Books·How I Wrote It

How Amal El-Mohtar and her pen pal wrote a book about pen pals on opposite sides of a time war

This Is How You Lose the Time War, co-written with Max Gladstone, is about a love story between two agents from warring timelines.
Amal El-Mohtar is the co-author of the sci-fi novella, This Is How You Lose the Time War, with Max Gladstone. (Simon & Schuster, Jim C. Hines)

This is How You Lose the Time War unfolds over a series of clandestine letters. Red and Blue are agents from warring timelines — one a luscious Eden-like paradise and the other a technology-driven utopia. They're assigned to slip up and down the braid of time, making minute alterations in favour of their own factions. A mutual admiration for each other's work blooms into something more over the course of their forbidden correspondence.

This is How You Lose the Time War marks the novella debut of Ottawa writer Amal El-Mohtar, who won the Hugo Award for best short story in 2017. She co-wrote the book with American writer Max Gladstone. Together they are working on a television adaptation.

CBC Books talked to El-Mohtar about writing This is How You Lose the Time War.

Friendly beginnings

"The genesis of the book was that Max Gladstone and I became friends. We loved each other's work. After we had been writing each other physical letters for about a year, Max texted me saying, 'Hey we should write something together.' And I said 'Yes, let's do this thing!' 

"We decided that it should be a novella and not a novel because then we could fit it around our other projects more easily and it wasn't as much of a commitment. We have different styles, which made us decide on an epistolary format. Both of our voices could be distinct, but still harmonize off of each other."

Letter writing

"We observed that there was a kind of time travel inherent in letters. When you write someone a physical letter, you're inventing a future self for the person you're addressing it to. By the time that letter has been delivered, that person is going to receive something from your past self. We wanted to play with that in terms of having time travel from people on opposite sides of a time war.

It felt like we were building between us something that was more than the sum of either of our parts.- Amal El-Mohtar

"The book is divided into letters, but also the situations in which letters are received. Max wrote all of one character and I wrote all of the other character. One of us would be writing the letter and, at the same time, the other person was writing the situation in which the letter was received. We would discuss the situation [beforehand], but the letter was a total surprise both to us."

Writing separately, together

"We were invited to a writing retreat at a mysterious benefactor's place. Over the course of about nine days, we sat across from each other in a gazebo and wrote it together. Ironically, the entirety of this book in which people exchange letters was written in each other's company. There was one section we tried to write it while we were apart and it just didn't work. We had to be in each other's presence to keep it going.

"Max writes about four times as fast as I do. For the whole first act, he would write on this keyboard that had a very loud sound as he was typing, further driving in my shame of being slow. Then he would graciously wait for me to finish my part. But as we went on, he slowed down and I sped up. Suddenly we were finishing at exactly the same time. It was eerie and wonderful and strange ⁠— it became this choreography where we would finish, look at each other, swap laptops, read and keep going.

The characters I'm most interested in reading and writing are women who have friends who are also women. Women who are whole people, not just a set of exceptions.- Amal El-Mohtar

"There were ways in which we were teaching each other things as we were going. We were each other's internet in that way. To have someone who you trust completely shoring up the gaps in your knowledge is a real gift.

"It was like no other writing experience I've had before or since. It felt like we were building between us something that was more than the sum of either of our parts."

Changing the narrative

"In the case of the women that I write, I think that, if anything, I'm writing against the idea of women not having other women around them. There's a lot of weird rhetorical obsession with strong female characters and there's this narrow idea of what that looks like — a woman who is physically strong in some way, but always being an exception.

"The characters I'm most interested in reading and writing about are women who have friends who are also women. Women who are whole people, not just a set of exceptions. Women who have complications and difficulties and frustrations and anger."

Amal El-Mohtar's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more interviews in the How I Wrote It series here.

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