Zibby Owens: Welcome, Charles. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Charles Yu: Thanks, Zibby. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: You sound it.

Charles: I’m sorry. I am .

Zibby: No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. You don’t have to sound it. I’m excited to talk to you because I just finished — when was it? — last month watching the National Book Awards on my laptop as I took it through the house as I put all my kids to bed and was watching and watching. Then I saw you on there winning and crying and being so excited. I was like, who’s this guy? I’ve got to get to know him. Here we are. It was great. Congratulations.

Charles: Thank you.

Zibby: What was that experience like for you? Let’s just jump in there.

Charles: It was really strange. I was not expecting at all to win. I literally didn’t write anything down. Roxane Gay said the title of the book. My son who was sitting right next to me, he’s eleven, he and I just started screaming at each other. We didn’t know what to do. My wife was one chair over. She and I had been drinking champagne that my publisher had sent. “Congratulations. It’s so exciting to be a finalist.” I thought this was going to be a teachable moment. This is how you experience disappointment in front of your kids. Then I won. I was so excited that I forgot to thank my wife and kids and my parents. A lot of them, their stories and experiences inspired the book. I just felt gutted right away. It was this mix of one of the most exciting times in my life and then immediately, I literally blanked. It was awful.

Zibby: I’m sure they didn’t hold it against you. Everybody understands, right?

Charles: I hope. I don’t know. I hold it against myself.

Zibby: Maybe this speaks to your bigger character that you could go and win this big accolade and yet find the negative in it. I don’t know.

Charles: Maybe, or maybe I should just write things down.

Zibby: Next time, you’ll be prepared to win, setting expectations. First of all, I had not even been familiar with Scribd until I read your story. Now I am obsessed. My kids are using it. I’m using it. It is the greatest app for all sorts of books and stories including Scribd Originals which your new story, The Only Living Girl in the World, is featured on. How did you link up with Scribd? Then I want you to tell listeners, if you don’t mind, a little about that story.

Charles: Definitely. I had known Amy Grace Loyd for years. She had acquired a story of mine and helped me edit it for Playboy, actually, about a decade ago. We had always stayed in touch. She came to me late — not late — actually, early about a year ago saying, “Do you have anything that might be longish and enough that it could stand alone? Not a short story, but something that someone might want to read for a decent amount of time.” One, I thought that’s a cool idea. How often do I just want half an hour or forty-five minutes’ worth of reading? I can’t quite get into a whole book right now. I’ve got kids, so I’m like, how do I find that thing? I thought that was cool. I had this story that I’d been working on for years that needed some polishing up. Amy and I worked on it together over the course of several months. Scribd is publishing it, which is really exciting to me.

Zibby: That’s so neat. Tell me about this vision of yours as Earth in the year 3021 or so where the gift shop is sort of all that’s left, the remnants of an amusement park that was a failure. Now all you have is the best part of the amusement park, theoretically, the gift shop, Earth’s Gift Shop or whatever. There was a lot of debate of what to call it in the story. Where did this whole vision come from, this abandoned Earth because of climate change and all the rest?

Charles: It was inspired by a story of Ray Bradbury’s, There Will Come Soft Rains. The story is basically told through the point of view of an automated house. When he wrote it, it was far sci-fi. Now it’s almost reality, completely smart home. All that survives are the gadgets. It’s just such an interesting lens through which you can look at who we are and what we leave behind. Really, to me, it was this form of archeology or anthropology. I was invited years ago to write in a tribute anthology to Bradbury. I took that story as my inspiration and thought of, what if all that survived of human civilization was our souvenirs and our tchotchkes and stuff you’d find in a gas station gift shop? That’s where the seed of the story came from. I imagined Jane, this young woman whose job it is to basically sit there all day and wait for the occasional tourist in their spaceship to fly by and try to hawk the keychains. Come to Earth. It’s really fun. That’s her thing.

Zibby: I like that you found a way to get some mother-daughter drama right in the beginning there of pushing the limits and fighting and real-life dialogue, except of course the limits are outer space instead of going down to god knows where.

Charles: Jane’s mom works off planet. You’re right. It’s the same mother-daughter dynamic. We’ve got a thirteen-year-old daughter and an eleven-year-old son, so I’m witness every day to many mother-daughter conversations.

Zibby: Quarantining with teens, unique challenge. Very interesting time. Another planet sometimes might sound nice. How did you get into writing to begin with? When did you know you were a writer? How did you get started?

Charles: Going way back, I started writing poems when I was a kid. We took a class trip to Yosemite. I don’t know what got into me, but I just started writing these little things down. I called them poems. I don’t really know what they were. My teacher wanted to encourage them, so he sent them to the local paper. The local paper printed them saying, look, this eight-year-old kid wrote some poems. I guess that got me the publication bug. That was pretty exciting. I didn’t actually start writing again until college. I wrote poetry at Berkeley. It was my minor. I was a biology major. I was supposed to be a doctor, but that didn’t work out. Instead, I went to law school. Sometime in law school I realized, oh, I miss fiction. I started reading again. Right after I graduated when I started practicing law, I also at the same time, I think subconsciously, wanted a creative outlet. I’m going into this law firm. It’s going to crush my soul or whatever. I thought, I need to have some outlet, so I started writing these really weird, tiny, short stories in the margins of notepads. I’d scribble an email to myself and shoot it off and just say, later tonight when I have time at eleven o’clock, I’ll come back to this. I started writing those short stories right at the same time I was practicing law.

Zibby: Then it just took off from there?

Charles: It was a very slow build.

Zibby: Do you still practice law on the side, or no?

Charles: I stopped a few years ago because I started writing for TV. That became the new day job. For more than a decade, I was writing stories. I started to get them published. It turned into a first short story collection for which I was paid less than I made as a lawyer in two weeks or something. It was very clear from the beginning this is not going to be a replacement for your job. This is something I love to do. In a lot of ways, that was liberating to not think of writing as my livelihood. I kept publishing books and eventually started to, I think especially because I live in Los Angeles, or I did at the time, I started to meet people in TV and film. Through one of those people, an executive at HBO, I got in the mix for this TV job on HBO. I got the job. I don’t know how. That’s when I switched about six years ago.

Zibby: Tell me about the TV shows you’ve been involved in. I know there have been many.

Charles: The first show I was on was Westworld, which is this big sci-fi — I guess it’s safe to say it’s dystopian. It’s based on the 1973 Michael Crichton film of the same name. It’s this futuristic theme park where rich people can go and basically pretend to be in the wild west, whatever narrative suits them. The park is incredibly advanced. These really lifelike hosts that are powered by artificial intelligence, they help you live out . On top of that, though, there’s this meta element because the show is not just about the people enjoying the park, but in many ways, it’s more about the people who work at the park and are creating these robots and also telling the stories. It was meta science fiction. I literally thought I created a skill set of writing meta science fiction that nobody would ever want. It turns out somebody wanted it, so I got that job. I think it also helped that one of my bosses, Lisa Joy, was a former lawyer. Maybe she had some sympathy for me. I worked on that. I worked on a show for AMC called Lodge 49 which is no longer. It was this great, great world of characters and atmosphere created by a fiction writer named Jim Gavin. He’s just an incredibly talented writer. He made this show along with Peter Ocko who’s an experienced showrunner. I got to work on that for a bit and see a very different kind of vibe.

I’ve worked on Legion for FX which is Noah Hawley’s show. I worked on a really, really fun show on Facebook Watch starring Elizabeth Olsen called Sorry for Your Loss. It’s about a young widow who is basically dealing with the aftermath of losing her husband at the age of thirty. It’s incredible performances and created by this writer named Kit Steinkellner who has already done many things and I know will go on to write so many more things because she’s incredibly talented. I worked for Alan Ball on a show called Here and Now on HBO which lasted one season, was a really fun groups of writers. Getting to meet and work with Alan Ball was amazing because I loved Six Feet Under. That was one of the things that made me want to write for TV, actually. Then to actually meet him and then have him be my boss, it’s crazy. I don’t know why I gave you my whole resume. That was too much, probably.

Zibby: It wasn’t. I’m interested. I had read about it. I had read about you and your work and everything, but it’s always really neat to hear from the person who’s been doing all this stuff and how it tracked in your own life. Don’t worry about it. That was great. My understanding of TV writing is a lot of it happens in writers’ rooms. You have to be very collaborative, whereas short story writing, perhaps, or novels and fiction is much more of a solitary pursuit. Do you have a preference? Do you like having the mix of both in your life?

Charles: If I had to choose only one, it would be solitary. I do enjoy the mix. I think the two things are feeding each other. I like being around people, especially in an environment where there’s free food. It’s really fun. It’s not something that most short story writers or novelists experience. Some people call it like a team sport. It sort of feels like soccer or hockey. You pass the ball. You don’t know exactly where it’s going to lead. Then sometimes you’ll see the conversation develop into something that you couldn’t have anticipated just a few minutes ago. Just also getting to see how other writers’ minds work in a really deep way, other than reading The Art of Fiction interviews in The Paris Review or places like that where they go really deep, you’re like, this helps me understand how this person thinks and works. It’s really hard to get that kind of insight in someone else’s method. Seeing it firsthand is pretty fun.

Zibby: What do you have coming up next? What are you working on after this?

Charles: I’m adapting Interior Chinatown for Hulu, so hopefully I can figure out how to do that. I’d like to write another book. This one took seven years. I’m not trying to rush it at all. I’ll definitely be writing more short stories. Working on this with Amy and Scribd is just so fun because, one, it’s nice to finish things and have them be out in the world. I love the short story. It’s how I started to write. There’s something about it that is, if anything, it’s more demanding and it’s more pure than a novel. You can actually imagine, not to say writing a flawless short story. That’s not how I would gage it. It’s not as if there’s flawed and flawless stories, but you can actually imagine the feeling of pulling off what you’re trying to do in a finite amount of time rather than a novel which is sort of like, eventually someone’s just going to rip it out of your hands or you’re going to send it in in an act of exhaustion. I’m hoping to write more short stories soon.

Zibby: It’s great for the author to feel that sense of accomplishment, and also for the reader. Like you mentioned earlier, it’s not as big an undertaking. Yet you can still get a taste and then see. When I was on Scribd, there’s so many authors who have written these original works for them, even authors I’ve had on like Elizabeth Berg. I was like, oh, my gosh, I have to read her story. I have to read this and that. It’s not such a big commitment. I think it’ll be good for other people who aren’t as familiar with people’s work to get a little sampler, like trailers for books or something. Anyway, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Charles: I don’t know if it’s your website or the podcast website, but I loved what you were saying about listening. I’m botching the quote. What is it exactly so I don’t…?

Zibby: You mean when I said something like I believe in the power of listening and hearing other people’s stories and all of that good stuff? I don’t even remember what I said. I can look it up.

Charles: I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, I’m glad you read my website. That’s so nice of you. What did I say? I know I said I believe in the power of stories. I said, “I believe in the power of stories. I believe in the healing power of a good conversation. I believe that listening is far more important than speaking. I believe that the right book can change everything.” Is that what you meant?

Charles: Yeah, all of that. I can’t really do better than that. I think the part that’s so true is listening rather than speaking, paying attention. That means usually reading and listening rather than talking. Here I am talking and saying that, but I think it’s so true. I read so many short story collections when I started to write. Just getting other people’s voices in there, in my head, the feeling it gives you, reading people like Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, or George Saunders, the way it lit me up and said, I could never do this, but I want to try to make someone else feel this way, that sense of wanting to connect with people and always using that as a kind of North Star.

Zibby: Excellent. It’s always nice to have my advice quoted back to me. That’s a first. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on my podcast. Thanks for letting me enjoy, start to finish, a short story and give me a feeling of accomplishment this week in particular. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Charles: Thanks, Zibby. It was nice to speak with you.

Zibby: Bye.

Charles: Bye. Thank you.