We Did Everything and Knew Nothing: The Millions Interviews Susan Choi

“All fiction writers write out of their deepest, most intimate personal experiences, even if some of them try to deny it or disguise it,” Susan Choi tells me over coffee at the Ashland Place food court in Brooklyn, a loud yet somehow uncrowded space that she playfully refers to as “the mall.” Her writing space is just around the corner, but it hasn’t had heat for a while, thus the mall is providing a booming pop music soundtrack to our conversation. “I’ve never read a really good fiction writer who wasn’t writing from something they had felt personally, even if the story seems different from anything they have lived,” she says.
Choi’s fifth novel, Trust Exercise, examines the ways that writers choose to represent and distort their own stories. “Trust Exercise was my side project while I worked on my ‘real’ book, which I have yet to finish,” she confesses. “I’m a big believer in consistent engagement with a project, but a lot of interesting things happen when you step back. I kept disengaging and then something would bring me back, but my perspective would be altered in some unexpected way.”
The result is a wildly inventive novel that is told in three distinct parts, the second and third blowing up and reframing what came before. The first part is set in a suburban high school theater program in the 1980s, where two students, Sarah and David, fall in love under the watchful eye of their drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, the kind of blowhard who insists that the proper way to spell the word theater in Middle America is theatre. When a group of British exchange students visit the school to stage a precocious production of Candide, the world becomes a little bit bigger for Sarah and David and their classmates. That’s all readers should know at the start.
“There are limited ways to talk about the plot,” Choi says. “I’m still figuring out what they are.”
To avoid wandering into spoiler territory, I ask about Choi’s own theater background. Much like the characters in her book, she attended a drama program—in a high school in Houston, where she grew up. “It was exotic for me, because I was supposed to be the smart kid,” she says. “My parents wanted me to attend a rigorous academic high school, and I rebelled and auditioned in a single mad flair of individuality and self-confidence. Then, horribly, I got in. I was so ill-suited for theater. Every time I had to go on stage I was mortified. So I became a techie, which is the happy refuge of every kid who loves theater but can’t stand being on stage.”
But Choi insists that her own experience was nothing like the one she depicts in the novel, using a modern-day TV metaphor to make her point. “I think of this book in terms of Stranger Things: this school is like the upside-down version of the school I attended, where, for the most part, I was really happy.”

I ask Choi whether she’s ever frustrated by the fact that many readers assume that a protagonist written by a female author is nothing but a stand-in for the author herself. “It’s something I became inured to with my last book [2013’s My Education], because it also takes place in a world I know, which is the world of unhappy graduate study,” she says. “But yeah, it’s an interesting conundrum for women writers. We get it much much more.”
My Education may be set in grad school, but it shares with Trust Exercise a tight grip on the unrelenting angst of obsessional first love. The students in Trust Exercise are told that they’ll never feel emotions quite as strongly as they do right then and there in high school, but the heroine of Choi’s previous novel does not seem any wiser or less passionate.
“I wrote both books thinking a lot about youth,” Choi says. “In My Education, I was interested in the youth of early adulthood and how different it feels from later adulthood. Looking back on your first chapter of adulthood, you seem like a teenager.”

The teenagers in Trust Exercise are similarly foolhardy in love and are taught by their theater teacher to revere Shakespeare above all. “Think of Romeo and Juliet, the most romantic tale ever,” Choi says. “And how old were they? That was on my mind—that these relationships that are culturally romanticized have their influence on young people. When you’re young, you’re capable of repurposing experience into a much more self-mythologized narrative than you are when you’re older.”


Mr. Kingsley also has a fierce influence on the way his students see the world. “A friend asked if I’d ever be able to write a novel that didn’t take place in some kind of school environment, and I hadn’t even noticed I’d been doing so until that point,” Choi says. “Clearly I’m preoccupied with the student-teacher relationship, with charismatic teaching, with what that sort of power does.”
I ask Choi whether she’s ever had a teacher as pretentious as Trust Exercise’s fictional drama teacher. “I had wonderful writing teachers who, if anything, were too hands off, too confident of my abilities to tell me what to do.” She leans closer to me. “But I know people who’ve studied with writing teachers who are incredibly tyrannical and dictatorial. I have in my possession a sheet of dictates that a very well-known writer and writing teacher used to issue to their students. The dictates are bizarre and petty and detailed. They were not at all ironically dictated—they were handed down by this writing teacher as the way to write serious literature.”
In contrast, Choi does not have a capital P process. “I almost never think thematically when I’m writing anything,” she says. “I’m usually writing about the rudiments of a circumstance, and following it. I usually don’t know how my books are going to end, or even what will happen in the middle.” She says she began Trust Exercise with the aim of writing something sleek and short. “I’d been reading a lot of Muriel Spark, and all her novels are less than 200 pages—slim—and she has brusque, aggressive openings to her books, where she grabs you by the neck and throws you in, and you just have to figure it out. I really wanted to do that.”
Though the final version of Trust Exercise runs more than novella length, Choi grabs readers right away, immersing them in the fixations of artistic students—the kind who claim to be too serious for musicals but are riveted by Andrew Lloyd Weber. “Trust Exercise is set in the 1980s, which is when I was a teen,” Choi says as the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” begins playing over the mall’s loudspeakers, as though she’d summoned it. “I remember the ubiquity of the Cats sweatshirt,” she says. “If you wore a Cats sweatshirt, it meant that you’d gone to New York and gotten it yourself. It was an incredible totem to have.”
Choi says she wanted to evoke a lack of worldliness in the Trust Exercise students. “My own teen has so much more knowledge of the world than I did at that age,” she says. “Maybe it’s being a New Yorker, maybe it’s growing up in the 21st century and with the internet—we love to blame the internet for everything.”
Trust Exercise is meant to be more provincial. “I wanted to depict teenagers who had never even met anyone who was from outside their city, let alone outside of their country,” Choi says, noting that much like her characters, she was incredibly naive as a teenager. “My sense of sexuality at the time was that we were both more precocious in terms of behavior than now, and much more innocent in terms of context and a larger understanding of everything having to do with sexual life and identity. We did everything and knew nothing. We thought we knew, but we knew so much less than we even realized.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Siri Hustvedt Is Writing to Discover

Siri Hustvedt is frustrated sometimes when people ask her how much of her work—in particular, her latest book, Memories of the Future—is based on her life. The book is a novel, and it includes fantastical elements, such as a coven of witches and a character called the Introspective Detective. Yet Memories of the Future, set in New York City in 1978 and featuring an aspiring novelist from Minnesota as its heroine, closely mirrors Hustvedt’s own experiences, and I couldn’t resist the impulse to inquire.

Hustvedt answers me graciously: “I’m playing with my own autobiography, if you will.”

Memories of the Future tells the story of a 23-year-old woman, dubbed Minnesota, who moved to New York with the goal of completing a novel in a year, before beginning a PhD program at Columbia University. The story contains diary entries from that year, describing her struggles with writing and paying rent; the joys of forming new, intense friendships; and an eccentric neighbor’s overheard conversations.

Hustvedt juxtaposes these diary entries with the contents of the novel that Minnesota is writing, as well as with the voice of Minnesota later in life, as she looks back at her younger self and reflects on how her memories have shifted. All of these textual components are enhanced with Hustvedt’s own illustrations, which she tells me are “visual punctuation” for the story.

The form of Memories of the Future took Hustvedt a while to discover. Like Minnesota, she spent a year working on a novel, but she ended up discarding it. “I think I needed to fail at the other book to write this one,” she says. “I think of this book as an origami project. It starts out as a kind of fairly flat narrative, and then it folds itself into itself.”

For instance, at some point in the novel, the diary entries begin to take on the shape of a 19th-century novel. “There’s a lot of playing with the idea of the novel, and the idea of memoir, right inside the book,” Hustvedt says. “As it goes on, the Introspective Detective comes to life inside the book. It’s her imagination. But fiction and imagination, as the book goes on, really start to blend with the so-called reality of the book.”

Like its author, Memories of the Future cannot be easily defined, labeled, or categorized. Hustvedt published her first poem in the Paris Review in 1979, just after moving to New York. She wrote poetry and prose for years, earned her PhD in English literature, and published The Blindfold, her first of six novels, in 1992. Hustvedt also writes essays and other nonfiction, and publishes work in science journals. For years, she has immersed herself in the study of neuroscience, psychiatry, and neurology, lecturing on the subjects and serving as a volunteer work for psychiatric patients at the Payne Whitney Clinic. After experiencing an uncontrollable shaking episode during a memorial speech, Hustvedt wrote her 2010 book The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves—a blend of personal history, philosophy, and neuroscience. Now she lectures on psychiatry at Weill Cornel Medical College.

Hustvedt’s commitment to understanding the nature of memory drives her current work. As she writes in the novel, “I am writing not only to tell. I am writing to discover.” In Memories of the Future, she illustrates how malleable memory is—how we can create false memories and how “there’s amnesia in all of us.”

In choosing a complex structure that includes elements of memoir, Hustvedt demonstrates a commitment to truth. “We are unconsciously editing our memories all the time,” she says. “We don’t know we’re doing it. But the fact is, memory is crucial to many functions, short- and long-term memory, and our lives are shot through with fictional material. A lot of memoirs are works of fiction. These categories blur tremendously. And there have been memoir scandals, too. People have made things up and put it into their memoirs.”

Memories of the Future is also strongly feminist. Hustvedt’s protagonist is an ardently feminist, intelligent woman who dissects the way gender operates, and the structure of the novel strays from the confessional style that some female authors feel boxed in by. The narration is full of hurtful memories from childhood, such as when Minnesota’s doctor father tells her that she will “make a fine nurse.” But when her older self chimes in, it’s with more confidence—with a deeper understanding of how her younger self at times faced barriers because of her gender.

There is also a poignant scene describing what the narrator calls a “near rape.” Hustvedt wrote this before #MeToo but says that it reflects how, for many women of her generation, “there were many humiliations that people simply put up with and didn’t say anything about.” The novel explores the shame that Minnesota experienced and the way it was internalized.

“For me, this book is about getting her out of that stationary pose,” Hustvedt says. “Out of the pose of waiting and into activity—into motion.”

A recurring line in the book—“The world loves powerful men but it hates powerful women”—is just as true today as it was in 1978, Hustvedt notes. “Women who choose not to hide their power, who choose not to apologize for it, are punished,” she adds. Specifically, she says, social psychology research reveals that women who are assertive can be inadvertently punished. “That’s why so many women apologize for themselves before they start speaking. It cushions the blows. I find this ghastly.”

Hustvedt says she has become “more assured in my own authority” with age. “It’s maybe confidence, and also probably that one is more seasoned and somewhat indifferent. You’re not finding yourself quite as much in the eyes of others as one might assume.”

“I think few human beings understand the degree to which they are locked into these very airless perceptual categories,” Hustvedt tells me. “We are so conventional, all of us. So much of what we do is predetermined. So much of what we see is predetermined. Part of my pleasure as a novelist is to explode some of these truly tedious categories—especially about men and women.”

And isn’t that, truly, a reflection of reality?

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.

The Power of Myth: Marlon James Wants to Take You on an Epic Journey

When asked, Marlon James is hard-pressed to name his favorite story. It’s admittedly a nearly impossible request to make of anyone, and surely more so of a novelist, whose trade relies so deeply on both intake and telling, however tangled, of tales. Unable to name just one, James improvised.
“My favorite stories usually tend to be stories about voyages, whether it’s The Odyssey or it’s ‘Sinbad’ or it’s Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “If John Gardner is right and there are only two kinds of stories, ‘a stranger comes to town’ or ‘people go on a trip,’ then I’m definitely into the ‘people go on a trip’ kind of stories. I’ve always liked journeys, journeys where people meet sea monsters, or human monsters. There’s something about people leaving everything they know and going into what they don’t know where you actually learn a lot about people.”

Pondering the significance of the journey, be it a principled quest or spiritual pilgrimage or merely a pleasant jaunt, is a perennial human occupation. And this week marks the publication, by Riverhead Books, of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in James’s Dark Star trilogy—a decidedly non-European medieval fantasy appropriately billed as an “African Game of Thrones” and, more recently, racking up comparisons to last year’s Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther—which fits into a long tradition of stories built around a great voyage, even as it is unafraid to challenge the conventions of that tradition.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, in essence, the tale of a ragtag group of mercenaries seeking a missing boy who might be the heir to the throne of an empire spanning a large stretch of a fantastic medieval Africa. It is narrated by a man known only as Tracker, who is said to “have a nose”; his extraordinary sense of smell lets him track nearly anyone whose scent he has ever sniffed. Tracker and his on-and-off allies—among whom are a leopard who can shape-shift into a man’s body and back, a small giant, a Moon Witch, and an intelligent water buffalo—follow the boy from city to city, through stretches of dangerous, often mystical wilderness. Their hope is to bring him back alive, or to at least bring back news of his demise.

Many pieces of the novel’s plot will feel as familiar to readers of the Icelandic sagas or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Arthurian legend as it will to fans of speculative fiction properties from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas, as they should. This is a hero’s journey, after all, even if its protagonist might not always seem heroic, and if the mythologist Joseph Campbell had been alive to read it, he’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet some might feel quite different, rooted as they are in settings and cultures that many, if not most, American readers, who remain unfortunately accustomed to fantasies set primarily in worlds of whiteness, have rarely, if ever, encountered.

Adding to this sense of newness is an intricacy James’s novels have become famous for sporting. For starters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only one of three books which will each tell the same overarching story from three separate perspectives, a technique evoking celebrated Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s seminal short story “In a Grove” and, more famously internationally, its film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon. As such, it is an investigation into truth, and the more each “truth” the novel and its characters bear is held to the light, the slipperier or knottier (or both) it becomes. As James writes, truth is “a shifting, slithering thing.”
This proves to be the case from the get-go. “The child is dead,” reads the book’s first line. “There is nothing left to know.” What follows is…everything left to know. It proves true too in James’s pyrotechnic language, often so elliptical as to feel intoxicatingly dizzying.
It proves true even in the novel’s creation, it seems. The text in advance reading copies was markedly different from what was in final copies of the book, as James made significant changes to the story following the printing of the galley. (Some of those changes, he said, involved adding some 15,000 words to imbue its women characters, and their stories, with more depth.)
When James first began work on the book, the story started as a “stranger comes to town” narrative before changing its course. He starts writing characters first, “which can be very frustrating, because I don’t know what their story is.” The characters, he said, “just won’t leave my head alone.” Eventually, though, the story comes. “It’s always important to me, when I’m writing a book, that these characters have a pre-novel life,” he said. “When I figured out why these characters were here and what mystery they had to solve, I knew they would leave home and everything they knew. But I didn’t know when I started it.”
At first, James also did not know that Tracker would become its main character. And, in the next book, he won’t be. That novel will hold someone else’s story—that of the Moon Witch, Sogolon.
“When I really started to think of this novel and how much I wanted it to divert from what I usually read in all the fantasy books I like, Tracker just came to the fore,” James said. “For want of a better way of phrasing it, I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel about important people. I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel starring nobles and kings, although they all end up in it. No, I wanted it to start in the street.” 


That’s a common theme in James’s work, and exemplary, he said, of his writing process. Often, he will actively turn his focus toward a character he “hadn’t thought twice about” and, as he puts it, “look at everything I have and do the opposite or the reverse or pick the least important character.” As an analogy, he mentions photos of basketball players doing a slam dunk: “I always wonder, who’s that guy way off in a corner who was frowning at it? Who’s the bit player in the great shot? I want to know their story. That’s always happened to me. When I’m starting something, it’s the people in the margins that I notice over in the corner of my eye.” 
James lives alternately in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches at Macalester College, and an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but also keeps an office in the attic of Camp Cedar Pines, author John Wray’s brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which Wray has turned into something of a writers colony. It’s fairly spare, with an elliptical in the corner next to a blocky gray couch and a desk in the center of the room facing a wide glass window. As with most writers’ offices, it’s filled with stories, which is to say it’s filled with books.

Next to James’s desk, a single-volume version of Amos Tutuola’s novels The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts lies on the floor, and a stack nearby houses Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and two academic books from 5 Continents Editions’ Visions of Africa series, Arthur P. Bourgeois’s Yaka and David A. Binkley and Patricia Darish’s Kuba. In another pile near the desk, the Icelandic Elder Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs, and Beowulf sit atop William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, and two more scholarly texts, Brian M. Fagan and Roland Oliver’s Africa in the Iron Age and Richard W. Hull’s African Cities and Towns Before European Conquest, both published by white scholars in the 1970s. 

The solitary nature of a writer’s office is strange to James, despite having a room dedicated to writing in each of his homes and this office at Cedar Pines—which, sitting as it does down the hall and above the quarters of a number of other writers, does allow for a little bit more company. Growing up in Jamaica, James said, he was surrounded by the noise of his family and community, and it was in that environment that he first learned to work. (It does not hurt that James is as insatiable a music listener as he is a reader; he mentions Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’s acid jazz albums, and the kora music of Toumani Diabaté, among many others, as being influential while he wrote this book.)
The novel itself replicates that noise, filled as it is with a motley of characters carrying their own passions, missions, fights to fight, sex to have, and tales to tell. The cities in Black Leopard, Red Wolf bustle, but so do the riverlands and the bush and the jungles—with humans, but also with giants, shapeshifters, demons, vampires with the power of lightning, bush fairies, merpeople, river spirits, gremlins, trolls, and flesh-eating monsters.
While James’s portrayal of mythological beings is distinctly African, the majority of these creatures appear in folklores all across the world. In a way, this allows the novel, which is such a paean to African history and culture and folklore, to double as an exhortation to fantasy readers: be drawn in by what is similar, and stay for what is unique. Or: Don’t stop at Tolkien and the Odyssey. Read Marlon James and the tale of Mansa Musa, The Lion of Mali, too.
The difficulty, as James makes clear, is that many stories of African peoples have only been available in the American and European markets in texts aimed at academia. Their authors, translators, and editors, almost invariably, are white academics. One major result of this is a lack of public awareness that leads to a perception of an inferiority of those stories, that James says just is not the case.
“Looking at the most recent translation projects of African epics, there’s been some really good work that’s been done,” James said. “The issue with a lot of those translations is that they weren’t translated by poets. They were translated for the academy. Which will lead people to think that these stories, these epics, are inferior to, say, the Icelandic sagas. No they’re not. I’ll bet anything the Odyssey wasn’t shit until a poet translated it.”
Until, that is, a poet retold its story. But with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, there’s no need to wait for the right translator. James is the teller, and Tracker, and Sogolon, and so many others. He, and they, have got a journey right here.

This profile was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.