Jesse Bethea, an Ohio University alumnus, wasn’t intending to write an entire novel about time travelers – but he especially never intended for it to be published.
As a former video production major and a current assistant producer at ideastream, Bethea claims his novel, Fellow Travellers, was a just hobby that grew out of control.
“I was able to find a job in my field which is incredibly difficult,” Bethea said. “But at the same time I was writing more as a hobby. I wrote for the New Political just as an opinion columnist, but then writing fiction was really just more of a hobby and it got out of control, I guess, to describe it.”
Bethea was surprised to find that outlining the novel aided him in finishing it.
“More than anything, it wasn't something that I studied,” Bethea said. “It wasn't something that I really intended to actually accomplish. I certainly wanted to, but I didn't think I’d ever actually manage to do it.”
One of his greatest challenges outside of finishing the novel, though, was researching mechanics and physics for some of the scenes that take place.
“Bigger challenges came later in the process, I think, because I, again, finished the first draft of it in 2017,” Bethea said. “And then as it was going through the publishing process, just around this time last year, I had to go through and clean it up a lot and just make sure that it all made sense.”
Bethea had scenes involving a train crash and a location in India, so maintaining the accuracy of those scenes was very important to him.
Emily Hitchcock, a publisher who often worked with Bethea, believes his research and accuracy is what makes the novel so strong.
“He has a big emphasis on research in his work,” Hitchcock said. “And so you could really tell … he put in a lot of work to make sure the moving parts of the plot and the characters and the times and the places were all ringing true.”
But, while maintaining accuracy throughout the novel was Bethea’s greatest obstacle, Hitchcock was challenged by editing in a pandemic.
“I think working on a book in a pandemic was definitely something new,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve been working in the publishing industry for a long time but this past year was the first time that I had produced books in that type of environment. That definitely was a learning experience for me just trying to balance the everyday weirdness of what was going on with the pandemic and the shutdowns.”
But, like that quarantined feeling, the novel itself was born out of boredom. Bethea described sitting in meetings and daydreaming about an alternate society of time travelers.
Time travel has been a long-held interest of his, stemming from his love of history and science fiction. In fact, Bethea enjoys OU’s campus because of the archaic aesthetic. He said many of the buildings on campus have been around for centuries, and the physical appearance of OU doesn’t change much.
“It's super easy to walk on campus and imagine yourself in a different time, because things haven't changed very much,” Bethea said.
A good portion of Fellow Travelers actually takes place in Ohio, with some scenes in Marietta and the Ohio River just for geographical accuracy. Bethea said he knows Southern Ohio well from his time as a student, and felt comfortable writing scenes in that region.
“I think I did start to think about time travel a lot more, being at OU, because the geography of it and the infrastructure of it is so permanent in so many ways, even though as students, you're only there for like four years — maybe a little longer,” Bethea said. “So as students, we're very ephemeral, and we pass through this geography that in contrast seems very permanent. And so I think that made me think a lot more about just the passage of time and what it would be like to close your eyes and open your eyes and be a different century.”
Hitchcock also believes that Bethea’s take on time travel will draw readers in.
“I think they, first and foremost, will be subject to the book from page one,” Hitchcock said. “I think that they're going to fall in love with Jesse's characters, and I think that Fellow Travellers is a book that will make you look at time travel differently. It's a book that will appeal to someone who is interested in time travel, but I think it's also a book that will appeal to readers who love a really character-driven, well-written script. So it has a wide appeal.”
As for future plans in the series, Bethea says he’s looking forward to a sequel that will also feature Athens.
“At the same time, you know, I really didn't expect this book to get published, so I’m maintaining low expectations that I will manage to finish it or that I'll manage to find a publisher for it,” Bethea said. “But I would like to write a sequel.”