This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 1: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

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Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose The Time War (Jo Fletcher, 2019) has been gathering a glowing reception. It’s an intense, lyrical, tragicomic novella about two elite warriors, Red and Blue, who strike up a correspondence across the millenia and across enemy lines. Adam Roberts, in his pick of SFF of the year, calls it ‘one of a kind.’ The novella has also made the shortlist for the 2019 BSFA Award. Late in 2019, Powder Scofield joined Amal and Max to shoot the breeze. This interview is a two-parter, with Part 2 dropping next week. Special thanks to Robert Berg for all his help with the interview.

PART I: ‘So we were in this gazebo …’

Powder: You’ve said one of the foundational premises of your friendship was writing physical letters to one another, and obviously that shows up in This Is How You Lose The Time War. Are there other bits of real life embedded in Time War? When you’re working on a project, how much are you intentionally processing past experience? 

Max: Some of it’s intentional, but in my experience, intention is like a raft that’s on an ocean that’s in the middle of a storm. You’re aware of what you can see, but you’re not in control of it as much as you think you are. There’s a little rudder, and you can maybe try to paddle. But if a wave is driving you east, you’re going east. So I think when we sat down to write, we both knew that we were drawing on our experience of writing letters to each other, and of correspondence more generally, and the particular strange kind of time travel that you do when you’re writing a letter, especially a physical letter. But at the same time, there’s the raft, there’s the ocean, and there’s the storm.

Powder: There’s a line in the book, like, “There’s a kind of time travel in letters.” I can see that. The time it takes to write a letter, the time it takes to get there. The way letters can sometimes cross each other in transit.

Max: Exactly. You’re imagining who the other person is that will be receiving this, you’re imagining where you’ll be when they’re receiving the letter in a week or two. You’re wondering sometimes about the many forces that could stand between you dropping the small and very fragile piece of paper into a confusing and vast and twisty basically state system with the hope and trust that the $1.35 stamp will see it across the international border to someone else’s actual house just because you happen to put some words on it. So all of these steps create many different versions of yourself and of the recipient and of your respective spaces. I think that was the intent with Time War. But there are other things that I think were beneath and driving that intent. 

Amal: And to answer really literally, when we were writing the book, we were also in a gazebo with no internet. So we were sitting across from each other and we only had recourse to our own bodies of knowledge. The book is built primarily out of no research, but instead what we both brought to the literal table between us in a literal gazebo as we wrote things! There’s so much in there built out of, for one thing, the surroundings. It was a gorgeous late June, early July in the Midwest. There were trees and birds and plants and things that were finding their ways into the things we were writing, for sure …

Max: Except that I don’t know plants and animals as well as you do. For me: it was green … green was nice …

Amal: But this was actually part of the experience, right? I did know the names for a lot of those things. But I didn’t know a ton of math whereas you did know a lot of that. I also know very, very little about China and its history, and you know a ton about that! 

Max: Whereas you also know a lot about British literature …

Amal: … and extremely niche Canadian bands of the 90s, so those also made their way into it. I recently came across somebody who was like, ‘I couldn’t get into this book, because as if people who were super spies would reference songs from the 90s.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, why wouldn’t they?’ Why should our bodies of knowledge accumulated over the span of 35ish years on this Earth not resonate on some level with people who have all of time and space at their disposal?

Max: Right. Also, I don’t want to assume, but my bet is that this person wasn’t bothered by the superspies from the year 6 billion knowing ‘Ozymandias’ …

Amal: I think that may actually have been part of it. I think ultimately this person’s complaint was that they were paradoxically not sufficiently immersed because the book was insufficiently alienating. So, ‘These people who are supposed to be super alien are making familiar references and that has thrown me out of the book!’ And like, whatevs, dude. I actually try to curate my online life in such a way that I can’t encounter negative reviews of the book. But somehow, through the vagaries of Twitter, suddenly somebody is talking about how much they disliked it, and it’s like, ‘Oh God, oh no, the thing is happening where I’m reading because I saw it because it happened, oh no, aaaaah…’

Max: You can’t unread the thing!

Amal: I can’t unread the thing! 

Powder: I’ve been thinking of Brian Atebury’s Parabolas of Science Fiction, where he talks about SFF as a genre which is really a conversation between creators and fans. That’s obviously something we’re seeing a lot of now, with social media creating these spaces of connection, and also blurring who is a creator and who is a fan. But at the same time, it’s been partly that way since at least the pulps era: not only did fans sometimes evolve into authors, fans were also collaborators in the megatext of SF through the letter pages of the pulps. So I was thinking about how SFF can be braided together into different lines of inquiry — different timelines of inquiry, maybe — or sort of like rosary beads of iterative thought. And it’s interesting to think how a collaborative work like This Is How You Lose The Time War might harbour a kind of shared experience, maybe one that gets its nature from moving back and forth between the private and the public, and maybe one that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Amal: Sure. And obviously any book is going to be built out of our experiences on some level. But the composition of this book specifically required that. We isolated ourselves from the rest of the writing retreat that we were at. When you’re writing someone a letter by hand, you’re also not usually looking stuff up on the internet. You’re usually quite immersed in the letterspace landscape, falling into your own profound thoughts about your experiences, your perspectives, your sense of the world and your desire to share that. And that desire to share comes from private, quiet, innermost self thing, not a ‘citation-needed, fact-referenced’ thing. 

Powder: Definitely. Although at the same time, this is a very contemporary epistolary novel — and maybe it’s not so much about the internet where you look stuff up, but I do think there is some kind of internet experience in there?

Max: I’m thinking especially about online roleplaying, and especially that moment in the late 90s / early 00s internet — which is the internet I think all three of us knew growing up, and kind of expected to continue being the internet, even though that internet is largely dead now — where you’d be deeply involved in a storytelling project or even in a relationship with somebody else, you’d be sharing something exciting and intimate with someone who you might never see, making friends who might be on the other side of the world, and having deep opinions about this person’s literary style or the kinds of anime they liked or their taste in metaphor, and yet not know if they had a brother or a sister or how old they might be or who they might vote for, any of that sort of stuff. And you engaged in this powerful sort of imaginative exercise, creating the person based on their representation of themselves. And some of those people I’ve gone on to meet later and some of them I remain in exclusively online contact with. So maybe that’s part of it.

Amal: Around the time I started roleplaying, the internet was a strange otherworld where you never saw other people’s faces. There wasn’t enough bandwidth for other people’s faces, right? You knew people by the song lyrics they used as tags on AOL IM or ICQ.

Max: Usernames were so important.

Amal: Usernames were so important. And I had several. Usernames were these miniature flowerings of identity, and character names were a part of that too. You’d play different characters in different roleplaying set-ups. And that was most of my experience of the internet. So I remember how illicit it felt to give a phone number or an address so you could talk to someone on a medium that wasn’t the internet.

Max: Also that feeling of building relationships through absence, and building lives through moments of intense connection, that then have to be sustained over great distance … I think that was life for both of us. You make your college friends, and then you have to go to the other side of the planet from them. We’d both spent substantial amounts of time in long-distance relationships when we were starting to work on Time War, and that’s also very alive in there too. So there are deep roots that were closely tied into the experience of letter-writing. Does that strike a chord for you? 

Amal: Absolutely. When I think about the friendships I had on the small, quiet internet of the 90s that felt like a magical otherworld, there was a lot of trying to find people with whom I had anything in common. Because I had an unhappy high school experience. I was an outsider on a lot of different levels. I was in a Francophone high school, I was going to high school in French, and everyone’s cultural references, like the music everyone listened to, all of those things were very not ones that I was participating in. The things that I loved that I was interested in were often built out of books that I was reading in English or TV shows or cartoons I was watching in English, and very few and far between were there people in my immediate environment that I could communicate with about any of those things, or who wouldn’t disdain them on some level. So the internet, this otherworld where I was only communicating to people through text, was the space where I could find those people.

And in Time War, there is a lot built out of the fact that Red and Blue have more in common with each other than the places that created them, the places where they come from. I feel like that experience was very much in the marrow of it. The bad experience of being alienated from your surroundings to a sufficient degree that you have to look thousands of miles away for someone who is going to have a similar passion about myth and fantasy. 

Max: There’s now the kind of nerd explosion on the internet, where you suddenly see people who went to high school with you who never would’ve admitted to liking Star Wars ever in their fucking lives are now like, ‘Star Wars is the best!’ And on the one hand, I’m like, ‘Welcome, great, thank you so much. It would’ve been great if we all could’ve just dropped the fronting for those four years and admitted that we all kind of liked rewatching Star Wars on the weekend. Like, that would’ve been fun?’ But there’s some aspect of high school that didn’t let you do that.

Amal: It’s amazing to me that I was actually introduced to the work of Charles de Lint, an author who literally was local to me but I didn’t know, by Jess, who lived in California. Someone in California introduced me to the work of someone in Ottawa! And that is weird! And wonderful. There’s so much of this book that comes out of confronting loneliness, of recognising the things you have done to make yourself exceptional and superlative have also made you very alone, and trying to find a community with someone who’s in a similar place, even if that place is also kind of across enemy lines.

Powder: So it’s interesting that there are these two sorts of separate worlds, online and offline, that you wouldn’t think would meet up but they do sometimes meet up and in these strange and eerily compelling ways. Time War is sort of like a microcosm of that.

Max: Time War definitely has this interest in privacy. In some ways, maybe it is about that earlier vision of the internet where you could wander into an almost random forum and end up having a deep strong conversation with someone whom you’d never recognise if you met them on the street. You’d maybe only learn some salient details about their life — like, I don’t know, whether they lived in the Western Hemisphere — after months of talking. Maybe this is because I’m inherently an incurious person or something? (Laughter). But I’d have these pretty deep conversations without knowing a lot of what we’d think of as the salient facts about that person. 

And you could become close in this very specific sort of way, while at the same time feeling very alienated from the people right next to you. So it feels like that earlier phase of online discourse was filled with little sanctuaries that supported those relationships. Whereas modern online discourse feels like being part of this big conversation that just happens to take place in a huge dystopian ad-serving stadium, where people are waiting around to knife each other. There’s a kind of universal mutual surveillance that’s going on in addition to the actual corporatised government military surveillance, and the advertising surveillance. You suddenly feel everyone’s eyes on you again. It starts to feel that you can only have one identity, and that starts to feel very much like the part of high school that I remember going on the internet to escape.

Amal: To avoid. Yeah. 

Max: You all of a sudden need to have an identity in this way, be a particular sort of person. You start having those conversations that you used to have to have on the internet, in person. There’s a kind of secret agentness to that!

Amal: It’s so true! Both Red and Blue are from places that assume a total omniscience of your actions basically. To keep their correspondence private, they both kind of have recourse to the very physical nature of their bodies. Both their bodies are sufficiently separate spaces from either the Cloud or Garden. There’s a scene where Blue is thinking about where she literally keeps Red’s letters and it’s sort of … subcutaneously

Powder: The letters in Time War manifest in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways. A jar labelled ‘BOIL TO READ.’ Rings in a tree.

Amal: Yes. Blue’s not actually hiding actual physical letters because they’re both destroying those as they go along, but the memory of the letter is something that they have to keep hidden from the people who can literally read their minds. But, yeah, I’d never consciously connected that with how privacy and surveillance have changed over the past couple decades. The connection is definitely there.

Powder: Can we talk a bit about craft? Has the experience of collaboration changed how you think about craft? Are there forms of writerly craft that are specific to collaborative writing?

Amal: So the thing about craft that I always really enjoy talking about is just the literal fact of how we wrote it. So we were in this gazebo, and we had a sense of the overarching plot and shape of the story. But when it actually came to writing it, one of us would write the letter and one of us would write the scene in which the letter was received. Which meant that we were writing those parts at the same time. We would discuss the situation that the letter would be received but we wouldn’t discuss the letter, so the letter was always a surprise to both the person writing it and the person reading it. The tricky part was that, because we were writing these at the same time, we quickly learned that Max writes exactly four times as fast as I do. And in this gazebo, there was a very time-travelly old-timey keyboard that made a wonderful clackety-clackety sound that told me just how much faster than me Max was writing …

Max would write and finish and then have to wait for me to finish my section so that we could then swap, read what we’d done, then swap back and continue. But the beautiful thing that started happening was Max started slowing down and I started speeding up so that we were finishing at exactly the same time. And it became this beautiful kind of choreography of finishing, swapping laptops, reading, going ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’ and then swapping them back and continuing. It became this excellent feedback loop of literal feedback. We were giving each other feedback that was nourishing and supportive and buoying because we were clearly so excited about this thing that we were doing. So that helped bypass a lot of the kind of inherent doubts and loneliness and anxiety you get when you’re writing something by yourself where you’re like ‘Hmm … is this any good actually?’ Or that two-day delay of, ‘The stuff I wrote, I was excited about but … ehhh.’ It was delightful and so energising to me. Especially when I was feeling uncertain about whether I was using math language or science language correctly or effectively. There was also this kind of confirmation from you I could get immediately, which was wonderful.

Max: It also did something to protect the purity of the storytelling experience? When you’re involved in publishing, there’s this weird mental jump that can happen where, all of a sudden, it’s not longer just you and the audience in the room, or the person you’re telling the story to. Suddenly it’s you, the person you’re telling the story to, maybe your editor or sales team wanders in, drinks some coffee, wanders out, the people who didn’t like your last two books come in and they’re sort of camping and snarking. And you don’t actually need to write for hardly any of those people. Rock bottom, the story is going to be effective if it’s well-told to particular humans. Because those humans are out there and if you can find them, they will love the story. And if the story is presented in a way that encourages them to find it, they’re going to find it and then love it. 

It’s hard to get back there when there is some sort of sense of public expectation. But knowing that you’re writing it for one person first — that you’re you’re writing it for this friend of yours who’s reading it and going to be excited about it — it sort of gives you a pure angle of intent. It gets rid of the doubts about posterity, or how it might fit into your larger body of work, or whether this enough x or too much y. You’re not just shouting into a void. That other person is going to be there for you and come back at you with all of that. So it also gets away from the commercial aspect of the experience. When we tell stories, who is listening? We don’t tell stories to sales figures. One person exists, and that person is listening.


Continue to Part 2.

Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning author, poet, and critic. Her work can be found in places such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Tor.comFireside FictionLightspeed, Uncanny, Apex, and Stone Telling, and the collection The Honey Month (2010). Her critical writing appears in the New York Times, NPR Books and  Tor.com. 

Max Gladstone is the author of numerous works including the Craft series of novels and interactive fiction, episodes of serial fiction in the Bookburners and Witch Who Came In From The Cold series, and the space opera Empress of Forever (2019).

Powder Scofield is an author, critic, editor, and Associate Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, where he is also writing a PhD about fairies and folklore. He’s recently also started hosting the Queer As SFF reading group.

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