Monday, March 19, 2012

Process Talk: Greg Leitich Smith on Chronal Engine (Culture, Humor, and Time))

More from Greg Leitich Smith on his new middle grade time travel adventure, Chronal Engine.

[Uma] This book has cultural nuances but they're planted with a light touch. E.g., Japanese-American identity reveals itself in Mom's name (or is it her married name?). It's all very much offstage and written in with deliberate ambiguity. Plus it's all on par with the jargon of paleontology and classic sci-fi movies and TV. Tell me what choices you made in locating cultural context in this story, and why.

[Greg] I decided to make the protagonist Max, and his siblings, hapa (half Japanese, half Caucasian) in part because of the juxtaposition between the time of the invention of the Chronal Engine (very early 20th century) and the present (very early 21st century).  Back when the Chronal Engine was invented, Max’s parents’ marriage would’ve been illegal in many states.  Today, of course, identifying as mixed race is increasingly common.  But that isn’t Max’s story, so it didn’t need to be explicitly addressed.  Sure, he’s Japanese and Caucasian but he’s also a dinosaur fan and a brother, etc.

More than that, though, I think it added texture to the family.  As written, the Piersons are an old Texas bunch (they even own a ranch) and the Takahashis probably aren’t.  Although I suppose they could’ve come over in the late 19th century.  Hmm…

For similar reasons, Max’s friend Petra -- the daughter of Grandpa Pierson’s nurse/major domo -- is of German and Mexican descent.  Texas is well-known for having a large Hispanic population, but what’s less well-known outside the state is that central Texas in particular has a large German population, descendants from those who left Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848.

In each of them, I wanted to provide a character who was in some ways representative or reflective of the diversity of Texas cultures today, but not make the story about that.

Of course, the fact that I am of German and Japanese descent might have had something to do with it, as well. 

[Uma] Your first person narrator, Max, is a geek with an eye for the ridiculous, a social commentator, a dinosaur enthusiast who's learning a thing or two about people on this trip to the Cretaceous. The others too have clear roles in how they advance the story. Talk about how the characters in this book grew for you.

[Greg] The very first draft of the manuscript started out as something along the lines of Breakfast Club meets classic Land of the Lost (but without Sleestaks), with a group of disparate teens who are sent (against their will) back in time.  Max was the geeky kid whose geekiness turns out to be particularly helpful, but none of the characters really resonated.

Finally, I decided to rework the thing as a family story and that’s when Max clicked.  He became real, not just “the geek,” and he interacts with his siblings in a way that’s much better grounded and much better informed by the family history.  It also let me grow his companions – his brother and sister -- making them into real people with real dynamics and, sometimes, attitudes and backstory that Max isn’t necessarily familiar with himself.   

[Uma] There are elements in the book that range from gently funny to laugh-out-loud. No spoilers, I promise, but I can't resist mentioning that there is a chocolate eating baby dromaeosaur that anyone would want as a pet. Tell me more about the humor in this book.

[Greg] Thank you.  My first two novels were basically character-driven comedies, in which my goal as a writer was to make the reader laugh (as well as think, but mostly laugh).  With Chronal Engine, I started out wanting it to be a sort of character-based action-and-adventure, getting the reader caught up in the danger and excitement.  I wanted to play it straight, though, because of the sort of slapstick cheesiness that you sometimes see in treatments of dinosaurs (think: the Will Farrell Land of the Lost).  But very early on, I realized that what I objected to in, say, the Farrell treatment wasn’t the humor per se, it was the fact that the audience is laughing at the characters, not with them and that there is nothing wrong with having the occasional humorous moments in a drama/action adventure, so long as they naturally arise from who and what the characters are (as they do for most of us all the time, and as they did in my first books).  Plus, I now had a sibling story and I think it’s required that siblings don’t necessarily take everything each other does seriously.  

Greg and a toothy Deinosuchus skull at the Dallas Natural History Museum
[Uma] Time travel is a tricky business, isn't it, what with needing to figure out the passage of time in the real world and the alternate universe? And then too you have to deal with the effects of people blundering about outside their time. How did you keep track of the passage of time as you wrote this story? Any surprises? Any lessons learned?

[Greg] Yes, the problem with time travel is that it raises a lot of issues that need to be at least considered if not actually plotted out – the butterfly effect; the grandfather paradox and whether you can change the past; the possibility that a character at a point in time could be dealing with something that he or someone else did in the past but that person has not yet gone back into the past to do; the possibility that someone in the past could go back to another time in the past and meet someone from the future in the past, etc. – and keeping it all consistent.

And Chronal Engine is a multi-generational story.  So, not only is there the possibility that the protagonist will at some future point go back to one or more times in the past, but also the ramifications of his Great-great-grandfather doing (or having done) so as well.      

Also, I don’t know if it was a surprise, but it added to the complexity that what would otherwise have been for Max and his siblings just backstory (Mad Jack Pierson building the time machine in the early 20th Century) really isn’t just backstory.  They’re dealing with some of the “real time” consequences of what happened in 1919 (or so), which means that I had to develop that somewhat more than I otherwise would’ve.

The biggest question, of course, is whether you’re allowed to change things that happened to you in the past, and do you remember such changes.   I decided to leave the answer to that question a bit ambiguous…   

I ended up sketching out a number of rather timelines with a lot of loops and cutbacks showing both “real” time from the perspective of each of the characters, as well as “objective” time, mixing them all together.

Now that I think about it, the most surprising thing was realizing that my wife and I are about the right age to be Max’s and Kyle and Emma’s parents :-).

[Uma] Ha! Well, Greg Leitich Smith may be discovering the implications of the passage of time in real life, but his characters slip-slide their way through it with drama in Chronal Engine. Congratulations!

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