Debut Author Snapshot: Elan Mastai

February, 2017
Elan Mastai

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In All Our Wrong Todays we meet Tom Barren, who lives in the 2016 that people in the 1950s imagined we would have, a techno-utopian version of our world where all of humanity's problems have been solved. But when a personal tragedy turns his life upside down, Tom does what you do when you're heartbroken and have a time machine—something stupid. He finds himself stranded in what seems to him to be a terrible dystopian alternate reality, but which we immediately recognize as our 2016, the all-too-familiar real world.

Tom is desperate to fix his mistake, until he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of the people in his life. He must figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.

Although All Our Wrong Todays is Elan Mastai's first novel, he's been working as a Hollywood screenwriter for more than a decade, crafting movies for studios, including Fox, Sony, Warner Bros., and Paramount. Mastai was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, to an American-born mother and a Moroccan-born father. He currently lives in Toronto with his wife and kids.

Goodreads: In the very first sentence of the book, Tom Barren tells us that he lives in "the world we were supposed to have." What stories influenced your vision of this alternate present?

Elan Mastai: 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. Definitely the New York Fair of 1964 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 lifesize 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.

Expo '86 was the last World's Fair hosted in North America. Our dreams of the future got a lot less giddy. 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 messed it up for all of us.

GR: Early reviewers on Goodreads praise your story's ability to make them think—not just about the science behind theoretical time travel but about what it means to be happy. What do you hope readers take away from reading your book?

EM: I hope that, in addition to being entertained by the story, moved by the characters, and thrilled by the plot twists, they think about their own choices in life. What gives your day meaning? How do you find your place in the world? What do we mean when we say the future didn't turn out the way we imagined? How do we close the gap between the life we have and the life we want, not just for us as individuals but for our whole society?

GR: All Our Wrong Todays uses the structure of a book to its advantage, playfully weaving in different POVs and unconventional chapters. Were these metafictional touches always part of your story? Or did they evolve as you moved beyond a first draft?

EM: I actually had way more of these devices in my first draft. I cut out a lot of them as I gained confidence that the story I was telling could stand on its own. The devices I kept in were to achieve specific narrative effects. Like a film director who drops a memorably vivid shot into a movie to convey a moment with specific visual impact.

I also personally like books that are upfront that someone wrote them. All Our Wrong Todays is presented as the memoir of a time traveler. My protagonist, Tom, has a specific perspective, and he's not without his blind spots. His point of view, and how it evolves, is crucial to the story I set out to tell.

GR: From The Time Machine to Doctor Who, time travel remains a beloved staple of science fiction. What were you hoping to achieve in Tom's tale of time-space adventure (and misadventure) that you hadn't seen before?


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EM: The first time-travel story that really blew my mind was Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. It surprised me, moved me, provoked me, made me laugh and cry and think about all kinds of things that I didn't expect to when I found an old paperback copy of it on my grandfather's bookshelf.

But a longstanding pet peeve of mine is that time-travel stories typically ignore astrodynamics—basically, that the Earth moves constantly and, like, really fast. Our planet spins on its axis at up to 1,000 miles per hour while orbiting the sun at around 67,000 miles per hour, which itself moves within our galaxy at 1,300,000 miles per hour. So traveling back in time also means transporting yourself across vast distances—millions, even billions, of miles—and precisely landing on the spinning outer crust of the planet, rather than up in the atmosphere or embedded inside the planet or at the bottom of the ocean or in the vacuum of outer space.

Since any of these possibilities would make for a short, gruesome end to the story, most time-travel tales just ignore it. So I wanted to write a time-travel story that takes the science seriously. Although, to be clear, this is a novel, not an instruction manual for building a time machine.

GR: How did your career as a movie screenwriter help shape this novel?

EM: Screenwriting requires a lot of discipline. In a script every word matters. You're not just telling a story, you're creating a blueprint that hundreds of people will use to make a movie. You have to think long and hard about everything you write because it will be brought to life onscreen at considerable expense and effort.

So writing a novel was liberating. And fun. I could take the story wherever my imagination went, knowing that instead of a director and actors, 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 to writing my first novel.

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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Marilee (new)

Marilee I'm interested in the concept of this story. I don't read much fantastical science fiction, preferring relatable alternative realities, i.e. going places in the book that don't require parking rational belief up on a shelf for the duration of the read, or film. Station 11 was great, as was The Girl with all the Gifts, among others.


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