Ottawa sci-fi author on how her family nurtured her talent

CBC's Alan Neal in discussion with This Is How You Lose the Time War co-author Amal El-Mohtar at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

Amal El-Mohtar's novel about time-travelling spies launched during Ottawa International Writers Festival

Amal El-Mohtar co-authored This Is How You Lose the Time War with Max Gladstone. (Jim C. Hines)

In This Is How You Lose the Time War, co-written by award-winning Ottawa author Amal El-Mohtar, two spies named Red and Blue travel through time, trying to defeat each other in what seems like a never-ending vendetta.

They assassinate various people along the way to change the course of history, leaving behind taunting letters. The messages are transmitted through liquid, plant matter and even a bee's stinger. 

The plot device speaks to El-Mohtar's love of language and skill at navigating time and space. 

The book launch, held at the National Arts Centre during the Ottawa International Writers Festival, was hosted by CBC Ottawa's Alan Neal. 

Here's part of their conversation.

Alan: I was kind of touched to see the Outaouais show up in the book. Was there a specific hill you were thinking of?

The book is about a pair of warring, time-travelling spies named Red and Blue.

Amal: I was actually imagining Barrack Hill (now Parliament Hill). So that letter is taking place in a strand of time where this part of the world was not colonized by settlers. So I was imagining what that hill would look like without Parliament on it, basically, which seems seditious. But hey, why not?

Alan: I ask because the characters in the book seem almost desperate to absorb the spaces around them, to take in everything around them. And I'm wondering, in "real life," is Amal El-Mohtar as likely to do that?

Amal: Yes, actually, to a degree that people often tease me about. Especially if I'm walking down a street, I'm always touching things.... But the translating space thing is in particular something I do when writing actual, physical letters.... The thing that we do when we start the letter is to say, I'm sitting in this place. The texture of the room or what we're looking at, out a window, or what kind of desk we're at, or whether I'm on an airplane, which is where I've done a lot of my letter writing. 

Alan: Frequently, in speculative fiction, there's a heavy science base to things. Do you need to inhabit that element as well?

Amal El-Mohtar at the Ottawa launch for her book, This Is How You Lose the Time War."

Amal: I used to really love math. My dad was teaching me algebra much earlier than I would have been learning it in school, and I really loved it ... and in seventh grade we had a math teacher who very explicitly said to the class, boys are just naturally and biologically wired for math and engineering, whereas girls are just naturally predestined towards language and literature, so the girls in the class shouldn't feel bad if they couldn't keep up with the material.... I despise that man ... I hope he is no longer a teacher.... So I had a lot of baggage around the idea of writing science fiction because I felt I needed to be more "science-y." I needed to have a better science vocabulary, I needed to be better at math. This is all nonsense. You don't need any of that to write science fiction. You need curiosity and interest.

Alan: You won a poetry contest at the age of 12. Tell us about that.

Amal: That poem was called Le Livre.... I can look back and say I wrote this poem and I was 12 and it was fine, but I'm pretty sure that there were not very many entries. And then my parents ... were like, "Did you know your grandfather also wrote poetry?" and proceeded to tell me this thing I had done was actually important, and a calling, and something that was a great responsibility. And poets speak truth to power and they have roles to play in revolutions and changing society. And I felt very grateful for that. Because there's a narrative around immigrants and the children of immigrants that you can only become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, and you've got to make money. And my parents were very encouraging of art and never made me feel that way. 


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