Charles Yu’s new novel, Interior Chinatown (Pantheon), addresses Asian American identity with startling originality and brio. Yu is a gentle but slightly eccentric satirist who showers his characters with unconditional love. He does not so much write about things that haven’t been written about before, but rather to find completely new ways to write about them. Yu’s sleek sentences are whirring logic machines with trapdoors through which unsuspecting readers tumble into the wellspring of our shared humanity. His work is very hilarious and weirdly political. But above all, Charles Yu is a writer of exquisite sensitivity intent on making the perilous journey to the walled-off tomb where you keep your heart.
Gabe Hudson As political art, your new book seems like a leap forward. It felt like the stakes were higher. Did you put more of yourself at risk in the act of composition?
Charles Yu I feel like that’s true. I was just stuck in the mud for years. Years!
GH What finally shook you loose?
CY The 2016 election. Looking back, it had something to do with the new world I found myself living in.
GH Yeah, this horrible fascist landscape. I can definitely see how your book is a response to that. The entire novel is written as a screenplay. And because your protagonist, Willis Wu, is an actor, the novel presented as screenplay actually strengthens the narrative’s reality. The screenplay format also becomes a dynamic prism through which we encounter an array of satiric Asian American storytelling tropes. I know you’ve written scripts for TV shows such as Westworld and Legion. How did you approach the screenplay format as a vessel to contain your novel?
CY The novel started with the first line. That might sound redundant, but they don’t all start that way! This one felt like a rock at the top of the hill, all potential energy. Which is normally a good thing. And then very quickly I realized, Uh-oh, I think I’m going to have to write this as a screenplay. And so I wrestled with, Do I really want to do that? Does anyone even want to read that? But then I committed to it. And then there was the next question: how strict do I have to be with my own rules? Because it could be very limiting very quickly, if I’m too rigid with the whole screenplay thing. So those were some of the craft type things I was thinking about.
GHDid you set out to subvert the expectations a reader might bring to a screenplay?
CYIn terms of subverting, that was the fun and necessary promise of doing it. With subversion––it’s a little bit of a cliché––you’re trying to pull off the thing where you subvert the thing but make the thing as well.
GH It’s not like you’re a nihilist who wants to tear everything down, right?
CYYou start off in a place where the reader thinks they understand. Then you take the reader to a place where they, or at least for me as a reader, are disoriented on some level. And it’s by your design. My editor, Tim O’Connell, was a great gatekeeper with that. He was like, we want certain kinds of ambiguity but we don’t want unintentional ambiguity here. Because you’re already asking for a lot with the layers.
GH Quick side note: I actually know your editor Tim O’Connell. Whenever I ask him about you, he always lights up and talks about how your work holds a special place in his heart. I thought I should tell you that, writer to writer, because maybe you don’t hear that all the time.
CY I don’t. He treats me like dog shit. (laughter) Kidding! No I––that’s wonderful to hear. Tim is a great editor and person. He helped me make that first book he acquired, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. He hip-pocketed me and said, I don’t think I can take this in to them now. But let’s work on this together. I was excited and scared. Like, What if this doesn’t work out? He totally helped me shape the book. And then he took it into Marty Asher. Then the book went up the chain. Got a buy in, basically. And I was over the moon.
GHI teach your work in my “Weird Fiction as Political Tool” seminar at Columbia University’s MFA program. Victor LaValle and I cooked this class up together; he’s been very supportive. I teach your story “Good News, Bad News” from that anthology A People’s Future of the United States. I also teach your story “Standard Loneliness Package.”
CY That’s wild. Thanks for teaching that. How do the students respond?
GH They love your work, because it speaks to their experience. The students are people of color, they are queer … They want to write fiction that engages with our current political moment––in the mode of Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Alice Sola Kim, Franz Kafka, and The Twilight Zone. So I have to ask: when you are in the act of composition, are you intentionally being weird? Does “weird fiction” seem like a useful term to even describe what it is you do?
CYI feel like my wife has asked me that question over the years. (laughter) I don’t think I’m intentionally being weird. I think for whatever reason, it comes out sounding like that, and that’s when I get interested.
GH When you get interested, what is it that hooks you?
CY The weirdness comes down to approaching things at an off angle. It gives perspective that changes everything. The language that’s coming out starts to change if I’ve even shifted it five degrees. Maybe five degrees doesn’t sound like much, I mean, I have not written about a teenage dragon (laughter), but I have written some weird protagonists and put them in weird settings. Then, when it works, things start to flow. For me, maybe it comes down to the ratio of the familiar and strange. I can live in that space and start to see things more honestly.
GH As a Taiwanese-American, you grew up straddling two cultures. As a writer, do you think that experience informs your attraction to the “familiar and strange” on the page?
CY Yes, that’s really interesting. There’s something about starting off in a place where you are not the center of things.
GH How do you think that perspective is related to your humor? Or do you call it comedy? What do you call your sensibility? (laughter)
CY(laughter) I don’t know, almost comedy? Trying to be comedy? I remember one of your stories in Dear Mr. President where the character’s heart is the size of a raisin. I laughed out loud when I read it. Fiction is hard for comedy. I think George Saunders is one of the funniest writers out there. But I don’t laugh out loud at every page. You’re not going to get the laugh rate that you would on a classic Simpsons episode. For me, a laugh would be a bonus, but I’m trying to keep it light, is what it is.
GH When people hear “light” they might incorrectly think the work does not have gravitas. But to me what that means is you are very serious about what you’re doing on the page but you’re trying to come at it in an interesting way.
CY I always start my fiction off with something pretty weighty. I’m always asking myself the “Big Questions” (ugh, I know—sorry). So I think that without a sort of lightness of tone, it could get pedantic or start to weigh down on a reader.
GH The book provides so many insights on the Asian American experience. It’s not that you were talking about things that haven’t been talked about, it’s that you were finding new ways to talk about them. For example, the backstory for the protagonist Willis Wu is that when he was a little boy, his actress mother would sometimes die in a TV show and then get forty-five days off from acting. At this point in the book, there were these really interesting sentences––talking about how when Willis’s mother was “dead,” and not performing the role of an Asian American woman, that’s when she was the most motherly to Willis. I felt like these passages were giving me new entrées into a kind of empathy and understanding of Willis Wu, that I just hadn’t felt before.
CY Thanks, that was a really important part of it for me. My editor Tim, I can’t say it enough—he is such a great and generous reader, as is my agent Julie Barer. We wrestled with some of what’s going on in moments like that. There were questions about that choice specifically. Yet I think you go right to the heart of it, which is the overall framework for Willis as a kind of performer. The metaphor of being trapped in a sort of Law and Order reality as a player was a useful framework for generating insights as to what it feels like, at least to me, to be an Asian American. Obviously no two individuals have the same experience.
GH Which you get at towards the end of the book. There’s this moment where I felt like the voice of the book began to push back against a lot of what it had previously established. As far as these prescribed Asian American roles and the similarity of experience. Then all of a sudden the voice is suggesting: You can’t just clump us all together, we’re not all the same. Each of us is an individual. Am I recalling that correctly?
CY Definitely. That’s such an insightful––I’m not sure I had fully articulated it in my head. But you’re right. The thrust of that part, and towards the end, that latter part, it’s about: we’re in a trial now, a courtroom setting––
GH In the chapter, “The Case of the Missing Asian”?
CYThat’s right, “The Case of the Missing Asian.” I wanted to mirror the structure of the old school Law and Order episode, so what is on trial is actually a lot of things that the characters are grappling with. Not just that they have been put into these roles … the extent to which these roles were the result of Willis’ own internalization. That part comes from a personal place. I don’t know how much of it is my own psyche, how much to attribute to society versus myself. Am I responsible?
GHI bet with your children, as you raise them, this is something that you get to investigate from a different vantage point.
CYI talked about the 2016 election as a catalyst for the book. My children are now in this phase of their own consciousness. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do with that. So some of that anxiety, and some of those conversations we’ve had in the last couple years, feed into this story. But yeah, I look for those moments, like in the passage you pointed out earlier, where the protagonist Willis Wu is talking about his mom and the times they had together that were happier times. I’m always kind of looking to get to that place. I’m plodding along, in ordinary life, and I’m trying to get to the emotional place. To find it hidden in every day life, and polish it until it becomes something more.