An Interview With John Heldt


John Heldt is a reference librarian from Montana and the the self-published author of the five book Northwest Passage series, three of which are currently available: The MineThe Journey, and The Show. John grew up loving reading and writing and went on to become an award-winning sportswriter and newspaper editor after attending University of Oregon and University of Iowa.  He is an avid fisherman, sports fan, home brewer, and reader of thrillers and historical fiction. You can catch up with John on his blog.

MTAR: Tell us a little bit about yourself
John Heldt:
I’m a product of the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in the small towns and suburbs of Oregon and Washington, the third oldest of six kids, and began writing professionally when I got out of college. For nearly a dozen years I wrote and edited newspaper articles for three small dailies and a weekly. I switched careers in the late 1990s and now work as a reference librarian in a public library. I’m also a married father of three who enjoys sports, fishing, and making homemade beer.

MTAR: What is the first book that you published?
My first book is The Mine. It is a novel with something for everyone: humor, history, adventure, romance, drama, and serious themes. It is the story of Joel Smith, a cavalier college senior who road trips to Yellowstone in May 2000, enters an abandoned mine on a lark, and emerges from the shaft in May 1941. With little but his wits to guide his way, he returns to his hometown of Seattle and starts a new life among a tight circle of friends that includes his progressive 21-year-old future grandmother and a shy, recently-engaged honors student named Grace Vandenberg. Joel possesses encyclopedic knowledge of the past, and he struggles with how to apply it. He knows Pearl Harbor will affect some of his friends in tragic, irrevocable ways. But he knows he is an interloper in another time and vows to limit his impact on the fate of others, a goal that becomes problematic when he falls in love with Grace. The Mine is a book that entertains, but it is also one that prompts readers to think and ask the big questions.

MTAR: What is your latest book and how is it different than the first?
The Show, published in February, is the third book of my Northwest Passage time-travel series and the sequel to The Mine. Grace is the protagonist in this story, which begins minutes after Pearl Harbor is attacked on December 7, 1941. Grace learns in a letter that Joel is a time traveler who has left her for a future he insists they cannot share. She follows him to the year 2000 but finds trouble before she can find lasting happiness. She accidentally enters a second time portal and is thrown back to 1918, just as the Spanish flu sweeps through Seattle and World War I draws to a close. Grace meets her parents and her aunt as young, unmarried adults and befriends a handsome, wounded Army captain just back from the war. The Show is closely tied to The Mine and features many of the same characters and themes, but it is markedly different. Readers see history not through the eyes of a cocky man but rather a cautious woman who weighs her actions carefully and yet, in many ways, is bolder and more independent than the man she loves.

MTAR: If you could trade places with any other person in your books with whom would it be?
It would have to be Joel, for several reasons. The first is that he has the most fun in his journey through history. He really does. He visits scenic places, makes a lot of money, hops trains, drives fast cars, and goes to dances, movies, and baseball games. He also makes great new friends, including the love of his life, and gets to see firsthand a decade he has always revered: the 1940s. Joel is a modern man who was made for an earlier era, and he has an opportunity to experience that era as perhaps no one else can. Who wouldn’t want a part of that?

MTAR: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
If there is a message, it’s that readers should never underestimate love as a motivator in human behavior. In The Mine, The Journey, and The Show, leading characters make difficult, heroic, and sometimes controversial decisions because of their love for others. As time travelers, they are forced to make choices that none of us will ever have to make. They redefine the word commitment.

MTAR: What is the single most powerful challenge when it comes to writing novels set in the past?
The single biggest challenge was writing about eras that were not part of my own experience. I was not around in 1941 and 1918, when The Mine and The Show are set, so I had to learn about those times through books, movies, newspapers, photos, letters, interviews, and other sources. Writing The Journey, set in 1979 and 1980, was much different. I needed only to consult my memories from a time and place (eastern Oregon) I knew well growing up.

MTAR: What makes you laugh?
The Onion, New Yorker cartoons, classic Saturday Night Live skits, some Nelson DeMille novels, and animal videos.

MTAR: What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
The answer to that question changes almost every time I’m asked it. I like so many chapters in each of the books. If I had to pick one today, though, it would have to be Chapter 34 of The Mine. At nearly 5,000 words it is by far the longest chapter in the Northwest Passage series and possibly the most important. It’s where Joel and Grace double date at a minor league baseball game and get to know each other in scenes that are both humorous and poignant. It is where their friendship develops and readers see the first signs of interest between the two.

MTAR: What are you working on now?
I am just now starting to write The Fire, the fourth book of the Northwest Passage series. In this novel, Kevin Johnson, the 22-year-old son of Shelly Preston Johnson, one of two protagonists in The Journey, travels from 2013 to Wallace, Idaho in 1910. He sees Halley’s Comet, falls in love, and experiences the Big Burn, the largest wildfire in U.S. history. I hope to have the book out this fall.

  • Donna

    John, I am sooo looking forward to The Fire. The Journey was my favorite book… I am sure it has nothing to do with me wanting to go back and give my high school self some much needed advice:)

  • GardenReader

    John I saw where Donna recommends The Journey. Do I need to read The Mine before reading The Journey? Interesting interview. Thanks for sharing.