Many popular time travel tales hinge on the idea that the past can be changed. The particular breed of time travel in Kate Mascarenhas’ debut novel, “The Psychology of Time Travel,” may sound limiting — its characters can’t voyage to any era before the time machine’s invention in the 1960s, and time is fixed, the past unable to be altered. But it is those parameters that enabled Mascarenhas to do some rich world-building.
The book’s story begins when four women invent a time machine in 1967. One of them, Margaret, soon controls use of their creation by leading a London-based corporation called the Conclave. Mascarenhas has infused her world with colloquialisms like “green-me” and “silver-me” (past and future selves), and such details as the idea that professional time travelers tend to either have open marriages or choose to not remarry after a spouse’s death, since they can reunite with a loved one even after becoming a widow.
The British author extensively imagines the various effects time travel would have on the human mind, backed by her expertise on the subject. She holds a doctorate in literary studies and psychology.
Each chapter of the novel focuses on one or two characters from among Mascarenhas’ line-up of diverse women. Among them is Odette, a student whose discovery of a dead body at a toy museum launches the novel’s locked-room murder mystery storyline.
Mascarenhas discussed her book with the Times via telephone from her home in Birmingham, England.
What was your starting point for this novel — did the characters come to you first, or the urge to write a time travel story, or something else?
It was definitely the urge to write a time travel story. I’d wanted to write one for a few years, and I had a few goes at it. I knew I wanted to write something that had that eternally consistent loop [a fixed timeline], and I hadn’t quite hit on the right way into it until 2015: I was reading a number of nonfiction books about the involvement of psychologists in space travel — the history of them being involved in recruitments of astronauts and also studying how astronauts managed particular stressors that come with the job.
And my scholarly background is in psychology, so I thought, well this could actually be a really interesting route into a story, to think about how if we’d invented time travel rather than space travel, what involvement would psychologists have had? What stressors would they identify in time travel? And who would they be trying to recruit? I kind of made early almost case studies of characters as an initial step. Cause I don’t plan my novels in advance. The murder mystery element developed over time, really, over the course of turning those sort-of first case studies into a workable draft.
Tell me more about those imagined case studies. What did they look like?
They took the form of people who did time travel as a job in the ways that are ultimately described in the finished novel. And some of the things that they might go to a psychologist with, that they might be struggling with. They might disclose that they found it difficult seeing somebody that they’d been close to who had died in the present, but when they were in another time, they encountered them. Those kind of early case studies were a way of working through what were the adaptations that somebody would have to make. And that sort of dealing with grief and death was one of them. Another one was — because my version of time travel is fixed, people might attempt to make changes, but they always result consistently with the original course of events. What sort of person would cope with knowing that their ability to change things was limited? And might the things that allow them to cope with that particular aspect of their work actually be quite bad for them in other areas of their life or in their personal relationships?
How did you begin to create your cast of main characters?
I always knew that there was going to be a character that turned into Barbara who had bipolar disorder. I have a personal interest in that in terms of I also have a diagnosis of bipolar. I was aware really that an important aspect of managing my condition is sleep hygiene, and I know that international travel can cause problems with managing that. I had in the back of my mind that if traveling between time zones is an issue, then time traveling might also have some implications for somebody who was either managing that condition or had it not knowing that that was the sort of trigger for them being diagnosed.
I knew that I wanted a psychologist character in it, which turned into [Barbara’s] granddaughter, Ruby. And as it became clear that there was going to be this murder mystery as well, I wanted somebody to take a role in that, and that was Odette. She was probably the latest character that I developed. What I wanted was to have as broad a range of characters as possible. I had a sense that the Conclave, this time traveling institute, would be drawing people from all over the world. And having a large number of characters helped me to get a sense of that range.
Why did you decide Odette was the right character to share your Seychellois heritage with you?
I differ from Odette in that she has actually lived in Seychelles. She came over [to the U.K.] as a child. She has memories of being there, but she also has a sense of no longer being part of that particular world. She can’t remember how to speak Creole. She can make out odd words and things, but there’s a sense in which she’s disconnected from that aspect of her heritage. And I often feel that way as well. It’s much easier for me to access my Irish heritage because Ireland’s just next door. There’s a sense in which Odette does feel like she’s outside of things. She has that feeling of being alienated at the crime scene, with the attitudes of the police marking her out as suspicious. And she has that feeling of being quite isolated. And I thought that mapped quite well onto somebody who might be able to go into the Conclave and have the necessary distance to see all the things that were wrong with it.
Tell me about your choice to have your pioneering time travelers be women — unlike the men who are the faces of NASA’s early history.
In the most mainstream appearance of the development of space travel, the women who contributed didn’t get equivalent acknowldgement. I was very pleased that the movie “Hidden Figures” came out so soon before “The Psychology of Time Travel” was published. It did an amazing job of highlighting women who had not received the recognition that was due to them.
Within the novel, I wanted it to be just part of the tacitly expected ways of this world that [time travel] is a women’s industry. They don’t talk about it explicitly very much. In terms of my own world-building, I was thinking, if you were able to time travel, the contributions that you made would be harder to erase from history if you kept appearing. If you were traveling through the centuries, people would see what your role was. They wouldn’t be able to say that somebody else did the job.
But I also just really wanted to write a story that was mostly women. When I write fiction, I tend to write it from multiple perspectives. Sometimes this really odd thing would happen: The way somebody was reacting to a story, I sensed that they were reading against the grain because they’d decided that one of the male characters was the protagonist. My rather drastic response to that was to think, “Well, I’m just going to make all the point-of-view characters women.”
AMC has picked up the film and TV rights to “The Psychology of Time Travel,” right?
Yes. I was really pleased it was AMC who picked it up, ’cause I love their shows. They just seemed like a good fit. Fingers crossed it will go into development. It would be fantastic to see onscreen.
I saw that on the website of your U.K. publisher, Head of Zeus, you wrote a blog post listing your dream casting for several of the book’s characters [including Maggie Smith as Margaret and Letitia Wright as Odette]. Have you had the chance to connect with any of those actresses?
No, not yet, unfortunately. It would be nice. One of the nice things about something being adapted is, it’s not actually my baby. I quite like the idea of seeing what another team makes of it. Even if I think, “Oh, that’s strange casting,” it should be really fascinating. I feel quite relaxed about that.
Does it matter to you, though, whether the actresses hired have a similar racial background to their characters in the book?
Yeah. That would be really the only thing that would bother me — if it was re-written so that some of the characters of color were white or if the queer characters in it become straight, those are things that actually would upset me. But that’s different than deciding on a different character arc. Just areas where there’s already underrepresentation, I don’t think we need to be adding to that any more.
What is your next writing project?
The next book is set in Oxford in the present-day about a doll with magical properties, set in a doll-making community. It’s called “The Thief on the Winged Horse.” It’s more fantasy than science fiction. I’m in the process of revising that at the moment with my U.K. editor, and it’s a lot of fun.
Crooked Lane Books; 336 pp., $26
Rome is a freelance journalist and host of the podcast “Shakespeare’s Shadows.”