A Discussion with Tal M. Klein, Author of The Punch Escrow10 min read
A world where every Big Mac tastes exactly the same, where you can print anything from anywhere from the comfort of your home, and where the headaches of traveling have been resolved with teleportation centers, seems perfect—especially if we also solve our pollution problem with genetically modified mosquitoes that have a taste for smog instead of blood! But in Tal M. Klein’s novel The Punch Escrow, we find out how all of this can go very, very badly in a heartbeat.
The Punch Escrow is fast-paced science fiction novel that weaves loads of technology, fabulous world-building, and the very real stress and pitfalls of marriage into a narrative that will have you racing to the end. The story feels all too real and relatable, while maintaining the edge of sci-fi that makes me oh so happy. If you can’t tell, I loved every minute of this book!
Published this past summer by Geek & Sundry, Lionsgate recently bought the film rights to The Punch Escrow and two sequels, so I’m sure author Tal M. Klein is incredibly busy. Despite this, he took the time to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his novel, the upcoming movie, and raising creative daughters.
APEX MAGAZINE: First, thank you for being here and giving me a chance to read The Punch Escrow. I really enjoyed it! I want to start by asking where the idea for this novel came from. It is a fascinating future that you’ve created, with corporations running the country and 3D printers becoming an invaluable tool in households and businesses alike. So, where did this novel start? Did it start with the world or did it start with Joel and Sylvia?
TAL M. KLEIN: I’m so glad you liked it! The whole thing started back in 2012. I was complaining to a co-worker about J.J. Abrams’s over-the-top use of lens flare in the Star Trek reboot, when all of a sudden, our CEO interrupted the conversation by shouting “It’s BS!” It would turn out that he wasn’t talking about the lens flare, but Star Trek’s transporters. Armed with his PhD in computer science and knowledge of quantum physics, he went on to explain that nobody in their right mind would ever step into a transporter if they knew how it worked. Something about that stuck with me. I started researching teleportation and other future tech, just for kicks, really. Then the research became a passion project and, at some point in 2015, I thought, “There might be a book’s worth of stuff here.” So, the story definitely started with the world. In fact, its first iteration was almost all “world.” Originally, the manuscript was set up as a metafiction novel, modeled a bit like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, except with a teleportation textbook at the nucleus in lieu of a poem. The idea was to write this History of Teleportation textbook from the future, annotated with notes from these two guys, who we eventually learn are two copies of the same guy, who had been accidentally duplicated in a teleportation mishap. The plot developed around that textbook via those annotations. After I submitted that first draft to my publisher, he said something like, “This is a great hard sci-fi concept, and all five people who read it are going to love it. But if you want to break out of a super niche genre, you need to ditch the textbook angle and focus on the story.” So, I threw out over ninety percent of what I’d written and started over with something much more closely resembling the book you’ve read.
AM: What went into building the characters of Joel and Joel²? Did you treat them as two completely separate characters? Was there a certain point in writing the book where they shifted for you and their responses would be different because they’d had different experiences? Were there any unforeseen difficulties while writing that came from having two characters in a book who are essentially the same person.
TMK: The character of Joel is a hybrid of me and one of my close friends when we were in our late twenties and early thirties. I had to augment his personality and skills a bit, to adjust for the world he lived in, but it was (and continues to be) very easy for me to occupy Joel’s head. Joel², on the other hand, was a challenge. While he largely had the same personality as Joel, when he learned the truth about his existence, he became a bit like Mal’s character in the movie Inception, after Cobb messed with her totem. He had an existential crisis that forked his personality and reality, leading him on a very different path from Joel. So, writing Joel² forced me to look at the world through my most introspective, pessimistic lens, the one where I question reality, my role in it, whether my wife loves me, and whether anything I do matters. That took a lot out of me.
AM: I’m really fascinated with the idea of what Joel does for a living. He essentially spends his days messing with AIs to teach them to be more human, teaching them humor and the like. And he seems to only work when he needs money—it isn’t like he has a set schedule or an office to go to. Is being a salter a viable job field that you foresee in the future? And if so, do you think it will work the way it does in the novel—as a freelance job that people can do anywhere and everywhere—or do you think it will be more structured and corporate—possibly large warehouses full of salters working in cubicles?
TMK: I’m glad you love Joel’s salting job. It’s probably my favorite element in the book, especially the ambulance character and how it upends Joel’s salting. I do think training and troubleshooting artificially intelligent applications will be a standalone career in the near future. A salter is like a hybrid of therapist and hacker—two jobs that some people already do part-time today. So it stands to reason that we are moving toward a gig economy model for most jobs. The nature of “work” is evolving such that there’s declining value to static working hours and spaces, for employer, employee, and customer.
AM: Joel and Sylvia’s marriage was already rocky before we join their story, and—without giving anything away—I would say some things happen during the course of the novel that could definitely strain, if not end, a marriage. How would you say their marriage is now?
TMK: At the end of the book, both Joel and Sylvia have grown. Joel realizes how important Sylvia is to him and that keeping a relationship going takes compromise and work; it’s not just this magic thing that exists around him. Sylvia matures in a very visceral way, I think. When we leave them, their relationship has evolved from codependent cohabitation into a meaningful, nurturing union.
AM: Tell us a little bit (or a lot) about the science behind The Punch Escrow. Everything from the genetically modified mosquitoes that clean up pollution to the TC stations that get people where they need to go, the world is rich with technology that we haven’t seen used these ways. I particularly like the part of the book talking about Big Macs and how they are printed so every single one, no matter where you get it, tastes exactly the same. How much work went into creating the science and making sure it was all believable.
TMK: A lot of work went into it because I am not a scientist. In fact, I almost failed most of my science classes in high school. But, I have very smart friends, and they helped me “make” the world of The Punch Escrow. For example, I worked with a quantum physicist to understand the teleportation problem—like, what do we need to solve in order for teleportation to be viable. We learned that in order to have the kind of teleportation I describe in the book, we needed to be able to print anything. In order to do that, we needed to have a solid printing infrastructure capable of enforcing legitimacy, say, akin to an Amazon Prime of things—one could only have access to things that come with the product which they have already purchased. So that meant that if someone illegally replicated a Big Mac, the printer that printed it would flag it as illegitimate. And I built from there … As you might imagine, each fandangled future technology introduced in the book created a host of origin story problems I needed to solve in order to keep the science authentic. And by the way, that was just one part of the research puzzle. Did you know that critics of early steam locomotives believed that the human body was not meant to move faster than fifty miles an hour? Intelligent people with impeccable credentials worried that female passengers’ uteruses might be ejected from their bodies as trains accelerated! Others suspected that a human body might simply melt at such speeds. We humans have always had tumultuous relationships with new forms of transport. So, I worked with anthropologists, lawyers, and sociologists to model the sort of societal issues teleportation might unleash, like the advent of the Gehinnomites.
AM: The press release I received says that there a two more books to follow this one. Can you give us a little hint as to what those books will be about?
Photo credit Lai Long
TMK: Because of the legalese of my movie stuff, I’m sworn to secrecy about sequels. Though, I will say that one of my big regrets in The Punch Escrow is that much of William Taraval’s backstory was lost to the cutting room floor, so he comes across as a bit cartoonish. That’s something that will be remedied in the next book. There was a very good, even altruistic rationale behind Bill Taraval’s actions and behavior, and thanks to The Punch Escrow’s success, I will now get to tell the world about it.
AM: Congratulations on Lionsgate buying the film rights to all three novels! That is amazing! Every writer dreams of seeing their novel made into a film. You will actually get to see this happen. How has the experience lived up to all the dreams so far? How involved will you be in the film?
TMK: Thank you! It’s been very surreal. I will say everyone involved with the project has been incredibly kind and inclusive, and not in a Hollywood “everyone’s your BFF” kind of way. James Bobin is both adapting and directing the film and he’s got a great vision! While I do get the occasional, “Hey, how would this work?” question, I’m not involved in the writing or production other than on the periphery. Everyone involved wants to tell the best version of this story on the screen and I am very confident in the team’s abilities to do so. One funny sidebar: Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman from Mandeville are also the production team that did the live action Beauty and the Beast adaptation for Disney. Violet, my youngest daughter, loves that movie. She wears her Belle costume all the time, sleeps in Belle jammies—you get the gist. So when I told her that the people who made Beauty and the Beast are also doing the movie adaptation of my book, she insisted, “Daddy, tell them to put Belle in your movie!” (For the record, I did relay the message).
AM: In your bio, you state that your daughter Iris wrote a children’s book at the age of five called I’m a Bunch of Dinosaurs, and that this book became one of the most successful children’s books projects on Kickstarter. With the awesome power of Google, I checked it out and it is super cute! Do you think you or Iris will work on more children’s books in the future?
TMK: She’s got a few ideas. Super Ugly, the artist who did all the drawings in her book, and I remain close friends, so I think it’s just a matter of time before we do something again. I’d like this next one to be a collaboration between my two daughters. The trick is getting them both to focus on the same thing for more than five minutes.
AM: And finally, what are you working on now? Where can Apex readers find more from Tal M. Klein?
TMK: This book has opened up a lot of doors for me. Other than the sequels to Punch, I’ve got a few short stories, and another book I’m working on. A couple of those will likely come out this year. I’ve also been developing some concepts for television and the screen, but nothing I can expand upon at this stage. Most people don’t know that I’m also a musician, so please tune in to the Tal M. Klein Pandora or Spotify station. Otherwise, watch this space! I promise I won’t be quiet when I’ve got something new to share.
Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, and a Girl Scout leader. When she isn’t handling her editorial or Girl Scout leader responsibilities, she’s researching fascinating historical figures, rare demons, and new ways to dispose of bodies, interweaving the three into strange and horrifying tales. Her short fiction can be found in Mountain Dead, Dark Tales of Terror, A Hacked-Up Holiday Massacre, as well as other places. Her first novel, The Weight of Chains, was published by Sinister Grin Press in September, 2015. Best of Apex Magazine: Volume 1 marks her debut experience in anthology editing. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.