Exclusive Interview: “Myriad” Author Joshua David Bellin
In Philip K. Dick’s 1956 novella The Minority Report, and the Steven Spielberg movie version of it, crimes are prevented by people who can see into the future. But in his time travel thriller Myriad (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Joshua David Bellin is taking a different approach to the justice system by letting people go back in time to undo crimes that have already been committed. In the following email interview, Bellin discusses what inspired and influenced this sci-fi story.
To start, what is Myriad about, and when and where does it take place?
Myriad takes place primarily in Pittsburgh during the year 2037, but it also flashes back to other times (most importantly, twenty years earlier). My main character, Miriam Randle, is a “travel agent” for a company called LifeTime, which sends its field agents on time-travel assignments to undo crimes that have already been committed. But unlike many time travel stories, Miriam can’t go wherever or whenever she wants, because the technology limits her to places she knows extremely well, and to one-week trips into the past. So in the case of the mystery that’s preying on her mind — the unsolved murder of her twin brother, whose death she witnessed when they were six years old — she can’t go back to the scene of the crime and hunt for evidence, but has to live in the present with her anger, pain, and guilt. And she also has to deal with two difficult present-day relationships: an on-again, off-again romance with her work partner, and home care for her mother, who has early-onset dementia.
Where did you get the idea for the plot of Myriad? What inspired it?
The spark for Myriad goes back almost ten years, when I had the idea of writing a story about an angel who collects the souls of young people who have died violent deaths. I wanted to create a character who comforts these lost children and seeks retribution for the crimes committed against them, but who can’t help being traumatized by the “cases” she takes on. The story changed a lot over the years, becoming a time travel thriller instead of a paranormal fantasy, but the core of the idea survived in Miriam, who is deeply affected by the violence it’s her job to redress.
Is there any significance to this being about a woman who wants to solve her twin brother’s murder as opposed to a man wanting to solve his sister’s murder, or a kid wanting to solve their parent’s murder, or some other configuration?
I honestly didn’t think about that when I was writing the story, but looking back, it was absolutely essential that Miriam and her brother Jeremy be twins instead of lovers or a parent and child or anything else. That’s because Miriam’s crisis is driven by the unique closeness that twins share, and the unique trauma of having their bond broken through an act of violence. (I’m not a twin, but my wife is, and we talk about this a lot.)
I suppose it might have worked if I’d switched the brother and sister roles, but the deep origins of the story, where an avenging angel tries to restore the cosmic balance sheet, made me cast my narrator as a seven-minutes-older sister haunted by her twin brother’s murder.
Myriad is clearly a sci-fi story, but it sounds like it might be a bit noir as well…
I call it a time travel thriller, but I could just as easily call it “time noir.” Some of the noir feeling of the story comes from Miriam’s hardboiled detective personality and wisecracking banter with her partner, some of it comes from the physical space of the novel, and some of it comes from the Blade Runner sensibility of the whole. The black-and-white cover of Myriad? Perfect for the story inside.
Myriad is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Myriad but not anything else you’ve written? Because it’s giving me some serious Minority Report vibes.
See, now you’ve got me talking about something I could go on about for hours. I’ve always loved time travel stories, from Wells to Willis (both 12 Monkeys and Looper). I was also blown away as a teenager by the Amber novels of Roger Zelazny (yes, Myriad is dedicated to him), which gave me my first introduction to the multiverse, as well as the possibility of putting humor, psychological realism, and twisty crime drama into the midst of speculative worlds. But Philip K. Dick? Absolutely. Along with Robert Heinlein, Octavia Butler, China Miéville, and more.
How about non-literary influences; do you think Myriad was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? You mentioned a couple things already.
Aside from those movies, and lots of others I could name — Predestination, Source Code, etc. — Myriad is kind of like the board game Clue, isn’t it? Except I never liked that game when I was a child because I found the format too restrictive. Myriad is like Clue with time travel, where all the guesses you’ve made and all the items you’ve checked off your list get thrown out the window whenever the time shifts, and you have to start again. That’s the experience Miriam has to deal with, and I’m hoping readers will feel something of the same vertigo she does.
Now, you teach creative writing at La Roche University, and have hosted writing workshops in the Pittsburgh area. How do you think working with other writers may have influenced how you wrote Myriad?
As a teacher, the main thing I try to impress on students is the importance of reducing stress and liberating creativity. That means, among other things, letting your first draft be messy instead of putting pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. My own experience as a writer has taught me to trust my instincts and not worry about the finished product when I’m drafting, so that’s what I did with Myriad: I posed a mystery at the start and let the creative process lead me to its conclusion. This meant, especially with time travel, that there were parts of the draft where I got lost and had to do major revision — but it also enabled me to write a story so twisty and unpredictable, even I didn’t know what was going to happen next.
Sci-fi novels like Myriad are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Myriad?
I have to confess I don’t have a definite answer. I originally planned it as a stand-alone because, as a murder mystery, I wanted it to have a completeness and resolution all on its own (which it does). But the thing is, I grew to like Miriam so much, I chose to bring her story to a conclusion that leaves the tiniest of openings for more. It’s time travel, right? And — not to give too much away — the approach I take to time travel lends itself to lots of other stories. Right now I’m working on something brand new, a sci-fi horror story that has nothing to do with Myriad. But if Myriad does turn out to be the first book in a series, the one thing I can say for sure is that each book will be quite unlike the others. It won’t simply be that Miriam has a new mystery to solve each time out. The world, the technology, the challenges, and even Miriam herself will be very different from adventure to adventure.
Earlier I asked if Myriad had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Myriad would work as a movie, show, or game?
Personally, I think Myriad would work really well as a series. I say this for two reasons. One, the concept of a time-traveling law enforcement agent offers a sci-fi twist on other popular crime dramas like Law & Order, C.S.I., and so forth. Two, in similar fashion to Lauren Beukes’s time-traveling serial killer story The Shining Girls, which was adapted as an Apple TV+ series, Myriad goes in lots of directions and has lots of mini-stories with their own arcs and cliffhangers that would work well as episodes.
On the other hand, if someone says they want to make a movie out of it instead, I’m not going to complain.
So if someone wanted to adapt Myriad into a TV show — or, no complaints, a movie — who would you want them to cast as Miriam and the other main characters?
My top choice for Miriam would be Florence Pugh. She’s a great actor, she has the steely look I imagine for Miriam, she does a terrific American accent (as demonstrated by Little Women), and she can do the action parts too (as proved by Black Widow).
And while we’re talking about Black Widow, I think Scarlett Johansson could pull it off, too, even though she’s a little older than Miriam is in the book.
For Miriam’s partner / lover Vax (full name: Martin Vaccaro), I’d go with an older man, someone like [Donnie Darko‘s] Jake Gyllenhaal or Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who was so terrific in Looper). And for Miriam’s boss at LifeTime, Dr. Norman Cassidy, I’d pick either Keanu Reeves [The Matrix] or Jared Leto [Suicide Squad], both of whom can be creepy and unsettling the way Dr. Cassidy is.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Myriad?
Well, people don’t exactly need to know this, but people like to know behind-the-scenes stuff about books, so here are two tidbits: the name Vax came from an epic fantasy I started writing (but never came close to finishing) during my Tolkien craze in middle school, and the name of a band that Miriam likes, The Sporadic Jerks, came from another novel I wrote in college (but didn’t publish). I’m kind of a time traveler that way. I never let anything from the past go.
Finally, if someone enjoys Myriad, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next, and why that one?
There are lots to choose from, but I think readers of Myriad would like Daughter Of Dust, the first book in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series. It’s very different from Myriad in many ways — not a crime drama, for one. But it has a strong female lead, elements of mystery, and one thing I couldn’t find a way to put into Myriad: monsters. I’ve been into monsters since I was a kid, and I’m confident readers will find the monsters in Daughter Of Dust as horrifying as they come.