Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone: Letter Space

Amal El-Mohtar was born December 13, 1984 in Ottawa, Canada, and grew up there, apart from two years spent in Lebanon, where her family is from. She began publishing short fiction with “The Crow’s Caw” (2006) and has published scores of stories and poems, nota­bly Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Award winner “Seasons of Glass and Iron” (2016, also a World Fantasy, Sturgeon Memorial, and Aurora Award final­ist), Nebula Award finalists “The Green Book” (2010) and “Madeleine” (2015), World Fantasy Award finalist “Pockets” (2015), Locus Award winner “The Truth About Owls” (2014), and Rhysling Award winners “Song for An Ancient City” (2008), “Peach-Creamed Honey” (2010), and “Turning the Leaves” (2013). Some of her short fiction is collected in The Honey Month (2010). She started editing poetry magazine Goblin Fruit with Jessica P. Wick in 2006, and in 2018 began writing the Otherworldly SF/fantasy column for the New York Times Book Review. She has taught at Carleton University (where she is currently pursuing a doctorate in English) and the University of Ottawa. El-Mohtar lives in Ottawa (and occasionally Glasgow) with husband Stuart West, married in 2015.

Max Walker Gladstone was born May 28, 1984 in Concord MA, and grew up mostly in Ohio and Tennessee. He graduated from Yale University, where he studied Chinese. He has been to China several times, and lived there from 2006-8 as a Yale-China Fellow, teaching in a rural school. Debut novel Three Parts Dead (2012) began the Craft sequence, which continues in Two Serpents Rise (2013), Full Fathom Five (2014), Last First Snow (2015), Four Roads Cross (2016), and The Ruin of Angels (2017). His standalone The Empress of Forever appeared in 2019. Gladstone was a finalist for the Campbell Award for best new writer in 2013 and 2014. He also writes games, notably interactive fiction Choice of the Deathless, and created serial collaborative fictions Bookburners (four seasons, 2015-18) and The Witch Who Came In From the Cold (2017, co-created with Lindsay Smith) for Serial Box. Gladstone lives in Somerville MA with his wife, Stephanie Neely.

El-Mohtar & Gladstone collaborated on the epistolary SF novella This Is How You Lose the Time War (2019).

Excerpts from the interview:

Max Gladstone: Amal and I started writing letters to one another. That’s where it begins. We had talked at conventions, enjoyed hanging out with one another, and found there’s a difficulty in connecting online. The online space is very public. It’s hard to be vulnerable and available and personal there. It’s the water cooler, and you end up behaving as you behave at the company water cooler. We wanted to talk more, but Amal’s in Ottawa, and I was in the States, so letters felt like a good choice.

Amal El-Mohtar: I wrote a note to Max and his partner Steph after having a really nice time at a con. That catalyzed a process – we were still talking in other media, like we’d communicate on Twitter and stuff, but it felt like we’d begun a conversation in letters, and that was happen­ing with a different texture and a different quality. We were bringing the selves to it that you would bring to a friend. If you were actually sitting in a friend’s home and having a really intense conversation into the night and stuff like that – it felt more like that space. Even then, there’s a differ­ence. We talk about letter space as its own kind of quality. Letter space is its own thing. We were writing this way for a while, and then there came a point where Max was going on tour for Last First Snow. He started writing me letters from the tour, which I was delighted to receive, but I couldn’t reply because he was always on the move. I was slowly writing a big letter in response, but in the meantime Max was sending out single letters into silence.

MG: I had been writing Amal from tour, just short letters every night – almost like a journal, more than anything else. I’d call Steph and then write a quick letter, seal it all up and drop it off at the hotel the next morning when I left. I hadn’t received letters back, obviously, because I was on the tour. But I did have a folder with a bunch of Amal’s short fiction, which I hadn’t read. She’d sent me a link to it just a few days before I left. I’d been saving it to read, but I hadn’t had as much time as I’d expected to read on the trail. When I came off the tour, which I’d done with a number of other authors, I found myself in New York, alone, around sunset. I was leaving early the next day on Amtrak. It wasn’t the kind of thing where I could call friends and just have them schlep up to midtown or something like that. I found an Italian restaurant near the Flatiron building and sat down and had a good dinner by myself with a glass of wine and read Amal’s stories. I really loved them. I’d read Amal’s critical work and non-fiction before, but the stories felt so right, I could tell that while our writing styles were very different, there was something simpatico. I don’t know how to say it exactly – in our interests, or our pace, or the kind of things we were ap­proaching, there were connections. Reading those stories reminded me of the exchange of letters. I left the restaurant feeling great and bubbly and thinking, “We should really work on something together. I’d love to figure out how to do what you’re doing here, or to work in the same context.” I thought there was so much we could bring to a project. That’s rare and special and cool, the joy of that feeling: “Oh, there’s something here, really.”

AE: At that point I had read and reviewed Max’s books, which was a big part of my growing admiration for both Max the human and Max the author. He texted me saying, “We should work together,” and I was just like, “Yes!”, immediately. There was just this joy that we could actually work on something together, but also the same feeling of joyful reciprocity that came from the letters. Whenever we were writing to each other, there was a lot of, “Yes, also me! Yes, me too! Yes, I also feel this thing!” and that reciprocity was so much at the heart of my excitement at the prospect of working together – that we could mutually admire each other’s work as well as getting on as people was really lovely.

MG: There’s this wave of discovery in early friendship, line by line in a letter or text, or in the sort of fortuitous moments that happen over drinks and then never happen again, but you both remember them. It felt really intense and sort of weird. Our families are very different and we come from very different backgrounds, but there’d be these moments of, “Yes, that exact thing happened to me when I was 15!”

AE: Our dads are so the same. It’s really weird.

MG: It’s mind-boggling. We even realized that we had mutual friends in spite of having seemingly no social circle overlap, living in different countries –

AE: Mutual friends not in genre.

MG: There are friends outside of the genre? Impossible.

AE: Is there a world outside of the genre?

MG: Not these days! There was a feeling of intense mutuality inside the letters, and there was a joy in finding that also inside her fiction. I texted Amal, like, “We’ve got to work on something together, and it will solve all the world’s problems, and bring the stars into alignment.”

AE: At this point we had no idea what we would write about.

MG: Zero. Zero concept, outside of, I don’t know, apocalyptic awe­someness.

AE: In a slim 200 pages we’ve destroyed hundreds of worlds.

MG: Two worlds per page, basically.

AE: What was more important than the story we wanted to tell was the joyful experience we wanted to share of working on something together, so we started to think about things in terms of those parameters. Recognizing that we are very busy people, what is the length of the thing that we can work on together? What about a novella, because novels are too long? Also Max was writing roughly eight million novels a year, at that point.

MG: This Is How You Lose the Time War was not a ton more work than writing half a novella, the way that we handled it. I did this deeply mercenary calculation, sort of as a complement to this joyful experience, “We should do something together!” – “You know, I can write x number of words per hour; a novella is at most 30,000 words; if we divide that in half, then that’s two or three working weeks? Add an extra week in there for editing and revision. This is doable. We can have the thing done, it will be whatever it is, it’ll be enormous fun to work on it, and we’ll see what we can do with it afterward.” I did crunch the numbers on the timing.

AE: I love that he did that, because that is how long it took. It was a little more diffuse, in that we wrote three-fifths of it in the course of nine days at a writing retreat, and then after that writing retreat, we met up again at World Fantasy in Columbus and stole away from the con to sit in a coffee shop for a couple of hours and write more. We met again the week before Christmas in Boston and had another couple of writing days together, and then we finished it. All told, for the first draft, we’re talking at most two weeks. After that we had a revision process. DongWon Song, our agent, gave us notes, we found a time to revise, and then we sent it out, sold it to Navah Wolfe, got her notes – all told, the process was still not more than six weeks total, from writing the manuscript to finishing the revised final version.

MG: Six weeks spread out over about a year when we were both work­ing on different things. It’s still a book. It comes out. It’s on a bookshelf, in a bookstore! Book readers, read it!

AE: A thing that I often say about myself in various contexts is that I don’t really suffer from impostor syndrome, though I have deep wells of sympathy for everyone who does. Broadly speaking, I really like my work. The only time I have felt, “Oh God, I really feel like I have gotten away with something that I shouldn’t have gotten away with,” is in this situation. I have never written a novel, and yet this half a novella that I contributed has been given the treatment of a debut – it’s a hardcover release, it’s got this stunning cover, it had a cover reveal. I didn’t suffer enough!

MG: There is no nobility in suffering. There’s empathy and compas­sion. Just this once, everybody lives! Let me tell you, it does not usually come this easily.

Interview design by Francesca Myman. Photo by Liza Groen Trombi.

Read the full interview in the February 2020 issue of Locus.

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