Interview: Paul Hanninen

Paul Hanninen

We talk to Paul Hanninen about some of themes and ideas in his story “I Am John Titor” which appears in Neon #16.

I am John Titor deals with some very modern themes and technologies. Is it set in our past, our present or our near future?

I’d have to say it’s set in the present, but it’s all dependent upon where you start in the story.

Did anything in particular inspire you to write this story?

I first read about John Titor a couple years back and thought he and his alleged time-travelling were fascinating. I rediscovered him while browsing some websites about various mysteries. At the time I was looking for information regarding cryptids such as Sasquatch, Nessie, etc when I stumbled across an in-depth discussion of John Titor. I became obsessed with the whole thing and realized it would be fascinating to meet someone who whole-heartedly believed the whole time-traveling story. I didn’t know anyone like that, so I made him up.

Someway in, a set of ten guidelines for going “off the grid” appear. Did you compose these yourself or did they come from some other source? Would you recommend following them should it become necessary to disappear?

Actually, these and all the other message board posts come from John Titor’s authentic archived posts. I wanted to weave them in to further question how we define what is real and what isn’t. In one sense, it would be easy to say they are fake, but in another sense, they are more real than anything else in the story as they were not fabricated by the author but taken from some other identifiable source. Back to the guidelines . . . I think a few of them would be useful such as water purification, knowing how to use a gun, and eating less. Others though, I’m not so sure about. What use would the U.S. Constitution be if the countryside is being overrun by a group of rebels who don’t care one way or the other what the Constitution says?

Are there any conspiracy / end-of-the-world theories that you find credible? Do any in particular catch your imagination?

I touch on a few of the ones that seem more a bit more grounded in reality. The idea that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is just a puppet for some larger government plan to control everyone in the United States in a police state is interesting. If you snoop around the internet, you’ll find some oddly intriguing evidence. People post these lengthy, detailed stories accompanied by multiple pictures of what they purport are FEMA-run prison camps out in the middle of nowhere. And the John Titor story is, of course, fascinating. The fact that the original posts were accompanied by pictures of his time machine is even more amazing.

There aren’t any conspiracy theories that I particularly find credible, but anything that has to do with time-traveling, a la John Titor, falls into the realm of things you can’t fully disprove–especially if they use the claim of the existence of multiple time-lines or realities as an excuse for why their predictions might not come to pass. And I don’t know what to think about the UFO stuff. At some point the UFO believers seem to cross a line into a religious kind of fanaticism making it nearly impossible to find any rational, legitimate information about it.

The story moves back and forth a lot in time, and constantly changes what might be real and what is a hoax or a conspiracy. Was this a conscious decision, or something that emerged in the writing?

This was definitely a conscious decision. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of a story that’s constructed like a box of old photographs. When you go looking through them and pull them out, they probably won’t be in the right chronological order, but if you look through enough of them, a story emerges, almost seemingly on its own. I like the idea that a story is larger than any kind of chronological cause and effect construction, that you can’t really tell what happened first or second or third but that it doesn’t really matter for the sense of the story as a whole. I know I didn’t completely leave the chronological sequence behind in this story, but I gave it a go.

Also, one of the main goals of this story was to try to align myself and hopefully whoever reads this story with someone who has such a bizarre worldview. In that regard, it didn’t seem fair to outright say what was real and what was not. Because who really knows? As much as any of us might like to say, “Oh, time-traveling, UFOs, Big Foot–that’s all rubbish” what evidence do we have to support such claims? I think this is especially rich territory in a modern world so concerned with information and knowledge–sometimes it’s scary to consider how much we don’t know and can’t prove.

Is much that happens a product of the narrator’s imagination? Or do you prefer to leave that ambiguous?

I think it has to remain ambiguous. At some point the reader has to decide whether or not he or she can trust the narrator. Here, I don’t know when that point is, but I think there’s that issue of trust at play here which is always present in first-person narratives. Is the narrator lying to us? Why would he do that? I guess it comes down partially to how much you care for the narrator and want what he’s saying to be true. To take this idea even further, if we are going to deal with issues of truth and reality, then we have to look beyond just the contents of the text but also to the author behind it. Why would he lie to us? Why do we agree to this format where we know we are being lied to? Sometimes, the idea of writing and reading is very strange to me.

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Paul Hanninen currently lives and writes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.