The Chat With Elan Mastai

mastai_elan Credit David Leyes_1
TREVOR CORKUM cropped

This week we’re in conversation with Elan Mastai, author of the much-buzzed about debut novel All Our Wrong Todays. The novel follows a time-travelling hero, Tom Barren, as he journeys back to a pivotal moment in the planet’s history, all the while contending with a complicated love affair.

The Vancouver Sun calls All Our Wrong Todays “an incredibly creative work... the science is as engaging as the romance. Mastai has mastered the art of endearing himself to an audience through both knowledge and entertainment.”

Elan Mastai was born in Vancouver and lives in Toronto with his wife and children. He is an award-winning screenwriter whose writing credits include The F Word. This is his first novel.

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THE CHAT WITH ELAN MASTAI

Trevor Corkum: This is your first novel, Elan. After a successful career writing films, how does it feel adding novelist to your CV?

Elan Mastai: I’ve always been an avid reader. I loved books as a kid and I love books now. The idea that I can stick my book on the shelf next to all the ones I’ve read and adored still kind of blows my mind. Screenwriting is an inherently collaborative process. Even when you’re the only writer on a project, as I was on my last movie The F Word, you’re working closely with a director, actors, producers, crew, and so on. Whether you succeed or fail, you do it as a team. So being a novelist is much more solitary. It’s just me and my words. But I get to have another kind of collaboration, one with the book’s readers, a much more intimate and direct connection than what I typically get with a movie. And that’s been intensely rewarding.

TC: The novel focuses on Tom/John Barren, a time traveller whose impulsive decision winds up imperilling the future of the world as he knows it. Where did Tom come from for you, as a character?

EM: I liked the idea of writing about something who thinks of himself as a very ordinary person in an extraordinary world. As a narrator, Tom isn’t dazzled by the incredible technology of his utopian alternate reality, he’s kind of nonchalant and blasé about it, because for him it’s just the way things are. His self-effacing unserious personality was important to the tone I was hoping to capture, but also his profound feeling that he can’t seem to find his place or his purpose. That was key to me, a character who is adrift in a world where everything is taken care of for you. Because his father is so successful as an inventor and respected as a scientist, Tom has this overwhelming sense that since he’ll never match his dad’s accomplishments, why even try? I knew the kind of person I wanted Tom to be at the end of his story, so I decided to start him very far away from that, to make his journey through the plot as tumultuous, and hopefully engaging, as possible.

I knew the kind of person I wanted Tom to be at the end of his story, so I decided to start him very far away from that, to make his journey through the plot as tumultuous, and hopefully engaging, as possible.

TC: Imagine you and Tom get to travel together to any point in the past or the future. Where do you go? How long do you stay? What do you learn? Do you ever come back?

EM: Personally, I’m much more interested in what’s going to happen, rather than rehashing events fixed in the past. So I’d be inclined to visit to the future. Which means I have no idea what I might learn because it hasn’t happened yet. That’s what makes it so intriguing, the unexpected possibilities. Who could’ve predicted the state of 2017 even a year ago? I mean, other than George Orwell and Margaret Atwood. But… do I have to take Tom with me? I wrote a whole book about how much trouble he causes when he gets his hands on a time machine—why would I let him access another one?

Who could’ve predicted the state of 2017 even a year ago? I mean, other than George Orwell and Margaret Atwood.

TC: I can imagine an incredible amount of research went into the book. What’s the most fascinating thing you learned that didn’t make the cut?

EM: I was pretty fascinated by the Ideal Rocket Equation, concocted in 1903 by a Russian scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, which explains how a rocket can accelerate by expelling its own mass. There are basically three variables to rocket engineering—energy expenditure against gravity, available energy, and propellant mass fraction. To really get a rocket somewhere you also need to factor in fun stuff like atmospheric drag and design inefficiencies, which is why it’s called an Ideal Rocket Equation, but essentially it’s a lot of complex math to get to a simple answer: a rocket needs to be about 90% fuel in order to escape planetary gravity. A thousand-pound rocket is actually one hundred pounds of rocket and nine hundred pounds of fuel. So, why is this interesting? Well, okay, Einstein established that time and space aren’t separate, they’re one thing—spacetime—which is defined by planetary gravity. Just as a rocket requires 90% fuel to escape the gravity of space, it’s very likely a time machine would require 90% fuel to escape the gravity of time. Which begs the question: what’s the fuel?

Anyway, I found that pretty interesting, but you can probably understand why I didn’t include it in the book. Instead, I solved the problem by inventing the Goettreider Engine.

Well, okay, Einstein established that time and space aren’t separate, they’re one thing—spacetime—which is defined by planetary gravity.

TC: The novel has received a lot of buzz, both here in Canada and around the world. What does that feel like for you right now?

EM: I mean, it’s obviously exciting. I wrote the manuscript for All Our Wrong Todays without a publishing deal or even a book agent. I had no idea whether or not it would ever get published or at what scale. I just had a story I felt compelled to tell, so I spent the time—many, many, many months—to write it. Getting this level of reaction wildly exceeds my expectations. I also feel really lucky. As a first-time novelist, you just never know if your work is going to connect with people. I’m grateful it has.

May 3, 2017
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