Controlled Ambiguity: Susan Choi Interviewed by David Levine

The novelist on her tripartite book about the dark side of acting school, gurus, and writing towards unforeseen endings.

Trust Exercise

The central events of Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (Henry Holt & Co.) take place in a performing arts high school, in a city that may be Houston, sometime in the 1980s. That’s all we know for sure. What we encounter in Trust Exercise are the reverberations of these events—through a novel, written by an alumna named Sarah—through a reader of that novel, also an alumna, named Karen—and lastly, through a mysterious character named Claire. Central to all these accounts is the drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley or Mr. Lord, depending on whose account you’re reading.

I was drawn to this book as soon as I heard about it, since it dovetails with my own interests in the politics of acting. I wasn’t expecting to find such a devastating account of heartbreak, trauma, and memory. We corresponded over email about the book and more.  

—David Levine 


David Levine I realize this question is probably totally orthogonal to how you wrote or conceived of the novel, but I was wondering: Why drama school? The larger unfolding structure (Susan’s novel versus Karen’s account versus Claire’s account) could, in a sense, have been rooted in a variety of institutions or situations. What was it about the culture of theater and theater education that informed this choice?  

Susan Choi I didn’t really choose the drama school so much as something else I was working on got me interested in my own (minimal, brief) drama school past again. I was actually reading a lot about Scientology with an eye to writing about it—which I should say now, in case they’re calling their lawyers, I never did—and I was startled to find that certain Scientology practices are identical to acting exercises I recalled. The similarity is no accident. Seeing these exercises employed to break down individual egos and facilitate religious conformity sufficiently defamiliarized acting class for me so that it suddenly was interesting again and I wanted to write about it. I abandoned my never-launched Scientology idea.  

DL If you watch old Actors’ Studio sessions they’re remarkably cult-like, all sorts of EST/Regression therapy stuff too. I made myself watch ten hours of Sanford Meisner DVDs from the 80s, and everyone’s cheerful willingness to go along with the repetition exercise—which features so prominently in your novel—freaked me out. Meisner keeps saying all this shit like, “Don’t think! Don’t think!” which just seems like a very dangerous ethos to cultivate.  

I was also interested in the questions Trust Exercise asks about who owns a story; was this a question you were already interested in asking?

SC It wasn’t at all at the forefront of my mind when I started writing the book. If I’m actually writing, it’s because the characters and situation interest me in an immediate way, just as when I’m successfully reading—engaged, immersed—it’s not because I’m wondering what sorts of big issues the reading might illuminate. I worked on Trust Exercise on and off as a self-indulgent side project—100% fun—while I struggled with the project I thought was my real and hence worthier project. That project was totally afflicted by just the sorts of abstract questions that never, for me, foster successful writing. It was about a bunch of things I care about, like nation and identity and, yes, who owns a given story, and because I was thinking actively about those things the story just floundered again and again and to this day it remains unfinished. When that was too discouraging to stomach I’d open the file for Trust Exercise and start actually writing.    

When the election came along to drive me crazy, I already had the first part of the book written. But that moment presented a very immediate and distressing example of who gets to tell a story, the story of country, and why. I was just so incensed in all the ways that anyone not supportive of Trump was, but with me the one odd side effect of that resulted in taking a hard left with my once-fun story. I thought, What if there’s somebody in the world of this story who’s also really incensed about something? Who might that be, and why might that person be angry? And right away, I knew. Although the question was arguably abstract, because the answer was so immediate, it arose quickly from the already-existing world of character and situation. The result wasn’t the usual overly-cerebral paralysis but a new infusion of life into the writing process which also happened to be tons of fun. It was so fun, and so necessary, to have a really angry character to write.  

DL How and when did Claire come into it?  

SC Claire came into the story very late, after I’d written and discarded not one, not two, but three entire endings to the book, each of which was totally different from the last. I’d been struggling to end the book ever since I’d ended the middle section. From that point, I’d fixated on the idea that the book was tripartite, but I couldn’t decide on the third part. I kept pursuing very obvious lines of development, but pursuing the obvious line of development had been exactly what I hadn’t done to that point, so it didn’t work at all. I wrote a lot of pages I still like, that will probably never see the light of day in any form.   

In the midst of all this my agent took the pressure off, which is something she’s very skilled in doing. She did this in two ways: first, by referring to my elusive ending as a “coda,” and second, by opining that, whatever that coda was going to be, it would probably involve some “unswept corner” of what already existed. These three words were incredibly evocative to me. “Coda” sounded a lot less intimidating than “ending.” It sounded short, and as if it was actually following on an ending already in existence; it sounded a little superfluous. “Unswept corner” sounded similarly like an optional, not a crucial, territory. I mean, no one has swept it until now, and the world hasn’t ended. So I felt freed, in a way, from the pressure of locating the single correct ending. And into that space came Claire, who now feels like the single correct ending.  

DL Well, it hit me like a coda, but in that way that codas can be heartbreaking or knife-twisting. As you say, it felt like the single correct ending. The devastating thing (and I mean that in a good way) about it is you realize just how much Sarah must have transmuted her experience, and how much you’ll never, ever know about what the original experience was. You get inklings of it with Karen, but she’s such a strong subject in her own right, she has such a clear replacement story in mind, and so little mercy for Sarah, that you don’t get a sense of what Sarah’s actual context was until you meet Lord face-to-face. That’s the weird Chinatown moment where you’re just like, Oh, man. This is so buried we’ll never get it out.  

Now that we’re talking about it, I want to ask, how did the rest of Karen’s big night shake out? Does Claire ever finds a copy of Sarah’s book? These are inane questions, obviously. But take it as testament. 

SC I like your phrase “replacement story.” The whole first part of the Sarah book is her replacement story, at least if Karen is to be believed. And I’ve always thought that Karen is in fact to be believed about everything—her biases are so clear, she makes no effort to ever hide them, which is a form of honesty few people practice.

But does it matter what I think? I have inflexible ideas about what “really” happened and I find it hard to imagine these ideas don’t emerge from what’s on the page but of course that’s not true, a lot is left offstage (so to speak), and my assumption that readers who look hard between the lines will find exactly the same thing I’m imagining is pretty crazy—but it’s a craziness my editor seems to have shared, so at least when we were in the revising stage it seemed to us as if we were caulking the vessel for a watertight journey rather than blasting holes in the thing. Look how the bad metaphors fly at this hour of the morning. 

DL Right, but that’s what so haunting about it. You do reflexively, believe Karen, and so you start thinking about what story Sarah must have been replacing, but you can only see the barest edges, and then you have to struggle with whether the replacements are one-to-one (if Kingsley/Lord doesn’t have a live-in boyfriend, then does that entire scene with Sarah and Martin and David and Liam and the sex toys stand in for a rape? What about the scene with Sarah and Karen’s Mom?)—and then you think, No, it wouldn’t be that reductive, it couldn’t be that one-to-one, but what if it is? 

Somehow, knowing it’s a replacement story makes Sarah’s actual story feel that much more real, precisely because you know nothing about it. It’s what Claire doesn’t know but almost knows, and what Sarah knows that no one but Karen knows, that makes the whole thing tragic. There’s something so rotten at the core of it that you’ll never extract it. That’s why I mentioned Chinatown. The rot emanates from a center so inaccessible you have no choice but say, “Forget it, it’s Chinatown”—and move on. But the thing is, no one in the book quite can.  

You’re not going to tell me what happened to Karen, or what “really” happened to Sarah, huh?   

SC You know, if I were to tell you what “really” happened to those characters, I would have just written the book differently, no? I’ve always loved it when writers leave events offstage, or when they create a controlled ambiguity, where the truth feels present and inevitable but it isn’t revealed. That’s what I hoped to do, not to be too annoying about it.

Susan Choi Credit Heather Weston

Photo by Heather Weston.

DL I guess you’re right. It’s my dramaturgical nature. I’m an inveterate backstory hound. I remember going backwards and forwards through The Good Soldier trying to figure out every angle—who could have known what when. One of the things I’m always most interested in, when I direct theater, is orchestrating the parade of partial knowledge. What keeps the story moving is the fact that every character in the room, even the quiet one, is perceiving a different reality—but to draw that out, the director has to have some sense of what each character is perceiving. To figure that out, you have to sniff out their backstories, what history they’re bringing to the present moment. Of course it was an inappropriate question—one that can only lead to disappointing answers. But that’s avid curiosity for you. 

One thing I would like to hear more about though is Lord/Kingsley. I myself have a super hard time with the environment of the Acting Workshop, and the ideology of drama school generally. I look at Strasberg and Meisner as these super-creepy cult leaders. I find the anti-rational impulse troubling; I find how much these guys enjoy being gurus troubling; I find the credulity and emotional availability of actors—which the gurus both encourage and rely on—troubling. 

I think Strasberg is one of the unsung villains of postwar America, and yet I also find him totally fascinating, compelling—Meisner likewise, talking out of that hole in his throat, insisting on smoking even after it got him a tracheotomy. I don’t know how much you dug back into these guys, or whether you were just channeling their drama school emanations, but I was wondering if you think the acting workshop—and the acting workshop leader—create a particular kind of emotional stew that other mentor-student relationships don’t, and if so, what it is about the kind of trust, and exercise of trust, that these situations cultivate that leads to such crazy outcomes?

SC I like avid curiosity!  

One thing that kept striking me while I was writing the book was the number of singularly charismatic, disproportionately influential drama teachers there are. Everyone I know seems to have one in their past—this towering figure (and always, it seems, a man). If these people were so singular and towering how could there be so many of them? But then again that’s the way it is with charismatic leaders of all kinds. They all seem utterly singular and at the same time utterly familiar because you’ve seen their type before. I can see Robert Lord exactly in my mind’s eye—the word “lupine” comes to mind—and at the same time he blurs with any number of similar figures including but hardly limited to Roy Scheider’s version of Bob Fosse. Remote, regal, devastatingly charismatic men who have magnetism to burn and who use it to line everybody up like so many indistinguishable little metal filings.   

Mr. Kingsley, on the other hand, is far more nuanced and multidimensional. I can understand entirely why his approval would be so indispensable. I want him to approve of me. He’s not a whitewashed version of Robert Lord but a carefully considered correction and enhancement of him. He’s a wish fulfillment. Or maybe this is just a thing I’m saying right now; it gets harder and harder to talk about this book, and it’s never easy to talk about books—they’re written that way because that was what there was to say, so every additional thing I say seems, to me, either dubious or downright dishonest, after a point.


David Levine is an artist, writer, and director living in NYC. He has directed plays at Primary Stages, The Atlantic, and the Sundance Theater Lab, and received a 2013 OBIE award for his performance installation Habit. His most recent solo exhibition, David Levine: Some of the People, All of the Time at the Brooklyn Museum, was named one of the New York Times top ten exhibitions internationally for 2018. He is a contributing editor at BOMB.

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