Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone on writing This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a mind-expanding, heart-wrenching tale of dastardly intrigue and burgeoning romance that follows two supremely competent secret agents traveling through time to bend the arc of history toward their respective masters' incompatible political ends. The story is a shining example of the authors' lovely definition of literature in the acknowledgements: "Books are letters in bottles, cast into the waves of time, from one person trying to save the world to another."

Among other wonderful things, Max is the bestselling author of the Craft Sequence, and Amal is the New York Times Book Review's science fiction and fantasy columnist. Both are Hugo and Nebula Award-winners and are as generous as they are brilliant. In the following conversation, we explore their creative process, the power of speculative fiction, and how letters warp time and kindle intimacy.

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What is This Is How You Lose the Time War's origin story? How did you decide to write this particular book together?

Max: We knew we wanted to write a book together long before we knew we wanted to write this book. I came off a book tour one summer feeling a powerful need for solitude, and at the same time for deep connection, as one does after a week or two of the constant light chat that characterizes that sort of thing. I was feeling the miles. I found myself at an Italian restaurant near the Flatiron with a glass of wine and a folder of short stories Amal had sent me. We’d been corresponding—writing each other letters—for about a year by this point, but I hadn’t been able to receive any letters on the road, of course. The stories stood in for letters. Reading them I thought: these are great, they’re really really great, and there’s so much here that I’d love to learn from, and to work with, to work against. I started texting her as I left the restaurant. We need to write a book! It’ll bring the universe into harmony! And let dolphins sing!

How did writing the book change your understanding of time, love, and war? How do you read history differently having written about secret agents dueling to shape it?

Amal: I think we were both coming to the book with a sense of wonder around the expression of time in hand-written letters—that sense of folding up a singular moment of yourself and sending it into the future to be read by a person who doesn’t yet exist, and who’ll be reading a letter from a person who no longer exists, but was preserved in the amber of ink on paper. Wonder, too, around time’s stoppages: that a letter can include someone having stopped, perhaps even mid-sentence, walked away, and returned to the letter three days later, while the person receiving the letter reads it smoothly in a sitting. Or vice versa! These all seemed to touch on conceptions of time travel and intimacy—the vulnerability of committing a truth of yourself to your invention of a person—that we were already talking about, already developing, but getting to explore and articulate and develop them in the book, together, was just tremendous.

If This Is How You Lose the Time War is a conversation between the two of you, how does Red and Blue's correspondence reflect your joint creative process? What do you hope readers glean from your message in a bottle?

Amal: That sense of striving together, “against and for,” as we say in the book—of wanting to impress each other while pushing against our limits, our comfort zones, our areas of familiarity—was very much part of our writing process! You might find, too, as you read the book, that their insights and styles are blending a little—purpling, you might say—as they share themselves with each other, and this was very much our experience in crafting it. At the beginning of the process, Max wrote about four times as quickly as me, and had to wait for me to finish my sections; by Act Two, he slowed down and I sped up to the point where we were finishing at exactly the same time. There was definitely a feeling of… Synchronizing with each other, reaching towards each other, admiring and encouraging each other.

What did you learn about craft from cowriting the book? What did you learn about each other? What did the experience teach you? What advice can you offer other writers looking to develop and grow?

Max: It was so great to have someone specific in mind—as a reader, as audience, but also as a sort of good-natured competitor. Amal would write a line that totally slayed me, just laid me out on the mat, and I’d think, shit, I have to give her something back that’s at least that good. You get that sense of two rabbits racing one another. And then there’s the joy of swapping laptops, each seeing what the other one has written—cackling, because it’s better than you ever could have guessed. I think it’s important to write for an audience that impresses you.

What role does science fiction play in our culture? What does literature mean to you?

Max: Right now we’re in a culture of science fiction. Marketers spin science fictions to sell apps and technologies and political philosophies. I think science fiction, correctly practiced, can help see the water we’re swimming in, understand its weaknesses and failure modes. The rhetorical tools of science fiction (and fantasy) can tease out the implicit metaphors in our lives. If you’ve never had a headache before, you might need one described to you before you realize that’s why you’re miserable this afternoon, and take corrective action.

What books have changed each of your lives, influenced who you are becoming? What other books would fans of This Is How You Lose the Time War enjoy?

Amal: One of mine is in This Is How You Lose the Time War—I have Blue mention Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light, about which I’ve written elsewhere (in fact, the first thing of mine that Max read, if I’m not mistaken—before we’d met or exchanged words!). A more recent one is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which feels like the kind of book that arrives once a generation to just illuminate all the neglected corners of your soul and befriend the spiders making homes there. In terms of things fans of our book might enjoy—Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan books (A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace), Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga (Jade City, Jade War, Jade Legacy), Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower, and Sofia Samatar’s Olondria books (A Stranger in Olondria, The Winged Histories) are the tip of the iceberg of things I’d like to recommend.

Max: In case anyone who’s read This Is How You Lose the Time War hasn’t read Madeline Miller’s books, I think Song of Achilles and Circe are brilliant, must-reads. Beyond that—these aren’t necessarily anything like Time War but they are books that found me like a rope finds someone at the bottom of a deep dark pit: Kay Ryan’s poetry collection The Best of It, Sarah Caudwell’s brilliant, witty, sly Hillary Tamar mysteries beginning with Thus Was Adonis Murdered, and Karin Tidbeck’s short story collection Jagganath.

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Complement with Alix E. Harrow on writing The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Meg Howrey on writing The Wanderers, and my recent TechCrunch interview about how speculative fiction empowers readers to challenge the status quo.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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