Ottawa Writers Festival: Amal El-Mohtar is fighting the time war one event at a time

Amal El-Mohtar.

There’s nothing Amal El-Mohtar likes more than a good conversation — whether with friends, her students or even an inquiring journalist.

El-Mohtar, who is a poet and a writer of speculative fiction, has now produced a novella called This is How You Lose the Time War based on a dialogue between two elite time travelling agents of opposing warring entities written with the American Max Gladstone.

The old adage is that two heads are better than one when it comes to problem solving or apparently novel writing.

There is definitely a buzz about this book. It’s attracted attention from book festivals, from overseas publishers and Hollywood. The new Wiip Studio established by American TV heavyweight Paul Lee has optioned the book and asked El-Mohtar and Gladstone to write a script for a pilot. They have even been give titles of co-executive producers on the project.

This has El-Mohtar on the road this summer and when ARTSFILE caught up her she was in Seattle teaching at Clarion West in a six week intensive creative writing workshop.

“I am perpetually losing the time war,” she said.

After Seattle, she flew to Boston for an event called Readercon and then she was headed home to Ottawa for the launch of her book on July 18 in the NAC. She’s doing most of the events because her co-writer is a new dad and grounded in Boston, his home turf.

On top of that, she is struggling with difficulties flying into the U.S. Somehow her name has been flagged and every time she flies into the U.S. she is detained and questioned for hours. She has even had a Nexus card revoked.

“Mysteriously the land border is not a problem to cross,” she said, so she often drives to events in the States.

“The fact that the country, where the bulk of my career is, is so difficult for me to get into is very frustrating. It is so arbitrary.”

The story of Time War is this in a nut shell:

Two time-traveling agents from warring futures, working their way through the past, notice each other and admire each other’s violent work from afar. Then they start exchanging letters — and then they fall in love.

The unlikely correspondence between the two rivals, one named Red and the other named Blue, who are working for opposing warring factions, ultimately grows into love. The names are deliberately generic and they represent the ends of the spectrum of light.

It’s Romeo and Juliet in the space time continuum one supposes. The story is fast-paced, intelligent and funny despite the dystopian violence that’s swirling around each. One can understand why it might attract a production company.

But it is complex and having two brains at work on the same project prompts a question — how did they write it?

“Almost three fifths of it we wrote over the course of nine days, when we were at a retreat. We literally wrote it sitting across the table from each other in a gazebo. We wrote whole thing in each other’s company,” El-Mohtar said.

Max wrote all of Red and Amal wrote Blue.

“One of us would be writing a situation in which a letter was received and the other would write the letter. We would discuss the situation in which the letter was received but we wouldn’t discuss the letters. So each letter was always a surprise both to the person writing and to the person reading it.”

At the start of the process, Gladstone was a much faster writer.

“As we went through the process, the beautiful thing that happened was that he slowed down and I speeded up.

“We ended up producing material almost at exactly at the same time.”

Why do this?

“We had recently become friends and very quickly became fast friends. We loved each other’s writing.

“He texted me and said we should write something together.” She agreed.

“The whole structure of the novella came out of the fact that we wanted to write something together.”

So they met and decided the work should be a novella which would involve less of a time commitment than a whole novel.

They also decided that “it would be epistolary because we had been writing each other letters for about a year at that point. We basically figured that time travel is inherent in letters.” Then the idea grew of writing a time war story with two characters who start writing each other letters.

Gladstone has several books under his belt and El-Mohtar has written short fiction that has won awards, “but this feels like a blending of the best of both of us. I feel we challenged each other to go beyond our comfort zones in a lot of different ways.”

She compared the process to the film Pacific Rim by Guillermo del Toro. In the film huge robots are used to combat giant Godzilla like monsters. But the robots cannot be operated successfully by one person alone. El-Mohtar does have eclectic tastes.

“That is part the intuitive process we were reaching for with this book, ” she said.

And then there is the fact that letters are a very old form of communication being used in a highly speculative fiction.

“The book is straddling an interesting line in (writing) communities as well. We are both very embedded in the science fiction and fantasy writing communities but Max and I read widely. I am also an academic. Neither of us are strangers to the literary mainstream.

“I am very much interested in reconciling science fiction and fantasy with mainstream literature.”

She said, at the start, the book was very loosely plotted and structured.

“We had a sense that we wanted five acts. In the beginning (Red and Blue) are worthy foes who are interested in each other. The trajectory of the book sees them figuring out they have more in common with each other than they do with either of their respective sides in the time war.

“The thing that makes them as good at their jobs as they are is the thing that alienates them from their respective societies.

“Our approach to building the world of this novella is like seeing flashes of scenery as you are moving through space 0n a train. Every mission, every locale, is only glimpsed.”

Now that the book is gaining traction, El-Mohtar is trying to keep grounded.

“As with anything with Hollywood you have to keep the expectations low. But they have actually hired us to do work. We know for sure we are writing a pilot.

“This is a first for me. It’s been wonderful to get introduced to this process. I sort of feel like I have cheated. Most people get this kind of experience with their first novel. I have written half a novella.

“It has a hard cover. It’s such a beautiful object. I have never had that for my work. I have been working in short fiction and in poetry, so I am used to having a story in an anthology. But to have this and to share it with Max is really special.”

El-Mohtar was born in Ottawa but her family moved to Aylmer and then to Luskville on the Ottawa River (The family, including Amal, was sandbagging this spring once again.).

She read The Hobbit at age seven. And she was reading fairy tales and mythology too.

“I have a thing that I try to convince people of because it’s the truth. All fiction is fantasy. The world is chaos and to impose your will on it to make a narrative is a magical act.

“At that point why not put dragons and time travel in your story.”

She wrote her first poem at seven and her parents celebrated and encouraged her writing. More incentive came from the fact that her grandfather was a poet too.

She did two degrees in English at uOttawa and now is finishing up her PhD at Carleton.

“My dissertation is on the role of fairies in English writing in the Romantic period.” She is looking at writers such as James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats.

She thought she needed the degrees to get a job that would help her support her writing habit.

“It is hilariously the other way around right now. My writing career is supporting my academic pursuits right now.”

Fitting in all this is tricky.

Her thesis is due in the fall. She starts a teaching job at uOttawa at the same time. It involves co-ordinating the school’s creative writing program.

And then she has to fulfill commitments for the book.

After Ottawa she’s off to Worldcon in Dublin, Ireland and then she travels to Glasgow, Scotland and London, England for events. The UK rights to the book have been sold.

“If I can make it through 2019 and 2020 and graduate in June next year maybe everything will feel easy after that.”

This is How You Lose the Time War (Saga Press)
Amal-El Mohtar and Max Gladstone
In town: Amal El-Mohtar will be in the NAC’s Rossy Pavilion to launch the book on July 18 at 7 p.m. For information: 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.