There’s Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. There are classics from Freaky Friday to Back to the Future to Groundhog Day. But when it comes to time travel, there’s always room for more. Bill Flanagan’s version, Fifty in Reverse, is an ode to the golden, if fraught, age of his youth—60s and 70s America—and follows a man well past middle age who wakes up one day to discover he is 15 again. Here, Tom Freston asks Flanagan the important questions.
Tom Freston: Bill, Salman Rushdie has called your novel “strikingly original and immensely enjoyable.” It’s hard to disagree with that. You write about a 65-year-old man in 2020 who wakes up one day in 1970, in his childhood bedroom, in his 15-year-old body, with all the knowledge of his 65-year-old self. I think a lot of us would love to wake up in any year other than 2020, Bill. True story?
Bill Flanagan: You know, Tom, I think as we get older a lot of us wonder, “What just happened? Last thing I knew my mom was making me breakfast and I was heading out the door to school—now I look in the mirror and see an old man looking back.” When you get married and have kids, your awareness of time’s progress seems to stop for 30 years or so. When your youngest leaves the house, you look around and say, “Whoa—when did all our friends get white hair?” At one point I was going to call this novel “Where Was I?”
T.F.: Time travel is a common fantasy. There’s a lot of movies and films on the subject, but none with your take. Parts of your book are hilarious, but it’s hard to miss the sadness that Peter, the main character, feels about leaving his kids and family behind, despite his sudden ability to predict the future and navigate the sexual impulses of a 15-year-old with a 65-year-old man’s more mature mindset. Where did the idea for this come from?
B.F.: We all have those dreams where we’re back in school and can’t remember our locker combination, or have not studied for an exam. I had a dream that I was back in high school, and I could not convince anyone I was a grown man stuck in a dream. Martin Amis says that the subject of our fiction comes out of our subconscious and we have to recognize it. That dream stuck with me.
“At one point I was going to call this novel ‘Where Was I?’”
T.F.: What time-travel stories have inspired you?
B.F.: I liked that Woody Allen offered no explanation for how the character in Midnight in Paris traveled back in time. It’s an impossible premise, so don’t waste time trying to explain it. Just get on with the story.
T.F.: The story is set in Rhode Island, where you grew up. I have a feeling that some of this might be autobiographical. True? Have any of your friends from that era recognized themselves in it?
B.F.: I have heard from some of my old classmates. Everybody seemed to get a kick out of it. The funny thing is, I did write some chapters based on real people and real events. But the book went through a lot of drafts, and I was determined to keep it under 200 pages. When it was done I realized that none of the true stories made the final cut. Nor did any of the real people. The other day my wife asked me if the DeVille Brothers, the juvenile delinquents whose band Peter joins, were based on the Ramones. I almost fell over because I realized that it was a perfect fit, even though I had not been thinking about the Ramones at all.
T.F.: You certainly draw on your considerable music knowledge, making the book ring all the more entertaining and true for any literate baby boomer. At one point Peter goes a bit sideways when he hears a new Beatles song on the radio, one that never existed. Why did you take that left turn?
B.F.: I felt like the story was only going to justify novel-length if it flipped over the reader’s expectations a few times. Once we get used to Peter being able to predict the future, the rug gets pulled out. The Beatles don’t break up. Nelson Rockefeller dies in a plane crash. Peter has to face the fact that his memories of the coming 50 years may be a fantasy and he really is 15. That makes for a more interesting story, I think.
“I felt like the story was only going to justify novel-length if it flipped over the reader’s expectations. The Beatles don’t break up. Nelson Rockefeller dies in a plane crash.”
T.F.: Peter’s parents hire a free-spirited psychologist to help him deal with what they think is his delusion. But this guy is not a local. He rides down weekly from Cambridge on his Triumph Bonneville in a leather jacket. In Cambridge he studied with Timothy Leary. You very humorously wrap a lot of 60s iconography together with events and characters. Where did the idea for this guy come from?
B.F.: “Doctor Terry Canyon, the motorcycle psychiatrist who has a way with today’s troubled teens.” We have to acknowledge here, Tom, that our friend Judy McGrath asked if that character was based on you! As with the Ramones, the answer is no, but it’s a great idea.
I wanted the book to feel a little like those paperbacks we carried around in 1970. So many of those stories—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch-22, A Clockwork Orange, Stranger in a Strange Land—dealt with a therapist or some other authority figure trying to cure a character who rebels against society. Plus, having an ongoing dialogue between Peter and Doctor Terry allowed me to riff on the differences between 2020 and 1970. Peter has to explain to Doctor Terry expressions like “Let’s unpack this.”
T.F.: The Kent State shootings in 1970 play a big part in the story. Why did you focus on Kent State of all things?
B.F.: Kent State was the end of a cycle of cataclysmic social events that happened all through the 1960s. You know, between CBS Sunday Morning essays and Behind the Music episodes, I have done more than my share of retrospective looks at 1967—Sgt. Pepper and the Summer of Love—1968—the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic convention—and 1969—the moon landing, Woodstock, Manson. We go through these cycles over and over on the 5- and 10-year anniversaries, and it always ends with 1970: Apollo 13, the Beatles’ breakup, the Kent State shootings. Then we take a year off and begin the cycle again. I wanted Peter to arrive at the end of those cycles. So when the doctor asked him to predict something big that was about to happen, he could not think of anything; he could not prove he was from the future. I kind of hope that having passed the 50-year anniversaries of all those events, we might now be able to retire them. Move on to commemorating 1989 or something.
“Having an ongoing dialogue between the protagonist and his shrink allowed me to riff on the differences between 2020 and 1970. Peter has to explain to Doctor Terry expressions like “Let’s unpack this.”
T.F.: Why did you pick 15 as the age for Peter to come back? If he were a more worldly 19- or 20-year-old, he might have gone right to work trying to make money on his flawless knowledge of the future.
B.F.: That’s true, but I wanted to put him at an age where, even if he had a great idea—writing Game of Thrones or “Stairway to Heaven” or Star Wars—no one would pay any attention to him. Fifteen is a between age. Fifteen-year-olds are pretty invisible.
T.F.: This fall you had this novel come out, plus your documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President hit the big screen, and a string of Audible Originals you’ve done with musicians—St. Vincent, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow—debuted. Plus, there’s the tasty Flanagan’s Wake program you do for the Tom Petty station on Sirius, and Northern Songs on the Beatles Channel. You’re a man on fire in this pandemic.
B.F.: Boy, I have been lucky that I can do all this work at home, in lockdown. (Except the Jimmy Carter movie, which we had pretty much finished when the pandemic hit.) You realize that if Covid had come along in 1975—or, for that matter, 1995—we would have been paralyzed. No Zoom, no Amazon deliveries, no working remotely. It’s been a terrible crisis, but if it had happened earlier it might have caused the collapse of society.
T.F.: One last question. Nineteen seventy was such a seminal music year in the 60s–70s baby-boomer songbook. Who would be in your ideal supergroup from that era?
B.F.: In Fifty in Reverse, I stop the Beatles from breaking up and send them out on a 1970 American tour. I’ve done my bit.
Bill Flanagan’s Fifty in Reverse is out now from Tiller Press
Tom Freston is a media-and-entertainment executive and the board chair of the ONE Campaign, an anti-poverty organization