Issue 045 Author Interview: Catherine George and “A Test of Trouble”

And the Issue 045 author interviews keep on rollin’! Come with us on a journey through time as we chat with Catherine George about her story “A Test of Trouble.”

LSQ: Oh, time travel. Personally I always shy away from this trope because all the possible loopholes and paradoxes trip me up. What is your advice on making time travel work with you and not against you?

Catherine: I absolutely adore time travel stories, but also have this same fear about getting tangled up in the loopholes and paradoxes. The first draft of this story was about half the length it is now, and after it was done I rubbed my hands together and said, “Oh, this is great, I’ve written a story where paradoxes don’t really come into it! I don’t need to think about the mechanics at all.” But then when I went back to do the second draft I immediately realized that I was totally wrong, and that there were all sorts of snarls to iron out. After that, I made a lot of charts showing timelines and what Bree knew at what point, and what was changing and what wasn’t, and the story ballooned out to about 9,000 words. (In a number of the earlier drafts of the story there was more of what I would describe as traditional time travel, which added some complications that aren’t in this final version of the story.)

At that point I saw that things had gotten even more tangled up. I went through quite a few drafts trying to simplify things, but the time travel mechanism still wasn’t entirely working.

I took a version of the the story to an online critique workshop offered by Clarion West, led by Neon Yang, and they suggested I focus less on making sure the time manipulation worked from a science/realism perspective and more on making sure it worked emotionally. I took that advice and I hope it’s worked. I think it’s very good advice generally for time travel stories—if it works emotionally, the reader is going to be willing to accept a lot.

LSQ: I must ask: where did the idea of a time machine baby come from?

Catherine: I started writing this story after the birth of my second child, when my first child was 2, and one day while holding the baby I was reminiscing about something that had happened before either child was born. I caught myself wondering where the kids had been at the time—a half-thought of “did I get a babysitter while I was doing that?” After that I began to notice a lot of thoughts like that, as if my children were interwoven with the timeline of my life, somehow present in my memories of the time before they existed. From there I had the thought that “babies are like time machines,” and that got me to the concept and the first line for this story.

When I was developing the outline for the story, I thought about the various ways in which I felt that concept manifested for me—how the first year of a child’s life simultaneously feels like it goes past in a blink, but also as if it slows time down for some moments—and those things made it into the story as some of the mechanics of how the “time machine baby” operates. And the opening scene, where Bree notices time sliding back while she’s with Pippa in the night, came from sleep-deprived experiences of night feedings with my first child, where a number of times I was absolutely convinced that it was somehow earlier than it had been the last time I got up to feed the baby.

LSQ: This story also deals with domestic abuse. How did you keep a balance between the magical, almost ethereal quality of time travel with such a heavy, sad topic?

Catherine: The tone of the story and the way the issues are handled is driven in large part by the fact that Bree is an unreliable narrator—it’s clear to the reader from the first few scenes, I think, that what’s happening is domestic violence, but it’s not clear to Bree, or at least she’s not able to admit it to herself in those words until much closer to the end. As a result, the narrative tries to frame things within the version of reality that Bree wants to believe in, and the story looks elsewhere a lot: at Pippa, at the time manipulation, at Bree’s attempts to figure out how she can improve the outcomes for the science project that Max is working on (which is a mash-up of various concepts, and not based on any particular advances in the oil industry, at least as far as I know). Because of that, some of the darker elements of the story hide behind the more fantastical parts of Bree’s experience.

LSQ: If you could time travel in any sort of capacity, what would you use it for?

Catherine: Honestly, I don’t know that I would do it, unless it was guaranteed not to change my present! I think I would be too concerned about all the possible risks of throwing things off track or deleting parts of my current life (a very common trope of time travel fiction) to want to go into the past in any capacity. Maybe I would want to use it to look into the future—which is a far less common plot in time travel stories, for some reason—to see what was coming and what I might want to try to avoid.

If I was sure it wasn’t going to mess with my present-day timeline, I would like to go back to visit highlights from my own life—all those happy moments you wish would last forever while you’re in them.