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Author Talk: July 6, 2023

Inspired by the largest kidnapping-for-ransom scheme in American history, TIME WILL BREAK THE WORLD weaves a rich backdrop of place and circumstance --- long-term trauma, dysfunctional family legacies, sibling rivalry, a granite quarry, and the Summer Olympics. In this interview, Aaron Jacobs talks about his decision to write a fictionalized account of the Chowchilla, California school bus kidnapping of 1976 and set the novel on the East Coast in the 1980s. He also explains the book’s title, the significance of revisiting these characters 30 years after their ordeal, and his emotional experiences as he was putting together this fascinating, multi-layered story.

Question: What compelled you to write a book, a novel, about the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping of 1976?

Aaron Jacobs: In maybe 2015 or so, I read an article about a man who was denied parole for planning the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping. His name was Frederick Woods. I’d never heard of him or the crime. It seemed I wasn’t alone. I used to ask people if they knew anything about Chowchilla, and no one I knew what I was talking about. But I was curious and wanted to find out more. So I turned to Wikipedia. What I learned was fascinating. I couldn’t believe such a shocking incident had been forgotten. I didn’t think I would ever write about it because it isn’t the kind of topic I usually gravitate toward, but the story of the kidnapped children stayed with me. I continued researching it. Eventually I said, “What the hell?” and decided to put something down on paper. 

Q: There were nearly 30 people involved in the actual terror event in 1976. How did you choose whom to focus on in the novel?

AJ: Without sounding indifferent to the true horror the victims faced, I wasn’t compelled to recreate their actual experiences. None of the children in my novel are modeled on the real kids from Chowchilla. I would have felt too great a responsibility to get their stories right, to tell them correctly. I’m not a journalist or a nonfiction writer. TIME WILL BREAK THE WORLD is a work of fiction, and at a certain point the demands of a fictional story supersede the reality that inspires it. That said, Calvin and Jason Schott are based on two of the real-life assailants, Richard and James Schoenfeld. Also, the character of Pat Earl is based on Ed Ray, who was the bus driver in 1976.

Q: TIME WILL BREAK THE WORLD tells a fictionalized story of the kidnapping. But the book also has a distinctively sharp and surprising new focus. Please describe that focus. Why did you look back into the past using the time of the future, or today?

AJ: Well, now we’re getting into what really attracted me to this story. You have this crime, which is sensational in every meaning of the word. Except for the bus driver, all of the people abducted are children. The thing is, in many ways, their real ordeal begins after they escape. If you’re 10 years old, how do you go about living the rest of your life? What kind of person are you at 40? Are you haunted by your past or have countless other moments and memories obscured or diminished by this one event? I’ve always been interested in the stories people tell when they talk about their lives. And knowing that everyone responds to trauma differently, I was curious to catch up with the characters 30 years later and see how they turned out.

Q: In fictionalizing the 1976 abduction, you moved the time frame to 1984. Why? And in terms of today, 2023, what parallels can be made between the real events of the late 1970s and of 2023.

AJ: The framing of the novel has a lot to do with my shortcomings as a writer. Before I started working on the book, I considered keeping it in the ’70s and immediately got smacked in the face with writer’s block. 1976 was just before my time, but I was a kid in the ’80s. I remember it. It was easier for me to conjure a world I was familiar with. That’s also why I moved the setting to the East Coast. I landed on 1984 because it was an election year, and the United States hosted the Summer Olympics. This was Morning in America, to quote the Reagan campaign ad. I was drawn to the juxtaposition between the Shining City on a Hill, the idea or myth of American exceptionalism, and a couple of dirtbag kidnappers who are already privileged and wealthy, terrorizing 20 people to satisfy their own sense of entitlement.

Q: Could the Chowchilla kidnapping happen today?

AJ: Part of me thinks not. The kids on the bus would have cell phones. Life 360 is an app that parents use to track their kids’ phones. New school buses are equipped with camera monitors and GPS. It would be very easy to find a missing bus. But then I think that almost every day we see small and large-scale disasters caused by motivated individuals. You don’t have to be particularly smart or brave to bring about a tragedy. Cell phones or CCTV don’t stop mass shootings, etc. And police are notoriously bad at preventing crime. So yeah, perhaps it could happen today.

Q: Please explain the book’s title.

AJ: It’s the name of a Silver Jews song. When I was writing the first draft, David Berman died, and I ended up binging on his music. Something about the title seemed evocative of what I was trying to convey in my novel, so I stole it. To me, TIME WILL BREAK THE WORLD signifies inertia and entropy. Just give it a while and things tend to fall apart on their own. I was able to work it into the text as well. There is a moment in the novel when the kids are buried in the moving van, and Pat Earl, the bus driver, begins thinking about how the value of one day for a 60-year-old man carries less weight than a child’s day because the child has fewer days to draw from.

Q: Do you hope those involved in this kidnapping event, on either side, will read the book?

AJ: I have mixed feelings about this. I always want as many people to read my work as possible, but in this case, I would hate for someone to think I was exploiting the worst thing that ever happened to them. I also would worry they would read it and say I got it wrong, that it didn’t happen the way I said it did.

Q: What was your emotional experience in creating and completing TIME WILL BREAK THE WORLD?

AJ: I spent about three years writing the novel, and some of it was during the early pandemic days, when we were washing our mail with dish detergent. It’s a little hard to isolate my emotional experience from everything else that was going on. For me, writing is usually challenging. Even when it’s going well, I feel like I’m running down a steep hill and at any moment I’ll fall on my face. It was especially so in writing TIME WILL BREAK THE WORLD. Having to spend a significant amount of time in the heads of characters who harm others is unpleasant, and trying to make all the characters more than just archetypes, but real individuals, can be overwhelming. However, there also was a lot of satisfaction to be had. Sometimes finishing a scene or chapter feels like a victory. Finishing a draft is like planting a flag on the moon.