Elan Mastai's debut novel, All Our Wrong Todays, arrived in bookstores this week. The novel, about a man living in an alternate, utopian version of 2016 who finds himself unwittingly transported to our current world, is being translated into more than 25 different languages. Mastai, who was born in Vancouver and lives in Toronto, is also a screenwriter; his most recent movie is What If, known in Canada as The F Word.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
My mother, Judith Mastai, was a curator and an art critic and, before she died in 2001, a museum director. I grew up in a family where a career in the arts was considered a completely reasonable way to spend your life. But my mom advised me to treat it as a profession. There's nothing wrong, she said, with writing as a hobby while you work some other job for income. But then you're a lawyer or a chemist or a teacher with a hobby. If you want to call yourself a writer, you make it your job. You get paid to do it. You write every day, not just when you feel like it. And you put your work out into the real world, where it'll be judged as either worth paying for or not. She didn't say this to discourage me. She said this to inspire me to take it as seriously as I would any other job. And it worked. I treated writing like my job and that's how it became my job.
If aliens landed on Earth, which book would you give them to teach them about humanity?
Sorry, why was I, of all people, chosen to handle this momentous task? Was there a vote? Will the rest of humanity support whatever decision I make? Was I the compromise choice, the least objectionable writer everyone could basically agree on? And these aliens, are they dangerous? Have they made clear overtures of peace? If they've mastered intergalactic space travel, they must have technology far beyond our capacity to defend the Earth. Are we sure they won't use this book to decide whether humanity deserves to survive? This is so much pressure. But, okay, I choose Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
What's a book every 10-year-old should read?
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. It's about the power of friendship and imagination to change the way you see the world. But it's also about how to face tragedy when it happens. I think books should bring kids boundless joy, but it's okay for them to find out that words on a page can sometimes break your heart.
Which books haven't you read that you feel you should?
Ulysses by James Joyce. In fact, not reading that book led me to becoming a screenwriter. I was an English major originally, but in my second-year Literary Modernism class, I remember one day the professor said: If you haven't finished Ulysses by today, there's no way you can pass this class. And I hadn't even started it yet. So I dropped the class and picked up a film class instead. I became a film major and combining my love of writing with my love of movies led to my career as a screenwriter. I still haven't read Ulysses. Maybe one day. Maybe.
What's more important: The beginning of a book or the end?
Absolutely the end. The beginning is all promise and tease and possibility. The end is where you, as a writer, have to take a stand and state, for the record, what you believe in. Whatever your story, the end is where you satisfy the reader or intentionally frustrate them, skip away happily ever after or twist the knife of tragedy, wrap up with fiery explosions or bittersweet goodbyes. Whether I'm writing a movie or a novel, I never start a story until I feel like I have a terrific ending. Because I think the end should be the very best part of any story.