It took the author two decades to write her life-changing bestseller, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow — but she couldn’t have done it any sooner, she tells Johanna Thomas-Corr.
One question has stuck in Gabrielle Zevin’s mind from the many interviews she has given to promote Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and
It is a question that would make most over-40s groan — but Zevin had the good grace to laugh. “I wasn’t mad at all because it was something I always wanted to know,” the author says from her home in Los Angeles. “How do I get to where they are in the fewest steps possible? But what I had to tell her was I don’t think there is a way to get there faster. There are different ways to get there — but not necessarily to here, where I am, faster.”
What Zevin means is that there was no cheat code to producing a literary blockbuster, securing a £1.6 million film deal and spending more weeks at the top of the Sunday Times bestsellers chart than any other paperback novel of 2023. As with a computer game, she had to work through all those early levels — master the controls, learn where the hidden treasures were — to claim the prize.
And Tomorrow really is one of those books that readers adore, as the fan art pinned up behind her attests. It tells the story of Sam and Sadie, who meet in a children’s hospital in LA in 1987: Sam is recovering from a car crash that has mangled his foot and killed his mother; Sadie is visiting her sister with leukaemia. They come from contrasting families, both in their way reflective of Zevin’s Korean-Jewish heritage: Sam lives with his Korean grandparents, who run a pizza restaurant; Sadie is from a wealthy Jewish family in Beverly Hills. But they both love Super Mario and spend hours passing the Nintendo controller back and forth.
After a rupture in their friendship they meet again as students in Boston, where they go on to create a game called Ichigo, inspired by The Tempest and Hokusai’s famous painting The Great Wave, which becomes a huge hit and launches their multi-decade careers as game designers. It’s a novel full of the lore of video games, which has clearly chimed with a generation who grew up playing The Oregon Trail and The Legend of Zelda.
But for Zevin this was always going to be a book “about people who make art, not people who make tech”. The daughter of two parents who worked for the computer company IBM, she found in video games a source of inspiration that literary writers had left untapped — a “gold rush” of material to draw on. “Video games are a form of literature — in terms of it being a constructed and organised world that you can experience as a text,” she insists.
But despite the financial heft and huge cultural impact of the games industry, she detected a certain snobbery among literary types. Many reviewers felt the need to state that they had never played a video game, but still enjoyed the book. “You don’t read a review that needs to state that ‘I was not a soldier but I enjoyed this …’ or ‘I didn’t go to private school but …’” she says, laughing.
The novel uses games to explore many other themes: disability, illness, escapism, mortality, friendship. I tell Zevin how much the book meant to friends whose seven-year-old son has been going through treatment for leukaemia, but has stayed connected to family and friends through multiplayer games such as Minecraft. She explains that she was influenced by Lois Lowry’s 1977 book, A Summer to Die, which features a young character with leukaemia, who might survive with today’s medical advances. She explains that she “became interested in writing about people who have had childhood illnesses and people who have grappled with that throughout their lives … If you kill off a character, well — dying is easy. It’s living with things that’s difficult.”
The novel is also a story about collaboration. Zevin has her own Sam/Sadie-esque creative partnership with her long-term partner, the film-maker Hans Canosa, whom she met at Harvard University. She co-wrote their 2005 film, Conversations with Other Women (starring Helena Bonham Carter) and in 2022 he directed an adaptation of her 2014 bestseller The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.
Tomorrow has been celebrated as a rare novel with a male/female friendship at its centre that doesn’t hinge on romance — as was Zevin’s intention. However, she says she is surprised how many readers have missed the novel’s exploration of class. “In the US, class is about money, much more so than in the UK,” she says. “Sam and Sadie’s initial meeting looks at how health can be a real equaliser. These are two people who wouldn’t meet unless it was in hospital because they live in different parts of town, one at a public school, one at a private school. Money informs the way they are.”
She says she is always surprised when people say their favourite character is Marx, Sam’s wealthy Korean-Japanese flatmate, who provides the financial backing to get Sam and Sadie’s ideas off the ground. “Being so rich, he can go through life with a lot more ease,” Zevin says. “Every penny means something to Sam, some of the pennies mean something to Sadie and none for the pennies mean much to Marx.”
Sadie, meanwhile, is desperate to prove her creative flair as a woman in a male-dominated industry, in which she has to be “edgier and brilliant in her own right”. At college she creates a Holocaust-themed game called Solution — which outrages her fellow students, who resent a mere game asking moral questions of them. As it turns out, Solution has a real-life analogue — a play Zevin wrote when she was young called Berlin, about a German actress who can’t find work after the Second World War.
“It was kind of a rumination on culpability … Like Sadie, I was Holocaust-obsessed as a young person,” Zevin says. “That game Solution is a version of Berlin.”
When we get on to conflict in Israel and Gaza, Zevin clearly feels torn. “It’s too complicated a situation to express in a quip or a line. I have anxieties about the entire world to be honest — a great worry about the people in Israel and the people in Palestine.”
This reluctance to publicly express her feelings extends to social media — Zevin does not engage. “I’ve come to see it as fully a job and that job is not the same as novel writing. With some writers you have a lot of energy expended down the road of social media that might be expended writing better books.”
We come back to that question — why couldn’t she have just written Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow when she was 25? — and she reflects that it’s only now that she can write about being young “in a more clear-eyed and sometimes more tender way”.
The novel is precisely about what it’s like to be in your twenties, filled with ambition and unsure how to get the things you want. “I’ve learnt it’s useful not to be jealous of every single person in the world,” she says. “Other people’s successes are not your failures. Also, time is longer than you think.”
When Zevin graduated from Harvard 25 years ago, she says she felt what the Germans call Torschlusspanik or “gate-shut panic”. “I had a sense that time was really running out and I only had two minutes to make an impression on the world or the gate would shut. Then as I got older, at a certain point, I realised I couldn’t be included on any list for young novelists, and it was a great thing! The only thing I was going to be able to be was ‘good’. The only thing I care about now is the belief I can write a better novel than the one I wrote before.”
This article originally appeared in The Times. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (Vintage, $26) is out now.
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