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An Interview with Elan Mastai

This interview first appeared in the US edition of 'All Our Wrong Todays' and has been reprinted with permission from Elan Mastai and Penguin Random House for SwiftLit.

 

  1. When did your love affair with time-travel narratives begin?

Probably when I was visited by my future self with an urgent message about preventing the terrible crime I would one day commit. So, the usual way. As a teenager, I picked up an old paperback copy of SlaughterhouseFive and I’d never read anything like it. When Kurt Vonnegut describes how the Tralfamadorians experience time as a continuity— simultaneously perceiving the past, present, and future—and how that affects both their storytelling and philosophy, that was a formative concept for me. It showed me that my sense of what’s possible is more elastic than I realized and books can be the thing to stretch it further and further. As a writer, I like to think about untapped veins of storytelling hidden inside well-worn tropes. If I’m going to ask readers to try another time-travel story, I want it to have the same effect on them that Slaughterhouse-Five had on me. That’s the hope anyway. Each reader will, of course, decide for themselves if I succeeded.

 

  1. Time travel can be such an inherently complex narrative device, leading to all sorts of convoluted contradictions. How seriously did you concern yourself with the logic and science of time travel?

Everybody has those storytelling tropes they have a soft spot for, and I’m a sucker for a time-travel yarn. Even when the science is slapdash and the logic nonsensical, I still find them fun. But when writing my own time-travel story, I took the science and logic very seriously— while still keeping in mind that time travel isn’t actually real, at least not yet. More than scientific plausibility and narrative logic, I wanted to make sure that the time travel had complex, unexpected emotional consequences for my characters. This isn’t a book where time travel is clean. It’s very, very messy. And why shouldn’t it be? Why should time travel—violating the fundamental laws of physics as we experience them here on planet Earth—be easy? Why shouldn’t it be the hardest thing you’ve ever experienced? Time-travel stories are typically stories about regret. So when I designed my plot, that was my guiding question: What are Tom’s regrets? We all have regrets. We all have pain, loss, humiliation, error. That’s what is so essentially human about the longing to travel back in time. It’s the chance to fix our mistakes. To erase the worst of our decisions and replace them with better, wiser, less hurtful or more graceful choices. It’s impossible in life. But not in fiction.

 

  1. You introduce so many futuristic inventions into Tom’s techno-utopian world. What sort of research did you do for All Our Wrong Todays?

What I tend to do is figure out what kinds of technology I want to exist and then work backward to figure out how they might actually work. I look at where the technology is now, what would have to be invented, how it might either complement or contradict current science, but also, the reasons why it hasn’t happened yet. Once I find out where the holes are, I can start plugging them up with plausible scientific notions, things that are hypothetically possible even if no one has actually proven them yet. My research took me everywhere from quantum theory, orbital mechanics, and the nature of time to teleportation, neuroscience, geology, botany, astronaut training, 3-D printing, fruit oxidization, traffic modeling, abandoned cities, excellent recipes for lemon tarts, and even how fashion trends emerge and dissipate. But I didn’t include the vast majority of my research in the book. I never want to lose anyone in arcane technical data or deep-dive tangents about obscure factoids. My approach is to do way more research than I require to tell the story and then only include the most interesting and entertaining bits for the reader.

 

  1. The date July 11, 1965, plays a pivotal role in your story. How did you decide on that particular day in history?

I knew I wanted Lionel Goettreider’s experiment to have happened around five decades ago and intuitively the mid-1960s felt right to me. When we think of the cultural upheavals of the era, we often picture the late-1960s. But, generally speaking, the early 1960s were much more of a piece with the postwar ideology of the 1950s. The mid-1960s felt like a hinge moment in history, when our society could’ve gone in various possible directions. I read up on the events of the time and decided on 1965 for all the reasons mentioned in the book and, particularly, because of where President Lyndon B. Johnson stood politically in the summer of ’65: fixed in a delicate web of his own making, caught between the Civil Rights Act, the Vietnam War, and the race to the moon, among many other issues. I like to remember, when writing about historical figures or events, that the people experiencing them didn’t know how they’d turn out—for them, it was the present. But it was also circumstantial. I started writing the novel on July 11, 2014. That was the day I wrote the first words of what eventually became All Our Wrong Todays. So when, early on in the book, I had to choose a date for the experiment that transformed the world, I went with the date that my personal experiment—writing a novel for the first time—had also begun. So it was a combination of research, deliberation, curiosity . . . and happenstance. Like a lot of things in the book.

  

  1. Since the book features a utopian reality stemming from an alternate history, why did you decide to have Tom comment critically on certain hot-button social issues of our world?

Well, I’m writing about a character from a version of the world where the last five decades played out very differently, who then finds himself stuck in our version of the world and is often dismayed by what he finds. Without delving into some thorny and complex modern issues, the story wouldn’t be as authentic or deeply felt. I wanted the readers to feel like Tom is here, in the same world they are, observing the same social dysfunction and cultural conflicts that occupy their minds. Which is not to say that Tom’s quasi-utopian world is without its own blind spots. Part of Tom’s journey as a character is realizing what he takes for granted, personally and also on a wider social level. Certain contemporary issues are touchstones for the evolution of his character throughout the story. 

 

  1. Do you think Tom’s world is a utopia? Or is it more complicated than that?

I’d like to think it’s more complicated, but really that’s for the reader to decide. I imagined an alternate version of the present day where the cheerful consumerism of the postwar era accelerated thanks to relentless positive technological innovation. In our modern world, advances in so many arenas—gender, race, sexuality, class, and others—have been tumultuous, painful, and incomplete, the result of at least five decades of cultural turbulence. As a thought experiment I wondered if social equality could have been achieved in a different way. What if consumerism had been the path to equality? So I conceived of a utopia where everyone can be equal—as long as they can pay for the products and services that make their world what it is. Does that mean this consumerist techno-utopia is devoid of problems or conflicts? Of course not. I layered in some of the contradictions that I thought might emerge in this kind of society. And I decided that by 2016, many of the wrinkles in the social fabric of Tom’s world—like what happens to people who can’t or won’t pay— have been smoothed out. But I also intentionally wrote the book from Tom’s point of view, that of someone who grew up in this world, took its benefits for granted, but also wouldn’t necessarily notice its deficiencies. Until he found himself in our world, a very different world, that forces him to question so many things about who he is and where he comes from.

 

  1. Tom’s world seems better than ours in so many ways—but not when it comes to books. Why did you decide this techno-utopia would change how we experience novels?

Well, I love books. So any alternate reality worth thinking about begs the question: Sure, that’s cool, but what are the books like? Tom’s world has no war, no illness, no poverty, no prejudice, but also no books. Not the way we have them in our world. Instead of books or movies or video games, it has storytelling media based on brain scans that port your personal psychology into a narrative framework, like a waking dream. It’s not about an author exorcising their demons or beguiling their angels. It’s all about you. Your fears and anxieties, your kinks and yearnings. I imagined Tom’s world as a technological utopia based on the social outlook of the 1950s. So postwar consumerism thrived, while antiauthority skepticism never took hold as it did in our version of reality. I saw this storytelling technology as the result of a certain kind of egocentric consumerism that tells you there’s nothing more important than what you want. What I like about books is that sometimes you’re told things you don’t want to hear by people you’ve never met. That’s how you change your mind. In Tom’s world, nobody thinks they need to change their mind. 

 

  1. As a character, Tom is very hard on himself, especially at the beginning of the story. Why is he so candid about his inadequacies and direct with his self-recrimination? 

As a memoirist, Tom wrote this book not knowing if anyone would ever read it. He can afford to be truthful because most of the people he’s wronged no longer exist. I think Tom is so candid because he wants what we all want—to be understood for who we are, in spite of our many faults and blunders. The novel is written as a memoir, but really it’s a confession. In the beginning, he’s honest because he has nothing to lose. In the end, he’s honest because he has so much to lose. But I also felt very aware that Tom is writing from a place of grief. Early in the book, his mother dies quite suddenly. As a character, Tom might not see his subsequent choices as being profoundly influenced by this loss, because he’s inside the experience. But as the author, I was always thinking about the emotional effect of that loss on him. My mother died when I was in my midtwenties, and at the time I didn’t have the self-awareness to see just how much it impacted my behavior in all kinds of unexpected ways. So, yes, Tom is hard on himself. And he also makes some catastrophically bad decisions, so self-recrimination isn’t exactly off base. But I had a lot of compassion for him—maybe because as the author I was to blame for all his misfortune.

 

  1. If you were in Tom’s situation, stranded in the wrong version of the world, would you try to fix the timeline you broke?

We break timelines all the time, in the choices we make and the consequences we endure. If I could change certain decisions I made in the past, I would. In Tom’s case, he has the power to change history because of the time machine. Except, as Greta points out after the disastrous dinner party, the power to control is often a delusion. Controlling a person. Controlling a country. Controlling a planet. Does the history of humankind tell us that usually works out? Fiction is the respite. In fiction, I can revisit my mistakes and search for better choices. Sometimes I find them.

 

  1. How long was this idea marinating in your head before it became a book?

Kind of my whole life. My grandfather had an extensive collection of vintage 1950s and 1960s science fiction and as a kid I loved the pulpy, vivid stories, but also the wild, painted cover images of mad scientists and rocket ships and futuristic cities. But even as a kid in the 1980s, I knew something was off. The future wasn’t happening the way these authors and artists imagined it would—I did not get a jet pack for my tenth birthday. We’d walked on the moon and we did not go back up to build hotels. As I grew up, I kept wondering what happened to the future we were promised. There are, of course, lots of reasons, deficits of ingenuity but also deficits of infrastructure. More recently, like a lot of people, I’ve noticed how much dystopia is part of our pop culture—and our political climate, too. It occurred to me that if someone of my grandparents’ generation were transported to the present day, they might think our world is just as dystopian as anything in our books and movies. I was inspired to take my childhood interest in abandoned utopias and marry it with a funny, unexpected, critical but compassionate look at the world we live in today, through the fresh eyes of a character who finds himself unexpectedly stranded here. Which, let’s face it, we all are.

 

  1. What stories influenced your vision of this alternate present?

It’s less that there were specific stories and more the whole idea of the techno-utopian future that the postwar generation was convinced was right around the corner.  The world’s fairs were a big influence both visually and conceptually. Definitely the 1964 New York World’s Fair and the Montreal Expo of 1967. But if there’s one seminal event of my childhood that locked in my fascination with the future we were promised, it’s Expo ’86, the world’s fair hosted in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, in 1986. The mascot was an adorable life-size robot named Ernie. They built a monorail that Vancouver still uses for public transit. McDonald’s built a floating restaurant on a barge moored in the harbor. I’m not sure why that last one was futuristic, but it made an impression on my adolescent mind. But Expo ’86 was also the last world’s fair ever hosted in North America. It’s like we stopped dreaming of the future that way. Certainly with less wide-eyed excitement and more dread-soaked trepidation. But I never stopped thinking about it. And wondering what went wrong. So, with this book, I came up with an answer: Tom Barren stole a time machine and screwed it up for all of us.

 

  1. Among the many narrative balls you’re juggling, All Our Wrong Todays features multiple timelines and conflicting identities. To what extent did you plan the story in advance and how much did you discover in the writing process?

I tend to think about ideas for a long time before I begin writing and a big part of that is working out the main turns of the plot and the interior lives of the main characters in great detail. And I never start the writing process until I know my ending. Otherwise it’s like going on a road trip with no destination. Without a strong ending, I can’t plan the best route to get there. But I also leave some open space to explore the territory and discover the unexpected. I never want a story to be so tightly plotted that the characters don’t have room to surprise me. Some of my favorite things in All Our Wrong Todays were unplanned, but once I found them I couldn’t imagine the book any other way. For example, Greta. She’s the one character I didn’t plan for before I started writing the book. When she shows up in the story, it was actually the first time I’d even thought of her. I was writing the scene that takes place in the hospital with Tom and his parents and I wanted to interrupt the conversation with a character walking into the room. But I didn’t know who it would be. So this young woman walks into the room and starts talking and I just found myself typing “Apparently, I have a sister.” I have two sisters and I can’t separate who I am from the experience of growing up with them. When I was establishing who Tom is in our world versus the one he’s from, Greta became the key to figuring that out. Once she muscled her way into the story, I couldn’t tell the story without her. Which was a similar question for Tom: Once he met his sister, could he live in a world where she was never born? 

 

  1. While All Our Wrong Todays is your first novel, you’ve been a screenwriter for more than a decade. Was writing a novel different than a screenplay? Did your screenwriting background influence your approach to the novel?

Well, screenplays are always written in Courier font, but you can write a novel in any font you want, so it’s very liberating. I went with Times New Roman. Screenplays have a very specific style. No matter what genre you’re writing in, scripts are always in the present tense and written in the third person with a lean but visually illustrative use of language and an external perspective on the characters, defining them by what they say and do because there’s no access to their inner thoughts. A screenplay has to tell a great story with memorable characters, but the audience never reads it. You don’t sit down in a theater and watch script pages projected onscreen—you watch a movie. The script, whatever its literary merits, is a transitional document. It’s a blueprint that hundreds of people will use to tell the story in a whole other medium. In a screenplay, every word matters. You have to think long and hard about every single thing you write because it will be brought to life onscreen at considerable expense and effort. Writing this novel was incredibly freeing because I had access to all these literary tools that I’m typically denied as a screenwriter, most importantly first-person narration and the wealth of character insight you get from that. But also because I got to go wherever my imagination went, knowing that instead of collaborating with a director, actors, crew, and producers, I was collaborating with the reader, who would bring the novel to life with their imagination instead of cameras, sets, and costumes. At the same time, every word still matters. Everything I write in a novel either supports that strange magic of a story well told . . . or spoils it. Readers are busy, and there are thousands of amazing books out there waiting to be discovered. The discipline I had to develop writing movies turned out to be just as crucial in writing my first novel.

 

  1. Was your screenwriting background tied to your decision to use such short chapters in the book?

When I started writing All Our Wrong Todays, I had no expectation that it would be published. I was writing it for myself, a story I just felt compelled to tell. I set the goal of writing 250–500 words a day, every day. So at first the short chapters were simply a reflection of how I wrote it: Each chapter was one day’s work. After a few chapters, I realized it was reminding me of something— Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, a long-time favorite of mine. I didn’t mean to borrow the short chapters from Vonnegut but once I recognized the reference, I reread the book. And I noticed a lot of thematic echoes with the novel I’d set out to write. So I decided to write Cat’s Cradle and its author into my book, acknowledging the inspiration and making it crucial to the plot. I stuck with the short chapters because it felt right for the story I was telling. It let me modulate the propulsion of the plot and evoke Tom’s roiling consciousness. I also wanted the book to be welcoming to any kind of reader. If someone only has five minutes to read, they can finish a chapter or even two and have that sense of a coherent experience. But the chapters are clustered in groups, so if someone has all afternoon to spend with the book, even better. It was only after I finished the novel that I realized that while the chapters are short for a typical book, they’re perfectly normal for a screenplay, where scenes are usually one to three pages long. I didn’t intend to mimic the style of a screenplay but I guess it was just my comfort zone as a writer.

 

  1. At one point in the story, Rebecca suggests Tom has a particular kind of imposter syndrome, believing his success as an architect is because of a peculiar kind of plagiarism. Do you ever feel like an imposter?

I’ve never really had imposter syndrome. I have what I like to call “grifter syndrome”—the belief that nobody knows what they’re doing, that everybody is winging it, and that what we call civilization is just a bunch of people all flailing around hoping nobody notices that they’re making it up as they go along. Expertise is a pose. Confidence is a delusion. Success is a phantom. We all fake it till we make it. Or until we realize you never truly make it, so you’ll always have to fake it. The only balm is experience.

 


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