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Interview: Richard Mueller on "A Ten-Pound Sack of Rice"

Richard Mueller–author of “A Ten-Pound Sack of Rice,” which appears in our March 2008 issue–said in an interview that the story is about an 88-year-old WWII veteran naval aviator named Nathan Roullon.

“[He’s] sitting in his shack in the Louisiana bayou country, waiting to die and for the end of the world, receives a visit from the Devil,” Mueller said. “Old Scratch is not looking for an honest man, but an interesting one, and has come in the person of a young Japanese air gunner who Nathan killed in a dogfight in 1943. Nathan suddenly finds himself back in the Solomon Islands in his F4F-3 Wildcat, knowing what he knows now, but with a chance to change what happened that day. Or not. He finds a way to spare the young gunner, and change his own life in the process, and the Devil has to agree not to destroy the world–just yet.”

Mueller, a long-time military/naval historian and television writer, found the inspiration for this story when he wrote and produced the Guadalcanal episode of Dogfights for The History Channel. “The stories of our two ‘hero’ pilots, Jefferson de Blanc and James Swett–both Medal of Honor winners–were so fascinating that I combined their lives to create the fictional Nathan Roullon,” Mueller said.

Nathan Roullon is wry cajun WWII veteran pilot who has lived alone since the end of the war with a succession of cats, the latest of which, Murphy, will surprise him by talking. “A cheerful apostate, he is not estranged from his family but has drifted away from their religious fundamentalism, preferring only the company of his nephew Joshua, a believer but accepting of his uncle’s skepticism,” Mueller said. “Nathan knows he’s going to die soon, and that the planet too is about to give up the ghost, but in a way that should surprise the bible bangers in his Parish. He finds that amusing. And, having fought the Japanese Empire, he has no qualms about taking on Lucifer.”

Melding actual people into characters isn’t that difficult if you’re careful to create an entirely new person from the pieces, Mueller said. “Nathan’s cajun dialect came easier after watching tapes of Jeff de Blanc and because I’m an avid reader of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux mysteries, set in and around New Iberia, Louisiana,” he said. “The main challenge was not to have this story reflect negatively on persons living or dead, but Nathan turned out to be pretty delightful, and the Devil has, as yet, not complained. He may after the next story I have scheduled in F&SF, ‘But Wait, There’s More!'”

World War II looms large in Mueller’s mental library. “I find it incredibly fascinating, and this is not the first SF story I’ve written about it,” he said. “Back in the ’80s, I had two stories in F&SF, ‘Bless this Ship’ and ‘Little Friends,’ and one in Asimov’s, ‘Why We Really Lost the War.’ A tale in YBFH #18, ‘And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead’ and in Paradox Magazine, ‘A Storm Over Cumorah’ are more recent in my WWII studies. And I’m writing a series of novels–Night Work, The Chronicles of Phoebe Tyler and Finn McMasters–that will cover the period between 1930 and 1946. Oh, and I was conceived after a party celebrating the signing of the Surrender of Japan. I guess an interest in WWII was inevitable.”

Mueller meant the story to serve as an homage to the lives of de Blanc and Swett. “Jeff de Blanc died in December before the story was released,” Mueller said, then added: “Rest quietly Jefferson de Blanc. You have earned it, along with the thanks of a grateful nation.”

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