We get to ask new author Constantine Singer a few questions about his debut novel STRANGE DAYS, a science fiction time-travel story.
Young adult author Constantine Singer takes on time travel and alien invasions in this modern science fiction story that takes place in Los Angeles in his debut novel Strange Days. We got a chance to ask a few questions about his story for this blog tour and his answers bring up some really insightful information.
Strange Days implements time travel into the story. What’s the challenge of writing such an element into your novel?
Oh boy. I almost didn’t write the book because time travel is so mind-bendingly difficult to keep from being dumb. I spent a lot of time working out the rules for time in my story bible before I began drafting and ended up with a “rules of the universe” section nearly twenty pages long. The big issue after that was simplifying the rules to the point where they were explicable by characters’ words and actions to the reader. This wasn’t an easy task – Jason Anthony, my agent, and I had to rework a section of the book which we called the “info dump” multiple times before it was right.
What I realized while developing the story is that science itself provided the best answer for how to make time travel work – don’t allow backwards travel. The mantra that’s repeated in the book is “Seen Time is the Only Truth,” meaning that the action of witnessing an event by a sentient creature is what creates reality and once a reality is witnessed, it’s “locked in” and cannot be changed. Therefore, the past is immutable, but so is any element of the future which has been “seen.” The action of the book is the race to lock in the future.
You also wrote that gentrification is a theme in the story. What inspired you to include this topic into your story?
Gentrification is a process most often initiated by people who don’t even know that they’re doing it – they’re early adopters of a new thing and aren’t aware of the long-term consequences.
Strange Days is about early adopters because, unwittingly, I was one. We moved to the Echo Park neighborhood of LA 20 years ago. At the time, it was a vibrant working-class Latinx/Chinese area. We fell in love with it even though it provided some truly terrible moments in the early days. What we didn’t know back then was that our opting to move to the neighborhood was the beginning of the end for it. We were an early warning sign and now our neighborhood is no longer a vibrant working class Latinx/Chinese area, it’s an upper-middle-class playground.
When I wrote Strange Days, my own ambivalence regarding my role in creating the upheavals that have displaced so many people I knew was on my mind, and the idea that one can unwittingly create the circumstances of great harm looms large in the book.
What can you tell us about Alex? In what ways do you relate to him? In what ways do you not?
At the beginning of the story, Alex is controlled by his fears — fear of dying, fear of not fitting in, fear of change, fear of being wrong, fear of being different, fear of being afraid – every choice he makes is a choice towards the least powerful of the competing fears which rule him. He’s focused on the ways in which he is different from the people around him and is only marginally aware of the similarities which connect him to his family and friends.
Alex is the most “me” character I’ve ever created. I spent my teenage years similarly controlled by my fears and unlike Alex who is forced to overcome himself through a hero’s journey, I had to grow through the slow plod of daily life so it took me much longer to develop the confidence and maturity Alex gets in a very short period of time.
One key difference between Alex and myself is that Alex’s fear converts to anger much more easily than mine did. Mine just manifested as anxiety.
You mentioned on your Instagram how Strange Days is your first book published, but your fifth manuscript. What did you do to push yourself to keep writing even after writing so many queries and a handful of manuscripts?
I think there were two factors at play here – age and guileless optimism. I was 38 when I started writing seriously so I was old enough to know things wouldn’t be easy, but I had a strong but yet unearned belief in my abilities and a naturally resilient disposition, so I just kept going.
I wrote my first manuscript and was positive it was brilliant, but it was crap. I learned a lot from writing it though, and I thought I could do better if I wrote another one, so I did. It was still terrible, but it was a better and different terrible than my first one and again I learned an awful lot from it. I was able to see how to do things differently, so I tried again and the result was a lot better – not bad at all as a matter of fact.
But even though it wasn’t bad it wasn’t anything that agents wanted to represent, but now that I knew I could write good things I wanted to try again. Manuscript number four garnered some very nice attention from agents who generally said that they loved it but were sad that they couldn’t sell it.
That depressed me and I almost gave up, but my wife insisted that I try again one more time and she said that this time I should write YA because as a high school teacher I spent my life surrounded by teenagers. I did, and Strange Days was born.
What were your favorite books to read growing up?
My favorite books as a little kid were the “Choose Your Own Adventures” series books – they were $1.95 each at the local bookstore and I spent my allowance on them every week. I also loved the Tom Swift books, which I don’t think are around anymore and in retrospect I suspect weren’t very good. Another favorite was the Piers Anthony Xanth series which do not read well through a contemporary lens and I wouldn’t suggest to anybody anymore – they’re quite misogynist.
Those books were the ones I read and re-read, but they weren’t the ones that created a lasting spiritual, emotional or intellectual impression on me. That list would include The Little Prince, The Riverworld Series by Phillip Jose Farmer, The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, The Rama Trilogy by Arthur C. Clark, Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins, and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Much of my speculative worldview was shaped by these books.
What other things, pop-culture or not, influenced your writing and writing in the sci-fi genre?
Much of what I write has a spiritual bent – not religious per se, but an exploration of the relationship between the realm of the mind and the realm of the spirit. I have a minor in religion and at one point in my life I was preparing to go into the seminary to become a Quaker minister, so this has been a life-long investigation. Strange Days hits on that theme, and a couple of my other manuscripts have it as their core element.
Another influence is pretty obviously my political leanings. I believe strongly that the duty of a citizen is to be active in the civic arena, and that the expression of reasoned opinion is a responsibility as much as it is a right in today’s world. There’s been a long-standing expectation that people in the public eye, especially those whose artistic contributions are mass market and aimed at young people, should refrain from being overt about their political leanings and opinions, but I reject that idea. Young people are already political and every choice they, and we, make reflects political belief. Pretending my world is apolitical would be a betrayal of my own values. Plus, those who have strong feelings about my beliefs are probably not going to like my books anyway.
What can you tell us about Strange Days that you haven’t told before?
1. The alien threat in the published version is tons different from what I started with.
2. I have a file called “StrangeDaysPieces” on my computer which is longer than the finished version of the manuscript and is filled with cut scenes.
3. There are several characters from the original version of the story who now live in the clippings file and are waiting for a chance to live again.
4. I really like the poem that Jordan writes and writing it made me want to write poetry again.
5. Mr. Wakefield, the chemistry teacher mentioned in the book was my chemistry teacher in high school. I failed his class because I didn’t go. I didn’t like him very much and Alex doesn’t like him either.
About Strange Days:
Alex Mata doesn’t want to worry about rumors of alien incursions – he’d rather just skate and tag and play guitar. But when he comes home to find an alien has murdered his parents, he’s forced to confront a new reality: Aliens are real, his parents are dead, and nobody will believe him if he says what he saw. On the run, Alex finds himself led to the compound of tech guru Jeffrey Sabazios, the only public figure who stands firm in his belief that aliens are coming.
At Sabazios’ invitation, Alex becomes a “Witness”—one of a special group of teens gifted with an ability that could save the Earth: they can glide through time and witness futures. When a Witness sees a future it guarantees that it will happen the way it’s been seen, making their work humanity’s best hope for controlling what happens next and stopping the alien threat. Guided by Sabazios, befriended by his fellow time travelers, and maybe even falling in love, Alex begins to find a new home at the compound — until a rogue glide shows him the dangerous truth about his new situation.
Now in a race against time, Alex must make a terrible choice: save the people he loves or save the world instead.
Debut author Constantine Singer’s fresh-voiced protagonist leaps off the page in this captivating novel that weaves sci-fi and contemporary fiction.
Strange Days is now available to order: