Sonora Review

The Adjacent Reality: An Interview with Charles Yu

CHARLES YU is the author of three books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He was nominated for two WGA awards for his work on HBO’s Westworld and has also written for an upcoming show on AMC, Lodge 49. His fiction and non-fiction has been published in a number of publications: The New YorkerThe New York TimesSlate and Wired. He is currently on the writing staff for an upcoming HBO show created by Academy-Award winning writer/director Alan Ball.

Ryan Kim: What ignites a story for you?

Charles Yu: It’s usually a line or two that feels like it has an energy to it. It has something weird or some kind of rhythm that gets me interested verbally. It’s not just the words, there’s something hidden inside that line suggesting there’s more to be unpacked.

R: Can you talk about the link between reality and imagination in fiction?

 C: I’m always interested in what’s immediately adjacent to reality. The “adjacent possible” is one way of putting it. This means two things: 1). It isn’t in reality, but touching it, and 2). It’s not so far removed from reality that it feels disconnected. High fantasy can still be adjacent to reality if emotionally it feels real. I’m interested in taking one step out of reality to get closer to it.

R: How do you know when a story is done?

 C: The short answer is when you send it. If there’s a deadline or contest or something. I don’t know if stories are ever really done. There’s a micro-level I’m always still fussing with things. If I’m reading a piece out loud to a crowd, I’ll change it even as I’m reading.

A more meaningful answer is when there’s a coherent emotional flow, or I feel like I’ve excavated whatever needed to come out. It’s closed. Even though it’s not perfect, I’ve gotten the whole thing out.

R: As an Asian American writer do you feel pressure to write Asian stuff? Do you ever consciously try to tackle Asian themes in your work?

 C: I’m currently writing a novel that is explicitly about racial and ethnic stereotypes. But there’s a few different ways I run into the question. One example is I’m writing a story, and along the way I wonder, “Huh, what is the race of the character?” Sometimes I hadn’t thought of that yet, or deferred it until the choice came up. I think it depends on what the story wants to be. I’m not usually writing realism anyway, so there’s a sense in which mentioning race might not even make sense.

Then there are stories which reflect the point of view of the narrator, or myself as a person of color, specifically an Asian American. An example of this would be my story “Third Class Superhero.” It’s a story about somebody on the lower fringes of the superhero hierarchy, and it’s very clearly about class and ambition. It’s certainly possible to read that story as not about race, but it probably informs the reading to know it was written by an Asian American.

I don’t have any one good answer to the question. It’s something I’m consistently wrestling with. Either because people are asking me to wrestle with it, or I am internally.

R: Because of the theme of this Sonora contest, I have some future-related questions. Do you think literature will remain a relevant form? If so, how or why?

C: I’m not much of a prognosticator. But I don’t want to live in a world where literature isn’t a vital part of the culture. There’s a sense in which I already feel like the kinds of people who go to bookstores to be happiest are disappearing. Even within my adult lifetime. As if it could get any smaller? It’s vanishingly small at this point. And yet, at the same time, narrative stories in visual forms–movies, televisions, all screens–seem to have exploded. There’s more ways to be part of an audience or community or viewership. So it seems like one day no one will actually read, but writers will be always be necessary to create the raw material for movies and tv. It’s the most depressing thing, but the most serious readers I know work in Hollywood. There’s people in New York–editors and people in Brooklyn–who still read. Then there’s LA, where people read professionally so they can pass on notes to studios and networks.

I assume there are little pockets of readers out there, they just don’t read my books (laughs). Overall, I’m not in the super happy place about where literature stands.

But just to be clear, I still think reading is the original VR. It shows you what the human mind can do. There’s nothing like it. There will always be people who want to have that experience. It’s just a matter of what percent of your daily allotment you give to it. I have kids, and I know there’s still nothing that quite replaces the experience of when they’re engaged in reading a physical book. Watching that happen is really special. It feels unique. That technology isn’t going away. I think there will always be some form of that.

R: Do you ever think it will be possible for a robot to write a great novel?

C: There’s the simulacrum version of a great novel, where a robot will be able to use machine-learning or statistical algorithms that could replicate the patterns and variations and even novelty of something that feels like it’s “great.” Then it becomes a philosopher’s question. If the robot did this through an algorithm, what happens to intention?

All bets are off if this is post-singularity and we have sentient robots. They’ll probably be better at it than humans are.

R: When you visited the University of Arizona MFA colloquium, you said that after every book, you felt you could never possibly do it again. What keeps you coming back to the task? How do you keep going when it seems impossible?

 C: It feels more like a compulsion than a desire. It sounds like a rhetorical thing that people just say, but I really mean it. I think if you have a choice, you don’t do it. That’s what procrastination and writer’s block is.

It’s like an itch. It feels like it’s something that needs to be said. And maybe it’s the very guarded hope that if you can say it just the right way, it’ll reach somebody else. Or maybe it’ll even be a new thing that’s never been said.

R: Could you talk about the novel project?

 C: It’s been a long time in the making, and taken on many forms. The title has changed multiple times since starting. I probably shouldn’t say what the title is at this moment since this interview will come out way before it’s published, and it will have changed again.

This work is something I haven’t tried before. Though it’s not a huge departure from what I’ve done–an experimentation with form, a meta aspect to it, it’s sort of genre–this time it’s very explicitly about race and ethnicity. Specifically about the portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans in our media. It’s all told through the lens of television. I’ve been thinking and working with this topic for a while, but since starting working in tv, I’ve gained some familiarity with some of the tools and tropes to help combine the ingredients in my head.

R: Advice for a young writer?

 C: The main thing is to read a lot more than you write. The raw material is what you read.

Here’s another thing. When you’re a musician, you pick an instrument. When you’re a writer, your instrument is invisible. Starting writing, there’s the assumption for a long time we’re all playing the same instrument. One default could be what’s in the bookstore or what you read in AP literature. It’s capital “L” literature. What that sounds or reads like. When you start typing you think, “I’m supposed to be playing the violin, the cello, or piano,” because they’re the main classical instruments. It took me a little while to figure out not to play what I found as the prettiest-sounding one, and instead design my own instrument. This is to say, there are people who play the violin beautifully, or even a multitude of instruments in many modes and styles. But there’s definitely something about trying to figure out your instrument, or inventing your own, composed of some bunch of parts of other instruments.

RYAN KIM is a fiction candidate at the University of Arizona’s MFA. He is originally from Seattle and hopes to one day move to Korea to begin researching his first novel.