Elan Mastai: Time Travel Is Messy

photo: David Leyes

Elan Mastai is a screenwriter whose credits include What If and The Samaritan. His debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays (Dutton), is a quirky, occasionally dark riff on time travel stories with a lot of humor and a strong romantic subplot. Paramount Pictures bought the film rights shortly after the book's acquisition, and Mastai is already working on the script adaptation.

Tom Barren is a difficult protagonist. When the novel begins, he has little purpose and a great deal of self-pity. And that's before he accidentally wrecks his whole reality! Did you ever worry readers would have trouble liking or relating to Tom?

Well, look, Tom's father Victor is considered one of the smartest people on the planet and Tom has lived his entire life in that shadow, believing he'll never achieve anything as impressive as his father's profound scientific breakthroughs. So, yes, he hasn't yet found his place or purpose, but how many of us find the perfect job that exactly matches our skills and ambitions? At age 32, he's still looking for that. As for self-pity, not to veer too far into spoiler territory, but his mother just died. I saw it more as Tom's grief and anger being misdirected at himself for not living the life he perhaps should've been living while his mother was alive to see it. Personally, I relate to that. I unexpectedly lost my own mother before I had a career or a family, so she never met my wife or children, never knew how I'd spend my life professionally. I hope readers will empathize with Tom as they come to understand we're meeting him at a low point in his life. And that's before he accidentally wrecks his whole reality.

Of course, I hope readers do like Tom. That's what all the jokes are for. I designed the character to be self-aware about his own deficiencies but have a well-honed sense of humor about them. Personally, I don't think Tom is anywhere near as bad as he thinks he is. Ideally, readers will see that, too. Aren't we all like that sometimes? Way too hard on ourselves, especially when we're going through a rough patch, convinced that our mistakes are damning indictments of our essential selves rather than, you know, just errors of judgment. Or... is it just me?

And all of it feeds into the fundamental question of the novel's first section: What kind of a person steals a time machine?

Time travel is such an inherently complex narrative device. What drew you to the idea? 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. But I so often see them done in a slapdash, careless manner. And I don't even care that much, because I still find them fun. But for me, writing my own version of a time travel story, I took the science and logic very seriously, while still keeping in mind that time travel isn't actually real, so there's some leeway to be had.

More than scientific plausibility and narrative logic, I wanted to make sure the time travel had deep, rich, unexpected emotional consequences for my characters. This isn't a book where time travel is clean. It's messy. Very, very messy. And while Tom does wreak havoc with the space-time continuum, the consequences I really care about are all emotional. Time travel stories are typically stories about regret. So when I designed my plot, that was my guiding question: What does Tom regret?

Beyond time travel, this novel is about alternate realities and the versions of ourselves we might have become under different circumstances. That's what I'm really writing about: How would it feel to be a different version of yourself, especially if you don't like yourself all that much?

The world that Tom Barren comes from is techno-utopian in nature. Is that a future (or alternate reality) that you dream about?

Do I dream about an idealistic techno-utopian future? No. Because I recognized from an early age that there was something not quite right about it.

When I was growing up, my grandfather had an amazing collection of sci-fi novels and anthologies from the 1950s and 1960s. I have fond memories of lying on my stomach in his living room, staring at the brittle, garish covers. Even as a child, I was aware that the fantastic visions of the future painted on the covers, some set in what was the author's future but already my past, had not come to be. It was the mid-1980s and we still didn't have jet packs. We'd walked on the moon, and we did not go back to build hotels. From a young age I found that fascinating. What happened to the future we were supposed to have?

There are, of course, lots of reasons--deficits of ingenuity but also deficits of infrastructure. As a fiction writer, I wanted to craft a fun, unexpected, page-turning, emotionally resonant story to explore how our visions of the future have shifted from utopia to dystopia over the past few decades... and why.

So, I came up with an answer: because Tom Barren stole a time machine and screwed it up for all of us.

All Our Wrong Todays is, at least in part, a funny sci-fi adventure. About halfway through, though, the novel takes a surprisingly dark turn that the narrator even comments on. Without spoiling anything, can you explain why All Our Wrong Todays needs "actual human pain"?

I tried early on in the book to leaven the quippy humor and sardonic observations with more serious, emotional revelations here and there, so that when the bigger, darker moments occur later, readers at least know this is the kind of book in which those things can happen, even if they don't happen on every page--thankfully, because that would be exhausting. I always wanted All Our Wrong Todays to be a fun, lively page-turner, but I also wanted it to ask big questions about important things. I'm happy you think it's a funny sci-fi adventure, but if nothing bad ever happens to the characters, the book has no stakes. If I've done my job as an author, when serious moments intrude on the fun, it impels readers to turn the pages faster because they love the characters as much as I do and are worried about them. As a writer, I believe if you love your characters, it's your duty to put them through painful experiences because that's how readers find out who they really are.

If time-travel tourism of the kind Tom Barren's dad works on existed, do you think it would be a positive development? Ethical/philosophical concerns aside, when and where would you go if you had the opportunity?

As is probably obvious from the novel, what really interests me about technological innovation is consequence--the notion that every time you introduce a new kind of technology, you also introduce the "Accident" of that technology. The car crash didn't exist until the car was invented. The nuclear meltdown didn't exist before the nuclear reactor was invented.

Time travel tourism is a terrible idea! I mean, it sounds awesome, but the potential for irrevocable damage to our reality is too dire. As profound and revelatory as it would be to witness actual historical events as they happened, the "Accident" of time travel, as I explore in the novel, would be too catastrophic to justify the technology.

But if I had a time machine and there were no consequences?

My mother died quite suddenly in 2001. So I'd go back to spend time with her, specifically, but also the version of my family that was lost when we lost her.

On a lighter note, I'd like to see the first theatrical production of Macbeth in 1606. Also, my great-aunt was dessert chef to the Sultan of Morocco in the 1930s, and apparently she made the best pastries of all time, but I never met her, so I'd like to go back there and taste them for myself. So, yeah, Shakespeare and dessert.

In our present, Tom is crippled by something akin to Imposter Syndrome. He's dogged by the belief that his success as an architect is thanks to a particularly strange brand of plagiarism. Can you relate to his preoccupations?

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 the 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. Experience is the only balm. --Hank Stephenson

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