Books·How I Wrote It

How Elan Mastai time-warped his way to a debut novel

All Our Wrong Todays is on the Canada Reads 2019 longlist.
Elan Mastai is the author of the sci-fi novel All Our Wrong Todays. (David Leyes)

Are we living in someone else's dystopia? That's the question at the heart of All Our Wrong Todays. In the novel, a smarmy yet somehow sympathetic narrator who comes from a classic-sci-fi future (complete with flying cars) is left agog at the horrendously messy world (our own) that he accidentally time-travels his way into.

All Our Wrong Todays is on the Canada Reads 2019 longlist. The final five books and the panellists defending them will be revealed on Jan. 31, 2019. The 2019 debates are happening on March 25-28, 2019 and will be hosted by Ali Hassan.

In his own words, screenwriter Elan Mastai explains how he wrote his debut novel.

Future perfect

"There were three main sources of inspiration for this book, spread out over decades. The first comes from my grandfather, who was a chemist. He really believed in his core that science was the answer to all the problems of the future. He also had an extensive collection of 1950s and 1960s sci-fi novels. I loved staring at these garish paintings of robots and rocket ships and futuristic cities. But I was aware of this disconnect — that our reality, our world, didn't happen the way the books depicted it to be.

"The second main inspiration was Expo 86 in Vancouver. Expo 86 was the last World's Fair ever hosted in North America. The expos really defined our vision of the future, but it feels like after Expo 86, we stopped dreaming of the same futures, or at least they started to seem a lot less likely. Those ideas were very present for me. I think as I got older, I was wondering what happened to that future we were promised.

"Then in more recent years, I noticed the rise of dystopian pop culture, whether in YA novels or TV or films. Part of the genesis of this idea was thinking of someone from my grandfather's generation arriving in 2016 and being horrified that the science-first, utopian future they were imagining was just around the corner never happened. It occurred to me that I could combine these ideas: someone from this utopian version of the present coming to our actual present."

Four-legged first chapter

"I had the idea for a little while before I put pen to paper. I thought, well, is this a movie? One day I'm walking my dog, and I'm thinking if only this could be in the first person, but it can't be first person because you can't do that in a movie without a ton of voice-over. And then I thought, wait, this could be a novel. Right at that moment, I sat down on a bench and I tapped out, on my phone, what pretty much became the first chapter of the book, just like that. My dog, Ruby Slippers, was whining because she wanted to keep going. If I hadn't just had that thought in that moment walking down the street while my dog was yanking on the leash, I may never have written the book at all. It felt like it was just a quirk of fate. For whatever reason, that kind of initial rush — I kept chasing that, I kept chasing that feeling. I chased it all the way to my first novel."

Short & swift

"The book is structured into really short chapters. When I wrote this book, I didn't have a publishing deal or a literary agent. So I fit the writing around my other work. I made a deal with myself, which was that I would write 250–500 words a day, but every single day. And initially, the short chapters were because each chapter represented one of these days of work. But at the same time, that structure started to actually work, and I found it made the reading experience compulsive. It propelled the plot forward. Only after I wrote the book did I realize that, as a screenwriter, I'm very comfortable with short scenes. I didn't think about it when I was writing, but these short chapters were a lot like movie scenes."

Elan Mastai's comments have been edited and condensed.

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