The Big Idea: Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
In today’s Big Idea, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone are feeling epistolary, which, considering the letter-writing format of their collaborative novella This is How You Lose the Time War, is entirely appropriate.
AMAL EL-MOHTAR and MAX GLADSTONE:
I write to you from the past—knowing you’re presently asleep while I’m awake, three hours’ worth of time zone between us—to talk about ideas. It’s tricky to know where to begin; when the most succinct description we can manage of our book clocks in at “epistolary spy vs. spy novella across time and space,” the ideas crowd and clutter.
But I think it all ultimately begins and ends with us. The two of us, becoming friends, and writing each other letters.
Do you remember when we first decided to write something together? I know the fact of it, but I don’t remember the hour, the words—only that we loved each other’s work, wanted to work together, wanted to set a sensible boundary of how and when and for how long to work together. A novella, not a novel or short story; something epistolary, to give our voices space to harmonize in their difference. I remember the plan, scribbled on a paper on the coffee table in my parents’ house, and the season, a cold snowy spring—but I wish I could remember, rather than invent, the moment in which one of us suggested it.
But I do remember the refrain we developed once we’d secured the time and space for a writing retreat at which to work. We spoke of
that we will write
in [mysterious benefactor]’s house.”
We used it as punctuation, as shorthand, and we made jokes of it. Dolphins will speak! The stars will throw down their spears and water heaven with their tears! Because of
that we will write
in [mysterious benefactor]’s house.
We always structured it as hyperbole and line breaks. Ludicrously grand and specific claims capped with a bob and wheel, a promise, a spell. And look, look at this magic we made between us—our book is real, is soaring on red and blue wings, and my heart is a bird on a spit in my chest, as the prophets say.
So that’s how I see it, anyway—our Big Idea was that we wanted to write together. We wanted to find a methodology for blending our styles, for working together
on a novella
that we would write
in [Mysterious Benefactor]’s house
but that’s only the half of it, I think. I’m holding my memory up to the light, but I so badly want to see yours, what colours your own memory will cast against this page. What do you remember, Max? What’s the core of this, for you?
It’s your future as I’m writing this—you still have a few hours of morning left. Enjoy them! Learn from my mistakes! Unfortunately the only mistakes I’m aware of so far today are, as follows: 1. didn’t have protein with breakfast, so I’m peckish now that it’s lunchtime, and 2. spent time on Twitter chatting about queer subtext (not to mention text) in the Great Gatsby. AND I ALONE AM ESCAPED TO TELL THEE!
So, in sum, it’s been okay over here, at least insofar as things-I-can-control are concerned. Wish I had more Future Wisdom to impart! Most of the things I’m discovering right now on a day to day basis have to do with child care, and most of them boil down to the fact that hardly anyone knows hardly anything, and that it’s a wonder and a miracle any of us is alive at all.
But to your question, about memories: I actually remember the initial conversation! I could find the date without much trouble, but since we intend this particular correspondence for outside observers I’m chary of letting others that close to the marrow of the thing. Suffice to say I was on my way home from a long, long tour, a bunch of authors in a single car, and I’d hit New York City dog tired and careworn.
New York is a great city to wash up in. You vanish like a grain of salt into a water glass. I was feeling that weird dry kind of lonesome you get when you’ve been around people too long and all of a sudden they’re gone—you’re worn out and hungry to be alone, but when you are, you feel like you’ve done something wrong. That one day, everyone I knew in the city was busy, or so far away it didn’t make sense for them to come. So I found an Italian restaurant near the Flatiron that had a restaurant week special, sat by myself at the bar, and opened up a folder of your stories to read.
We’d been corresponding for a while by this point, longhand, extremely low-tech. (It still feels weird to write you email! Or to text, even, after such a long entirely paper-based correspondence.) Naturally I’d read your criticism and I’d read The Green Book, but I hadn’t read your other stories; I’m honestly not sure why. I’d been writing you from the tour, but, of course, travel being what it is, I couldn’t get any letters back. I remember struggling to post them, hoping the counter attendants at the tiny B&Bs with their breakfast room TVs showing bad politics would remember to drop them in the mailbox. Anyway—I was starved for replies by this point, and I had a folder of your stories—so there at the bar, I read them all, one after another. Your friend’s story is not entirely your friend—but you can feel them in it, and also there’s a pure self betrayed in the telling of a good story. You learn what someone cares about by learning what they love, or hate, enough to write down.
By the end of the night I was drunk on those stories. They were different from my work—but they were so full, and so finished. I could also see how they meshed, sort of sideways, with my own concerns & projects. Basically I was overcome with a desire to just get out the instruments and jam, high school garage band style. Surely, if we could do something together, the spheres would revolve into harmony, dolphins would speak, all that’s mean and evil in the world would suffer revelation and weep for the harm it caused, and all forms of life would enter into a great colloquy.
I guess there’s a lot of Bill and Ted in that vision, which is appropriate, given what came later.
So, basically: that one night on the walk back to the hotel I grabbed my phone and texted you how we had to write something together. And you said yes! And that’s where it started.
But of course it started further back, didn’t it? With letters. Do you want to talk about the letters?
I’m so grateful for your memory. It’s aligned the tumblers in my own mind’s lock, and the hour and my surroundings spilled out: I remember that conversation, when you read my stories, so clearly! I was standing in my sister’s kitchen, probably staying over—I was especially nomadic that year—when you texted, and I remember glowing more and more brightly, feeling unspeakably happy to be seen.
Which is also my memory of writing letters.
There is, in letter-writing, a tender and terrible vulnerability. To write a letter is to commit one’s naked self to the page, to send it into the future with no more protection than paper and wax, and to place that self in the hands of a person you’re inventing, a person who may or may not actually exist. One can, of course, write at several layers of remove—party invitations, thank you notes, the equivalent of a friendly nod in letter and ink—but cards are not correspondence; that friendly nod is not a tête-à-tête. To write a letter, longhand over pages, is to delve inevitably into one’s own thoughts, to reach for things we don’t know we feel until we’ve dredged up the words for them, and in so doing make a single person’s future self privy to the unbearable intimacy of our present.
“How I love to have no armor here,” writes Red to Blue, as their own correspondence deepens.
I remember that when we started writing to each other, I used whatever I had to hand—sheets of harsh white paper stolen from the printer, jammed into white #10 envelopes, scribbled on with whatever pen was nearest me. The content, I figured, was what was important—but then you started writing back on gorgeous creamy G. Lalo paper, so I got the same brand to match, and I introduced you to sealing wax, and suddenly it felt like our correspondence was robed in sensory magic, easily distinguished at a glance from the press of bank statements and circulars. We’d committed to physicality, to slowness, to something that couldn’t be approximated in email, no matter how swift and effusive the clack of keys beneath our fingers. We’d committed to time travel—and didn’t those letters have a knack of arriving just when we needed them? When the weight of the world pressed against our lungs, and those golden envelopes stamped in colour arrived bearing a space in which to breathe?
Your letter, this one, found me at my gate in the San Francisco airport, minutes before boarding a flight to Seattle, and closed a circle years in the making. Because all this began with you on tour writing to me—and here I am, on a tour launched by the book we wrote together, a book we wrote because we’d written letters to each other, writing you a letter about our book.
It feels fully as magical, to me, as finding words in the rings of a thousand year old tree, or the swirl of tea leaves in a porcelain cup.
Tea leaves, tree rings, and wax seals—when we started writing letters I was surprised by how dangerous the whole project felt.
Even to me that sounds a little weird. After all, what could be more normal than dropping a letter in the mail?
Maybe it was the fact that we both spent a lot of time on the internet and at conventions, participating in Public Discourse in front of the whole world. There’s so much thought in public these days—and so much of that public thought is tactical, designed to accomplish a specific effect, whether that’s gathering a following or even wasting someone else’s time. Lots of good comes from that public conversation, but it’s all so omnivoracious. Twitter wants your every idle thought.
By contrast, writing letters felt like staking out our own territory—a small paper space between the two of us, unscanned, unhindered. The letters were so fragile! Walking to the mailbox in a blizzard I’d find myself thinking how easy they would be to destroy. Dropping one in a puddle would do it. And yet—how many thoughts have I dashed off in seconds and sent whirling off into the void, barely remarked upon except, of course, by a vast silent intelligence that records all I say and do, and uses it to build shareholder value? In a sense those words will last forever—they’ll last as long as capital sees value in unstructured human generated text, anyway—but in a more real sense they’ve been ripped from me altogether. While letters only last as long as paper.
Then again, some paper has lasted longer than capitalism. And, as the man says: manuscripts don’t burn.
The phrase hadn’t yet entered the public consciousness back then, but in a real sense writing letters felt like we were both fighting to reclaim our time. We were carving a few hours a week out to impose some order on our own lives, and offer that to a friend. And I think there’s a bit of that rebellion come through in the book, too—a quest for silence and slow time in a world where all that’s solid melts into air.
And now we’ve made a book. We’ve written the novella we would write at [the mysterious benefactor]’s house. Sending it off to readers feels a bit scary—part of the reason this was such a hard project to title was that for most of its life we referred to it either by the file name, or simply as
we would write
In [the mysterious benefactor]’s house.
It’s scary to think of those words out there as a product! But if a book is a commodity of a sort it’s a kind of letter, too, sent out in a bottle on the waves in search of a reader. Fragile ink on fragile paper, or ephemeral strings of ones and zeroes, here one minute and gone the next, leaving marks in dreams. Now it’s out there in the world. And we’ll have to see what it does there—what further moves it inspires in this great weird Time War we’re all, always, fighting to win. Or to lose.