Susan Choi is highly accomplished. She teaches at Yale University. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award, while her second novel, American Woman, was named a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. Her next work of fiction, A Person of Interest, was as finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award, and most recently her novel My Education earned the Lambda Literary Award. Next month her children’s book, Camp Tiger, will be published, and this weekend a film adaptation of American Woman will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival under the direction of Semi Chellas. Our focus, though, is on her newly released novel, Trust Exercise, which was one of the year’s most anticipated books.
Trust Exercise follows Sarah and David, two teenagers in a high school dedicated to theater arts during the early 1980s. They fall for each other but are pulled in different directions by the drama of teenage life, both on and off the stage. As the story progresses, the reader must consider the power dynamics of storytelling and performance: who is granted a voice and who is seen as merely an object rather than a subject. It is a story that spans 30 years, an intricately crafted novel that asks important questions about power and identity.
I recently caught up with Choi to talk about education, theater, the #MeToo movement, our distance from our teenage selves, and the writing process.
The Millions: I wanted to start with the topic of education. In your previous books you’ve engaged with the educational sphere at the college level, but in Trust Exercise you’ve moved to high school. One of the things that I particularly enjoyed about your take on this age group is how you show the power of the heightened emotions of being a teenager. What made you shift your focus to this younger group?
Susan Choi: For me these things are never premeditated. I write a lot of things that never make it out of my hard drive, and then, every once in a while, there’s something that I stick with. In this case, I think my preoccupation with all our past selves—all of us adults were teenagers once—predated my work on this book. In My Education I was preoccupied with the way in which the selves we were at earlier periods of adulthood might come to seem like strangers—incomprehensible and even kind of crazy—once we’ve aged a little more. In Trust Exercise that same preoccupation shifts back further in time.
TM: Your writing about high school theater training really captures how this activity creates a space for forming identity and a sense of an artistic self. Why did you want to write about theater?
SC: The tension between unleashing emotion and controlling emotion is really interesting to me. And theater is a context in which, it seems to me, that happens in particularly fascinating ways. And there’s a parallel there, to writing, which never occurred to me until later.
TM: While this novel is treading its own path, I also see its connection to some of your earlier work. Let me give you one small example: Trust Exercise includes a scene that recalls one from American Woman. In both a young woman is identified merely by the texture of her jeans. What interests you in the reworking of themes and images over the course of your novels?
SC: I don’t rework themes or images very often, and in this case I didn’t choose to do it so much as I just couldn’t resist recycling that idea. Once I’d done it, I fretted about people noticing it and indeed they have! I wish I hadn’t used it the first time around because I think it’s far more indispensable where it happens in Trust Exercise. But maybe we can view the previous iteration as a rehearsal?
TM: I enjoy the historicity of your work, whether you are positioning your reader in the 1970s California of Patty Hearst or in the Korean War and its aftermath in The Foreign Student. What kind of research did you do for this book to create this world? What did you draw from your own experiences during the early 1980s?
SC: I didn’t do research specifically to support this book because, unlike with the time periods of some of my other books, I have clear memories of the ’80s, just as I have clear memories of the ’90s setting for A Person of Interest. But I was, on a separate track, doing research into Scientology a handful of years ago, and that research ended up feeding into this book in very unexpected ways. With that research I was also thinking about charismatic leaders, and the sorts of rituals those leaders impose on their followers, to forge those followers into a compliant collective.
TM: Interesting, what are some of the ways that you see Scientology connecting to Trust Exercise?
SC: Some of the trust exercises—the repetitions for example—bear uncanny resemblance to Scientology practices, and it’s my understanding that both derive from a common source, a type of actors’ training. I found this intersection really striking, and it contributed a lot to my thinking about the world of the book, in which a charismatic leader uses specific rites and rituals to mold disparate and in some cases unruly individuals into a compliant cooperative group.
TM: My Education dealt with issues of sexual identity, and this book continues with some of those questions in its own way. Did you begin this book to address some of those continuing questions or were you thinking about more timely topics like #MeToo?
SC: Honestly, I almost never begin a book to address questions. If I did, I don’t think I’d get very far. I begin books because certain situations, involving certain characters, interest me and I want to see what might happen. The questions that preoccupy me start exercising their influence right away, but I’m not particularly conscious of that process, any more than I’m particularly conscious of the way in which the questions that preoccupy me exercise their influence on all the choices I make in every aspect of my life. However, once this book was well underway it did become glaringly clear to me that its trajectory, and real-world events including #MeToo, were intersecting in really interesting ways.
TM: Yes, in my reading, I certainly thought about #MeToo issues and the related questions of consent and power. Are there any particular ways that you see the novel reflecting these issues?
SC: Karen in particular is a character struggling to make sense of a past experience for which she blames herself, for making an ultimately damaging choice, and blames the other party involved, for taking advantage of her inexperience and credulousness. What happened to her has happened to countless women who, if they heard her story, would echo the refrain of “me too” that gives the movement its name—but the very fact of the experience being so widely shared only makes Karen harder on herself. She isn’t able to resolve the contradiction between self-blame and righteous accusation, and she isn’t able to ally herself with other women in similar circumstances. Her problem is both eternal and—because recently the cultural conversation is finally echoing all our private conversations—timely.
TM: This book is very much attentive to its structure. Through its three major sections, readers must resituate themselves in relationship to the narrative and their confidence in their perception of it. At what point in the development of this project did the structure come to you?
SC: The structure of the book really evolved out of the writing process, the way most of my books’ structures do. I never sat down and thought, I want to write a book with this particular structure. Structural aspects presented themselves along the way as solutions to problems that had arisen in the course of the writing. That’s how it always happens, for me. I never outline in advance and most of the time I have no idea, in advance, how something is going to end. It’s possibly a very disorganized way to write, but I find it more generative and interesting than planning everything ahead—not that I’m even able to do that.
TM: Earlier you mentioned one of the acting exercises I wanted to talk about because it creates quite a memorable scene. In it, two students repeat the same phrase to each other while trying to alter the meaning of the words through emphasis and delivery. This moment encapsulates the work’s interest in point of view, shifting context, and the change of a person from subject to object. What were your thoughts about perspective in this book?
SC: I’ve always thought a lot about point of view or perspective with all my books, but usually in pretty narrow terms that have to do with the book itself and what perspective will solve the most problems, what perspective will best convey character and give me what I need to communicate information and so on. It’s often a mess; with My Education I wrote a lot of the book in the omniscient third person and it just didn’t feel right so I rewrote it in the first person and again, it didn’t feel right, so I had to rewrite that first person voice from a specific point in time that was more retrospective…there was lots of trial and error. With this book I had all the same craft-centric thoughts about what perspective would work best, but it’s true that I was also thinking a lot more about the role of storytelling in our lives and not just in the books we read. Our culture and our politics are all stories, often contending stories, often harmful stories—and harmful stories are on the rise right now, it seems to me. So, I was thinking a lot about who gets to tell these stories, and who gets told about, and all the harm that can be done.
Say “historical fiction,” and your listener’s eyes may glaze over, as you fight to re-seize attention. Younger readers or those with edgier tastes, especially, may associate authors of historical fiction with dotty academic types in tweed, or their narratives with conventional period dramas, the cinematic equivalent of which might be a Merchant Ivory production. So let me just say, with as much un-dotty enthusiasm as I can muster, that I am, like, way super excited about the histo-fi seminar I’m teaching this fall, “(Re)Imagining True Lives.”
More specifically, the reading list focuses on works of fiction that feature, either prominently or peripherally, real historical figures as characters:
American Woman by Susan Choi
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Stories from You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard
Stories by Roberto Bolaño, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Colm Tóibín
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
Written Lives by Javier Marías
Libra by Don Delillo
The Master by Colm Tóibín
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong
The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck
(Now, if this list doesn’t get your reading chops watering, then sure, maybe historical fiction just isn’t for you.)
What fascinates me as both reader and writer (and also as teacher and lifelong writing student) is the always dynamic tri-level experience of delving into these works and their like; one is always simultaneously aware of 1) the author’s particular knowledge of and relationship (intellectual, political, emotional) to the real-life material; 2) one’s own particular knowledge of and relationship to (or lack thereof) the material; and 3) one’s engagement/response to 1).
Where has the author stayed close to “facts,” and where has she taken liberties of imagination, supposition, projection? Does my experience of the novel grow more, or less, deep and interesting as I identify the fact-fiction seams? Personally, I would say more – which is to say that, as we see the way in which researched and imagined history braid together, the author himself ultimately becomes a compelling character in his own right. As the author decides what to imagine/suppose/project (and of course how), he reveals, inevitably, his own concerns, ideas, obsessions.
What is it about the German romantic poet Novalis’s rather banal, albeit eccentric, middle-class family and upbringing, and his courtship of the dull-witted 13 year-old Sophie von Kühn – years before he came into his full powers as poet and philosopher – that captivated Penelope Fitzgerald’s literary imagination? By what instinct or logic did both Susan Choi and Somerset Maugham take liberties in renaming their characters and revising their stories, while also rendering them clearly recognizable to the reader (as Paul Gauguin, and Patty Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura, respectively)? What do Bolaño and Le Guin mean by backgrounding primary figures like Borges and Cortazar, and the Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, while foregrounding peripheral, fictional protagonists (the novelist Sensini in the story of the same name, and the all-female exploration team in “Sur”) in their stories of literary greatness and extreme adventure? Similarly, how important in the scope of history are figures like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Freud – in Doctorow’s literary vision – relative to a minor ragtime musician (the fictional Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), the Vaudeville escape artist Harry Houdini, and an immigrant street artist (also fictional), given Morgan’s and Ford’s relatively peripheral (at the same time utterly fascinating) scenes in Ragtime? What do Walbert’s imagined depictions of suffragette Dorothy Trevor Townsend’s female descendants tell us about her “what if” thought process (i.e., what if your mother, grandmother, great grandmother starved herself to death for a cause?) and conceptions of emotional inheritance? In other words, in their particular, idiosyncratic manipulations of history and imagination, and through our careful study of the results, these authors show us glimpses of not only their characters’ but also their own inner moral landscapes.
How we read these works also reveals to us something about our own relationship to fact and fiction. To what degree am I aware of divergences from strict facts as I am reading? Do I give myself over to the whole of the created world and characters, or do I pause to ask myself, “Did this really happen?” and then click over to Google to fact-check? Or do I engage in this research afterwards? Or not at all? Why, or why not?
We read a memoir, a la James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and take it for true, only to learn that key elements have been fabricated, embellished. We are offended, insulted, maybe impressed, maybe not so surprised. But what of the converse? You are reading an absurd or incredible scene in a novel (the episode in Ragtime where J.P. Morgan sleeps solitary in the crypt of an Egyptian pyramid comes to mind), and then come to find it really happened. What is the effect, then? The other day I was walking in the park and saw, in a pond, a bronze sculpture of a turtle, nose in the air, perched on a rock. How quaint, I thought. Then, movement in the water: an actual turtle swimming, nosing up to the sculpture, trying to get its attention. Silly, dumb thing, I thought. Then, the sculpture’s eyes – black on white with blood-red outlines – suddenly flickered; the turtle stretched its neck even longer up toward the sun, then twisted to acknowledge its suitor-compadre. I stood there a few moments, smiling stupidly.
What was the nature of my delight? The translucent hologram of truth and falsity, real and fake, shifting and melding, captivates. In the hands of a skillful and mindful artist, the effect is unsettling and exciting: we start out on a smooth, hard path, but then find our feet sinking into warm sand, or slipping on ice, at times finding again stone-solid footing, only to slip or sink again. Where are we? Whose reality is this? History, the author’s inventiveness and fixations, our own projections and obsessions call out to us all at once. In historical fiction, studied closely, perhaps more so than with other sub-genres, this motional holographic magic comes into stark relief – not unlike the red flickering eyes of a turtle or, one hopes, the un-dotty aha moments of a seminar-class discussion. For good measure, maybe I’ll show up on the first day wearing gold lamé and skinny jeans.