soldier, but a warm and loving husband and stepfather; the Father of our Country, but without direct descendants. And, last but not least, a slave owner with at least a dawning awareness of the immorality of that evil practice.

One of my more challenging tasks was writing his dialogue, trying to imagine how Washington would speak when in conversation with modern Americans. I read many of his writings, including his letters and speeches, and decided the flowery prose therein was too convoluted too and literary to emulate for Washington’s everyday speech patterns. So I imagined that his speech sounded more formal than his young Berkeley friends were used to, but less stiff than his writings. Into that mix, I added his confusion with modern colloquialisms and his occasional mispronunciations or misunderstandings of present-day culture.

What was one of your favorite scenes?

One of my favorite scenes takes place at the San Francisco Giants ballpark. George has made friends in Berkeley with Tim and Matt, two twenty-something guys, who convey to him their love of baseball and the Giants. They watch a number of games together at Tim’s house, but eventually George convinces them to take him to a game. The guys are beginning to believe that George really is who he says he is, but they are not sure what to do with him, so they persuade him to cover his head, to avoid being identified. Tim lends George a Giants panda hat, which many fans wear to honor one of their players, who is known as the Panda. Partway through the game, the giant scoreboard plays “Strangers in the Night” and the words “Kiss Cam,” then it focuses on fans in the stands, trying to embarrass them into kissing each other on the giant screen. 

Hilarity ensues. George is sitting with Tim’s Aunt Rachel, who gives him a slightly-longer-than-necessary peck on the check, as the crowd roars. Because it’s a warm night, George has removed the panda hat. On the big screen, in a huge close-up, he looks just like the guy on the quarter dollar.

Will we see these characters again?

I’m planning a sequel, with some of the same characters (but not George). It’s tentatively titled Saving Franklin Roosevelt, and, like Finding George Washington, it’s a time travel tale, an alternate history, speculative fiction. 

It’s a what-if premise. True story: in February 1933, after he was elected president for the first time but before his inauguration, FDR was appearing at a rally in Miami, when a crazed gunman got much too close and sprayed his car and the stage with bullets. Several people were injured, and the visiting mayor of Chicago and a bystander were both killed, but FDR was unharmed. 

In Saving Franklin, we speculate about what would happen if the gunman had managed to murder Roosevelt and FDR never took office. What would have happened to the New Deal and his other plans to combat the Great Depression? And how would America have responded to the Second World War without Roosevelt’s leadership?

Why should we read your book?

Finding George Washington has got a little something for everyone, really. It’s broadly categorized as science fiction, because people travel through time, but it takes place primarily in our familiar modern world. No spaceships, no aliens, no dilithium crystals. It’s an action thriller, with an exciting chase, the characters catapulted into a race against time to save the world. It’s funny, it’s poignant, and it examines weighty subjects like slavery and racism. It’s a historical novel of sorts, with accurately drawn portraits of important people who lived long ago. It draws on baseball for metaphor and emotion, specifically the pennant race in 2014. And it’s got trains! Long train trips where anything can happen. Plus a little romance and a heroic dog. What more could you want?

Tell us about your other published works.

My first book, Showdown at Shinagawa: Tales of Filming from Bombay to Brazil, is a memoir of my decades of work and travels as a cinematographer. I filmed projects on six continents, more than 30 different countries, and usually found that the experience of being abroad and working in foreign cultures with local crews was rarely reflected in the footage or projects we were filming. At one point, I started writing out letters to my wife and kids about what I was doing and faxing them home from various countries. That seems like the horse-and-buggy days now, looking back at it. Once we got email and we all started carrying laptops on the road, I emailed my family daily about shooting patients getting treated with amazing cardiology therapies, or fun stuff that happened at lunch in Shanghai, or the difficulties in shooting in manufacturing clean rooms, or problems loading tons of our gear up to the 33rd floor of a Tokyo office building. Then I started copying my parents on those emails, then my sister and bro-in-law as well. Pretty soon I had a mailing list. Eventually I began to collect a lot of these tales into individual stories, all true, into the book that became Showdown at Shinagawa.

What is the best writing advice you ever received?

Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, explains that he never outlines his plots, often doesn’t know before he starts where a story is going to end up. Instead, he says that he usually starts with characters and a situation, then starts writing and lets the story take him where it will. That was comforting advice for me when I started writing Finding George Washington. I had never written fiction before, and I’d read and heard too many people tell me I needed to outline the whole story before I started writing. I had no idea what I was doing, really, but I enjoyed the freedom to be able to make stuff up! I knew I wanted to have George come to the present, knew he would need to meet and hook up with a younger, local guy, who would tell the story in the first person. Pretty soon, I knew the local guy needed a sidekick, a foil, who I could use in dialogue to discuss and explain what was going on. But I didn’t know for a long time where the story was going to go. And even when I figured out the end point, I still had to figure out how to get there. I just kept writing chapters to keep the flow of the story going, revising them sometimes when the story made an odd turn, and eventually, after much editing, it all came together.

What is your favorite part about writing?

After writing nonfiction for most of my life, one of my favorite parts of writing fiction is that I can just make stuff up. After I had come up with the idea of George Washington disappearing from Valley Forge and traveling through time, I needed to figure out how I would explain what had happened. A young man I discussed this with suggested there could have been a “magnetic confluence” at Valley Forge that day. I asked if “magnetic confluence” was a thing he had heard of, and he replied, “Not yet.” 

That was very liberating for me. And I began to notice that many books and movies, especially thrillers, relied on plot points or technologies that, on the surface, seemed a bit unlikely, but which, in context, advanced the story in a satisfying way and didn’t strain plausibility too badly. I did receive one bit of caution from another writer, who advised me not to try to explain how the time travel worked. “People will pick apart your science,” he said. “Instead, focus on how it’s used and the inevitable consequences.” Good advice. Apparently there are limits to making stuff up.

What are you currently reading? Up next on your TBR?

Right now, I’m reading Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure, by Bonnie MacBird, a former student of mine from many years ago. Before that, I read The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, number 14 in the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. Coming up next on my list is The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon, by Mary V. Thompson, the Research Historian at Mount Vernon. I mostly read fiction, a lot of mysteries and thrillers, but I also love some histories as well.

Bill Zarchy filmed projects on six continents during his 40 years as a cinematographer, captured in his first book, Showdown at Shinagawa: Tales of Filming from Bombay to Brazil. Now he writes novels, takes photos, and talks of many things.

Bill’s career includes filming three former presidents for the Emmy-winning West Wing Documentary Special, the Grammy-winning Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, feature films Conceiving Ada and Read You Like A Book, PBS science series Closer to Truth, musical performances as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Weird Al Yankovic, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and countless high-end projects for technology and medical companies.

His tales from the road, personal essays, and technical articles have appeared in Travelers’ Tales and Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers, and American Cinematographer, Emmy, and other trade magazines.

Bill has a BA in Government from Dartmouth and an MA in Film from Stanford. He taught Advanced Cinematography at San Francisco State for twelve years. He is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and a graduate of the EPIC Storytelling Program at Stagebridge in Oakland. This is his first novel.

findinggeorgewashington.com

findinggeorgewashington.com/blog 

billzarchy.com 

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Bill Zarchy will be awarding a $50 Amazon/BN GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.

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12 thoughts on “Interview with Bill Zarchy, author of Finding George Washington”

  1. Thanks so much for hosting me today. I should point out, though, that you’ve got my first name wrong in the main title at the beginning of this post. It’s Bill, not Bob! Thanks again.

    1. I’m so sorry! Fixing it immediately. One of these days I will remember to not do posts when I have a headache.

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