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2017 Issue 3: Science on a small scale

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A Q&A with Elan Mastai

A Q&A with Elan Mastai

Elan Mastai explores time travel and the downside of a technological utopia in his new novel.

[Elan Mastai]
Photo by David Leyes

Elan Mastai, Artsci'97, author of All Our Wrong Todays

Tom Barren lives in the world we were supposed to have. The technological utopia envisioned by the optimistic science fiction of the 1950s … Yet Tom can’t seem to find his place in this perfect utopia and feels like a constant disappointment to his brilliant but distant father. When the girl of his dreams turns his life upside down, Tom does what you do when you’re heartbroken and have a time machine – something stupid.

"All the banal functions of daily life are taken care of by technology. There are no grocery stores or gas stations or fast-food joints. Nobody collects garbage from a bin at the curb or fixes your car with, like, tools in a garage. The menial and manual jobs that dominated the global workforce in past eras are now automated and mechanized, and the international conglomerates that maintain those technologies keep busy tinkering with minor refinements. If your organic waste disposal module malfunctions, you wouldn’t call a plumber, even if plumbers still existed, because your building has repair drones at the ready. A lamplighter with a jug of kerosene and a wick on a pole has as much relevance to contemporary life as tailors and janitors and gardeners and carpenters.

Places like bookstores and cafes still exist, but they’re specialized niche businesses aimed at nostalgia fetishists. You can go to an actual restaurant and have a chef prepare your meal by hand. But the waiter who serves you is essentially an actor playing a role on a set in which you’re also a performer, an immersive, live-action narrative spooling around you in real time.”

~ Excerpt from All Our Wrong Todays

Question: There’s some fairly persuasive-sounding science in this novel about innovative technology and time travel. How did you tackle the research for the book?

Answer: Typically, I think about what sorts of inventions or technologies I want to use in the story and then work backward to figure out the current state of the technology, how it might either complement or contradict existing science, but also at the logistical reasons why it hasn’t happened. 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. Even with something as far out as time travel, it’s establishing what we know for sure, what we think we know, and what we’re totally clueless about. My approach with research is to do way more than is necessary and then only include the most interesting and entertaining bits for the reader. I never want to lose anyone in arcane technical data. It’s a novel. It’s supposed to be fun to read.

Q: What’s a piece of technology that you couldn’t imagine life without? What kind of futuristic technology would you most want to have?

A: I mean, on an essential level, I can’t imagine life without books. The printing press, in its day, was s groundbreaking a technological innovation as the smartphones in our pocket or the satellites above our heads. The ability to read the printed words of other people is so embedded in our everyday life that it doesn’t even feel like a technology. It’s part of what makes us human. The most successful kinds of technology are like that. They become prosthetics. In terms of futuristic technology, as someone who chronically runs late for things – definitely teleportation. Of course, if I knew I could just teleport wherever I want to go, I’d probably run even later for things. That’s the problem with technology. It can solve all sorts of problems, but it can’t fix human nature.

Q: You started as a screenwriter and this is your first novel. Can you describe how your process writing fiction is different (or not)  from writing a screenplay?

A: I don’t know that it’s particularly different. Movies are much more limited in terms of the time you spend with them. They’re generally under two hours, usually less, sometimes a bit more, and that’s all they ask of you as a viewer. With a book, nobody expects to read it in one night, so you have the time and space add nuance, to dig deeper, to explore complexities that are hard to squeeze into a movie. But there’s also a responsibility there. As a writer, you never, ever want to waste your reader’s time. If someone’s going to take a chance on your book, you want to make sure they have the most compelling reading experience possible. But with novels and screenplays it’s the same process – you write it one word at a time.

Q: The protagonist, Tom Barren, starts off as kind of bumbling and unsympathetic, and pretty early on something big happens to a major character I identified with. I was mad and annoyed at the circumstances. Can you talk about the challenges as a writer to try to bring the reader along through some big plot twists and with a character that doesn’t always inspire?

A: With Tom, I knew what kind of person I wanted him to become by the end of the story, so I made the decision to start him as far away from that as possible in the beginning. As a character, he has a lot to learn, about a lot of things in his life. And he does learn them, but like all of us he has to make some big mistakes along the way. My hope was that by seeing events through Tom’s point of view, the reader can come to understand why he does what he does. In the beginning of the story, Tom is a mess, but he’s legitimately trying to get better—and he does. That’s what I find inspiring, personally, not a perfect character who always does the right thing, but a flawed, complicated person who struggles to do the right thing and occasionally even succeeds.

Q: You said in the acknowledgements that you wrote this book with “zero expectation” that it would be published.  This in contrast to your first major screenplay that you knew would be made into a film.  Did you have a personal goal in writing the novel, or was it an idea that just took on a life of its own?

A: I’ve been very lucky to have a steady career as a screenwriter. But as a writer, I always want to keep challenging myself and writing a novel felt like the next big step as a storyteller. But I didn’t want to just write something for the sake of it. I had the idea for All Our Wrong Todays a few years before I felt ready to write it. But for me, a story is only ever as interesting as who it happens to. So it was only when I figured out the characters, not just my protagonist Tom but the supporting characters as well, that the story became something I was compelled to write. I didn’t have a publisher when I started. I just embraced the classic advice to all authors – write the book you want to read – hoped that when I finished, other people would feel the same.

Q: You write, in the book acknowledgements and elsewhere, about the death of your mother in 2001 and “how she never got to find out what kind of people her son and daughters would become.” Was writing about time travel a way of exploring this?

A: Yes, but to be honest I didn’t think about it that way at the time. I didn’t set out to write about the death of my mother and the challenges I faced in my personal life after losing her. I was writing about time travel and alternate realities and fantastical technology. But as I dug into Tom and his family I found myself returning, emotionally, to the impact of unexpected grief on the decisions we make. Part of it was that after more than a dozen years, as well as a marriage and two children, I finally felt ready to write about that difficult time in my life. And part of it is that, fundamentally, time travel stories are stories about regret. About missed opportunities and second chances. About fixing our mistakes and imagining other possibilities. And for me, as for so many people who have lost a loved one, those themes brought me back to my mother’s death. At the same time, because of my personality as a storyteller, I didn’t want the book to feel depressing or self-indulgent. Which is where the time travel and alternate realities and fantastical technology comes in.

Q: You also mention the science fiction books from the 1950s and ‘60s from your grandparents’ house, and how, as a kid, you imagined the future worlds created by these writers and artists.  How influenced were you by the science fiction of your own childhood to explore the ideas of alternate realities and time travel?

A: On one level, very influenced, because the wild pulp sci-fi of the '50s and '60s captured my imagination as a child and I never stopped being entertained and intrigued by the visions of the future they so vividly projected. But on another level, I had no interest in just reproducing those stories. I wanted to take certain classic sci-fi ideas and give them a more modern twist, that used the fun genre elements to look at the world as it is today, not fifty years ago.

Q: You’ve posted some pretty cryptic questions on Facebook (most recently about dreaming and pickles). Is this a way of crowdsourcing bits of inspiration? Did you ask other people about their ideas of what a technologically advanced future would look like?  

A: That’s funny. Well, yes, sometimes I do post cryptic questions on social media because I’m curious about how people reply without know what’s the reason for the query. I like to get a random cross-section of opinions without framing the answers too much. Although in the case of the pickles, I actually just wanted to know how hard it was to make your own pickles and if I was crazy for wanting to try.

In the case of ideas about a technologically advanced future, no, I didn’t really ask anyone, but only because I felt like there’s this common collection imagining of what the future was supposed to be, that’s been embellished by decades of future-forward pop culture. So I didn’t really need to ask anyone –it was all already in my head.

Q: There’s an expectation that the future will be better than the past in great part because of technological progress and advances in ideas. But in the novel, it is the messy, inefficient, and polluted 2016 of our current reality in which the main character has meaningful relationships, while in the clean and technologically advanced alternate 2016, his relationships are stilted and unfulfilling. Can you talk about how you developed these ideas?

A: I’m fascinated by technological advancement and the way humans apply ingenuity, imagination, and engineering know-how to solve problems both major and minor. But at the same time, technology is just a tool. It’s only as powerful – or destructive – as whoever wields it. Technology has given us incredible things. But it has also cost us a lot. And one of the costs can be human relationships. Not always, of course, some relationships are enhanced by technology. But most are frayed by it. The screen is not a window, usually it’s a mirror, and a distorting one at that. I feel like the complexities of human connection are best felt in person. By creating a technologically advanced version of our world, and then exploring family, friendship, and romantic relationships in that world, it gives me – and hopefully readers – a chance to reflect on those relationships in our less advanced, but no less complex, real world.

Q:Tell me about the title: All Our Wrong Todays.

A: Well, there’s the Shakespeare reference – "And all our yesterdays” from Macbeth. To me, the phrasing is evocative, but there’s also something off about it. Today is usually a plural word. By definition, today is singular. So it seems wrong, slightly disorienting. But there’s also the inclusiveness of “our”. Whatever happened, it happened to all of us, not just the protagonist. He may have caused the mess, but we have to live in it.

Q: The book is set in Toronto, and the city and its architecture play important roles in the book.  Can you talk more about that? You clearly chose to feature Canada: why? Did you always imagine a futuristic version of Toronto?

A:  Well, I grew up in Vancouver, which has grappled with itself as a progressive and visionary metropolis for as long as I can remember, a place riding the cutting-edge between now and soon. But I’ve lived in Toronto for thirteen years now and part of making my home here has been getting to know the city, literally the buildings that make the place what it is. I find architecture – the art we live in – fascinating, both for what it is and what it isn’t, what it could be and sometimes what it shouldn’t be. So, for me, when Tom finds himself stranded in our real world, the buildings matter. As a writer, I want to tell stories for the whole world, and I’m fortunate that the book is being translated into more than two dozen languages. But I want to have that global perspective while still firmly rooted in my home: Canada, generally, and Toronto in particular. My last couple of movies have also been set in Toronto, most recently The F Word, which starred Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, and Adam Driver, and celebrated the warmth and vibrancy of Toronto in the summertime. The inside of my head isn’t separate than the world outside my window. They’re connected. So, when I tell stories, I like to tell them about the place I’ve chosen to live.

 

[cover of Queen's Alumni Review, Issue 2, 2017]