Sophie Grenham speaks to author SUSAN CHOI about early reading, James Joyce and her latest novel, Trust Exercise …
Susan Choi is an American author and academic who has published five novels, including The Foreign Student (1998), American Woman (2003), A Person of Interest (2008), and My Education (2013). She co-edited the anthology Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker (2000) and in addition to her new novel, Trust Exercise, she has just released Camp Tiger, a children’s picture book illustrated by John Rocco.
Choi was born to a Korean father and Jewish mother in South Bend, Indiana. She has a BA in Literature from Yale University and an MFA from Cornell University. After her graduate degree, she worked for many years as a fact-checker for The New Yorker. She was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction. She was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award in 2010 and is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She currently teaches fiction writing at NYU and Yale.
Choi’s searing latest work, Trust Exercise, begins in the early 1980s at the fictional CAPA, an arts school for promising drama students, where 15-year-old Sarah and David meet and enter into a sexual relationship. They and a handful of unnervingly wayward classmates are under the direction of one Mr Kingsley, whose unorthodox lessons and slippery extracurricular movements blur the boundaries between teacher and pupil. The narrative analyses issues of consent, sex and power and of course trust in a world long before #MeToo. The book’s first half plants us in the middle of the school’s toxicity, while the latter reunites us with the characters fourteen years later. In the author’s astute study of human memory’s fallibility, she asks important questions: how often does our own version of the past match those of our peers, as well the perspective of our younger selves? It comes as no surprise that Trust Exercise is already considered one of the great books of 2019, for Choi’s words have such an addictive quality that you won’t see the pages turning.
Joan Didion has called her “A writer whose intelligence and historical awareness effortlessly serve a breathtaking narrative ability.”
Susan Choi lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.
Trust Exercise (€17.99) is published by Serpent’s Tail and available from all good bookshops.
I live with my family in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, in a cosy hundred-year-old-plus brownstone, around the corner from the subway and the little park where my sons spent almost every afternoon of their lives when they were younger. I fell hard for Clinton Hill when I first went there more than fifteen years ago, apartment hunting. It’s a riot of gorgeous preserved architecture, from classic brownstones to really flamboyant mansions built by the titans of the past, who then abandoned them – some to the point of total dereliction – and which later were rehabbed. The people are as eclectic as the buildings, and there’s everything I need: the library around the corner, the café and bakery a half block the other way, and even at the end of my own block, a sort of combination specialty grocery store and neighbourhood pub.
For the first nine years of my life I lived in the suburbs of a smallish city in Indiana called South Bend. My father taught at the branch university there, and was one of the few Asian immigrants around when he first arrived. South Bend is a very diverse city now, but it wasn’t when I was growing up, and the neighbourhood I lived in was as uniform as the people seemed, all green grass that the fathers (always the fathers) spent hours of their lives tending and mowing, and all these little single story ranch style homes with low ceilings and too much carpeting. The suburb where we lived was actually under construction when we moved there, with forests and cornfields literally being ploughed under to make new housing lots, and one of my most vivid memories is of watching this sunburned man who seemed to run all the construction, driving his tractor over the newly turned up earth of a house lot that had been a little wood just a few days before.
On early reading
My parents were an extraordinary team when it came to making me love books. I don’t know if they planned their coordination, but it worked like this: my father, for whom English was a second language, somehow hunted down the most remarkable books for me, and then my mother would read them aloud. I don’t recall my father ever reading, or my mother ever book-buying. It was a perfect division of labour. I still remember being so enthralled by Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator that everything I saw seemed to belong to the world of those books – at one point I had to take some sort of disgusting vitamin capsule and I remember complaining that it resembled a Vermicious Knid. My mother says that at some point in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, I asked her – she reports with great kindness, almost pity – if she would mind very much if I just read it to myself, as she was going too slowly. I don’t remember doing this, but I do have many more memories of reading books to myself, than of having them read to me.
On formative years
When I was young I read books constantly – the Dahl books mentioned above, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Mary Norton, and so many others – and I also snuck onto my mother’s manual typewriter, to “write” stories of my own which were shameless rip-offs of the books I liked best. I must have liked making up stories, but I most clearly remember how much I liked typing them. My mother was an administrative secretary most of her adult life, usually at whatever university where my father was teaching, and I registered that sitting at a typewriter banging away was a very important way to spend one’s time. I loved the sound the typewriter made and the look of the letters stamped onto the pages. It was so much more viscerally exciting, really, than writing on a laptop, as I do now.
I have never been able to write in my own home, and so my writing space has really been a series of spaces, each of which has had to meet the two requirements that it not be in my home, and that it not be in a place full of distractions (like a café). For years I was sort of a vagabond, writing in either of the two libraries close to my home, but both are affiliated with colleges, and in both cases the students constantly talking to each other around me and surreptitiously taking calls proved too distracting! Finally in around 2012 I found an amazing space, a loft space shared by a group of women writers, some of us novelists, some memoirists, some journalists, and so on. We each had our own desk, and the space was also chock-a-block with strange objects the eccentric owner of the building had accumulated over the years. We had enormous windows overlooking Flatbush Avenue, one of the noisiest, ugliest thoroughfares around – but somehow that made our space feel all the more tranquil. Just this month, we were obliged to leave this space, to pack up our things. And so, once again, I have no writing “home.”
I love Greenlight Books in Fort Greene – my local bookstore. When I moved to the area there was no bookstore at all, and so when Greenlight opened their doors, it was a like a miracle. Now, their absence is unimaginable.
On her “To Be Read” pile
I am answering these questions in a hotel room but I can vividly picture the pile of books I left behind at home which I am dying to get to! Most of them are books that are so new they aren’t even out yet but I’ve gotten advance copies: Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio, Myla Goldberg’s Feast Your Eyes, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Then, there are always books by writers to whom I constantly return; right now this category is represented by Muriel Spark’s The Bachelors. Equally there are always particular books to which I constantly return, dipping in and out, and mine is one that likely tons of your readers also have at hand, James Joyce’s Ulysses. I really want the day to come when I have absolutely nothing else to do for however long it takes for me to read that book and only that book all the way through without interruption. I also have poetry on my bedside table because sometimes that’s just exactly what I want, and right now I’m reading Jessica Rae Bergamino’s collection Unmanned. As well, there’s usually a book I’ve been meaning to read for years that for some reason seems like the right book to read at the moment, and today it’s Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book – this is the book I have with me at the hotel. Perhaps I brought it because I’m longing for summer to arrive.
My favourite place to escape is Cape Cod – either on my own or with my kids. I’ve been wanting to come to Ireland for years and so far have only made it to layovers in the Dublin airport. Dublin is a city I’ve wanted to explore ever since I first read Dubliners. Maybe this is the year I’ll finally get there!
On Trust Exercise
I started writing Trust Exercise so long ago I can’t place the time except to say it was definitely more than five and probably less than ten years ago. I was sitting in the stacks of the Pratt Library in my neighbourhood trying to make the daily word count and the first line, and then over the course of a few days the first scene came to me. In the scene, a drama teacher at an American high school turns off all the lights in a windowless classroom, and instructs the students to explore the classroom, and each other, through touch. When I finished the scene I set it aside. But in the years that followed I would abruptly pick up the material again, always after a long interval, and always when I felt irresistibly compelled to work on it instead of my “real” project. I would add to the material in a burst and then hit the wall as abruptly as I’d started, and I’d set it aside again. Because I couldn’t take the material seriously enough to dedicate myself to it, and yet kept on being irresistibly compelled to pick it up again. I have an unusually clear recollection of exactly the times I found myself playing hooky on my “real” project with this one: the autumn of 2015, when my return for the first time as an instructor to my alma mater, Yale, coincided with historic upheavals on campus; the autumn of 2016, when Donald Trump had just secured the Republican nomination for the presidency; and the autumn of 2017, when Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo happened. I never premeditated this book or focused on it exclusively as I had all my books to this point, and the fact that the book exists is clear proof that my work habits are not half as settled as I’d thought.
On what’s next
I’ve mentioned that I had a “real” project I kept on neglecting in order to work on Trust Exercise. I’m hoping to bring that neglected project back into the light, and see if I can finally finish it.
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