“Fortunately, this is a memoir. And the best thing about a memoir is it doesn’t even need to make sense.”
I’m going to be honest here. I get pitched a lot of emails about new books and debut authors. I only have so many hours in the day, so there’s no way I can possibly read everything – even when they look halfway interesting.
Then I got an email for Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, and it looked way more than halfway interesting. I was fully intrigued from the outset. A quick chat with fellow GeekDad Jonathan Liu (who included the book in his weekly Stack Overflow column) confirmed my initial impressions. This was one to read.
And from the first page, I was thoroughly invested in the narrator and hooked. I’m not often this pleasantly surprised by a new book, let alone one from a debut author, but All Our Wrong Todays is darn near perfect in all the right ways. (I mean, it helps that Mastai isn’t exactly a brand-new author; he’s an established and successful screenwriter. This is just his first novel.)
I’m not going to go too deep into the book’s premise because, frankly, the less you know the more you’ll enjoy it. But the ten-cent description is: Tom Barren is the world’s worst time traveler. He comes from an alternative, Utopian 2016 but because he screwed up one little thing, he changed reality and is now forced to live in our 2016, which seems practically dystopian by comparison.
“Not to be monstrously glib, but there isn’t even a name for my crime. Chronocide? Cooking up a fancy sci-fi term for it only obscures its immensity. There are some acts beyond label or measure.”
I had the privilege of chatting with Mastai about the book, the mind-blowing scientific principles behind time travel, and how the story developed during the writing process. If you’d rather listen to the two of us ramble on in a much longer, unedited river of words (including an intense appearance by my cat on the piano), then by all means click the audio player here. And enjoy!
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GeekDad: You studied film and were a screenwriter before this, but why make the jump to novels?
Elan Mastai: Well, I like to work my way backwards, so I started with film and then I wrote my novel. And I think next will be radio plays and then maybe I’ll start working on tablets….First of all, it was this particular story. I had this idea a few years ago, and anytime you really commit to writing a story, it’s a multiyear process. So I like to think about something for a while before I sit down and start committing the time to it. If I find my interest waning before I’ve even started, I know I’m not going to have the commitment and focus to make it through what will inevitably be several years.
So I thought about it for a while, and as my ideas started to marinate, it was expanding and ideas were coming fast and furious. I realized that, as much as I thought it would make a tremendous movie, a book was really the best way to tell this story – in terms of my ability to worldbuild and to dig into the characters, themes, and philosophical questions that the premise raises. Once I realized I could tell it as a first-person narrative – as a fake memoir from the world’s most incompetent time traveler – I knew that would be a terrific way to tell this story.
This story made me want to write my first novel.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or skilled if you can somehow be first.”
GeekDad: So, as the story was coming together, did it ever strike you as being a film? Or was it always a novel and never anything else? The book definitely has a cinematic feel, which is obvious because of your background, but it feels like it would lend itself to a certain adaptation very well.
Mastai: Initially, yeah, I thought this would make a really amazing movie. But as I thought about it, I realized the story was bigger than what I could fit into a movie. I didn’t have a book deal or a book agent when I started writing. I wrote it for myself, really. I just had this story I wanted to tell. Like a lot of first-time novelists, I wrote the book on the side, during nights and weekends. And as I wrote, the instinct that this would really work as a novel began to play out.
So I wanted to write it as a book first. I didn’t have any expectations that I was going to sell the movie rights. I mean, as a screenwriter, I had the instinct that yeah, this would make a terrific movie, but I kind of put that out of my head while I was writing it. When I decided to write it as a book, I wanted to write the best book possible. If anyone wants to make it into a movie, we’ll figure that out later. And so I’m fortunate that Amy Pascal and her team at Paramount [who are developing the film] felt the same way.
However, I didn’t make it easy on myself. Even though I wrote the book and am writing the screenplay, it’s definitely a tough nut to crack in terms of an adaptation. I was impressed with what Eric Heisserer did with Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” That’s an incredibly complex short story, and they did an amazing job. It’s a good model for how you can make a smart, emotionally resonant sci-fi story that honors the source material but propels it into the world of film.
“Is there a word for a thing you know you absolutely shouldn’t do, that would be wrong in every way that matters to you, but that you’re pretty sure you’re going to do anyway? Or is that just – human?”
GeekDad: I have to admit, the idea of time travel being so difficult to accomplish simply because the Earth and everything else in the universe is constantly motion is something that I frankly never thought about before. But now, it makes total sense, and I’ll never think about time travel in the same way again. Did you reach out to any scientific consultants while writing?
Mastai: No, that’s something I just thought of. I remember years ago, getting into a conversation about this with a friend at a party. It was just a pet peeve of mine. Here’s an example: my grandfather was a chemist. He is really the one who introduced me to a lot of the sci-fi I loved as a kid. Vintage sci-fi from the 50s and 60s. I loved the vividness of the stories, and I loved the painted covers depicting these imagined worlds. But because he was a chemist and a scientist, he would grumble, even though he loved this stuff, that they didn’t take the science seriously. In many cases, they didn’t even bother to figure out how things might work. But if they had, then the stories would’ve been more interesting because the science is fascinating.
So when I sat down to write this book, and because my love of the genre is influenced by my grandfather, I thought, “If I’m going to write this, I’m going to try to get the science right.” And I’d never seen a time travel story that took orbital mechanics and astrodynamics into consideration.
The idea that I’m sitting down in my office, talking to you, I feel like I’m not moving at all. But I’m actually hurtling through the cosmos at hundreds of thousands of miles an hour. I found that fascinating. And the idea that time is constantly moving. It’s constantly hurtling us forward, and there’s no way to ever turn it back. We’re always propelled one second in time into the future, relentlessly. But space doesn’t work that way. We can control how we move through space. But actually, because we’re stuck to the planet like barnacles, we are actually moving relentlessly through space, with no ability to change that. But we don’t perceive that.
So I’ve just always found that fascinating. And connecting that observation with the fact that I’d never seen a time travel narrative that acknowledged that at all, I just thought it was right. Anytime you notice something that most people don’t seem to be talking about, I think, “Oh, this is curious. Let me dig into this and see what I can find as a storyteller.”
And then I decided to put that observation early in the book because if you’re the kind of person who finds that interesting, you’re going to read the rest of the book.
“The problem with knowing people too well is that their words stop meaning anything and their silences start meaning everything.”
GeekDad: As the book goes on, it moves from a trippy sci-fi romp to one that explores the social effects of mental illness to an emotional story about love, loss, and abuse. You even have the main character comment on that change. But from your perspective, as the author, was that a natural evolution of the story as you were writing, or did you begin with that intention?
Mastai: That’s a great question. Because of the way the book is structured – where the first 100 pages take place in this Utopian, alternate version of the present day – I wanted a present day that took all of the dazzling technology that past generations were sure was right around the corner. Flying cars, robot maids, teleportation, hotels on the moon. I wanted to have fun with that stuff and the idea that humanity’s big picture problems had been solved by technology. But at the same time, I didn’t feel like technology would solve human nature. There would still be personal issues.
But I wanted it to be more upbeat. Bad things happen to the narrator, but he lives in a world where there’s a sense that technology will solve our problems for us. But when he gets stranded in what we think of as the real world – our version of the present – I wanted things to get more messy and complex. I wanted him to be in a world where technology has not solved our problems and humanity has gone off on a different course, and he was going to have to grapple with questions that he never had to ask before and face personal challenges that he never had to face.
So it was my intention that it would get messier and a little darker. At the same time, you do discover things in the writing process. There were moments when I was surprised at how intense it got. There are things I scaled back. There are things I pushed further. But I also wanted a self-aware narrator, so when Tom remarks that “This is not what I was expecting,” I thought that’s what readers might be saying to themselves. Like the reader, Tom is taken aback by what’s happening and didn’t think it was going to be this hard.
He thought it was going to be easier to save the world. And it turns out saving the world is not supposed to be easy. If it were easy, anyone would do it.
GeekDad: Aside from your book tour, what’s next?
Mastai: I’m currently working on the film adaptation for Paramount. I just delivered a draft of the script before the book tour started. And then I’m working on a new book. I’m about halfway through my second novel. It’s unrelated to All Our Wrong Todays. I mean, it’s a similar tone and a similar approach to the combination of genre elements with a more grounded personal story. If you like All Our Wrong Todays, I think you’ll like this new book, but it is totally different.
“That’s all success feels like. It’s not triumphant. It’s not glorious. It’s just a relief. You finally stopped failing.”