Screenwriter Elan Mastai’s debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays, is a hugely entertaining time-travel narrative and tale of alternate reality. In a techno-utopian world very different from our own, a grieving scientist’s son travels back in time and accidentally alters history, only to return to 2016 and find himself in our reality. This novel is his memoir, and while it includes plenty of physics (although these sections are limited and brief), it’s also full of romance and provocative explorations of self.
With film rights sold before the book even published, All Our Wrong Todays offers an abundance of juicy theories and questions of consciousness and paradoxes. Here, Mastai discusses his Vonnegut inspiration, time-travel pet peeves and possibilities, and the beauty of storytelling in a far-from-perfect world.
When did you love affair with time travel begin?
Probably when I was visited by my future self with an urgent message about preventing the terrible crime I would one day commit. So, the usual way.
No, as a teenager, I read Slaughterhouse Five, an old paperback borrowed from my grandfather’s extensive collection of 1950s and 1960s science fiction. I’d never read anything like it. When Kurt Vonnegut describes how the Tralfamadorians experience time as a continuity, able to experience the past, present and future simultaneously, and how that affects their storytelling and philosophy—that was a formative concept for me. As a writer, I like to think about untapped wells of storytelling hidden inside well-worn tropes. If I’m going to ask readers to try another time travel story, I want it to have the same effect on them that Slaughterhouse Five had on me. That’s the hope anyway. Each reader will, of course, decide for themselves if I succeeded.
What’s your greatest time-travel pet peeve? Favorite time-travel possibility?
My pet peeve is that time-travel stories typically behave as if the Earth is stationary. You open a door in time, walk through it, and you’re in the past. But of course the Earth is constantly moving. And fast. 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.
My favorite time-travel possibility is the most obvious of all: a second chance. Time-travel stories are usually stories about regret. We all have regrets. We all have pain, loss, humiliation, error. The chance to fix our mistakes. To erase the worst of our decisions and replace them with better, wiser, less hurtful or more graceful choices. It’s impossible in life. But not in fiction.
Talk to me about Tom. Was his voice always so forthright in your mind? Particularly when he discovers his new timeline in our 2016 and starts to learn more about himself, he’s so honest about the realization process, about his failures and why he tells the story the way he does. Why do you think he’s so straightforward with his audience?
I had the idea for this novel many years ago, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to tell the story. One summer day, I was walking my dog down the street and it occurred to me that I could write it as a first-person narrative. That might seem evident, but my background is as a screenwriter and movie scripts are always written in the third person. And in Courier font. I’ve spent so much of my life staring at Courier font. As soon as I realized it could work in the first person, the opening sentence of the book popped into my head in Tom’s voice. I stopped on a bench and wrote it down, then the next sentence, and the one after that, until I’d written the first chapter, while my dog whined to continue her walk. Her name is Ruby Slippers and her whine is extremely high-pitched, so the fact that I endured it to keep writing tells you how strong and clear Tom’s voice was right from the start.
I think Tom is so candid because he wants what we all want: to be understood. For who we are, in spite of our many faults and blunders. The novel is written as a memoir, but really it’s a confession. In the beginning, he’s honest because he has nothing to lose. In the end, he’s honest because he has so much to lose.
The male characters seem to be driven by the pursuit of greatness or the love for a woman in their life. Therefore, the men’s actions drive the plot, but the women determine its direction. (And it should be noted, the women here are all brilliant, and quite a bit more impressive than the men, even the genius ones.) Was this something you intended to explore with this book? (Is there a personal connection here?)
My mother was a brilliant and impressive woman. She was an art critic, a curator and a museum director, until she died when I was 26. My father followed her across the world to start a new life in Canada, where I was born. Is there a personal connection? Yes. But I also like to write about the kinds of people I like to spend time with, regardless of gender. Smart, complex, shaded women. And men, too. As a first-person narrative, all the characters are presented through Tom’s point of view. But since he’s a man—and one with a lot to learn about a lot of things, particularly how he relates to the women in his life—it was important to me to craft rich female characters that suggest vivid lives beyond the frame of Tom’s perspective.
“What I like about books is that sometimes you’re told things you don’t want to hear by people you’ve never met. That’s how you change your mind.”
Tom’s world is arguably better than ours in every way—except when it comes to stories. It’s a staple of utopian worlds for stories, art and music to lose their power, and while socio-economic disparity has been mitigated in through your utopia’s power source, there’s still death (even sudden, horrible deaths, at that), and so there’s still a mortal drive to create art. But why did you decide this techno-utopia would change how we experience novels?
Well, I love books. So any alternate reality worth thinking about begs the question: Sure, OK, that’s cool, but what are the books like?
Tom’s world has no war, no illness, no poverty, no prejudice, but also no books. Not the way we have them in our world. Instead of books or movies or video games, it has storytelling media based on brain scans that port your personal psychology into a narrative framework, like a waking dream. It’s not about an author exorcising their demons or beguiling their angels. It’s all about you. Your fears, your kinks, your longings. I imagined Tom’s world as a technological utopia based on the social outlook of the 1950s. So postwar consumerism thrived, while antiauthority skepticism never took hold as it did in our version of reality. I saw this storytelling technology as the result of a certain kind of egocentric consumerism that tells you there’s nothing more important than what you want. What I like about books is that sometimes you’re told things you don’t want to hear by people you’ve never met. That’s how you change your mind. In Tom’s world, nobody thinks they need to change their mind.
One of my absolute favorite moments in the book is when Greta (who is amazing, by the way) goes off on a hilarious rant about trying to control our world. “It just pisses me off,” she says, “these f_cking sci-fi allegories where, you know, if we just stick with the plan, we’ll fix it all and live in a futuristic paradise. When, actually, our one chance at saving our only home in the universe is quitting the plan.” But Tom’s choice is much more complicated than that. If you had Tom’s choice, would you try to fix the timeline you broke?
I love Greta. It’s funny because she’s the one character I didn’t plan for before I started writing the book. When she shows up in the story, it was actually the first time I’d even thought of her. She just kind of asserted herself as absolutely necessary. But I have two sisters and I can’t separate who I am from the experience of growing up with them. When I was establishing who Tom is in our world versus the one he’s from, Greta became the key to figuring that out.
We break timelines all the time, in the choices we make and the consequences we endure. If I could change certain decisions I made in the past, I would. But I can’t. It’s out of my control. In Tom’s case, he has the power to change history because of the time machine. Except, as Greta’s rant suggests, the power to control is often a delusion. Controlling a person. Controlling a country. Controlling a planet. Does the history of humankind tell us that usually works out? Fiction is the respite. In fiction, I can revisit my mistakes and search for better choices. Sometimes I find them.
What’s the main gripe you expect about your time-travel physics, and what’s your response?
Probably that my model of time travel requires a form of radiation, what I call tau radiation, that is theoretically possible but doesn’t actually exist. Or at least hasn’t yet been discovered! My response would be that I’m pretty sure the physics bear out, but time travel would definitely be more difficult without tau radiation to provide a breadcrumb trail through time and space. Also, I’d suggest the griper relax a bit and enjoy the speculation, since actual time travel would likely be a disaster for humanity.
Is there a visual component of this story that you’d especially love to see in the movie?
Well, kind of the opposite. In the book, the reader can picture what things look like based on their imagination. Despite hundreds of pages spent inside his point of view, I never describe Tom’s physical appearance. I like that the reader can picture him however they want. It’s the same with all the characters. Unless there’s a specific physical trait that’s relevant to the story, I intentionally left their appearance open to interpretation. But a movie is specific. Tom will be played by a particular actor and his face will forever be Tom’s face, not just in the movie but for a lot of potential readers. Likewise all the characters. I’m in no way complaining about having a movie made from my novel. Far from it. But that’s one of the things you give up in the adaptation.
I’m currently working on the movie adaptation of All Our Wrong Todays and writing a new novel.
Author photo credit David Leyes.