Susan Choi is faced with a rather delicious dilemma with her new novel, Trust Exercise. The story, even on a structural level, is so filled with twists and turns that she can’t really discuss any of it without giving spoilers. Her reticence is provocative. It seems Choi is challenging readers to make a trust exercise out of reading Trust Exercise by disclosing so little about it. Here’s a taste of what we learned.
The Millions: What are some of the themes and ideas that Trust Exercise explores?
Susan Choi: Trust Exercise is about a group of high school students in a drama program. It follows them beginning from when they are actually art students in the 1980s, but the story and the time frame are not limited to that context. I am always reluctant to articulate themes when I try to describe my books because I hate to be the person to say, “the theme of this book is this.” I’d rather you decide. My whole thing is: I want people to come to it without knowing anything and just pick it up for what it is, ideally with no ideas.
TM: Of all the novels you’ve read, to which would you most hope Trust Exercise would be compared or live on a shelf beside?
SC: Wow, that’s an interesting question that I can’t say I have an answer for. When I started working on the book, I had a very specific vibe I was really enjoying in literature: the Muriel Spark vibe. I liked how dispassionate, clinical, and unsparing her gaze was when she looked at her characters and unveiled them to her reader. There is great precision and a certain level of mordant humor. When I started writing Trust Exercise, that was the writing mood I was in, but the book didn’t really stay in that vein. In retrospect, I was probably influenced by wonderful books I had read in the last couple of years including Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Those two books were so smart, brave, and just badass. I’d love for my books to be on a shelf with them.
TM: You primarily write fiction, yet I’ve noticed in reviews of your work, as I have in those of countless other female novelists and screenwriters, the critic’s sneaking suspicion that there’s an autobiographical element to your work. What do you make of these assumptions?
SC: I don’t know why women seem to face that question more than men. I can only assume that there is a lot of entrenched cultural sexism involved. There is this idea that if women create literary work, it must be their diary. It seems as though male writers are viewed differently, or perhaps in the same way but we’re less comfortable confronting them with these “gotcha!” questions. No one ever confronted Philip Roth [if his fiction was based on real experiences]. We all know that fiction writers draw on personal experience—whether they’re male, female, trans. I’ve never understood why it becomes so gendered. In the case of men, it seems to be just overlooked. Herman Melville worked on ships. No one seems to be asking, “Oh, did he know that whale?”