Science fiction fans are in for a treat this summer. Author Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone combined their forces to share a story of two enemy spies corresponding in the middle of a war for the future. Readers who have been counting down the days until This Is How You Lose the Time War hits shelves are in luck: Bookish has an excerpt of the novel and is giving away advance reading copies! To celebrate the raffle, El-Mohtar and Gladstone shared the process behind writing the book together. Check out the behind the scenes details below, and then visit BookishFirst to read the excerpt and enter to win an ARC.
Amal El-Mohtar: Hello, Max!
Max Gladstone: Hello Amal!
AE: So, here we are, co-authors of a novella, doing this interview together.
MG: It’s strange to be writing this on the verge of publication. We wanted people to read this book, of course—but as we were writing it, it felt like something private, prepared for each other. So it’s exciting to share, but also risky—we’ve decorated the house for ourselves, and now we’re getting ready to welcome guests.
AE: I love that analogy so much. That’s exactly what it feels like—inviting people into this very specific experience. Maybe part of why I feel that way is that we didn’t, at the outset, say “Let’s write an epistolary time-travel spy-versus-spy novella,” right? We said, “Let’s collaborate on a novella together.” It was the togetherness, the shared experience, the working with each other that we wanted, and the rest was details.
MG: I think that’s part of why this book works so well. I so often feel the lure of genre and archetype, you know—the desire to write a noir, or a heist, or a book that reads like Dorothy Dunnett. That approach has some strengths! You know what you’re trying to convey, and you have a set of tools at your disposal.
AE: Oh, to write a book that reads like Dorothy Dunnett! #goals
MG: Right? But I don’t think you can get there by wanting to get there. One of the things that made the writing process of Time War so special for me was the clarity of writing for one specific other person—it let me relax about a lot of ultimately meaningless frittering about with pace or structure or reversal. So the drama and the story’s grip on the reader rises out of the characters Red and Blue.
AE: I felt the same way. Let’s take a step back and actually explain how exactly we even wrote this thing. We sat in a gazebo, in July of 2016, in an undisclosed location. You had a gloriously clackety keyboard that felt like a sprightly throwback to a different era; I had a very old laptop that was definitely a throwback to a different era but less charmingly. You wrote Red, and I wrote Blue. One of us would write a letter, and one would write the situation in which that letter was received.
And you, write with a swiftness that I admire and, if I’m honest, slightly covet. So at first our exchanges involved you waiting around for me to finish my sections. And I was a little embarrassed about this!
MG: Unnecessarily! I like speed out of the gate, because as soon as you start writing, you have something to edit. Also I’d be sitting there thinking, “Wow, Amal’s taking this really seriously, maybe I should go deeper here.”
AE: Ha! But then as we went on, I sped up and you slowed down, and we started finishing our sections at exactly the same time, which was thrilling and dizzying. Writing is usually so goddamn solitary. And what a gift, to be able to bypass all the usual writerly insecurities by having this instant confirmation in your writing partner’s eyes that what you’ve written is beautiful and good and exciting and we have to do more immediately!
MG: Yes! One of the hardest parts of solo work is sitting there brooding over a piece, not knowing whether any of it is any good—maybe you can show some of your work to people on the road, but they can’t see the whole thing. It was such a joyful thing to just show you! And what a reward to see your parts of the story taking shape while I was working on my own.
AE: I also felt—and I wonder if you did too—that with things that my brain usually slipped or shied away from, things that I found hard or intimidating, I actually focused on and tried to think through because you were there, a resource and support.
MG: I had the same experience. Part of that was knowing you were reading it, but part of it was also the letter form helping out. In third person narrative I still focus on conveying feelings through gaps, exterior descriptions, and blocking. But letter-writing is about communication. Your characters have to say what they mean—what they feel! I mean, I guess they don’t actually have to; they can lie and mislead themselves and others, but they have to say something. There is no letter if you don’t write one.
AE: Yes! I think this actually found its expression in our characters, too, and one of the pivotal moments in the book: when Blue says, “Tell me something true or tell me nothing at all.” The taunts and tags are all well and good, but the medium generates intimacy, makes intimacy inevitable, and then demands that intimacy be honored—even when you find yourself being intimate with your enemy.
MG: Red and Blue are constantly doubling down. In the beginning, the risk lies in trading letters at all—they’re agents for different futures, fighting a war to change history, and if their correspondence is discovered, they’ll be killed. But there’s only so long you can thwart someone without wanting to rub their nose in it. And there’s only so long you can fight on your own, without wanting someone to talk to.
So each exchange is a kind of turning point—is this still worth it? Will this next letter be the end? And that moment for Blue really throws the gauntlet down. “If this was all about flash and show and taunt, you would have left already. So: Why are you still here?”
AE: Exactly. You know how fight choreography and dance choreography are so similar? And there are fights that look like dancing and dances that look like fighting? It feels, with these characters, like they start out sparring with actions and then move into sparring with confidences. What if I told you this about myself? Would you pull away or draw closer? What do you parry with, how do you disarm? There’s a kind of fatalism in it, because they’re both also weary with the war, but there’s also a thrill, I think, in surrendering, in being vulnerable in ways they never would otherwise allow themselves to be.
MG: Yes! Both Red and Blue have so much armor up in the opening pages, because of how long they’ve been at this war and how resigned they’ve grown to it. They’ve run so many risks and come out on top. And what starts here as a sort of game of chicken becomes a deep human connection, which is the greatest risk of all.
AE: My dad recently finished reading the book, and said that he hoped people would realize it was a deeply political book. I didn’t really ask him to elaborate, because everything anyone writes is political, but it now occurs to me to wonder—how do you feel about that word, with all its loadedness attached to this book?
MG: For my part, I think it is political—it’s about people stuck on two different sides of history, in the service of forces that want to own them completely. There’s no room for humanity in that kind of struggle. Where Red envisions just living next door, being able to trade books, talk about their days—that vision of a life bigger than the all-consuming war—that’s a political position.
AE: Right, and very specifically the end results of the time war aren’t human as we understand humanity—one future is a giant sentient Garden and the other is a post-Singularity unembodied cyberworld.
MG: Yes! And that’s a conversation we so often find ourselves in right now—at least, that’s how it feels to me. Everything feels like a jumping off point to forever. I find myself thinking a lot of the line at the end of Into the Woods—”No more giants / waging war / Can’t we just pursue our lives / with our children and our wives?” It might sound like that’s a call to surrender but it’s set to the most defiant music in the whole musical. That space, to be human, to love, to raise a family, is something worth fighting for—against all the forces of history.
AE: Oh, absolutely. Listen, my next column for the New York Times Book Review is all about time travel books, and it is really, really affecting me to recognize that time travelling queer ladies is a sub-genre right now. Kate Heartfield‘s Alice Payne Arrives, Kate Mascarenhas‘ The Psychology of Time Travel, Kameron Hurley‘s The Light Brigade—all supremely different books in genre and style, all featuring time-travelling women who fall in love with women, who throw themselves at the literal concept of time in order to protect their loved ones. All, crucially, being published at roughly the same time, ergo likely written at roughly the same time—a time when it felt like everyone started talking about being in the wrong timeline, the bad timeline, when reality started to feel unmoored. We only wrote the ending of this book post-November 2016, sitting across from each other in True Grounds in Somerville, but that whole year we were talking so much about what was in the air, the poison of it—and I think we were also talking a lot about how friendship is anti-capitalist, about Steven Universe and fusion, all that good stuff.
MG: Yes, exactly. Everything that happened in 2016 was in the air and water already as we were writing. The darkest timeline feeling was real—I guess for me it felt more like an eruption of something deep. All of a sudden these shadows I kept seeing in the corners of my vision became specific and clear.
The part of American politics that makes me think most specifically about time travel has been the degree to which the last few years have thrust me back to history. There hasn’t been a sudden change—this was always a piece (some would say the whole) of America. Woody Guthrie literally wrote a song about Donald Trump’s father being a racist. There’s this moment where you wake up and realize you’re living in the timeline where Reconstruction failed. But of course there were abolitionists all along, and Woody Guthrie was there to write that song. You just become aware that history is contested. People are fighting over it all the way back.
AE: Yes, this, completely! There’s so much thematic resonance to the idea that we’re fighting wars in time—because we’re constantly literally doing that as well as figuratively doing that. We curate the past as a matter of course, fight over what gets established as history, unearth different narratives and paradigms. In Canada museums are still being shamed into acknowledging that this country is built on genocide of indigenous people, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documenting and detailing the horrors of the residential school system was concluded in 2015. Four years later, we’re still fighting over a single word, genocide—not to mention who we honor with school names and statues and public buildings.
Ok that got a bit heavy, so let’s conclude with this: what is Red’s ideal beverage? Her preference, I mean, given the vastness of all time and space.
MG: In all time and space, huh? I see Red as a whiskey-inclined individual. I was about to say “but you can’t drink whiskey forever,” but with her augments, she probably could!
AE: This Is How You Booze the Time War, amirite?
MG: Blue: favorite way to spend an afternoon?
AE: I promise these characters are not paper-thin representations of us, but she 100% just wants to be left alone to read a book in the sunshine.
On which note—go forth, friends, and read your bliss!
Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning author, editor, and critic. Her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron” won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards and was a finalist for the World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Aurora, and Eugie Foster awards. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty-eight different kinds of honey, and contributes criticism to NPR Books and The New York Times. Her fiction has most recently appeared on Tor.com and Uncanny Magazine, and in anthologies such as The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. She is presently pursuing a PhD at Carleton University and teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa. She can be found online at @Tithenai.
Max Gladstone is the author of the Hugo-nominated Craft Sequence, which Patrick Rothfuss called “stupefyingly good.” The sixth book, Ruin of Angels, was released this September. Max’s interactive mobile game Choice of the Deathless was nominated for the XYZZY Award, and his critically acclaimed short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine, and in anthologies such as XO Orpheus: Fifty New Myths and The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. John Crowley described Max as “a true star of twenty first century fantasy.” Max has sung in Carnegie Hall and was once thrown from a horse in Mongolia.