Sadie Green, Sam Masur, and Marx Watanabe live to work, and their work is games. In Gabrielle Zevin’s immersive new novel, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (Knopf, July 5), these three come together as undergraduates in a frenzy of creativity to produce a wildly successful video game—or, rather, Sadie and Sam create the game, and Marx, their producer, creates the atmosphere that lets his two friends blossom. Zevin gets deep into the details of her characters’ work, everything from creating a storyline for their first game to deciding who should go on the road to promote it to making compromises over what to do next. Zevin recently spoke to us by Zoom from her home in Los Angeles; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I love books about work, and there aren’t that many of them.
One of my favorite novels of all time is And Then We Came to the End [by Joshua Ferris], which is a perfect novel about work. It captures the sort of family one has in work that isn’t actually a family. Even terms like work wife fascinate me, the idea of someone like a spouse whom you might spend more hours with every day than your actual spouse, whom you do these really intimate things with.
As somebody who’s published many books over the last 17 years, I’ve had a lot of work wives—they’re editors. I’m not somebody who came from a writers’ program, not somebody who shares work, so when I dig into it with an editor, that’s as intimate as I can get. So that’s something I wanted to write about. And Marx represents for me all the people whose names are not on the front cover of a book. I think when you’re starting out, you don’t realize how many people there are between you and the reader. I wanted to write about that, about how much of the creative process is really, really creative and how much of it is also business and working with all these people.
For the characters in your book, video games are both their work and their pleasure.
I always say that publishing my first novel was a calamity, because it changes your relationship to writing, it changes your relationship to books. I wouldn’t be a good writer if I didn’t acknowledge that change had occurred and, over the years, learned to integrate the realities of commerce into the creative act of writing. The first time you publish a book, that’s when you become aware, hey, there are some books in stores that are sitting on tables, and yours is not one of them. When I go into bookstores, it’s not quite the pure pleasure it was. After a while, that fades, but for me, one of the results was doing things other than reading, because reading could not be my sole activity and comfort all the time. I became much more into games, art, food, life, in certain ways. I think it made me a more rounded person, as crazy as that is, to be published when I was quite young.
I’m not a gamer, and I love this book. Is there anything you’d like nongamers to know going into it or to take away from it?
Secretly, I think everyone’s a gamer. If you’re using Facebook, if you’re using Instagram, you’re playing a game. It’s not necessarily a good game, and it has no ending, but it has currency, it has a reward system, so I think everyone understands games on some level. And I think it’s natural for humans to play, whether they’re playing video games or not. I think there are a lot of productive things that can happen from play.
I think the thing people don’t understand about gaming is that games are another form of storytelling. They’re not as foreign and different as I think people understand them to be. I think games are fascinating because they sit at the intersection of art and technology, and I would argue that no matter what you do, you’re going to bump up against tech, and games end up being a way to look at that.
I think it’s really funny, just as an aside—I’ve never written a book where so many people felt the need to state their relationship to the subject at the head of everything. Nobody reads All the Light We Cannot See and says, “I was not in World War II.”
It feels to me like people are trying to sell your book for you, telling other people they don’t have to be gamers to love the book.
It’s a very empathetic act; it’s like they’re saying, “I know why you might not like this, but I want to explain it to you.” It’s really interesting, though, I see it with almost every single person that writes anything about the book, from Tom Bissell in the New York Times to Ron Charles in the Washington Post—two men with entirely different relationships to games, by the way—to just a person writing on Goodreads. And the funny thing is, the book is not about video games, it’s about people who make things. And I think if people like the book, one of the reasons is because many of us do make things and have put our work out for consumption and review these days.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
Part of the fun of being a novelist is that at a certain point, the well that is you is only so deep, and so I get to try out other professions and imagine what they might be like. Obviously, I’m not a video game designer, but my dad was a computer programmer, and both my parents worked at IBM for a combined 60 years or something. So I was raised in a tech household, and I have a good grasp of computer things in general. The funny thing is, I published my last book in 2017, so it’s five years between these two novels. And I had made—it’s inelegant to talk about money, but I had made enough where I didn’t have to write quite as quickly, and that was a big advantage. What I wanted to do was take on a subject that felt like a big canvas, and I wanted to use the fact that I had more time to my advantage. So the way I did research was just by reading everything I could on the subject, watching everything I could on the subject, and also, again, 40 years of game play and interest in this subject.
Who are some writers who’ve influenced you?
There are so many. One book that I found myself drawn to when I was writing was The Age of Innocence, because of the way Wharton writes third person. I’ve found over the years that it’s quite easy to get to a voicey first person, there are a lot more tools you can use, but I find it quite challenging to get to a true, very voicey third person, so that’s a book I returned to over and over.
A book that I loved when I was young, probably the first book that made me think, I want to write literary fiction, is Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. That, alongside Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, were two books that, when I was young, opened up the possibilities of books for me. And in the last couple of years, we’ve seen some really big books by women. I’m thinking of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, or either of Hanya Yanagihara’s books, or Pachinko, or The Goldfinch, or even Elena Ferrante. And I remember reading all of those books with a huge sense of jealousy—and jealousy, when I’m reading, is an emotion that I find positive because it tells me this is something I want for myself. When I read those books, what I wanted for myself was a big canvas. I want it to be the Jackson Pollock in the room.
Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.