It’s a story that was originally intended for an audience of one. And, if all goes according to plan, it could evolve into a story for millions.
Armand Baltazar began the book project now known as “Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic” (Harper Collins) as a kind of answer to a challenge from his 11-year-old son Diego.
But Baltazar was not your everyday suburban dad just trying to entertain his kid. As a visual artist in the movie industry, he had put together a résumé that included stints with DreamWorks, Disney and Pixar. In part, because of those connections, Baltazar now has a deal in place with star producer/director Ridley Scott that could turn his book into a multiplex blockbuster.
In the middle of that unlikely timeline from idea to blockbuster, of course, is the book itself, the release of which Baltazar will celebrate with a visit to BookSmart in Morgan Hill on April 10.
“Timeless” is a big-ticket item in the publishing industry. On one level, it’s an elaborate fantasy novel aimed at middle-school readers. But this one is different from scads of similar titles, thanks mainly to about 150 meticulous illustrations that tips the book’s total page count to well north of 600 pages.
“I can hold up a photo of myself from when (I started this project),” said Baltazar, 51, who took on the dual role as the novel’s writer and illustrator. “All my hair is jet black and there’s lots of it. Now, my hair is quite a bit thinner, and my beard is definitely salt-and-pepper. It’s been an odyssey, but a wonderful one.”
The book’s secret sauce is a fresh take on the old sci-fi trope of time travel. Where most time-travel narratives feature a character traveling in a linear fashion through time to some point in the past or the future, “Timeless” shatters such neat storylines with a tale featuring characters from many historical eras interacting in the present. Part of the book’s central mystery is exactly how the time-space continuum got fractured and what to do to get it back to normal.
The whole “Timeless” saga—the author envisions at least three books in the franchise and possibly just as many movies—began years ago when Baltazar was working at Pixar. His son Diego put together a list of everything he thought was cool in the hopes that his dad might build a narrative around them.
“He liked giant robots and I thought, yeah, I could do that,” remembered Baltazar. “And then he said he liked old World War II airplanes, and dinosaurs. And, oh yeah, samurais are cool too. And then, it was ‘Oh Dad, you know when Indiana Jones fought off the Nazis. That was awesome too.’”
Dad rolled his eyes a bit and explained the impracticality of shoehorning so many different elements into one cohesive story. So, Diego, perhaps knowing his dad a little too well, shrugged his shoulders and said, “What’s the matter? You can’t do it?”
Kids will often playfully throw down the gauntlet to a reluctant parent, but parents rarely answer as decisively as Baltazar did, by diving into the mind-bending puzzles of time-travel logic and emerging with a splashy book-and-movie deal.
The book’s Harry Potter figure is a gifted boy named (what else?) Diego on the cusp of his 13th birthday when the story opens. Diego’s dad is a prominent inventor who is kidnapped by a group of radicals in a world where everyone is from a different era—Diego himself is the product of a “mixed” marriage given that his mother and father are from different times. The kidnappers are led by a second-century Roman general and a scientist from the 2400s. Diego’s confederates include a boy from the 1920s, a girl from the Victorian era, and another girl from 1984. They are helped along the way by a Civil War-era black man who escaped enslavement to fight for the Union. Together, they set off across the ocean to rescue Diego’s dad and ultimately save the world by restoring chronological time.
In this story, time is obviously a stand-in for geography in our world, in which everyone is judged by where they’re from. Baltazar grew up in Chicago, the only Filipino kid in his school. And his own son came of age in California where he went to school among kids from a wide variety of backgrounds. The family now lives in the East Bay town of Pleasanton.
The parallels between cultural dislocation and time travel have long fascinated Baltazar. “A good friend of mine,” he said, “he grew up in China but came to the United States when he was about 12 or 13. As a kid, he had seen exactly four movies in his entire life, all Charlie Chaplin movies. So then he comes to the U.S., in 1978, and the first thing he sees is ‘Star Wars.’ That right there is cultural time travel. I mean, you think you have an understanding of the world, that it operates in just one way, then suddenly, in the matter of a plane ride from one place to another, everything is upside down.”
That dimension, the resonance with the contemporary world, is what Baltazar hopes gives his story a power that connects with kids today. “It’s a simple adventure,” he said. “It was never intended to be something political. But considering the world we live in now, it’s the best way to tell a story, to tap kids on the shoulder and say, this is your world now.”
“Timeless” has been years in the making, but Baltazar’s work in such films as “Inside Out,” “The Prince of Egypt” and “Brave” got him the attention of publishers and film producers right away. (He predicted that the film version of his book might be in theaters some time in 2019). Baltazar is often called an “animator,” but he said that’s inaccurate. “I wasn’t an animator. I wasn’t the person who created the performances, which is what an animator does. I was one of the people who would design the worlds that the characters would move through, designing the lighting and the mood, much like a cinematographer (in a live-action film).”
Baltazar and his son exist on opposite sides of at least one fundamental divide in time: the digital revolution. Baltazar is part of one of the last pre-internet generations. “When I was growing up, there was no internet,” he said. “Mobile phones were, like, those giant phones you would see in war movies. I grew up with Pong and Pac-Man and Space Invaders. It’s nothing like we have now.”
That also means he grew up with comic books, and it’s part of the cultural duty of his generation, as he sees it, to pass along a love of books to the generation known as “digital natives.”
“We live in such a complex world, pluralized with people’s tastes and experiences. And for a lot of kids, they are just bombarded with all these technological treasures.”
Baltazar said he would love nothing better than to re-create the sense of enchantment common in era of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. And the best way to do that is through books.
“In all my time at Pixar and Disney and DreamWorks, it had all been in helping other visionary storytellers. In creating this book, I get to be the writer and director I always wanted to work for.”
BookSmart in Morgan Hill invites the public to meet Armand Baltazar, author of ‘Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic’, Tuesday, April 10, 4pm. BookSmart, 1295 E. Dunne Ave, Morgan Hill. For more information, visit: Mybooksmart.indielite.org.