Of mother-love, sandwiches, and relationships

It is a truth not universally acknowledged that familial relationships are an important part of fiction. I happen to like books in which the protagonists have parents, siblings, interfering grandmothers or dotty uncles, but there’s also a place in my heart for the orphan (still of course defined by family, or the lack thereof) who charges after adventure without anyone worrying about him at home, or who finds in her friends and colleagues the equivalent of brothers and sisters or even parental substitutes. But characters who seem to exist in the world without the influence of their upbringing, or who have no relationships other than those that serve the plot, are never sufficiently realistic for my taste.

I can’t bring every fictional person who’s had an effect on my characters on stage at once, but I suspect that as the series moves on, something about the family background of each of them will emerge. As of Time and Fevers we have been briefly introduced to Olivia’s mother (and to some of the knowledge her father has imparted; we’ll meet him in passing in Time Goes By) and at a bit more length to George’s mother (with his father sleeping in the background). Olivia, like most of the books’ characters, is an only child (it’s a population control thing); George is the youngest of three (a sister he’s rather fond of, and a brother who used to lock him in cupboards when he was little). We know of the existence (and perhaps influence) of Bernard’s parents and of Sam’s. Hints of background for Beatrice and Charles will come out over the next couple of books; I suspect that as-yet-untitled Book Five will provide a lot of information about Charles’s family, as well as Rinaldo’s. We’ll meet Janet’s family in Not Time’s Fool – in fact that’s what the plot hinges on. And the trouble George’s family gets him into will be central to Book Five. Then there are the various parental and filial problems of the characters from the past: losing parents, losing children, love and trust and toxicity, choices (and lack thereof) about marriage and procreation.

Work, along with intellectual preoccupations and physical actions, are the bread and cheese of my characters’ lives, but family is the often-unacknowledged kitchen in which they prepare their sandwiches. They are all intrinsically influenced by their families, and perhaps especially by their mothers. It’s interesting to imagine how each of them would celebrate Mother’s Day, assuming it’s still a holiday in the 2170s. George would pick up candy or flowers at the last minute, but the love expressed would be full and honest, even if sibling resentments disturb the general atmosphere. Olivia would know that no gift would be the right one, and so wouldn’t get anything; her mother would radiate disappointment while cynically agreeing that commercial holidays should not be catered to (though her mother would expect to be acknowledged and celebrated). Andy would call his mom on the net and exchange news without really revealing anything; Rinaldo, the same, being careful to say nothing about his romantic options. Janet’s mother is very busy on all holidays, so Janet would talk to her father. Charles would send a card (an e-card, I guess, or the 22nd-century version), and he’d do it himself, not get Beatrice to, but it wouldn’t come close to expressing how much he cares for his now elderly mother. Beatrice’s own mother is dead, and she has no children of her own; the employees of Constantine and Associates don’t send her Mother’s Day cards, but a number of them feel that quite possibly they should.

I write books about time travel and tea smuggling and tulips and politics and war, but mostly I write books about people, and since no one is alone in the world, about people’s relationships. One says “relationship” and the first guess is that it’s shorthand for “romance,” but romantic relationships are only some of those I explore, and probably not the most important, even if they tend to take over the story for long periods of time. I find that each book has at least one central bond that provides a pivot or a propulsion device; certainly in Time for Tea it’s the developing romance of George and Olivia, and in Time and Fevers it’s probably the post-romantic relationship of Olivia and Bernard. Time Goes By is far too complex to have just one central pair of characters, but if I had to choose, I’d pick Olivia and Sam – decidedly not a romance in the making, but one of the most complicated and painful interconnections I’ve had the pleasure of writing. To even mention the primary liaisons in Not Time’s Fool would be a (confusingly multi-nominal) spoiler, so I’ll wait on that. But that said, in each book there are dozens of other important relationships among pairs and groups of people, and most of them are not about romantic love. There are family bonds (born into and later acquired), friendships formed and splintered, affiliations based on collegial respect, associations of desperate necessity, antagonistic alliances, etc. And also, people fall in love, experience unresolved (and resolved) sexual tension, and find, lose, and find each other in approved three-act style – over multiple centuries and three separate continents, relationships between people and time and geography also being important.

On my ever-expanding Book Party playlist I have Mary Black singing “Ellis Island,” a lovely song that may be as much a metaphor of loss as it is literally about immigration. No one sails to Ellis Island in my books (so far, at least) and that kind of separation – leaving family behind forever, because geographic distance was so great – is much less permanent in the world I inhabit. But the words of the song nonetheless resonate with me and with my books. Time travel fiction is, in its essence, a way to explore by more dramatic methods the mundane and profound separation by time that’s inevitable in our lives, as we grow and change and people we love die. In the end, leaving someone a few hundred years back in time, never to see them again, is no different than leaving them in yesterday.


Four generations of women in my family; two of them are gone. (If you couldn’t guess, I’m the one in the hat.) Time travel is tempting; that’s the thing. Even if memories fade into faint tastes of honey and bitter herbs (or gin, lobster and salad dressing), and the sandwiches are crustless white bread and butter: you still want to go into the kitchen and make them again.


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