The Creative Conversation #7 - Susan Choi (Best Of)

Susan Choi, photo by Adrian Kinloch

Download The Creative Conversation #7 - Susan Choi

On her MFA experience

You know, I would hope that it’s less and less common that people go straight into grad school, but in my experience as a teacher, it seems more and more common. I’m always begging my students not to go straight to graduate school, begging them to not just take a year, but take a few years, or even four, five years. I mean, I definitely went into graduate school way too soon, but I didn’t realise that until I got there. I had no overwhelming need for graduate school when I went. I didn’t know what kind of writing I wanted to do. I didn’t really have much of wealth of experience besides being a student to put into my writing. It’s regrettable because I feel like, had I gone later in my twenties, or even just like altogether later in my life, I might have made more of it. And I think at the time I think I expected it to make more of me. I had sort of a passive, overly receptive attitude. You know, I was rudderless and confused, and I thought, ‘oh I’ll go to grad school and it’ll straighten me out.’ And you can’t go with that attitude. You sort of have to know what you want.

I think for my own part I went to graduate school because there was a lot of buzz from college, and it was something that you knew existed, or at least something that I knew existed, and because graduating from college is scary and everybody always asks you what your plan is and I had no other plan. You know, I had dinner with a bunch of my own undergraduate students last night and I was so excited to hear that some of them had no plan for after graduation, and you know I kept saying ‘That’s really fine. It’s really okay for you not to have a plan.’ I mean, it’s good to have a plan for income, some kind of income. But I was like, don’t feel as if you have to have the rest of your life all mapped out, because I feel like that pressure to have it all mapped out is what drives a lot of people into grad school because it’s a respectable next step. It’s a way of feeling as if you’ve got it under control. You can say to parents or family or friends, ‘oh, you know, I’m going into this graduate program.’ But you know, it can also be a way of deferring that inevitable moment where you go, ‘oh my god, what now?’ And for me, that’s what it was. I got out of graduate school at 25, and had equally no idea what to do than I had had before.

I have real ambivalence about the grad school path in general. I don’t understand what the utility is exactly, and I know what I think it should be, which is that I think it should be a time of incredibly focussed peace and solitude where you can work on your writing in an atmosphere that’s really supportive, and hopefully supportive financially, above all. I don’t think that’s necessarily what it is for a lot of people. And you know writing is different, because other programs are pre-professional training, you know, to be a doctor or a lawyer. Are you really in training to be in one of these programs? Not in my experience. I feel like it’s more, almost like a fellowship program. Like, ‘go off and do some writing like you already know how to do.’ And I feel like if you don’t already know how, you won’t necessarily learn, but yeah, it does have some new role now I think in terms of the professionalised aspect of writing. I think people will say, oh if you don’t have an MFA you can’t get a job teaching writing, which in my day wasn’t true. I don’t think it was true. I think that if you did have an MFA maybe you would get a job teaching writing and if you’d published a book, you’d have a much better chance. If you’d published a book and hadn’t got an MFA, it was just as well. And nowadays people will say, oh no, you can’t just publish, you’ve got to have the MFA too. I don’t know if that’s true.

On writing her first novel, The Foreign Student

I’d spent some time in grad school struggling with a certain little vein of material that I was interested in, but I could never figure out what form to put it in. And once I was done with grad school, I did go back to that material and started working on it in this completely new situation of living of my own and having a forty hour a week, really demanding job, and never having enough money. I was fact checking for The New Yorker and I was living in Upper Manhattan with housemates and you know, was broke all the time. And at the same time I was really having to fight for the time to write. And that was a really different feeling from in grad school having more time than I even wanted to write. You know, in grad school I felt like I was constantly fighting for something else to take up my time. Like, ‘is it time to go to a bar yet? Is there a new movie in town? I mean, it was really not a good atmosphere for me. I felt like a certain amount of pressure always helps me more.

So when I went back to writing in New York after ‘failing’ in grad school, it felt really different. I had to fight for every minute. I valued the time that I had to write in a way that I had never valued it before. And you know, it might also be coincidence, it might just be that I was much more ready to work on this project than I had been.  

Once I was out of grad school and not thinking in terms of a workshop any more, which I think was another part of the problem for me, you know, thinking in terms of like, god, I need twenty pages to show people...Once the writing was really just mine to do whatever I wanted to do with, and no-one was going to see until I wanted to show it to them, all that stuff [the pieces she had been playing around with in grad school] started coalescing into a bigger, more multi-faceted mess than it had ever been allowed to do. And then I realised, all these bits and pieces that never took on a nice shape were actually all meant to be one bigger thing. And then I didn’t know if that would take on a nice shape either. It was a while of letting it grow without trying to think like, ‘oh, is this a novel’ and psyching myself out.

I wrote that book [The Foreign Student] in a really different way than I’ve written my subsequent books. It was very elliptical, because I think I was still in recovery from the grad school workshops! You know, I’d concentrate on one scene, then I’d sort of drift away and take up another scene. The action of that novel is divided between two places both geographical and chronological and I’d paddle around in one place for a while, which was Korea during the war, and then when that started going poorly I’d ditch it and I’d go to the other setting which was the American south in the 50s, after the end of the Korean war. And so it was really disorganised, and really elliptical and really hard to tell if it was going to come together as a book. And it’s funny, because when I glance at the book now, I’m sort of appalled at how elliptical it is. But it worked out in the end, and at the same time I now write my books completely differently. I now try to write them in page order and I try to have a little more narrative coherence from the start, because that book was like a patchwork.

On getting an agent

I remember showing [the manuscript of The Foreign Student] to a bunch of agents, including a very famous agent who called me back, you know, she called me at my work number and I picked up and she said 'This is,' you know, and uttered that name, that I was like, oh my god, she's calling me! And she said, 'I'm going to give you five minutes of my time,' and I like grabbed a pen 'cos I was really good at notetaking for my job, and then she just ripped my book to shreds in five minutes, which I think is one of her special skills. And then at the end of the five minutes she said, 'I don't get it. Don't you want to write a good book?' And I was like...that was kind of a really fantastic experience ultimately. [...] I mean, it toughens you up, right? [...] There was a small thrill in being cut to pieces by someone that well known, but also I think even though I was devastated and embarrassed, she had good suggestions and I used them, and ultimately I thought it was better to be taken seriously by someone who knows what they're talking about, even if they're cutting you to pieces!

On finding her way into novels and her differing processes

It took way too long [starting her second novel, American Woman] and it still takes me way too long. I mean, at the time I would have said I didn’t realise, that you know, while you’re waiting for a book to be published, it’s really imperative that you start something new because when the book comes out it’s so distracting. This is still true. And I would have said, like, oh now I know. But the truth is that I’m actually really slow, now that I’ve published four books, it’s just the same as it was the first time. [...] I mean, no time is wasted I guess as a writer, you can always argue that year you spent lying on the couch weeping was going to be really useful for your novel later, and American Woman came out of my piracy research, so the piracy research wasn’t all awash. I was reading about pirates, and then I was reading about kidnappers, because I thought, well, pirates kidnap people, and I was reading about Patty Hearst, and I thought, oh god, this is what I want to write about, not pirates at all. So once that happened the whole idea of the novel crystallised really quickly, actually, but getting started again took a painfully long time, and that’s, you know, when we were at that PEN workshop the other week [Susan and I met at a PEN Festival workshop], I was talking about how I had my characters and I had my situation and I kind of even had my plot, but I could not write the first scene, I kept writing scene after scene after scene after scene that just wasn’t…I mean, they just all sucked. And I kept going, this is not the beginning of my book, I wouldn’t read this if this was page one. And you know, it wasn’t until I walked into this house in the Hudson Valley, completely by chance, because I was with my boyfriend doing something for the weekend, that I thought, this is where my character lives. And so I started writing. And so I was walking around with that idea for, I don’t know, months. When I realised what the first scene was, when I realised where she was, the story just started to unspool.

Even then I wrote American Woman out of page order. I knew this chunk is happening here, this chunk is happening there. There’s stuff in California, there’s stuff happening in this farm house, and I would just sort of pogo around, that book moves around in time, and there are flashbacks, so even that one was a patch work too. I remember getting so confused about what I’d written that I had to take a week off to create this insane post-it note map of the book on a wall because I had no idea what I’d written or what remained to be written or what order the scenes were happening in, I mean, I just lost total control. And after that, for my third book, you know, partly because it had been so confusing to me, and also partly because I had a child, I had so much less time to write than ever before, I wrote my third book in page order, I just started at page one, I was like, I’ve just got to write it straight through. Front to back, before I get totally confused about what’s going on. That was the first time I did that, but it’s kind of how I work now, or at least how I try.

With A Person of Interest, which was the third book, I did a fair amount of research - that’s not even actually true. I started writing, and then when I realised what I was writing, I stopped and did some research, and then I kept going and then realised I needed to do more research and so I was sort of doing research and writing simultaneously and when that became difficult, I just ploughed through and finished a draft without doing the research that I needed to do, just to get the plot in order, and sort of hoping that I could just go back and retrofit afterwards if there were research issues, which is sort of what I did. [...] It’s weird to say I faked a bunch of the story and then went back and kind of fixed it, but it was more efficient in a way, I have to say, because I had enough of a sense of what I was talking about to feel like if the research proved that my plot was completely untenable I felt like I could go in and do the repair work internally without actually dismantling the whole shell of the plot.  

Now my preference is to do just enough research to fake it, and then fake it for long enough to get a draft, even if the draft is a disaster. Researching on the basis of a draft is so much easier than researching on the basis of an idea. ‘Cos when you’re researching on the basis of an idea you could research forever, you know, you could truly come up with an infinite amount of things that you don’t know. But if you have a draft you can think like oh I didn’t need to research that model of powerboat, cos no-one’s going to drive that powerboat in my book, as it turns out.

On writing from the Asian American perspective

I’ve written the four books I’ve been able to write, and if I could have written more, I would have. So in that sense (writing from an Asian American perspective) is not calculated at all, because they’re the four projects that I was able to finish. It’s definitely true that because of who I am I’m attracted to certain subject matter and I also am capable of completing certain subject matter.

It's interesting, race and ethnicity are a huge piece of all of us, but not the only piece. But it’s the piece that everybody asks about.

On the assumption of 'whiteness' in literature

It’s the privilege of people who possess a whole pile of quote unquote mainstream characteristics that none of them have to mean more than any of the others. You know, if your name is like, Craig Jones, your privilege is to walk around not really thinking particularly what your name Jones means, or what your white skin means. I mean, it is a mainstream privilege, I think, and it’s one I’m constantly wanting to give my characters. Like, guess what, her mother was Asian, her life isn’t all about that. Like, her life is actually about this extramarital affair that she’s involved in. That’s what matters to her.

On being led by her interest

I’m always led by my interest in everything. You know, with American Woman, I was really interested in the Patty Hearst kidnapping and even more interested when I discovered this person at the margins of that story. She’s at the margins of the story in the way it’s told in newspapers and histories, who turned out to be this Japanese American student, and her surprising presence in this story that I had always assumed was about these middle class white kids was really what drove my fascination with that story. It wasn’t that I thought, I really want to write about an Asian American character and her relationship to radicalism. But definitely, because I was so, not even just surprised, but I think it was really empowering somehow to find her there.

On her writing schedule

Whenever I’m not totally immersed in a project, the writing piece of my life gets softer than all the other demands. They get harder and push their way into the space and push the writing out, and I’m constantly having to redress the balance. Family life takes up potentially all your time, and I teach and that takes up a bunch of time too, so I feel like I constantly have this ideal writing schedule that is battling to exist against all of these other demands. The ideal writing schedule would be that I would get up in the morning, take the children to school and go straight to my desk, and sit there until it was time to pick up my children from school again, and that would be six hours, and I would do nothing else except eat and maybe brew a pot of tea. And the number of days on which that’s the way my day goes? Currently - none. It’s sort of a possible dream to have a routine, I don’t know who does it.

I need to be not in my own home. So I don’t write at home. I’ve never written at home, even before I had children, because I’ve never found it to be a productive way to work. Actually, that’s not true, my first novel I wrote in my apartment in New York! But for the most part now, that life is so full of complication and interest, I can’t write in my house, and I can’t write in cafes, so I’m constantly coming up with some stratagem. For the past couple of years I’ve had this workspace, which is a shared workspace with a bunch of other women writers which I just love. It’s kind of like a private library, is kind of how it feels, because it’s a big quiet space, and we each have our own desk and have rules that we made for ourselves and we like them! Before that, I worked in libraries a lot, I did a lot of writing at the library just a couple of blocks from here. I’ve worked in other people’s homes. I’ve worked out strange arrangements with other people where when they leave to go to work, I let myself into their house, like a ghost. Not strangers, but people I acutally know! They knew I was there...But you know, I had good friends with office jobs, and I would go let myself into their house as soon as they’d gone to work, and I would sit in their house and write, because it wasn’t my house. It’s always got to be some place that’s not my place.

On her advice to young writers

Have some other marketable skill that doesn’t take up a lot of brainpower is the advice I wish I’d given myself! I’ve this like running joke that’s not a joke that I wish I’d trained to be either a plumber or a licenced electrician. Seriously, I wish that I had some sort of manual skilled vocation something that didn’t involve my brain or language or reading that paid rather well. I mean that kind of sounds joking but it’s serious, too. I remember when I first came to New York, I really wanted a job as the assistant to a fiction editor, for example, or at a publishing house, and a friend said, if you’re going to have that kind of job, have a job that doesn’t touch on fiction at all. And in fact, that’s how I ended up fact checking, because this friend was like, fact-checking, because it plays to your skills, it’s reading and writing, but it’s not about fiction, you’re not reading other people’s fiction, and that was such great advice.

I love to teach. I love teaching fiction to my students and I learn from them, but it’s really hard to keep in proportion with my own work, and I do sometimes wish that what I did for a steady income was really different than what I do for the most part, which is most novels.