Wallace Baine puts his own spin on American history in new short-story collection
If you’re a creative person in this town, there’s a strong chance that you’ve had a conversation with Wallace Baine. For more than 20 years, he’s championed the cultural scene in Santa Cruz as editor, reporter, and columnist for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. What has always drawn me into his writing is his voice. Funny, curious, and discerning, its casual charm belies its depth, which makes it perfectly suited to our laid-back yet passionate approach to the arts in Santa Cruz.
Baine found himself on the other side of the interview recently, when we talked about his surprising new book of short stories, The Last Temptation of Lincoln. In it, he embraces speculative fiction, which is not to say that it’s science fiction exactly, but that it approaches historical fact as a jumping off point to explore other possibilities: Could the noble truths enshrined by the American Revolution have been penned by an orphaned 13-year-old girl living in a brothel? Could a secret moon mission to placate a paranoid president have been sent to retrieve the American flag left behind? Could the ghost of Lincoln’s true love have come back to counsel him?
What can the movers and shakers of history teach us when they walk a slightly different path, or come to represent our ideas about them more than history? Former local Robert Heinlein pondered the hazy line between fiction and aspiration: “Who is more real? Homer or Ulysses? Shakespeare or Hamlet? Burroughs or Tarzan?” Baine shares his curiosity. Here are some highlights of our conversation.
How did this idea of putting your own spin on history get started?
It started when I went back east to see the inauguration of Obama. We arrived extremely early because there were reports that there were going to be 2 million people, so I’m talking 2 a.m. It was incredibly cold, and we didn’t have anything to do but wander around. At one point, I found myself alone with Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, and it hit me: here I was on the day that a black man was being inaugurated as president. The experience stayed with me for a long time. I just started fantasizing about having a personal relationship with Lincoln, and that led to me reading about his interior life, his depression, and his love affair with Ann Rutledge. Other ideas took off from there.
It sounds like a theme developed.
Right, the theme being that there is this collection of historical icons so well known that they’ve come to embody their own mythology. It gives you freedom to play with them as personalities. Lincoln is so familiar that you can play with his image without really doing any damage to his actual history. But not all the stories in the book are historically based. There’s one that takes place in the future about the first man to have successful life-extension therapy. It takes a look at the price we pay for our obsession with immortality.
How has this approach changed your relationship to writing?
It’s opened it up. You write to learn about material, yourself, and to see where your ideas might go. There are some serious ideas in this book. We tend to look at history as disconnected from us, and I just wanted to underscore that these are human stories. They have relevance to how we live today. And besides, they’re fun. I adapted the one about Oscar Wilde into a short play called Oscar’s Wallpaper, which was selected for Eight Tens @ 8. It was a wonderful experience, and an indication that they can have a different life off the page.
What else are you working on?
I’ve been involved with the Gail Rich Awards for 20 years now. They happen annually and highlight creative people in Santa Cruz County. This year we’re going to do a beautiful 20th anniversary coffee-table book that will come out at the end of the year. It will be filled with photos of your friends and neighbors, every facet of the creative community here in Santa Cruz. I’ll be writing captions for about 150 people.
Wallace Baine will read from and talk about his new book at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 9. Free.