Please welcome Elan Mastai to The Qwillery as part of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. All Our Wrong Todays was published on February 7th by Dutton.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Elan: As a kid I loved telling stories, so I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. But professionally I’ve been writing as my job since I was twenty-five and, through a series of misunderstandings, somehow got hired to write my first movie. I’ve been screenwriting ever since, both independently and for the Hollywood studios, but All Our Wrong Todays is my first novel.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Elan: I’m a hybrid. I tend to marinate on an idea for a long time before I begin writing and a big part of that is working out the main turns of the plot. And I never start the writing process until I feel I’ve got a strong ending in place. Otherwise it’s like going on a road trip with no destination. I need my ending so I can plan the best route to get there. But I also leave a lot of 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 moments in All Our Wrong Todays were totally unplanned, but once I found them I couldn’t imagine the book any other way. Also, I’ve never heard either of these terms before—plotter and pantser—and had to look them up before I could answer. So this Q&A has been highly educational already.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Elan: Curtailing my use of adverbs.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing? How does being a screenwriter influence or not your novel writing?
Elan: Mostly I’m influenced by other novelists. Off the top of my head: Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Aldous Huxley, JK Rowling, Audrey Niffenegger, Junot Diaz, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Dave Eggers, Neal Stephenson, Sheila Heti, Michel Houellebecq, Miranda July, Joseph Heller, Michael Ende, Katherine Paterson, and Daniel Quinn.
Screenwriting definitely influences my novel-writing, in large part because I’ve been a screenwriter for fifteen years and my first novel only came out last month! Screenwriting has a very specific style and it’s a style I’m very comfortable with after all these years. Scripts are always written in the third person, present-tense, with a lean but visually dynamic 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. Now, All Our Wrong Todays isn’t written like that at all. It’s in the first person, it jumps around in time, both figuratively and literally, it explores character interiority with a casual, funny, self-effacing narrative voice. But despite those stylistic differences, I still drew off my screenwriting experience to make sure the novel offer readers a strong visual experience, characters defined by what they say and do, and a pervading sense that every word matters. I was writing a novel, not a movie, but I wanted the book to feel as vivid as a movie being projected into the reader’s brain.
TQ: Describe All Our Wrong Todays in 140 characters or less.
Elan: What if our world is actually a dystopian alternate reality caused by an accident with a stolen prototype time machine?
TQ: Tell us something about All Our Wrong Todays that is not found in the book description.
Elan: Despite all the fun Jetsons-like technology of the book’s alternate version of the present day, the flying cars and robot maids and teleporters, this is really a book about how the people we’re closest to define us and give our life its meaning and purpose. At its heart, my novel is about figuring out who you are and what kind of future you want to live in.
TQ: What inspired you to write All Our Wrong Todays?
Elan: When I was growing up, my grandfather had an extensive collection of vintage sci-fi from the 1950s and 1960s, and I loved the pulpy stories but also the wild painted covers of mad scientists, robots, rocketships, and futuristic cityscapes. But even as a kid in the 1980s, I knew there was something off. The future wasn’t turning out the way these authors and artists imagined it would. So I’ve been interested in that notion since childhood—what happened to the future we were supposed to have? More recently, I’ve noticed how much dystopia has been part of our pop culture (and political climate too). It occurred to me that someone of my grandparents’ generation transported to the present day might think our world is just as dystopian as anything in our books and movies. So I was inspired to take my childhood interest in abandoned utopias and marry it with a funny, critical, but still hopeful and 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.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for All Our Wrong Todays?
Elan: I did a bunch of scientific research into various futuristic technologies, how they might work but also why they haven’t yet happened. I also explored ideas of quantum theory, orbital mechanics, radiation, and the nature of time. But I didn’t include the vast majority of my research in the book. My approach is to do way more research than I need to tell the story and only include the most interesting bits for the reader.
TQ: Please tell us about All Our Wrong Todays' cover.
Elan: The cover was designed by Christopher Lin and Zak Tebbal. Because the story explores a character who is propelled out of one version of the world and finds himself stranded in a very different version, we loved the idea of showing two images of the same skyline, one right-side up and one upside-down, so it feels both familiar and disorienting. The skyline itself is from San Francisco, a city that plays an important role in the book, particularly on a crucial day in 1965 when a stolen time machine causes all kinds of havoc. The design in the background is also a sly reference to the image of the “whorl”—which looks nifty but makes a lot more sense once you’ve read the book.
TQ: In All Our Wrong Todays who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Elan: Well, the narrator, Tom, was the easiest because, as a first-person memoir, his perspective defined the book. Once I figured out how Tom saw the world and expressed himself, his voice flowed quite naturally. Also, since it’s my first novel, I chose a narrative voice that I was comfortable writing. I’m not Tom, but there are a lot of similarities between us. Tom is like me, ten years ago, if I hadn’t made some major decisions that took my life in a very different direction than his. I can’t really answer the question about the hardest character to write because it’s a huge spoiler for the book. But later on a significantly different voice narrates a key piece of the story and I found that character very challenging to write, because the point of view is so opposed to mine. It’s not how I see the world and spending time channeling that character’s voice was tough. But it was a necessity for the story I had to tell.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in All Our Wrong Todays?
Elan: 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 appalled by what he finds. Without delving into some thorny and complex modern issues, the story wouldn’t be as dynamic, authentic, or deeply felt. Which is not to say that Tom’s 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 social level. Certain contemporary issues are touchstones for the evolution of his character through the story.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from All Our Wrong Todays.
“The problem with knowing people too well is that their words stop meaning anything and their silences start meaning everything.”
“So he did what you do when you’re heartbroken and have a time machine—something stupid.”
Actually, that last one is kind of spoilery, but that’s OK, since it’s also the premise of the novel.
TQ: What's next?
Elan: I sold the movie rights to All Our Wrong Todays, so right now I’m writing the screenplay adaptation of the book for Paramount Pictures. I’m also about halfway through a second novel. It’s unrelated to my first but shares a similar tone and style.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Elan: Thanks for having me and asking such thoughtful questions!
All Our Wrong Todays
Dutton, February 7, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 384 pages
“Entertainingly mixes thrills and humor.”—Entertainment Weekly
“[An] amazing debut novel…Dazzling and complex…Fearlessly funny storytelling.”—Washington Post
“Instantly engaging…a timeless, if mind-bending, story about the journeys we take, populated by friends, family, lovers and others, that show us who we might be, could be—and maybe never should be—that eventually leads us to who we are.”—USA Today
A Skimm Reads Selection
You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed…because it wasn’t necessary.
Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.
But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.
All Our Wrong Todays is about the versions of ourselves that we shed and grow into over time. It is a story of friendship and family, of unexpected journeys and alternate paths, and of love in its multitude of forms. Filled with humor and heart, and saturated with insight and intelligence and a mind-bending talent for invention, this novel signals the arrival of a major talent.