Last week, I went to Waterstones Piccadilly to hear two debut authors speak about their recently published debut novels. Elan Mastai, author of All Our Wrong Todays and Katie Khan, author of Hold Back the Stars were in conversation with the BBC’s Joe Haddow. Both books explore the idea of utopias – with dystopic tendencies – and although the books are quite different from each other, interesting parallels in the inspiration and approach emerged in the discussion.
Both writers were asked to outline their elevator pitch which they did without hesitation. Katie’s was ‘Gravity meets One Day’ which was frowned upon by her tutors at the Faber Academy but has been embraced by everyone else since. She went on to explain that her initial inspiration was to write about a couple falling through space with only 90 minutes of air. Elan was a little more expansive in conveying his: he said he wanted to create a version of the future that people in the 1960s thought we’d have today set against a background of problems that ordinary people encounter in any decade. He wanted to look at our world from the perspective of someone who doesn’t belong here.
Both authors have a background in film. Katie works for Paramount as Head of Digital Marketing but is about to move to Warner Bros where she’ll be working on the next Harry Potter film. Canadian born Elan has been a screenwriter for the past dozen years whose films include What If? which starred Daniel Radcliffe. So naturally they were asked about the difference between writing novels and films.
Elan feels that the idea for the story dictates its form and enjoys the chance to flex different muscles, depending on the project. He relishes the fact that you can do things in books you can’t do in any other medium, citing the page which has caught a lot of early readers’ attention which comprises only expletives, partly included as a visual joke. He also likes the control a novelist has. Film-makers are part of huge teams, who are often risk averse due to the large amounts of money required, and you can’t always tell is a view voiced is strongly felt or offered just for the sake of it. In writing his novel, he embraced the freedom of pushing the boundaries of the story and being answerable to himself and his editors.
The way Katie described her process suggests she was more directly influenced by film – she tends to eschew description and maintained a 90-minute story with a three-act structure very much like a movie. She conceived discrete scenes before she wrote them and then carefully interleaved them, building in thematic links so a switch from the past to present didn’t seem too disjointed. She also used an Excel spreadsheet to plot out the book – something I’ve never heard an author admit before.
Is much of the authors’ own characters in the book? Katie gave her male lead her own gallows’ humour and tendency to laugh at inappropriate moments. Unlike his own hero, Elan generally tries to minimise conflict in situations in which he finds himself
How did the authors handle research? Elan explained that one of his ‘pet peeves’ about time travel stories is when authors keep adding to the rules to get themselves out of plot holes. So he conducted thorough research and leavened the facts with humour. Katie’s research was focused closer to home. She looked at the technology available now and wondered what a futuristic utopian version would be like.
Neither writer claimed to be prophetic, although the parallels between the futures they imagined on the page and real life now, on publication, have been widely remarked upon by readers here and in the States. But they’re comfortable with their versions – although perhaps Katie feels slightly regretful that the dystopian aspects of her invented world mirror reality so closely. But you have to let go once you’ve written your book and move on to new novels – which is what both writers are currently doing.
The moments that endeared me most to each of these books – which I’m looking forward to reading – came at different stages of the evening but both concerned the same thing – not research, exactly, but a context provided by the legacy of two historical events, 20 years apart, remembered with affection, and which clearly moved both writers as people first, novelists second.
Katie had had the initial idea for her novel some years earlier but the book came together during the 2012 Olympics. She wanted to base her utopian world of the atmosphere of jubilation and camaraderie that the city embraced. When Elan planned his alternative future he thought back to when he was a child, attending Expo 86 in his home city of Vancouver – and his unforgotten excitement at being surrounded by utopian ideals made real in a celebration of aesthetics and function.
I found it moving to hear how those very instinctive, unprocessed reactions to events shared with thousands of people contributed to the creation of such high-concept, structured works of fiction written in complete isolation. They reassured me that these aren’t just books for die-hard fans of dystopian genre but for all kinds of readers.
Last year I attended a discussion between writers Emma Straub and Carys Bray, which you can read about here.