Group therapy and time travel was such a refreshing and compelling combination; so fun to read. How did this story come together for you? Were there any surprises in the process?
This was an unusual story for me because it began with physics, and then I had to go back and add characters and stuff to that. I had the idea for a story in which time travel also involved spatial displacement, and that was the original engine for the story. And I had a lot of fun imagining how that would work out—but that wasn’t a story, in itself. I needed characters and an emotional hook and something to carry the story forward. I went through a few radically different versions of the story, with completely different characters and setups. One version was called “Radical Feminists With a Time Machine—What Could Go Wrong?” I spent a few weeks writing that version before I decided it just didn’t work. And then I hit on the idea of a group of people who have a “support group” where they get together to pretend they’re time travelers. Only to be offered an actual time machine.
How much did the research shape the narrative in the Time Travel Club?
For this story, getting the physics right was insanely important. I stayed up late several nights doing trigonometry, to figure out the exact displacement. Dr. Dave Goldberg, who used to write the “Ask a Physicist” column for io9, was an invaluable resource for figuring out exactly how the different variables of Earth’s movement through space would play out. Although he took years off my life, because after I had already completed several drafts, he came back to me and said that I’d actually massively underestimated the distances involved, because the calculation was based on the square of time, not simply time itself. So the further you travel in time, the more vast the distances become. Looking back at our email exchanges, there were a lot of equations and diagrams, and I had to do more math than I had done in years to make this work.
Relationships and communities getting people through rough times seem to be at the heart of this work. I was really struck by the anxieties the characters voiced at their changing community, and how the community did change, and yet endured. What did you draw on to give us such a rich picture?
A lot of my work deals with people who are outsiders in one way or another, trying to find a place where they fit in. And with this story, in particular, once I had that concept of the people who get together and pretend to be time travelers, the story became very clearly about alienation and not feeling like you belong in this time and place. This allowed me to have lots of weird humor, but also a real emotional engine for the story—and combining humor and honest, non-manipulative emotion is one of those things that looks easy but is often fiendishly hard.
How challenging was it to address alcoholism here?
Incredibly hard. I asked a lot of friends for help with this one. Also, I had written a novel right before that in which the main character was a recovering alcoholic, so I had done a lot of research for that, including talking to people but also sitting in on one meeting. But I still worried a ton about getting this right.
What’s next for you, Charlie Jane?
My novel, All the Birds in the Sky, comes out in late January. It’s about a mad scientist and a witch, and has some of the same themes of trying to find your place in the world and the people you belong with as this story.
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