This Is How You Produce The Time War Part 2: Powder Scofield interviews Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

PART 2: ‘Odd, unexpected, and serendipitous connections’

This is Part 2 of Powder Scofield’s interview with Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, authors of This Is How You Lose The Time War (Jo Fletcher, 2019). Part 1 can be read here. Special thanks to Robert Berg for his help with the interview.

Powder: We’ve been talking about your novella This Is How You Lose The Time War, which is an epistolary exploration of time and causality and privacy and intimacy and emotion and all of these things. And we’ve been talking a bit about the internet, and how the changing structures of the internet have maybe revealed different possibilities for solitude and togetherness.

For me, reading Time War also had this extra dimension of excitement because I was like, ‘Amal wrote that! Max wrote that!’ The three of us have odd, unexpected, and serendipitous connections. Max, I met you at university, we’ve known each other for — God! — over eighteen years now. And Amal, I met you online the first time I was living in the UK …

Amal: That was around 2007, through a game of Changeling: The Dreaming.

Powder: But when did you two first meet?

Amal: ReaderCon in 2014. I was vaguely aware of Max, because I had an ARC of Two Serpents Rise, but I hadn’t read it yet. I was on the programming committee, so I was responsible for taking ideas that people sent in and making panel items out of them. One panel was about magic and technology, and I was curious how that would go. So I went to the panel and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy whose book I have on my shelf.’ I sat down and I lasted about ten minutes of taking notes before I actually started vibrating with frustration that I wasn’t just having this conversation with him away from the rest of the panel. He was saying every single thing that I wanted someone to say about the stuff on this panel that I had put together, and it was irritating that I wasn’t on the panel too. So I actually at some point just got up and left! That’s how I actually met Steph first, because I think I ran into her in the hallway as I was leaving, and I was like, ‘Yeah, your husband’s really smart.’

Max: How did you know that she was my wife? Had you seen us together?

Amal: No, someone introduced us. Actually, I think she might have even said, ‘Hi, I’m Max Gladstone’s wife,’ and I was like, ‘WHAT…’

Max: Excellent!

Amal: So later that night we’re both at a party. I was reviewing books for NPR at the time, and there are rules at NPR about reviewing books by friends. My NPR editor was literally in the room. So I walked up to Max, and I think what I said was, ‘Hello! I think if the two of us sat down together for a while we could maybe solve the world’s problems, but I can’t be friends with you because I want to review your books so … yeah.’

Max: Which, as an initial approach line, leaves you without a lot of obvious responses, I will say.

Powder: Do you remember your response? 

Max: No. Probably some deadpan and then a joke?

Amal: My memory is of you looking startled and a little apprehensive. It was tremendously obnoxious of me! Then we met again that year at LonCon, and that was when we got to have proper conversations and hang out.

Max: We had a few conversations at ReaderCon, to my memory? I remember being very impressed by you and had a great time chatting, and I definitely picked up Travel Light afterwards.

Amal: OK, but we had two ReaderCons. There was that ReaderCon and the next ReaderCon. So I did actually get to review your books up until Full Fathom Five. But by the time of the next ReaderCon, Max and Steph had been invited to my wedding, and Max and I had already started to write each other letters by hand. So I literally had to go back to my editor and say, ‘Sorry, I don’t think I can review his book. We became friends because, well, I invited him to my wedding –’

Max: And we came!

Amal: You did!

Max: We did. We had a great time.

Amal: I first knew I could trust you as a human being when I was reading Three Parts Dead, which was so cathartic. Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read it, but it ends with Tara beheading the corpse of her shitty doctoral supervisor. He’s not even doctoral, but I made him doctoral in my head. Also a ‘Kiss With Teeth,’ which is a contemporary domestic story with a vampire acting as a father and husband and stuff. And in that story, it looks like — sorry, spoilers again —

Max: I feel like the concept of the spoiler makes a certain sort of actual discussion of literature really difficult? It’s easy to end up in a place where you’re not talking about twists or not actually talking about the things that happen in the text in order to preserve somebody’s putative fresh reading. My experience of literature is, with very few exceptions, not predicated on that sort of fresh reading.

Amal: Well, there’s a part where the main character starts stalking a young woman. It looks like the story is going to be, ‘Oh, yes, this vampire is going to give into his urges and is going to kill this young woman in a way that probably won’t be sexualised but kind of actually is.’ And I was just going, ‘No! I don’t want this to happen!’ This doesn’t hold up to logical scrutiny, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect this of creators. But I remember feeling, ‘Max wouldn’t do this to me! This is not a thing that Max would write! I don’t know Max, but I have read this other book of his and I just don’t feel like the person who wrote that book would do this to me!’ And then … he didn’t! And the story goes a totally different way and it’s wonderful and perfect, and I cried. So that’s when I knew Max wasn’t an asshole.

Max:  There’s so much risk in forming new friendships, I feel. You’re kind of letting someone into your own story and letting somebody into your community of friends, the people you want to protect, that you really go to bat for. I’m not sure what I could point to in our relationship that got us across that boundary. And I often have trouble bringing new people across that boundary perfectly. I don’t know if it’s being afraid, or what that is …

Amal: That’s why all of your friends are fantastic!

Powder: It’s so interesting how encounters with written texts are embedded in these networks of friendships, and embedded within all these risks as well. And vice-versa, as Amal just suggested — how friendships can be embedded in encounters with texts. I felt like, reading Time War, I know you both well enough that I could pretty much tell who was writing which part. So I could see some of the individual threads within the braids and think, ‘I know where that leads.’ 

Max: That’s great. And pretty rare among people who read the book. Even folks who I think of as having very discerning critical palates come away saying they couldn’t tell who wrote what, because the voices are so unified. But people who we know personally pretty well, have generally been able to pick out who’s representing which character, what concepts are coming from whom. 

Amal: Yeah, that delights me. I’m really happy you were able to pick it out. Because I’ve been surprised by some people who didn’t guess correctly. I mean, on one level, if you know how we wrote it, you have a 50/50 chance! But not everyone necessarily knew that we were each writing a character. Some people thought that we were both writing everything …

Max: Or that one of us was writing the letters, and the other was writing the interstitial sections …

Amal: Yeah, yeah. I think my dad actually thought I was writing Red.

Max: Oh excellent! I find that very flattering.

Amal: I also do, actually! So, yeah, it’s wonderful to me when people try to pick that out. Because I think also people who know us are more likely, Powder being an exception in this case, to match us to their ideas of us in the book than they are necessarily to our respective writings. If they have more acquaintance with us as people than they do with our writing, for instance. But yeah…

Max: Which character each of us is most like maybe?

Amal: Yeah, exactly.

Powder: So we’ve talked a bit about how the book exists between the two of you, and how that connection is situated within all these wider interpersonal connections. What about the wider set of connections within the genre? Are there extant works that you feel or could argue that Time War is in conversation with? Obviously, the title has strong resonances with Doctor Who

Amal: I love Doctor Who, and we were very aware that having ‘time war’ in the title was going to queue up associations. Even to the point where on Amazon, apparently, Time War is classed in Doctor Who Fiction. And to my delight but also sheepishness, it was like #1 in Doctor Who Fiction on Amazon —

Max: That made me so happy!

Amal: That made me really happy, but I was also like, ‘Oh God! Aaah! People are gonna be so mad!’ But maybe it’ll be the F/F war fic of their dreams that they’ve always wanted to see in Doctor Who!

Max: As a Doctor Who fan as a child, I would’ve just sat there and been like, ‘Oh, this is interesting. I’m not sure how this fits into the existing continuity … but this makes total sense!’ Whenever we got a sense of Doctor Who’s Time War, I always wanted it to look more like what we do in Time War. I wanted more weirdness. Some of the things that Davies sort of hints at so brilliantly with regard to how fucked-up a post-human history-spanning omnicidal conflict would be. The Nightmare Child, Medusa Cascade, and all that stuff. But whenever we saw those elements on television, it was necessarily limited by what the BBC felt would be accessible, or would fit into their £200,000 special-effects budget. So it was always a letdown compared to the poetic suggestion of what might have been there.

Amal: Exactly! And that was also a big decision, that we wanted the Time War to be basically unknowable. Every time in Doctor Who, which I deeply love, I never wanted to see the people who originated the Shadow Proclamation. Like, that sounds awesome. The Shadow Proclamation. Come on! I didn’t want to see a fucking council!

Max: I can 100% guarantee to you that almost every human’s imagination of what the Shadow Proclamation might be was cooler than anything that anyone could put on screen. Even if you took Fellowship of the Ring era Peter Jackson, or someone else who’s really good at portraying unportrayable stuff—

Amal: Exactly.

Max:  If you just give humans a suggestive image and let them run with the implications, then the imagination creates these enormous palaces that raw observation can only collapse.

Powder: What other connections do you feel Time War has? Amal, you’ve edited and written so much genre poetry, and that’s a really strong thread throughout. Is there specific poetry that Time War is in dialogue with? Max, I know you have a deep love of Journey Into the West and various bits of Chinese literature. You’ve also written interactive fiction, and the idea of a choose-your-own-adventure might suggest a braid, the pattern of forking and folding, but also forming a linear line. So what works do you feel Time War might be in conversation with? What are those connections?

Amal: One big decision that we had to make at the outset was what kind of time travel we wanted. There are these long lineages of different modalities of time travel. You should read Exhalation by Ted Chiang, which goes through a number of different kinds of time travel: from time travel that exists in a predetermined universe where the future has always already happened and there is no changing it, to time travel in a multiverse where every decision you make actually branches off a different reality. Taking those two points as defining a vague spectrum along which you can have different sorts of time travel, we had to think about things like, ‘Are we going to have grandfather paradoxes? How are we dealing with paradox in general here?’ We had to think about that specifically because actually we didn’t want to talk about it in the book. We didn’t want to make the book be about that stuff. We had to just kind of figure out where we were coming from, in order to staunchly ignore it and focus on these two characters. So in that sense …

Max: Not necessarily ignore it completely, but we definitely wanted to preserve that character focus. 

Amal: I keep using this metaphor: we wanted the Time War itself to just be snatches of scenery that you glimpse from a train window as you’re going past it very quickly.

Max: Rian Johnson’s movie Looper is really great in a lot of ways. The central conceit is that you have criminals who kill people who are sent back in time from a future gang war. For your final job, you’re sent your future self, along with your severance payment. You kill your future self and then you have a nice retirement, until the day you meet again. Now, in this movie, the time travel is really the grounds for an interesting character-driven thriller. It’s interested in causes and effects, but it’s more concerned with how people grow up and change, and how small changes in a child or young man’s life can lead to very different outcomes later on. That’s what it’s invested in, not so much the tangly bit.

There’s a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt is going to kill Future Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is Bruce Willis, and they’re sitting by themselves at a diner, and Bruce Willis is trying to explain to Past Bruce Willis, who is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the context of the story. So Joseph Gordon-Levitt is asking all of the questions that the audience may be asking, especially a SF-cognisant audience-member who has the index of time travel they’re going through. And Bruce Willis’ character, who is ultimately a mob hitman and always has been, is sitting there saying, ‘Look, if I try to explain time travel to you, we’ll be sitting around all day fucking around with bendy straws.’ 

Then he goes over the salient facts of time travel, and the rest of the movie goes alon on that basis. So that’s what we were trying to accomplish, I think. We wanted to have the story and characters in the foreground. We needed to know the answers to these questions so that we wouldn’t confuse ourselves or the reader too much but knowing those answers we could then one-side a little bit.

Amal: Yeah, we decided that we wanted a time war and a time travel that also reflected the kind of multifariousness of history. That fact that we’re always discovering new things about history and recovering and recuperating suppressed and marginalised voices of history in a way that changes the past. We’re constantly doing that. And the thing is every time we do this, we have to do it again, over and over. A lot of the time, it’s about recognising that the past could look a lot more like the present than we assume it did, because of various hegemonic forces making it look a lot whiter and straighter than it was.

Max: The lens is warped and the lens is sort of colour-graded. I remember seeing pictures supposed to depict St Augustine. It may have been me being rather slow, but it didn’t occur to me till after college that a North African Roman in the first or second centuries is not necessarily going to look like Derek Jacobi.

Amal: Right! That’s so true! Certainly for me, not having made a study of classical antiquity particularly, the thing that dominates my imaginary — this is actually a good metaphor for it — about Roman history is white statues. White marble statues. Which, as it turns out, were very brightly painted and colourful at the time that they were made, but the processes of history has washed those colours away, have bleached them, have variously stripped the statues of them, so what we’re left with is this idea of, to borrow the words of Isabella Valancy Crawford’, ‘like purest marble, gleaming whitely’. 

That’s we’re left with. And we kind of have to recover the traces of pigment and intention and culture and stuff from all around that. As long as we’re studying history, on some level we’re discovering our failure to preserve history or our failure to carry history forward. And there is something in that that is very in the nature of an edit war, to borrow a phrase from Annalee Newitz’s Future of Another Timeline

So this is the idea that there really is a time war happening, but it’s always happening in the present over our past and our future. We wanted to have a time war that recognised that. That recognised that everyone is always making small changes and everyone is always affecting historical outcomes. But in Time War, we have sufficient technology and immortality at our disposal that we can zoom out from those changes and actually manipulate and apprehend them in a more macro way, hence two alternate futures that have cannibalised everything.

Max: You see this in academia too. The notion that you have competing futures, competing visions that are attempting to shore up their own legitimacy. Not alien from the experience of working in academia! But also of course those ends can be politically motivated. For example, I have a friend who’s a classicist and she talks a lot about how classics get appropriated and misused by fascist and other far-right movements to claim that Rome was a particular sort of thing, to make particular claims about purity, and all these gross narratives. The challenge in academia in classics is always to make sure you can’t be appropriated in that way. So you have communities that try to assemble narratives to support their own existence and others communities trying to pull the narrative in another direction. We are jumping back and forward throughout time, finding junction points, details that weren’t previously brought to light but turn out to be essential. Archeological evidence, physical evidence. It’s a sort of time war. You’re sort of telling these stories and writing these stories and rewriting your sense of what history is.

Powder: We should wind up soon, but as we’re talking about the vast sweep of history, can I throw in one on the fly? You can invite any one person, let’s say real or fictional, and you can bring them to you for a dinner party for an extended conversation. But the two of you have to agree on who the person is. Who would that person be? What springs to mind?

Max: I would be really interested in what Alexander Hamilton would think of the musical Hamilton

Amal screams.

Max: Sort of go to the show, then have dinner afterwards.

Amal: That is fair! 

Max: I’m going to put that out as an opening bid.

Amal: See, I’d be more interested in what Angelia Schuyler has to say about the musical. 

Max: That would also be great!

Amal: The first thing that springs to mind is: we need a methodology for this! It’s partly difficult because of the breadth, getting to choose across all fictional and non-fictional people. On some level, everything we know about individuals from history has the sort of cadence of fiction in some ways. That’s why taking Hamilton to Hamilton is such an interesting opening bid. You’re kind of zooming in on that thing, on the fact that there is a quite fictionalised representation of a biography which has its own critiques within historian communities. But then part of me just wants to answer that I would love to just have dinner with someone who is outside the historical record. Somebody totally unknown from a period of history you want to learn about. Maybe that’s too nerdy on some level …

Max: Who do you think would be a good dinner conversationalist? Like, say you invite Napoleon and he turns out to be a really shitty guy to have dinner with. On the one hand, you get to say oh great, I had dinner with Napoleon, on the other hand, ‘Oh fuck, thank god that guy’s gone!’ So who’d be good to chat? Ben Franklin might be good to chat. Everything I know about Ben Franklin suggests that he’d be down for some wandering around the future, being chill …

Amal: That’s true. He would be down for some of that, that’s true. But I think about the fact that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a contemporary reputation as a fantastic conversationalist. There’s this wonderful, wonderful letter that Keats writes about a walk that he went on with Coleridge that wasn’t even very long. It was like a couple of miles, I think. And he makes this itemised list of all the things they talked about. It’s so beautiful, and that makes me want to hear him at dinner. But here’s the other facet to this question: there are people who have died very recently who I never got a chance to meet. I would love to have a conversation with Ursula Le Guin or Diana Wynne Jones. 

Powder: Let’s leave it open. And let’s call it there. Thanks so much, both of you. 

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

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.

John Keats is a Romantic poet.

John Keats, from a letter to George and Georgina Keats, 15 April, 1819.

[…] Last Sunday I took a Walk towards Highgate and in the lane that winds by the side of Lord Mansfield’s park I met Mr. Green our Demonstrator at Guy’s in conversation with Coleridge — I joined them, after enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable — I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things — let me see if I can give you a list — Nightingales — Poetry — on Poetical Sensation — Metaphysics — Different genera and species of Dreams — Nightmare — a dream accompanied by a sense of touch — single and double touch — a dream related— First and second consciousness — the difference explained between will and Volition — so say metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness — Monsters — the Kraken — Mermaids — Southey believes in them — Southey’s belief too much diluted — a Ghost story — Good morning — I heard his voice as he came towards me — I heard it as he moved away — I had heard it all the interval — if it may be called so. He was civil enough to ask me to call on him at Highgate. Good-night! […]

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