The Gone World: Tom Sweterlitsch on his new time-travel novel being adapted by Neill Blomkamp

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Feb 6, 2018, 3:00 PM EST

Every so often, the cosmic tumblers align and the universe ejects a transcendent piece of literature that strikes an existential nerve, evoking a sense of profound wonder about ourselves and the turbulent ocean of time we all precariously sail upon.

Tom Sweterlitsch's The Gone World is one of those refreshingly rare examples and it is going to blow readers away when Putnam Books releases this instant classic today, February 6.

The Pittsburgh-based author first emerged in 2014 with his triumphant debut novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and he's discovered sheer sci-fi gold with this sophomore effort.

His ingenious apocalyptic thriller weaves a spell of rapture within each carefully composed page burnished with shimmering prose, telling the story of NCIS investigator Shannon Moss and her disturbing journeys into an unravelling universe.


Here's the official synopsis:

Shannon Moss is part of a clandestine division within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In Western Pennsylvania, 1997, she is assigned to solve the murder of a Navy SEAL's family -- and to locate his teenage daughter, who has disappeared. Though she can't share the information with conventional law enforcement, Moss discovers that the missing SEAL was an astronaut aboard the spaceship U.S.S. Libra -- a ship assumed lost to the darkest currents of Deep Time. Moss knows first-hand the mental trauma of time-travel and believes the SEAL's experience with the future has triggered this violence.

Determined to find the missing girl and driven by a troubling connection from her own past, Moss travels ahead in time to explore possible versions of the future, seeking evidence or insight that will crack the present-day case. To her horror, the future reveals that it's not only the fate of a family that hinges on her work, for what she witnesses rising over time's horizon and hurtling toward the present is the Terminus: the terrifying and cataclysmic end of humanity itself.

Film rights for The Gone World were smartly snapped up by 20th Century Fox with Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) attached to direct this epic odyssey best described as The Silence of the Lambs meets Interstellar.

Sweterlitsch visited Blomkamp at his Vancouver offices to discuss story points for the novel's adaptation and ended up collaborating with the director on his experimental Oats Studios shorts, co-writing Rakka, Firebase, Zygote, and the upcoming Lima.

SYFY WIRE had the pleasure of speaking with Sweterlitsch on the eve of The Gone World's global launch to learn the origins of this time-twisting descent into a strange multi-dimensional realm and hear what dreams and nightmares inspired his unsettling sci-fi saga.

Give us a quick rundown of The Gone World's labyrinthine plot and what kind of rush readers can expect?

Tom Sweterlitsch: It's a murder mystery time-travel thriller about NCIS Special Agent Shannon Moss as she fights to prevent the end of Mankind. At its core, I think it's about the character of Shannon, my favorite thing about this book by far. I feel confident that readers are in good hands with Shannon, getting to know her and following her as she goes through this harrowing experience.

What was the genesis of the story and how did it evolve?

My brother-in-law is an NCIS Special Agent and about six years ago I'd been just thinking about time travel. I'd been reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and re-reading The Glass Menagerie a little bit and that kinda put into my head what a good time-travel book might be. We were having lunch one afternoon and I asked him how time-travel would affect his job as a criminal investigator. He had an interesting answer and told me that most homicides that he investigates are committed by people who knew the victim. They're very sad, they're very close affairs. People don't talk for whatever reason, but every so often they do.

He had this idea that if you could go into the future, once people's relationships had changed, and the emotions had cooled down, and talk with people then, and then come back and apply that knowledge to the present, you can imagine that's an interesting aspect. I immediately thought that's perfect for a novel, which is often about how characters change and how their relationships change. So I started building around that central idea of investigating a crime in the present, then seeing how those characters change in the future.


What were some of your first memories of time-travel stories in books, movies, or TV shows and how did they help shape the content of the narrative?

My first memory of time-travel stories was Back to the Future. In 1985 I would have been eight years old when that came out. When it was released on VHS I remember making my mom rewind the scene where he's playing the Chuck Berry song because I thought that was the coolest part of the movie.

I actually think The Gone World might be a bit closer to Back to the Future Part II. That movie is obviously funny and The Gone World is dead serious, but Back to the Future Part II is really interesting because it has this future that may or may not happen. It's the first one where the characters talk about splintered timelines and how the present could affect the future and how the past affects the present, and I had all those ideas swirling around. And La Jetee by Chris Marker. That's easily my favorite time travel film, I've watched it obsessively, many times.

How did you get involved with Neill Blomkamp and what role will you play in 20th Century Fox's film adaptation?

I was really lucky because it was Fox that was interested in buying the option on the book. The timing worked out that the book was optioned right around the time when Neill's Alien project looked like it wasn't going to happen. Fox had shown Neill the book and when he read it he instantly had this passionate connection to it and signed on to adapt it. Once that happened he reached out to me and introduced himself as being the director who was going to write and adapt this book for the film.

I'd been a huge Neill Blomkamp fan already so that was very exciting when that happened. We talked a lot. A lot of email exchanges. He flew me out to Vancouver for a couple days to really go through the plot of the book and talk about the rules of time travel, how the universe worked, what's on the page and what's not on the page. So I feel like he and I had wide-ranging discussions about this novel, but in terms of an official capacity, I won't be involved with the filmmaking, and that's totally fine with me. (laughs) And that's around when Oats started, after he had read the book.


This being your second novel, what are your thoughts or expectations this time as The Gone World is about to be sent off into the real world?

That's actually a very good description of what it feels like. You've folded up the paper boat, you're about to put it in the river and watch it go on its way. You never know what's going to happen, if people are going to find it or not, how it's going to be received, so that's a huge unknown. It is different from my first one.

My first book I'd been writing all my life just as a love of writing. Getting published was never part of my daydreaming about that. But then it happened and I didn't know what to expect. One thing that was different, it was much harder to write this second book. It took some time to feel my way through it. It's easier to read than my first one but the plot is mush more complex. It is scary, I feel very close to the main character too. I'm excited.

What did you draw on for Shannon for her depth and dimension and what were some of your techniques as a male writer to flesh her out?

It starts with reading and trying to find different voices that come already in books. i tried to be truthful and vulnerable with myself writing her in as a character. I'm definitely drawing from my own childhood when I'm filling in aspects of her.

There's this one moment when I was watching Season 23 of the UFC show and there was an MMA fighter named Rose Namjunas who was on there. Because it was a reality show she would give a lot of interviews as part of it. I remember watching thinking the way this person talks, her life story, her drivenness, her serious mindedness, her dedication to her craft, would serve as a really excellent model for me to try to write Shannon. You approach it from a lot of different ways and just hope that you're being truthful.

What was your first reaction when you heard Fox was buying The Gone World for a feature adaptation?

Yeah, I was sort of speechless. When I got the call from my agent that all this was happening I was in a showing of The Martian in November of 2015. My cell started buzzing and I rarely get calls so I had to duck out into the lobby. I got this news and it was incredibly exciting. I really love movies and love science fiction movies. This book is pretty complex, but before every scene I envision it cinematically, so knowing people who do this professionally responded to it, it's an honor.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow was optioned by Sony with a director named Matt Ross attached to it but I'm really out of the loop on that one. I found out about that when the news broke on the internet.


What was your gateway into sci-fi, horror, and fantasy growing up?

Easily my way in was Dungeons & Dragons. Once I got my hands on that when I was eight or nine I was really deep into D&D. I read all the Dragonlance books, things like that. Then the other big event was when I was 16 when my American Lit class had us start reading Edgar Allan Poe. So when I was in high school I was really into horror fiction and then you eventually find Stephen King. I've read everything by Stephen King.

How is 2018 shaping up for any new creative projects?

I'm starting another science fiction novel and one of my big goals is to write more short stories. And hopefully, fingers crossed, to finish a first draft of the new book!