Ghosts, Writing Who You Know, and Rethinking the Novel With SUSAN CHOI

Image credit: Adrian Kinloch

Image credit: Adrian Kinloch

Susan Choi was born in South Bend, Indiana, and was raised there as well as in Houston, Texas. She studied literature at Yale and writing at Cornell, and worked for several years as a fact-checker for The New Yorker. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction, and her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2010 she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. Her fourth novel, My Education, won a 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Fiction. She's also a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Currently, Susan Choi is teaching in the MFA program at NYU. Caitlin Barasch, one of our assistant web editors, is enrolled in Susan's craft class this semester, called "Rethinking the Novel." (If you're intrigued: Artful by Ali Smith, The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, and The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector have been discussed thus far). Susan's creative non-fiction short story, "Some Japanese Ghosts," will be published in the upcoming issue of the Washington Square Review, excerpted below:

"The story of my childhood the way I’ve always told it to myself falls into two halves: before and after Japan. Before Japan, I lived with my parents in a ranch-style house in a suburb of South Bend, Indiana. My father was a professor and my mother was a secretary. We were middle-class, with a car and a lawnmower. My father wasn’t white and he hadn’t been born in America, and my mother used butter instead of margarine, and had married my father, but apart from those deviations we all appeared to be playing our respective roles of father, mother, and child in the usual way, and we were liked well enough by the neighbors. After Japan, everything changed. My mother and I lived in a different city from my father, my mother was wasting away from an illness and could no longer walk, and we were broke. It seemed obvious that some sort of curse had befallen us in Japan and ever since then Japan has been a place of mystery to me and everything that happened to us there has seemed potent and fated." 

Caitlin interviewed Susan about "Some Japanese Ghosts," as well as her teaching experience, her own MFA, and the ethics of writing about those you know. 

I recently read an interview with you [in the Village Voice] where you said that you took your interest in writing for granted when you were a teen, that you even devalued it because it’s something you were good at. Given your eventual decision to apply to MFA programs, when did you decide to start taking yourself seriously as a writer?

That’s a great question. I’m not sure what the answer is! Throughout college I wrote, but not in a single-minded way. I was always dabbling, but there were so many ways I could’ve made it my identity in college, and I didn’t. I didn’t work on the literary magazine. I didn’t major in English. I think that, in college, writing was my little hobby, and so it seemed unworthy of my time. But after college, I was really at a loss. [Laughter] And honestly, I can’t remember when I decided that I wanted to try giving my writing more time, but I was really wandering after graduation. I lived in three different cities in the space of a year: Chicago, Portland, and then San Francisco. While I was in San Francisco, a friend of mine who was planning to join me was offered a job in Nashville, and the job came with a house. We were supposed to share an apartment in San Francisco, and she called me and said, “Why don’t you just move to Nashville instead? I have a free house.” She was one of my best friends from college. I honestly don’t know if that was why I decided to try writing, or if, at that time, I had already decided I wanted to write, and just needed more time and less pressure to earn money. I truly cannot remember, but because it had been such a wandering year, I was fine with it. I packed up my stuff again and moved to Nashville. And that’s where I first started make-believing that I was a writer. Because I didn’t have to pay rent, I had some freedom. But it was really a pretense that became real. I wrote some stuff and started submitting to magazines and journals. I don’t know when I crossed the line from I’ll just pretend like I’m doing this to I’m actually doing it—but at some point in that year, I decided to apply to graduate school. I wish I’d waited longer, though.

That’s a great segue to talking about your MFA experience [at Cornell]. Do you think the MFA was the foundation for your successful career, or could you have skipped it, continued writing, and figured it out on your own?

My first novel was built out of failed efforts from grad school, so in that sense grad school was somewhat helpful, but the thesis that I wrote is a horrible, unreadable, shapeless, formless piece of garbage that will never see the light of day. [Laughter] It was unsalvageable. The biggest impact the MFA had on me, though, was that, by the time I finished it, I was galvanized by a sense of total failure. I got a degree, but felt like I hadn’t done any of the things I’d hoped to do in the program. I was also enrolled in a joint degree, so I was an MFA and a PhD candidate [in English] simultaneously. It’s an unusual status, and it wasn’t a sustainable situation for me. I dropped out without getting the PhD and barely got the MFA. To me, the MFA credential felt like a pity conferral—because like I said, my thesis was not something I was happy with, and not anything I ever sought to publish. It’s not an experience you’d want to replicate, but the very ironic result of having gotten an MFA was that I emerged with the powerful sense of having wasted time. I became much more of a real writer after I left my program. I moved to New York City and took a full-time job and had rent to pay, and suddenly things were real. And if I wanted to write, I had to fight for the time to do it.

When I talk with classmates at NYU, I’m always struck by the fact that, after the initial shock of having gotten into the program has worn off, we’re thinking: Are we doing enough? Are we doing the work that we thought we’d do? There’s always that impostor syndrome.

Yes, exactly, and that raises the question of what you were looking for when it started. I think my problem with the MFA was that I was way too close to college graduation to make a rational choice about how I was spending my time. And I didn’t fully conceive of the fact that an English PhD is a pre-professional program. You’re doing that because you’re going to be an English professor. That wasn’t something I wanted, so why was I doing that? And I didn’t really know what I wanted an MFA for. I just had a very unstructured year out of college, which I’d enjoyed, but I sort of panicked and thought: I better do something structured that seems as if I’m taking control of my life.

I want to ask you about “Some Japanese Ghosts” because you mentioned it was the first time you incorporated images into a story for publication. I managed to find the original video (including the slideshow of images) from the Double Take series online. How did you go about choosing specific images from the Double Take presentation to include in Washington Square?

At every step of the way, my relationship to the images was arbitrary. With the Double Take series, I learned kind of late that it usually incorporates a visual element, so I threw together a Google slideshow of family photos. It was only by sheer luck that I had them because I’d visited my mother recently. I even found some photos online two hours before the reading! I was like: Could there be a map of this place? Or any pictures of these buildings? It was pretty ad-hoc, but I ended up liking how decontextualized a lot of the images ended up being. One of my favorites was from this crazy manga that I found that tells the life story of the foundress of this religion. The photos included in Washington Square’s version directly reference the text. I talk about my school uniform and my mom’s coat, and there’s pictures of us wearing them. The picture of my father was taken in front of my parent’s suburban dream house in Indiana, so that seemed apt. It was all very organic.

I loved this line: “I was more fascinated with Japan in direct proportion to how directly it seemed to have disfigured my life.” It struck me as something I’ve imagined most writers feel. I personally become fascinated by things that disfigure me in some way. Does this also apply to you? 

I think the “disfigurement” that Japan inflicted was less the idea of disfigurement, and more the idea of mystery. I’ve managed to finish all that I’ve written because there’s always a mystery at the heart of it which keeps me interested. I think that’s why Japan was interesting, and it seems to me, still, like a strange mystery.

Have you been back to Japan since the events described in Some Japanese Ghosts”?

No, never. I’ve wanted to go back my entire life. Every year, I’m like: I should go back to Japan, but I haven’t.

Life happens!

Yes, life keeps happening! With the first book I wrote, though, that sense of mystery was the key to it becoming a book. Although I said I didn’t produce much in grad school, I did produce a ton of fragmentary writing. I say “fragmentary” because I thought I was writing short stories, and although none of them worked, all were about the same subject matter: my father’s experiences in the Korean War, and then after his emigration to the U.S. Without exception, I was obsessed with this subject because it was mysterious to me. My father was extremely tight-lipped about the experiences he had prior to my birth, and most of my life I’d never been able to get him to talk about it. My father used to suffer night terrors and nightmares. He’d scream, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night, heart pounding, because I could hear him screaming!

Oh, wow.

When my father finally started sharing his stories with me, I was around twenty. It was shortly before my college graduation, so when I got to grad school, that subject was preoccupying me. But I couldn’t form any of it into stories, and I didn’t know any other form. I knew novels existed, but it never crossed my mind that I could write a novel. That seemed far too unmanageable. So, I think my first book really evolved out of leaving grad school having not produced anything, and being upset about that, and having this pile of scrap. I started playing around with it again after I moved to New York, and for a long time I didn’t allow myself to imagine it was a novel. Because I didn’t want to psych myself out. But that first book was the result of adding to that scrap pile and moving things around and slowly recognizing that it might be a very long piece of fiction, as opposed to many short pieces.

Yes! It’s always fascinated me how so many writers—even if their novels seem different on a plot level—still excavate the same themes each time they sit down to write. Anyway, I also want to ask about the intersection of your writing life and your teaching life. Do you think teaching and writing inform each other? Has your writing changed due to your teaching experiences, and vice versa?

I definitely think so. My writing has been informed by the pressure to articulate how writing is working, and how it’s not working. I’ve always been conscious of the ways in which leading workshops have sharpened my understanding of the things that are wrong with my own work. The process of analyzing someone else’s work and finding a way to articulate whatever is happening with it—structurally or atmospherically or ideologically—is really helpful. Frankly, I think I experience more pressure to engage with writing and books, with what is interesting and new, because I teach. I feel like I get brought into contact with stuff via my students that I never would’ve encountered. It sounds very corny, but I really appreciate working with people who are a lot younger than me. In my social life, I operate in a peer group who are by and large my generation. We’re all informed by the same things, enjoy the same things, and have the same habits, and so it’s fun for me to sit in a classroom full of aspiring writers who are, at this point, a few decades younger than me, and to talk to them about what they’re interested in.

Teaching is on my mind right now because I attended a teaching practicum this past week. I know you have more experience teaching undergraduates, and I’ll start teaching undergraduates next year! Darin Strauss and Matthew Rohrer [our faculty teaching guides] were talking about “modeling enthusiasm”—meaning we don’t need to teach a story or poem that we don’t like. What is your thought process when putting together a syllabus?

That’s an interesting question. It’s easier to talk about with this class [“Rethinking the Novel”]. This reading list gave me a ton of freedom that I don’t have in workshops I teach, usually Introduction to Fiction or Advanced Fiction, which have rigid time limits. I’m unable to assign a lot of reading simply because we have so little time to discuss outside reading. By contrast, this reading list is a luxury. I wanted to read as many different things as possible, so I chose books that were relatively short. But the main thing that motivated me with this particular list—which is a variation of the fall reading list—was trying to find a way to read a series of works of prose that would help me think about what novels really are. Because, in my own work, I’ve had so many scales-falling-from-the-eyes moments about things I’ve taken for granted as being fundamental to the novel. And suddenly at a certain point, you ask yourself: Why? Why is this fundamental to the novel? Why does the novel have to be like this?

It’s funny, that reminds me of another of your interviews [in The Nassau Literary Review] that I read. You were asked about the novel as a form. 

Oh, yes, The Nassau Literary Review! That was fun. And—I must say—it was also one of the most indiscreet interviews I’ve ever given, because the interviewer was a former undergraduate student of mine. We just sat in a diner and talked too much, and after he printed out the transcript I was like: how’d you get me to say all that stuff? [Laughter] I really like it though.

Yes! I remember he asked, “Are novels essentially about love, marriage plots, unrequited longings, that sort of thing; or are they essentially about politics, culture, ideas, the things that shape the world we live in?” And you replied: “I don’t think novels are essentially about either thing. One of the things I really like about the novel form […] is that you can do as many things with it as you can think of to do.” I thought that was so simple and so profoundly true, especially when thinking about the range of work on this semester’s syllabus. I recently peeked at The Wake [by Paul Kingsnorth] and showed it to a friend of mine and was like, “Oh my God.”

That’s why we’re taking two weeks with it!

But then a different friend said: “It’s super hard to get into because of how disorienting the language is, but once you get re-oriented in this exciting new strange world, the effect is incredible.” So I went from being like, “Oh no!” to being quite excited to read it. Anyway, in that same interview you also said: “Think about what a novel is! It’s just a story that takes a little while to get through which hopefully engages somebody’s interest. If those are your parameters, you can do just about anything. I mean, why not? Nobody’s going to fine you for a violation of the rules.”

What a hilariously un-grandiose definition. I don’t remember saying that.

I like it!

I guess it does pretty well as a definition. That conversation must’ve postdated a lot of thoughts I’ve had about this in terms of novel writing, because I picked up a lot of ideas about what novels needed to be or needed to have—partly from reading them, and partly from taking writing classes. But I realized at one point—and not so long ago—that I was weighed down with a bunch of conventions that I hadn’t been aware of, and so becoming aware was exciting. Once you’re aware, you can begin to question. Like, do I have to do it that way? I don’t. I can do something totally different.

Yes! And now, if you’ll allow me to circle back to “Some Japanese Ghosts” for a moment. I want to ask a question that your story sparked in me. It’s actually always on my mind, so it’s exciting when I’m able to ask wiser writers for their opinions. Because “Some Japanese Ghosts” is memoir, how do you generally approach writing about people close to you—family or friends or partners—given that, post publication, they might read it?

 I have no good answer because I don’t think that there’s any one way to handle it. I know different writers who handle these things differently. There are writers who clearly wrote about people with whom they were intimate at one time or another, and clearly didn’t care about how that person felt about the depiction. And then there are writers who have specifically told me there are whole regions of their experience they’ll never write about, because they know it would wound someone in their life. I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle of that. I worked hard to avoid writing about my own life, for many books, although I did write about my parents. I wrote about my father in my first book. It was very worrisome because it was so much about him, even though it was a novel full of completely fictional stuff. But at its heart, it’s about the stories he told me when he began to tell me stories at all. I wrote the entire manuscript before I showed it to him. I let him know I was writing a book inspired by his stories, and then at some point whilst drafting it, I started interviewing him to fill in holes. I didn’t ask for his blessing to write the book, but when I was finally done with the draft, I asked if he would read it, and I warned him there were elements he would recognize and elements he wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure which category would be more distressing to him: stuff that was lifted from reality, or stuff that was made up full-cloth. He said: “It’s a novel, I know what a novel is! Just let me read it.” After he read it, his reaction was to offer me fact-checking assistance. He said I got a few things wrong when I was depicting military stuff, and he asked if he could help me fix it.

Wow, so it wasn’t an emotional reaction at all?

Yeah, and that was incredible.

It sounds ideal!

It was ideal, but it’s not the reaction you can count on every time. It’s always fraught, and it doesn’t get easier. And I’ve now navigated that many times, in many ways, and I honestly don’t know if I’ve done it right.

I’m so interested in what you said about writers who avoid writing about a whole breadth of their experience, or avoid writing about an influential figure in their lives, for fear of wounding them. Forgive me if this sounds dramatic, but I sometimes wonder whether I’ll end up betraying the “writer-me” if I don’t write about the events and the people I really want to write about. But of course, on the other hand, I could also betray a person I really care about by telling the truth. It’s this scary balancing act of what matters more, what betrayal would be the most terrible. Maybe no one knows the answer?

I definitely don’t know the answer. There’s a way in which writing is incredibly selfish, because you’re making a thing that you want to make—

Yeah, no one’s asking you to make it!

Exactly. You’re just doing it, and then you insist on showing it to people, so it’s hard. On the other hand, I think writing is more than just a selfish act. It’s so complicated because people have completely different relationships to this idea of finding themselves, in some form or another, reflected in the literary work. Some people seek it out. I’ve had people—whom I won’t identify—corner me and disclose things that I didn’t want to know, because they were hoping that I’d work it into something I’m writing. And that this would gratify them in some way. But, again, there are just as many different reactions as there are emotions. I’ve had people warn me against writing about something that I knew about them, in the harshest terms possible. I’ve had people assume the absolute worst about me and my writing. And that’s very painful, but the flip side is also painful—to have someone shove an experience at you, in the hopes that they can use you as a tool. And there are also many in-between reactions that are fascinating and beautiful. I have a friend who is also an artist, but of a different sort in a different realm, and I was writing something, and I let that person know they might be reflected in it. And that friend said: “I’ve known a lot of artists, and I’ve turned up in a lot of things, and I feel really privileged that it’s happened to me.”

What an awesome way to look at it. By the way, I found myself looking at the publication dates of your novels, and I noticed they’re all five years apart—with the last one [My Education] being published in 2013.

I know! But my next book won’t be five years apart. If you only knew the amount of times I’ve obsessed over this, well, it’s kind of pathetic. I’m still gnashing my teeth, like, dammit, I won’t get a book out in 2018. But I will have a book out in 2019! I’m delighted to now be pretty much able to say that I’ll have a book out next year.

That’s so exciting!

It is. It’s been a long time coming.

Finally, for my last question, I want to ask you about American Woman, which was nominated for a 2004 Pulitzer. Did the nomination change the way you viewed yourself as a writer at all? Did it either invigorate or paralyze you when it came time to work on your next book?

It was really nice, but it kind of did neither in a strange way. Maybe because the experience was so fleeting, or maybe because it’s how the Pulitzer works. I mean, it was a big deal, but just not in terms of publicity [at the time]. The Pulitzer committee, as I recall, announced the winner and the shortlist at the same time. I think the winner was Edward P. Jones [for The Known World] and the shortlist was only two books! [American Woman as well as Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins]. So not only was there no build up, but there was also no official notification until weeks after the fact. I got this letter from Columbia University that was like, “By the way, you were shortlisted for the Pulitzer, so congratulations!”

And because of that, it didn’t affect your mentality going forward?  

I was definitely affected, but I wouldn’t say it made the idea of writing a book any worse. I was already struggling to write my third book. I had terrible writer’s block and didn’t really know what I was writing.

For the third book specifically?

Oh, I always do. I’m always totally out of steam at the end of a book, and then I have to rebuild from zero. So that process was just as bad as it was after my first book. I rarely have that fear-of-the-blank page thing; I can almost always fill a blank page (or screen) with any amount of stuff.  What I have is more like the fear of the any-amount-of-stuff not, eventually, resolving into the "right" stuff.  When I'm between projects I sometimes set myself the same assignment I've imposed on students in long-form writing classes: generating a minimum number of words every day, on whatever subject. I like this generative task because if you do it, then obviously you end up with a lot of material, much of it totally unexpected. But the assumption is also that some of it will be good, and even more importantly, interconnected, so that a structure or imperative finally emerges and then that's your project. But I've had very long stretches where that emergence doesn't happen, or doesn't last, and that's really unnerving. It might just be a matter of learning different patterns of how this goes. I used to write serially—I'd figure out one project at a time, and finish it—and now it might be that I'm writing simultaneously, with a lot of things going at once.  But I can't tell yet, because of all the things I'm working on; only one so far has broken out of the pack, so the others might really be duds. Which will be a bummer, and very humbling, but at least I'll know that that's how it sometimes goes. 

Washington Square