The Big Idea: James Renner
Posted on March 6, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 15 Comments
It’s not easy to write a time travel novel — all those timelines to keep track of, to start — so when you set out to write one, to whom should you turn for inspiration? James Renner knows; his new novel The Man From Primrose Lane travels all around the time stream. To make it work, Renner looked to more than just the usual suspects to guide the structure of his work.
The Man from Primrose Lane began as a Big Idea. Forever a fan of science fiction—and, more specifically, time travel stories—I wondered what it would be like to be a minor character in some time travel adventure. Not the time traveler, not his companion, but someone tangentially affected by the time traveler. After all, we know already what happens to the Terminator and Sarah Connor and Marty McFly and the Doctor. We’ve seen that. But what about the cop that comes across some dead time traveler at the end of that story? Wouldn’t a good detective want to figure out where this guy came from and why he was here?
That idea became the prologue to the book and it was the easiest part to write. Figuring out who killed this man—and why—was harder.
There’s another problem with telling a time travel story from the point of view of someone who does not travel through time—your structure gets all jacked up. In order to follow the action, to explain the motivation of the time traveler, it forces the writer to tell a non-linear story. This can be quite jarring for a reader, unless the author follows sets concrete narrative rules and sticks to them (chapters will alternate between the present and future; all flashbacks will be in italics; the past will be in the past tense, the present in the present tense). It took a long damn while to figure out the structure of the Man from Primrose Lane and ultimately what helped me was the loose way the writers of Lost played with past/present/future. By the end of that series, it almost didn’t matter if you were aware of when the present really was, anymore.
Note to the reader: For another Big Idea, look into the current quantum theories that suggest all of history is happening at the same moment.
Remember that noise in Lost that clues the viewer into a shift in time? I came up with a visual cue for the reader that serves the same purpose, a line drawn between paragraphs when a time shift occurs. I also divided the book into three parts of equal length, to cue the reader into the idea that in the first section we’re going to the past, in the second we’re more concerned with the present, and that we will ultimately visit the future in the final third. As an added bonus, it’s further divided into 18 “episodes” in homage to Ulysses, a book that was written to be read beginning at any random chapter.
Another influence was Stephen King’s underappreciated novel, Lisey’s Story. Though it’s not about a time traveler, the narrative is very trippy and non-linear and lends itself to scifi quite well. In that story, King jumps back and forth through time to tell a love story. But get this: everything that happens in the past is written in the present tense; everything that happens in the present is told in the past tense. While I didn’t mess with tense changes, King’s gall gave me the freedom to shift POV at a dramatic point in the story.
Once I was able to build a structure to contain this Big Idea, it was only a matter of creating some believable characters to populate this universe. I created them, I let them go, and I watched as they went about solving the murder of the Man from Primrose Lane. The whole process kind of reminds me of another big idea: the discovery of the shape of DNA. Once the scientists figured out the structure of DNA, everything else became clear.
The Man From Primrose Lane: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s
Read an excerpt. See the book trailer. Follow the author on Twitter.
I am writing this presently for you to read in my future. By the time it will reach you in your present it will have been written in my past.
I really loved Lisey’s Story. It was odd and sweet and terrifying. I think it may be the strangest thing King has written, and it felt very meta – a man literally losing himself to his own little world, the dangers of being swept out of reality, how hard it is to come back from the strange places. That’s all pretty much classic King, but the twist of showing it from the wife’s perspective was lovely. I could go on.
You definitely sold me on your book.
Kindlified. This sounds like something nice and meaty to tear into on a long weekend. Thanks, James.
I like the way you write. I haven’t made it into the book far enough to say more, but i’m looking forward to the next few days with this interesting book.
“The room around David appeared to be the remnants of a livable space that had been torn apart by some sort of laundry- and toy-filled IED.”
Liked that sentence, a lot.
In my most recent Time Travel novel manuscript, Pirates & Dinosaurs, , the characters discuss the best reference book on the subject of fiction about Time Travel, by Paul Nahin, who himself had been in Analog before his EE Professorship.
“Ironic,” said Lazzaro. “How did you go back in time to get this
dinosaur, or to the year 1800?”
“In our age,” said Gage, “it has become, if not respectable, then
certainly fashionable in some quarters of the physics world, to
discuss travel through Time. Much of the blame can be laid at the door
of the astronomer Carl Sagan, who was writing a science fiction novel
in the summer of 1985, and asked the relativist Kip Thorne, of The
California Institute of Technology, to come up with some plausible
sounding scientific mumbo-jumbo to ‘explain’ the literary device of a
wormhole through space which could enable his characters to travel
between the stars. Encouraged to look at the equations of the General
Theory of Relativity in a new light, Thorne and his colleagues first
found that there is nothing in those equations to prevent the
existence of such wormholes, and then realised that any tunnel through
space is also, potentially, a tunnel through time. The laws of physics
do not forbid time travel.”
“The Crusaders interrupted. “I’ll get back to all that,” said Gage.
“This realization had two consequences. When Sagan’s novel, Contact,
appeared in 1986 it contained a passage that read like pure Science
Fiction hokum, but which was (although few readers realized it at the
time) a serious science factual description of a spacetime wormhole.
And as Thorne and his colleagues began to publish scientific papers
about time machines and time travel, the spreading ripples have
stimulated a cottage industry of similar studies.”
“Curiously,” said Assebraker, “this anecdote does not feature in Paul
Nahin’s otherwise remarkably comprehensive account of the fact and
fiction of time travel. Nahin was a professor of electrical
engineering at the University of New Hampshire, and the author of
several published science fiction stories, some dealing with the
puzzles and paradoxes of time travel. He tells us how he discovered,
and ‘devoured’ science fiction stories at the age of ten, and this
book is clearly a labor of love. The approach is scholarly, with 36
pages of footnotes, nine technical (but not overly mathematical)
appendices, and a no-holds-barred bibliography. Nahin’s style is
distinctly more sober than the material he deals with, but what he
lacks in sparkle he certainly makes up for in comprehensiveness.”
“Nahin’s approach,” said Gage, “in line with the author’s background,
is from the fiction and towards the fact. Old favorites, such as H. G.
Wells and Frank Tipler, make their expected appearances, as do less
familiar time travel fictions from the nineteenth century (comfortably
predating Albert Einstein’s theories) and more obscure scientists and
philosophers. And, of course, the familiar time travel paradoxes get a
“There are, though, two major weaknesses in Nahin’s treatment of the
science. The lesser is his discussion of black holes, which is weak
and sometimes a little confused. Much more importantly, though, he
fails to appreciate how the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of Quantum
Mechanics allows a time traveler to go back in time and alter the past
without producing problems such as the notorious grandfather paradox.
In the conventional version of the paradox, a traveler goes back and
murders his grandfather as a young boy, so the traveler could never
have been born, so grandfather never died — and so on. But in the
many worlds version (championed by David Deutsch, of the University of
Oxford), the act of killing grandad creates a new reality, so that
when the traveler then goes forward in time he is no longer in his own
world, but in the universe ‘next door.’ This explained, for example,
some of the more subtle touches in the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy of
movies, which Nahin comments on while missing their point entirely.
But although the book is flawed, it was still welcome. It does not
lend itself to being read from front to back like a novel, but is
ideal to dip in to and hop around in, like a time traveler dipping in
to history. It is also a first class reference book for anyone
interested in the Science Fiction side of time travel, and one that
was welcomed by the fans. But we come from a time where this is fact,
[on my Facebook page which linked to this fine James Renner thread]
John Gribbin: The Nahin book is good, but flawed.
Jonathan Vos Post: Thus I had to quote extensively from @John Gribbin …
I’m at the midpoint on this thing and it is absolutely superb. Renner is an AMAZING writer, a HUGE talent, definitely one to watch. This book literally exploded into my life and it’s curled its hooks into my brain like a Ceti Alpha Eel. I told my wife the other day that it’s “like 12 Monkeys…but with serial killers.” She shivered. Certainly the best novel I’ve read in a while and unless the wheels come off in the next half, probably one of the best “first novels” I’ve EVER read.
(by the way, Renner, the parallels between YOU (at least what I can glean from your prior works) and Mr. Neff and this whole story is terrifyingly “meta,” almost more “meta” than I can handle, given the subject matter….yeah, I’m freaked….)
Oh and nice to see Lisey’s Story get a little love as well. I was saddened to see how maligned and misunderstood that book was upon release. Like I told people then, no book has ever gotten MARRIAGE so completely right as King did in that one.
The description reminded me of a book I read in 2009, The 13th Hour by Richard Doetsch. The book progressed? backwards in one hour increments, murder mystery, time travel and a very good story. I just ordered this one.
Are you from Akron? Because I know exactly where the excerpt is set.
Hey gang! So glad to see the love for Lisey’s Story. I feel like we should form a support group for that novel. It was so cool to see King playing with new toys in that one.
Thanks for the kind words on the book, Jeff! It is very meta. Lots of easter eggs in there that have yet to be found, lots of stuff to search on google…
A lot of publishers said they would have no idea how to even talk about this book. But Sarah Crichton and FSG took a chance on it. I’m very much enjoying the ride and being able to share this bizarre story you guys. You’re the IDEAL audience. So, do me a favor and tell your friends.
Cassie, yes I live in a creepy section of West Akron.
I swear, the Big Idea and Steam sales are the two biggest causes of me spending money I probably shouldn’t.
James, congratulations on finding elegant solutions to some tricky narrative problems. The only thing more tangling and confusing than time travel is *writing* about time travel. A time travel mystery like this sounds like my kind of book and I’m looking forward (or backwards?) to reading it.
Nearly done with this. I found myself laughing for several minutes when I read David say,
“Who is Dean Galt?”
Things like this crop up throughout the novel. I can’t decide if it’s genius or a trifle self indulgent; it’s at least funny. Enjoyable read. Thanks.