The Sweetest Debut: Elan Mastai on Spiderman Fan-Fic and 2016 as Dystopia


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

2016 America as dystopia? We’re quite intrigued by the present. Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays couldn’t arrive at a better time. The screenwriter-turned-novelist let us know about finding his inspiration in vintage sci-fi and Kurt Vonnegut and offered us a little bit of Peter Parker fanfiction.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book? The story is set in 2016, but it’s the 2016 that people in the 1950s thought we were going to have — a technological utopia of flying cars, robot maids, and teleportation. The main character, Tom Barren, causes an accident with a stolen time machine that strands him in our 2016, what we think of as the real world, but which to him seems like a terrifying dystopia where everything has gone wrong.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

How much I resent them. Also, time travel.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

Kind of my whole life. My grandfather, a chemist, had an extensive collection of 1950s and 1960s science fiction and as a kid I loved looking at the garishly painted covers of imagined futures. You know, robots and rockets and flying cars and ray guns and all that stuff. But even as a kid in the 1980s, I knew something was off. The future these artists and writers imagined wasn’t happening. I did not get a jet pack for my tenth birthday. As I grew up, I kept wondering what happened to the future we were promised. This book is my answer: Tom Barren stole a time machine and screwed it up for all of us.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer.

What about a book you’ve read more than two times?

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Also Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

Scott & Bailey. It’s like a modern British Cagney & Lacey about two female homicide detectives in Manchester that streams on Netflix. I don’t even particularly like cop shows, but I’m weirdly addicted to it.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

La La Land.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Sometimes. Mostly instrumental work by modern composers like Ludovico Einaudi, Philip Glass, Carly Comando, Max Richter, and Giles Lamb. Or movie soundtracks, particularly John Murphy and Hans Zimmer. For me, certain compositions become associated with a particular chapter or sequence in the story. I listen to the same track over and over again as I write it, and the rhythm and tone of what I’m writing mirrors the music. Nobody else would read the chapter and think of the composition I used, but it helps me pace key scenes. Later, when rewriting, I can play that track and be immediately transported to the feeling of that moment.

Who is your fashion icon?

George Jetson.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

Vernazza, in the Cinque Terre of Italy, on the Ligurian Coast. I’ve only been there once, but it was wonderful. I feel like even if everything I wrote there was total garbage, the food is so good I wouldn’t care.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

Competitive Lego assembler by day, space pirate by night.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Silent library for writing new pages, a buzzing coffee shop for revising those pages.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

A desk. People write on beds and couches? Isn’t that bad for your back? I worry about these people. A high-quality desk chair is an author’s best investment for their future motility.

Also, I just spent five minutes on the internet confirming that “motility” not “mobility” is the correct term here, so today is going great.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

Morning for writing material I’ve planned in advance and sticking to a productive daily schedule. But all my most unexpected and magical ideas happen when I stay up way too late typing into the night.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Definitely one big messy draft that gets edited when it’s done. I like to rewrite off completed material. I think if I stopped to revise as I went, I might never finish anything. I love rewriting. My reward for finishing a sprawling, disheveled first draft is the fun of making it better.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I feel very lucky that the answer is pen and wit. All Our Wrong Todays is my first novel, but I’ve been a working screenwriter for more than a decade. My most recent movie was called What If and starred Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, and Mackenzie Davis. My day job is writing movies. So maybe not pen and wit, but at least keyboard and quip.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Like a lot of first-time novelists, I had to work on my book around my day job. It just so happens my day job is also writing. So I wrote the early drafts of my book the same way most aspiring novelists do — on evenings and weekends. I set myself the small, manageable goal of writing 250-500 words a day, but doing it every single day. And that’s what I did. I squirreled away half an hour or forty-five minutes or an hour every day, including weekends, mostly evenings after my kids had gone to bed, until I had a finished first draft of the novel. And then I kept doing that while I revised the next couple of drafts. Once I sold the manuscript to Penguin Random House, I was able to make it a full-time commitment.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Peter Parker.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

With the mask on, he doesn’t care who looks at him. He wants to be looked at. He needs to be looked at. But when it’s off, he avoids his own reflection. He knows the face in the mirror will never be as compelling as the man in the mask. Which is why he can never really love someone that loves Peter Parker more than Spiderman. He’ll always doubt her true feelings. Worse, he’ll hope they aren’t her true feelings. He knows it’s wrong and damaged and dangerous to want her to love the mask more than the face it covers. So he tries to believe her, to feel her love is real, while secretly wishing she’s a liar who yearns for the mask, picturing it when she closes her eyes, desperately trying not to call out “Spiderman” when she gasps “Peter” in the dark.

Oh, wait, you said micro-fiction, not fan fiction. Sorry. That got creepy fast. Uh… is that the last question? That should probably be the last question.