Gabrielle Zevin, author of the New York Times bestseller The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, is set to have her latest book Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow released on July 5. Fans of Shakespeare will recognize the title as being part of the famed soliloquy that Macbeth makes after he finds out his wife has died—a bleak monologue that conveys the meaninglessness of life. Zevin’s book seems to be a rebuttal and challenge to Macbeth’s view, especially when confronted by the death of a loved one, something both her protagonists experience in tragic and devastating ways.
Tomorrow is about the friendship between two people from Southern California who come from completely different backgrounds. Sam Masur lives with his grandparents in K-town and was raised by his single Korean American mother, Anna Lee. Sadie Green comes from a wealthy family that lives in the “flat part of Beverly Hills.” Sadie meets Sam in the hospital when she is visiting her sister who is recovering from leukemia; Sam had been in a car accident that had killed his mother and had broken 27 bones in his foot. They bond over their love of video games and become fast friends in the hospital, but Sadie’s selfishness leads to a betrayal that breaks their friendship apart before Sadie turns 13.
They meet again serendipitously during the ’90s in Harvard Square in the middle of their college careers: Sadie attends MIT, and Sam attends Harvard. With some reservation, both decide to reunite to make a video game while they are still in college. Sam’s wealthy and handsome roommate Marx Watanabe joins as their executive producer. With the high-flying success of their first game, they start a company called Unfair Games and set up shop in Los Angeles. Through it all, Sam and Sadie’s friendship survive through various trials and tribulations and is particularly tested when Marx and Sadie fall in love. All of this comes to a head when a crippling tragedy (that turns out to be a highly relevant topic for 2022) threatens to upend their years of hard work, their friendship, and their lives.
Though Tomorrow from the outset may seem like a love story, it is more than that because it is not a romantic love story but a love story between two friends who try their best to prevent their friendship from becoming irrelevant through life’s hurdles. Zevin seems to be saying that life is not a meaningless series of tomorrows that inevitably lead to death; instead, life is rich with potential experiences and enriched by the people who are around to share them with us. As Marx says, “No loss is permanent, because nothing is permanent, ever.”
Zevin’s book also has layers of nuance as it tackles issues of misogyny and gender inequality through Sadie’s and Anna’s eyes; racial inequality through Anna’s, Sam’s, and Marx’s eyes; financial inequality through Sam’s and Anna’s eyes; as well as issues pertaining to climate change, gender identity, and the LGBTQ community. Overall, she manages to cover all forms of systemic and social injustice and embed them in the story seamlessly, and she’s not afraid to get political either. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow has all the right ingredients to be a great reading choice for the summer.
And interview with author Gabrielle Zevin
Jennifer Lee: You mention in the Notes and Acknowledgements that you are a lifelong gamer. When or how did you start playing? What types of games do you like playing the most? What are your top three favorite games?
Gabrielle Zevin: Probably the first game I ever played was when I was two or three years old. My family would go to Hawaii to visit my grandmother, who worked at the Hyatt Regency in Honolulu, as a jeweler. Many of the Honolulu hotels had video game cabinets with arcade games like Ms. PacMan and Donkey Kong—when we’d pass by one, I’d always ask for quarters so I could play. In the novel, an arcade cabinet version of Ms. PacMan is also the first game that Sam ever plays.
When I was around five, my dad, who is a computer programmer, brought home a computer from work. It had several games preloaded on it. My favorite of those games was Alley Cat, in which you are a cat who must jump on trash cans to access apartment windows, and each of the windows has a different cat-based game in it. I loved that game because each of the windows was its own world. Alley Cat is probably the first game I ever loved.
There isn’t one type of game that’s my favorite. I play across genres and consoles. My least favorite kind of game involves senseless and gratuitous violence. I feel the same way about movies and books that have this kind of violence.
Three favorite games? The games that bring me the most pleasurable nostalgia are Sierra Games from the late 80s and 90s, like King’s Quest IV and Space Quest III. The game that I’ve spent the most hours playing is probably MarioKart, in all its iterations. An independent game that I think is beautiful in its simplicity is Stardew Valley.
JL: You have written many things since your debut in 2005 with Margarettown. What made you decide to write a book that revolves around the gaming world now? Was there an inspiration for it? How long did it take for you to finish writing this book?
GZ: Indeed, I have written “many things.” Like Sadie in the book, I am creatively restless. Once I’ve done something, I want to do something else.
The first generation of people to have gamed as children are now in their forties and fifties. The term is “geriatric gamer,” ha. How might you view life differently if you had gamed your entire life? How would it change your expectations for stories or even for life itself? I was drawn to gaming as a subject because it sits at the intersection of art and technology, and I wanted to tell a story in which people would come of age alongside an industry. If you look at games from 1980-2010, you don’t have to know a thing about gaming to see a visual progression – if you look at a character like Nintendo’s Mario through the ages, you can see the story of the tech that made him.
I began writing Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow in 2018. I researched it for several years and wrote a section here or there. But I ended up writing a significant portion of it in 2020, and I revised the book in 2021, adding one important section. The book took about four years from conception to completion. (And, of course, forty or so years of gaming.)
JL: You took a phrase from Macbeth’s soliloquy as the title of your book. What led you to this decision? Did you want to write a story from the outset about grief, loss, and pain (and possibly redemption from those things)?
GZ: I’ll take the second part first. I don’t know if I wanted to write about “grief, loss, and pain” but I certainly don’t avoid those subjects either. Occasionally, I am accused by a reader of having too much death in my books to which I will reply, I only have the same amount as there is in actual life. But yes, on some level, one of the essential conflicts of the story was between the infinite lives of a video game character, and the very finite life of a human being.
The “Tomorrow” speech is one of the first bits of Shakespeare I ever committed to memory, and I can still do it on command. It’s one of the bleakest speeches in all of Shakespeare, but strangely, Marx, the character who invokes it in the novel, finds great hope in it. The idea that every day you’re alive is a chance to start again. He also finds a metaphor for video games, with their infinite lives and chances for redemption.
JL: Though the story is mostly focused on the evolving relationship between Sam and Sadie, you tackle some contemporary developments and insert them into your story, such as the non-binary character in the first game they make together (which Sadie refers to with they/them pronouns!) and the altercation Sam has at a dog park that seems to mirror the Amy Cooper case. I liked what you did here because even though Sam and Sadie’s story takes place 30-50 years ago, these nuggets give it a very current feel. Was it your intention to make their story feel more recent or relatable to readers in this way?
GZ: Pronouns: I can remember discussing and using “they/them” pronouns in college papers I wrote in the mid-1990s! I Googled the matter recently, and “they/them” was used in The Canterbury Tales and Hamlet. So, not new, though certainly not as common as today.
Dog park: That’s interesting, though in fact, I wrote this scene before the Amy Cooper incident. It was one of the first things I wrote for the novel, and one of the few scenes I wrote out of sequence. The scene was very much inspired by life – the first year I lived in Silver Lake, there were coyotes everywhere! And the thing about coyotes is that they look very close to dogs. It’s this weird thing where you are meant to dislike coyotes, but somehow not notice how much they look like your beloved pets. Anyway. For me, that scene was, as Sadie says, probably as much about Sam and Sam’s feelings about being biracial. When you are biracial, as I am, you get used to being asked “What are you?” Sometimes, I’m not in the mood to answer this question. Also, I’ve had dogs for years, and dog parks can be nightmares.
In terms of the inclusion of these details that seem to resonate with today? I certainly hope the novel feels relevant to those who were not born in, say, in the mid-1970s, as Sam and Sadie were. I think what I was hoping to do is foreshadow what was to come. For example, when Sadie and Sam make a game with a “they” character, it doesn’t work commercially in 1996, and that’s what I wanted to show. I wanted to show that these characters were ahead of their time. I also was thinking how Ichigo is equal parts Sam and Sadie, and on this level, “they” seems the most appropriate, even if the world wants to sand Ichigo into something more saleable.
JL: Sadie struggles through much of her career with misogyny and constantly tries to prove her worth to her peers and the rest of the gaming industry. Her resulting insecurity throws a wrench in her relationship with Sam, whom she blames for taking credit for her achievements. Are the things Sadie experiences in the gaming world things you have experienced on a somewhat similar level as a gamer and in your professional career?
GZ: As a writer, yes. I’ll give you an example. Several years ago, my novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, came out. The reviews were good, but not spectacular, and the book went onto sell several million copies around the world. The one place where the reviews were absolutely stellar were for the audiobook, which was read by a man. It’s possible that his reading elevated the book – I’ve listened to his version, and it is, indeed, excellent. But I also think it’s possible that critics preferred that novel when it had the “weight” of a man reading it.
JL: You give some focus on Sam’s background, telling readers about his mom, his grandparents, and his childhood. The same focus is not given to Sadie. When it came to character backgrounds, why did you decide to put more emphasis on Sam? As a Korean American who grew up in K-town, I was glad you explored his childhood, his Korean American mother, and his grandparents, but I am curious about what led to this decision to focus mostly on Sam. Did recent events in the past few years, especially with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, have anything to do with it?
GZ: I want to mention that we do get a fair amount of Sadie’s background — her relationship with her grandmother who is a holocaust survivor; her sister who had childhood leukemia. Both of these end up being huge influences in terms of what drives Sadie to make games. These influences are apparent in the game Sadie makes alone (Solution) and the games she and Sam make, like Both Sides. In terms of Sadie’s story as an adult, I think much of her conflict centers around Dov, and maybe this is what you experience as an imbalance. In a sense, Sadie’s childhood and identity are more resolved than Sam’s are, and the focus of her story shifts to other things.
That said, Sam’s background is my background. We are both half-Eastern European/Jewish, half-Korean. I’m not sure that I was motivated by anti-Asian hate crimes, though of course I am aware of them and sickened by them, and sad and angry. I started writing the book before the pandemic (and before Trump’s disastrous language around Asians), and I had already made the decision to write about Sam’s Koreanness. I particularly wanted to write about biracial, Asian American identities, which come with their own set of experiences—the sense that when you are biracial, your identity is always shifting. You never know who people will see when they look at you. I wanted to write about what it was like to be completely of two different cultures – how you feel like both and like neither. Sam’s experience of Koreatown reflects my own experiences – I remember going to Koreatown in LA for the first time, as an adult, and having this sense that I would have written entirely different books if I’d lived here as a kid. My books would have been different because I would have seen myself in an entirely different way.
JL: The tragedy that happens at Sam’s and Sadie’s gaming company Unfair Games has unexpectedly become a timely topic for 2022. I don’t want to spoil anything, so you can be as discreet as you want, but what made you decide to bring (what has become) a highly political topic into the story?
GZ: Unfortunately, this kind of tragedy recurs often enough that no matter when the book came out, I knew it was likely to bump up against another tragedy because there is always another tragedy. There’s a poem I love by Stephen Dunn where he writes that there’s always “one more maniac with a perfect reason.” (The poem is called “Sweetness.”)
I don’t know how to answer this question without spoiling the book so I’ll speak in generalities. I will just say that there are some authors who choose to write fiction that exists outside of the world, but I am not one of them. And I am not judging these writers – I know that readers often read to escape, and I am glad that they have books that can provide that for them. Still, I see it as my calling to write books that are clear-eyed about the world, but that retain a sense of optimism about human beings.
JL: You broach several social injustices and inequities pertaining to racism, misogyny, gender, and poverty as well as other pressing issues such as climate change. How did you decide on which issues to tackle?
GZ: Well, continuing from the last question … I saw the essential conflict of the story as between the perfect worlds that Sam and Sadie try to create and the imperfect world they live in. I’m not sure that I decided which issues to tackle. It was an organic process that involved thinking about the games they were making, and what inspired those games, and what the time was like when they were making those games, in terms of technology and politics and everything else. To draw the difference between the real world and the perfect world, the real world needed to be, well, real.
JL: You deftly handle several complex societal injustices and inequities through the relationships the characters have with each other. For instance, you broach systemic racism that Asian Americans encounter (as well as misogyny) through Anna and Marx, both of whom find difficulty achieving the success they want as theater performers, no matter how talented they are. On the other hand, Sam seems to benefit being biracial career-wise, especially when it came to marketing their first game Ichigo since he looked more like the game’s character. Being male, he was given more credit for the game even though its concept was Sadie’s idea and most of the hard work was done by her.
There always seems to be a balance with your characters because they benefit through the system in some ways while losing out in others. What was the process you went through to come up with these characters and the different dynamics they have with each other?
GZ: Thank you! This is a complicated question. To clarify one point, I’m not certain that Sam benefits from being “biracial.” He benefits from a superficial resemblance to Ichigo. But I take your point generally. I think Sam benefits mostly from being male in the situation with Ichigo. The men who are in power are eager to have Sam be the face of the game, both because of his resemblance and because he, like them, is male. What further complicates the situation is that Sam is, indeed, better at promotion than Sadie is. To clarify another point, Sam and Sadie both do hard work on the game – I think sometimes Sadie undervalues Sam’s (and Marx’s) contribution to the work in order to bolster herself. I deeply understand and relate to her reasons for doing this.
In terms of the process of coming up with these characters? I think the more I’ve written, the more I’ve become comfortable with embracing messiness in my characters. It is fine for a character to seem unlikable, to use an overused word. It is desirable for a character to hold two points of view at the same time, and to not be sure what the right thing to do is; actual human beings feel this way all the time. It’s even desirable for a character to be wrong, or to have the world’s reaction to them be unexpected, as happens to Sadie when she is making Both Sides. It’s a philosophy that Sam expresses on the first or second page of the novel: “the tendency of human beings to say one thing, and mean, feel, even do another.” I have no interest in writing perfect people. I’m getting to your question, but in a roundabout way.
Here’s how I see it: when you’re writing, you have characters, and they do not all have the same desires, motivations, strengths, and backgrounds. And you have the world, and the world is the most inconsistent character of all – it does not treat all people the same way, and it provides different and greater obstacles for certain people. And a novel is seeing what happens when these elements interact.
JL: In many ways, I feel like this book is a compilation of things that are near and dear to your heart. Would that be fair to say? There is the gaming aspect, for instance, and there are all these societal issues, which I’m guessing are important to you. Did you go into the writing of this book thinking you would address all these issues in the story, or did you add them over time?
In a sense, I could describe all of my books that way – I’ve never written a book that, in some way, didn’t reflect my obsessions at that time, or the questions I was asking about being a human on the planet. I don’t want to read books by people who are writing about things that they don’t care about either.
I did not have an agenda about what “issues” I’d be able to discuss in the story. I’m not sure if I believe in the novel as a vehicle for social change, and I’m long past trying to convince anyone about anything. What I think a novel can do very well is reflect the changed world. It’s a slower form than, say, social media, so the advantage of it is that one can be more reflective and have more perspective. It is hard to understand anything if you’re looking at it, moment by moment. And maybe I still believe that novels can make a reader more empathetic, though I know the term “empathy” is also fraught. A novel says: here is a person, like you or unlike you. See how they go through the world. On a related note, I think games have the potential to make people more empathetic, too.
I wanted to write characters who lived in the world, as I’ve said before, and writing the world meant that I was able to discuss a great many things that matter to me. A great subject is like a big bowl, because it contains many subjects, and gaming is most definitely a great subject. In the end, telling the story of two game designers was a way to tell a story about what it was like to be a person and an artist, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, in America.