Although I wrote Replay Earth, the original idea came from my friend Effie Weisstein, or E.B. Weisstein as he prefers to be known officially. We’ve been friends forever. In addition to having come up with the original concept, Effie and I talked about the book about every for six weeks for the two-plus years that I wrote it. I know you’re not supposed to do that, but it actually was fun and very productive. We brainstormed about characters, plot and concepts. In the end, I had to make all that work, throw some of it out, and invent new things, but this was a book of ideas, and ideas benefit from discussion.
Effie is a life-long educator, free thinker and New York sports addict. But he’s still a great guy.
You called me sometime around the end of 2014 or early 2015, and we had coffee at that ridiculous place in Arlington. You told me about this idea you had for a book and it really captured my imagination. Do you remember what your original idea was – what was the heart of it?
The idea for the plot came from two of my main fascinations—“what’s it (life) all about?” and politics. While I’m sure everyone thinks about the first, I am particularly obsessed with the idea that of the roughly 3 billion humans who are alive at any given moment, not one can claim to really know the true order of things. Is there really a supreme being(s)? What’s up with the universe and how can it be infinite? Those kind of unanswerable questions.
In terms of politics, I tend to think of it rightly or wrongly as an existential struggle between right and wrong. And while I believe in the ultimate goodness of people, I am also somewhat jaded by my belief that many people are selfish and ready to sell out others to save their own hides. So the idea for the book is an attempt to better understand both the nature of the universe and the existential political battle between good and evil.
When did you first start putting this idea together? What was driving you, other than the possibility that the Knicks might never reach the playoffs again in your lifetime?
I was in a NYC hotel room with my wife Ellen when the broad story line just popped into my head. Initially I thought of it as a possible movie screenplay for my good friend Stanley Weiser who has written many Hollywood scripts including “W” and “Nixon.” While I knew his genre was politics and not SciFi, I pitched it to him as I have done with other ideas or books that I thought he might want to adapt into movies. Unsurprisingly, he told me “great idea but it’s not my thing. Plus, it’s too complicated for a movie but it would make for a great book and you should write it.”
So there we were, in what so many people now see as the calm of the Obama years, waiting at least 10 minutes while some obsessed hipster poured water drop by drop into a coffee filter perched on a cup sitting on a scale, while we itched to drink the stuff and get on with talking about the future. And we did that, like 10 meetings, although I think we ditched the coffee place at some point. And for me, it wasn’t the first time I’d thought about these things, but the first time I’d found someone who wanted to talk about how things could be really different if we were really different. Not necessarily a practical guide to avoiding extinction, but more “let’s stretch our minds, let’s see what could be.” And how could me make that an engaging story. Did you have that feeling? Or did you just think we were nattering on?
Well, I had taken up Stanley’s challenge and had begun pouring out lots of pages of narrative. But I knew that I wasn’t a “real” writer, rather I was a man with an idea. So I was looking for a partner to help me flesh it out and to also do a lot (most) of the actual writing. And I had the sense through our many years of friendship that you might be the ideal partner.
What ideas and concepts do you think are the value in what we’ve created?
Ultimately I believe that the book is “political” in that it highlights what I believe to be the existential battle between right and wrong that we are engaged in today and have been for as long as I can remember. So for me the SciFi book is really a statement on the world wide political struggle that we are engaged in—possibly for our survival.
And now a question for you: Why did you want to work on this book? What did you hope to get out of the experience?
I’ll answer that on two levels. Mostly, your ideas caught fire with me as a way to both make a statement about where we are headed. I was always more attuned to social injustice than “environmental justice.” But how can you not see that the greatest threat to people today is what we are doing to the environment? I don’t know how we are going to change this, but I wanted to be part of trying to, at least adding to the chorus of people shouting about it.
Beyond that, I had reached a point personally where I wanted to shift from writing professionally about technology to writing personally about things that matter deeply to me. Some of that is going to be traditional literary fiction and poetry. But some of it is also going to be speculative, or sci-fi, however you want to think about it.
I’d played around with a few ideas of sci-fi plots, but you had this concept that was well underway and that I pretty quickly connected with. For me, your ideas boiled down to the notion of second chances. Our culture has a Puritanical streak that tends to look askance at giving second chances. I think second chances are the most important thing in life, because who gets anything important right on the first try?
And then I could also see how empathy could be woven into the story. Empathy is an idea I’ve been interested in for a long time.