Ask the Author: Elan Mastai

“Now that my novel "All Our Wrong Todays" is out, I'm happy to answer any questions about it.” Elan Mastai

Answered Questions (32)

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Elan Mastai Thanks Peggy, I'm really happy you're enjoying it and I promise the book will wait for you if you're too busy to get back to it. I don't think I can choose a favorite poet, sorry, because it's usually about reading the right poem at the right time. I suppose my favorite poem is "A Hymn to God the Father" by John Donne. I don't share Donne's religious perspective, but it was the first poem that showed me just how many things a poem can do. The language is beautiful, it's philosophical, despairing, confessional, hopeful, candid, argumentative, narcissistic, and prostrate, and almost mathematically precise, all in 18 tightly wrought lines. My routine before I write is to buy a coffee and go for a walk and think about what I want to tackle that day. I walk, and sip, and think, and walk, and sip, and think, until I find the first sentence of the day. Then I rush home to write it and the ones that come after it.
Elan Mastai I'd be an album of Ludovico Einaudi compositions as covered by Ratatat.
Elan Mastai This is an extremely difficult question! My top 3 would have to be...

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Because it's the book that first introduced me to time travel as both genre plot and psychological metaphor. I reread it a few months ago and some aspects don't hold up 49 years later, but its influence is lasting.

The Time-Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Unlike this book, I took the science of time travel seriously in mine. But this book reminded me that what matters, ultimately, is what time travel does to the characters, emotionally. That's where the book's true impact on the reader happens. So even though I think our books are quite different, it influenced me a lot.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer. I read this book after mine was published, so it didn't influence the writing. But I loved it and its approach really resonated with me. I think if I'd made Victor and Rebecca (Tom's parents) the protagonists of All Our Wrong Todays, I would've ended up with a book a lot like this one.

What are your time travel favourites? Always looking for good recommendations?
Elan Mastai Professionally, as my main job, since 2000. But I've been writing for fun since high school and got even more into it in university. After I graduated, it was more about figuring out ways to make a living from it, but I always kept writing.
Elan Mastai Claire, it's a challenging time when you're about to graduate and your ambitions for yourself can seem faraway and suspect. But like most things in life, it's all about small manageable goals. As a screenwriter, I started by writing short films, making them with friends, learning the difference between how something reads on the page versus how it sounds when shot and performed. I worked for film festivals and met other filmmakers, both established and aspiring, building relationships with likeminded creatives. And I wrote—a lot. My early scripts showed promise and drew interest, but I got better by writing and writing and writing some more. Write stuff, make stuff, get it out into the world however you can, apply to festivals, attend festivals, meet people, make friends who might become colleagues, keep writing, keep making stuff, be great to work with, find the balance between being passionate and hardheaded, be objective about both your strengths and weaknesses as a writer so that you can keep improving, be bold, be kind, be careful about who you choose to work with, and always be writing something new.
Elan Mastai An interesting question. I often use music to get me into a specific frame of mind. So I might assign certain songs or bands to a character that I listen to when writing them. Or I'll go for a walk and think about how the character would see the world around them and get a running commentary in my head from that character's point of view. Sometimes I even record myself talking as them and transcribe it. There's no one way to do it, just whatever works for you as a writer.
Elan Mastai Thanks so much, Srishti, I'm really happy to hear you enjoyed the book. Yes, my next novel will explore a recognizably sci-fi concept. But, as with All Our Wrong Todays, I'll be coming at it from an unexpected and hopefully intriguing angle. I'm excited to get it to readers like you—as soon as I actually finish writing it...
Elan Mastai Jenn—for me, writer's block tends to come when I haven't thought through a story enough, so I don't know what needs to happen next because I'm unsure where it's going. Like standing at a crossroads not knowing which way to walk because you have no destination in mind. What I do is go work on something else and just think about the story that's befuddling me until I've got a better plan for it. I usually juggle a few projects at a time for just this reason.
Elan Mastai Thanks Randall. That's an astute reference, actually. I'm working with This American Life on a project and their storytelling approach has definitely influenced me. Because the book is written as a "memoir" I wanted to perform it as if it was a true story to the narrator. I wasn't trying to do an Ira Glass impression, but something about his vocal rhythms and tonal inflections—so widespread now in the podcast world—probably wormed their way into my delivery. My approach was to narrate the book like a podcast in which Tom is relating his real-life experiences to the listener.
Elan Mastai Thanks very much, Odilon.

1. I kept the structure pretty much intact. But details within that structure—the muscles, nerves, and organs inside the skeleton—evolved as I got to know the characters better through the writing process.
2. I don't think it's necessary to consult specialists if you have a good head for research and a good eye for telling details. Of course a proper expert will likely be able to tell you things about the subject that you may never otherwise find. So it depends on how crucial the research is to your story versus just some interesting shading to the plot.
Elan Mastai I think planet colonization is interesting, of course, but if the resources required to achieve such a thing were deployed to solve the many complex problems of our home world it would make a big difference. My loyalties lie with Earth.
Elan Mastai Traveling to new countries and meeting the local authors. Living in North America, we only get a fraction of the books written all over the world. So the chance to travel to promote my book and meet fellow authors and find about their work has been an unexpected but lovely experience.
Elan Mastai I'm currently writing my second novel. I've also been working on the movie adaptation of All Our Wrong Todays.
Elan Mastai I've always been fond of this quote by W. Somerset Maugham: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.”

I stick to a daily routine—usually writing 10am-1pm, take a break, get lunch catch up on email & calls, then writing again 3pm-6pm. Sometimes life intrudes and I can't do a full day's writing, but then I'll often make up for it after dinner, so that I'm averaging a solid 5-6 hours writing per week day.
Elan Mastai I do appear at author events when I can—and thanks for thinking of me for your event. It really depends on my schedule. I'd recommend contacting my American publisher Dutton if it's a US event or my Canadian publisher Doubleday if it's a Canadian event.
Elan Mastai Before I start writing, I build out a structure for the whole book. I don't like to begin until I feel like I have a terrific ending in place and that the rest of the book is durable constructed to get me—and the reader—there. But I always leave lots of room to discover things along the way, so that the actual writing feels spontaneous and alive with possibility. Like a long-distance road trip: you plan ahead where you'll be stopping for each night, but you leave enough space in your schedule to find lots of adventure and surprises along the way.
Elan Mastai I never give up on anything, because I never know when an old idea will find a home in a new story. It happens to me all the time.

But here's an idea I'll probably use one day but you can borrow for your story:

An old pencil, handmade from gnarled wood and a length of charcoal, that you can use to draw a door on any flat surface leading to wherever you need to go. Its power is finite, so every time it's used, the pencil gets smaller and smaller. The wood is all that's left of a sorcerer's staff and the charcoal is the burnt remains of.... well, that would be telling.
Elan Mastai A few thoughts on screenwriting:

1. If you haven't written a screenplay before, I recommend tracking down the scripts for movies you love—most are online—to see what they looked like on the page. Screenwriting is a peculiar literary form, because you're telling a compelling story while also creating what is essentially a blueprint for the crew to make the movie.

2. Movies should be propulsive, you watch them minute-to-minute in real-time, so think about what's happening on each page that will keep the audience glued to the screen. And movies are expensive, so there should be no wasted moment—everything you write, even people in a room talking, costs a lot of money, so consider if you really, really need it.

3. In movies, character is revealed by the choices they make, so do your best to create situations where your characters have to make clear decisions that illuminate their inner thoughts and changing opinions. A movie is about what a character does—and doesn't do.

4. Even though you're writing a literary document, it will be a movie, an audio-visual experience, so you should always be asking: what exactly is the audience seeing and hearing onscreen right now? Essentially you're describing on the page a movie that only you have seen.

5. Screenwriting is a laconic form. You want to use the minimum number of words on the page to convey the maximum audio-visual experience, so every word matters, just like in a movie every shot matters. This is of course true of any kind of writing.

Hope this is helpful.
Elan Mastai Not knowing the specifics of your circumstances, it's a bit hard to answer. But generally speaking:
1. Give yourself permission to write badly. You're going to rewrite your book so many times anyway. It's always easier to rewrite something that exists than to create material from scratch. Just write it badly and fix it later.
2. Have you figured out your ending? Sometimes the struggle comes from not knowing where you're going, like packing the car for a road trip with no destination in mind. Why are you writing this book? What do you have to say, ultimately, about your character's journey? Choose an ending, even if you change it later, and then the book is all the things that have to happen to get you there.
3. Don't think about writing a book. Think about writing a page. Think about writing a paragraph. Small, manageable goals. I wrote my first draft 250-500 words a day for five months. I didn't think about writing a novel. I thought about writing 250-500 words a day. To put that in context, this answer is 188 words long.
Hope this helps!
Elan Mastai The drive to connect with other people, communicate what I'm thinking about, and hopefully engage in conversation with readers. I know a novel can seem like a pretty one-sided conversation, but for me it's ideally the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it. Life is complex, messy, and confusing, but books offer a powerful way to step back and, through the veil of fiction, make sense of our world. Also, I just really enjoy entertaining people—that's the fun part, for me.

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