Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (Knopf, July 5) does for game design what her 2014 The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry did for indie bookstores. In Tomorrow, readers get a backstage glimpse of the creative ebb and flow between two friends, Sadie and Sam, as they range from Zevin’s hometown of L.A., to Cambridge, Mass., and back to Venice, Calif. The book tours popular culture, with her characters alluding to Macbeth and Emily Dickinson as readily as they reference such classic video games as Oregon Trail and Donkey Kong. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, the #1 July Indie Next pick, also considers identity: Sam is Korean American, Sadie is Jewish, their producer Marx is Japanese and Korean American, and all three catch flak for designing a Japanese-inspired game called Ichigo. Zevin talked with PW about storytelling, cultural appropriation, and imagining relationships across thirty years in the tech industry. This interview has lightly been edited for clarity.
Your characters write narrative adventure games. What comparisons would you make between designing games and writing fiction?
The first thing I always want people to know when I’m talking about the book is that games are another form of storytelling. Many games can be understood as novels are: they have genres, they have characters, they have plots, they have literary references and references to other games. Game storytelling is not so different from novel writing.
I saw Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow as a book about a 30-year friendship and creative collaboration. In a sense this book is a classic Künstlerroman: it’s the coming of age of two artists that mirrors the coming of age of an industry. The first people to play video games as children are now in their forties or early fifties, and we call that the Oregon Trail Generation or Xennials, that little microgeneration. Gaming is part of our lives. So I was interested in the game story but also the person story. As I’ve gotten older, I realize how very different it is to be a person in 2022 versus a person in 1992 versus a person in 1982. I wanted to write about what the view from here was like.
How do you weave in all those pop-culture references and literary allusions, which you do in this novel as well as past books including A. J. Fikry?
For some people, the connection between A. J. Fikry and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is not obvious, but if you understand that games are a form of storytelling, it becomes more obvious. Both books reflect my belief that the stories we consume affect how we think about ourselves and experience the world. These references end up being places where people can connect: “we have both played that, we have both read that”; there’s a shared reference, and that becomes a form of intimacy. I’m going to do something pretentious and quote Marshall McLuhan: “the games of a people reveal a great deal about them.” It's actually quite true.
Your novel captures late-1990s Cambridge, Mass., and pre- and post-2000 L.A. How did you research these settings?
I went to Harvard, and I was in Cambridge in the late 1990s. I graduated from high school in 1995, and I graduated college a year late, in 2000. So I’m a tick younger than [protagonists] Sam and Sadie, but effectually they were first-hand memories. Elif Batuman was one of my classmates, and she published a book about Harvard called The Idiot, and I remember reading The Idiot and thinking to myself, “Her memories of Harvard are so different than mine.” Maybe then I had the first stirrings that I might want to visit this place in storytelling.
I started writing this book at the end of 2017, beginning of 2018, and I wrote a large part during the pandemic. I found a longing to travel to places I had been that you could no longer go to. And so I wrote Cambridge, and I wrote New York City, and I wrote Tokyo, and I wrote Austin. Even Los Angeles, where I live, wasn’t the same city during the pandemic. (Los Angeles is never the same city, but that’s another story.) Writing was a way to travel to those places. It had always seemed distasteful to me to write about Harvard. But now I’m 20 years past my college graduation, so I think it’s cool.
How did the characters’ diverse identities shape your narrative?
Anybody in publishing can say that this is a number one topic of discussion, thinking about what somebody can write [that is, has permission to write] and what that means. I had somebody recently write me a letter who was a fan of a children’s book I published 17 years ago. They were like, “I had no idea you were Asian!” because back then the children’s book publishers didn’t put authors’ photos on [the jackets] at all. And that wasn’t because of race or gender. Maybe a little bit gender. But at the time, as it was explained to me, you didn’t put photos there because it was distracting to children to know that old, gross people had written these books, basically. [Laughs.]
Everything I’ve written has been from the point of view of a biracial Asian American person. A. J. Fikry is a biracial Southeast Asian, and I’m a biracial East Asian, and that book is a book about many biracial people in a bookstore. But race is not as forward in that book. [In Tomorrow,] Sam’s identity is my identity. His mother is Korean born in America, my mother is Korean born in Korea. And my dad is Eastern European, Jewish. So I gave Sam my identity in a forward way that I had never done before with a character. And Sadie’s Jewish American identity is also part me.
Why did you decide to raise issues of cultural appropriation around the games your characters create?
When Sam and Sadie are first making Ichigo [a game with Japanese characters], appropriation doesn’t even cross their minds, because it’s not a thing in 1995. They were drawn to these references because they loved them, even though today, that might be seen as appropriation. At different times, you can be transgressing because you can’t predict the future, and there’s sometimes a lens directed back on decisions people made 15 years ago. My experience of writing books across a great deal of time is that you end up having a permanent record of all the things you thought [and] that you ended up being wrong about.
Wrong seems like a strong word. But the thing about it is, the person who wrote the books at 25 is not the same as the person writing at 44. When you don’t have a permanent record in this way, you can kind of hedge and say, “Well, I always believed that!” and I don’t know. I think there are things I presented as romantic in earlier novels that now I do not find romantic, and instead are part of a narrative of romance and sort of a lie that women are told.
What other cultural shifts were on your mind as you wrote?
That’s the great thing about working across 30 years: you can show these social changes. With regard to Dov [an MIT instructor who has affairs with students], I’ve had some younger readers ask, “why isn’t he punished?” And I’ll say, “because the book ends in 2011.” That kind of person was good [i.e., unpunished] as long as he was careful, up to a certain point. If it was 2017, maybe things would be different. And in the end, we don’t know how things turn out for Dov—all we know is, he’s leaving MIT for not particularly clear reasons. It was interesting to me to write that person: the big personality where it was fine to be inappropriate in this way as long as you were a genius. I wanted to write about the way that social mores change across time.
You adapted A.J. Fikry, your novel about an indie bookseller and a sales rep, into a screenplay, and the film is in production. When can we expect the release?
It has a distributor, and it’s going to come out early in the fourth quarter of this year. It won’t be a Marvel movie, but it will have a pretty good-size theatrical release. We shot on Cape Cod last December, very quickly, very low-budget, very cold. It stars Kunal Nayyar from The Big Bang Theory [as A. J.], David Arquette plays Lambiase, the cop, and Lucy Hale plays Amelia [the sales rep].
There have been literary stories, and certainly things set in bookstores, but the thing that’s unique is that it has a book sales rep character. I didn’t know such a person existed until I had written a novel myself. Even in movies I really like that feature publishing, often it is depicted like your book will show up at your house, in the mailbox, and “oh my god, my book’s being published!” As you know, there’s quite a process between writing a book and having it sold somewhere.
What are you working on now?
I have been working on the screenplay for Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. The film rights have been purchased by Paramount and Temple Hill, so maybe that’ll be a movie too—who knows! I seem to be the one person working in movies and not television right now. And when we were working on The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, I had to come up with a bunch of fake titles for the fake author in that story, to put on the shelf of the bookstore. Coming up with those helped me to break through on an idea I’d wanted to work on for a long time. So I think I know what I’ll work on next. Which is just to say that ideas come at many times, and they are solved in many different ways.