Zibby Owens: I was able to do an Instagram Live with Susan Choi, which was so much fun. Susan’s first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction. 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, received a 2014 Lammy Award. Her fifth novel, Trust Exercise, which came out in April 2019 and is the one we’re going to be talking about the most, won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction. Her first book for children is called Camp Tiger. It came out in May 2019. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she currently teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.

Hi, Susan. How are you?

Susan Choi: Hi. I’m good. How are you? Can you hear me?

Zibby: I can. Can you hear me?

Susan: I can, and I can see you.

Zibby: Great. Did you have a nice Mother’s Day?

Susan: I did. I had a really peaceful Mother’s Day. How about you?

Zibby: It was nice. Kids, breakfast in the bed, the whole thing, so that was really special.

Susan: Aw, that’s great. What did you get to eat?

Zibby: Pancakes and some scrambled eggs. Although, once I was in bed with all the food, they just wanted to eat it all. I might have had like two bites. But I’m fine.

Susan: I was going to say, when you said pancakes, I was like, that suspiciously sounds like a menu choice that might have had more to do with them than you.

Zibby: Yes, a hundred percent. The bites that I had were great. I’m always happy when they’re eating something. How about you? Did you have breakfast in bed?

Susan: I did not, but I had a really lovely day despite that.

Zibby: I have to ask, did you somehow reunite with your hairdresser? I’ve been watching your Instagram posts about how sad you are that you don’t have the same perfect bob as last time, but it looks so perfect to me today. Did someone come over? How did you do it?

Susan: Oh, you’re so nice. No, there’s been no reunion. No one has come over. I love that. My hairdresser, who I adore, actually posted a video of himself on Instagram like — you know that style of Bob Dylan holding the placards and then going through? The message is like, don’t touch your hair. Nothing’s happened to my hair except that I flatiron it like a crazy person so that it’s all just going to fall out one of these days. This is all an illusion. I think it probably looks a lot better than it feels because of my cruel, constant ironing to keep it under control. That’s my quarantine secret.

Zibby: Quarantine secrets, love it. Whatever you’re doing, I will have to invest in a flatiron, I guess, because maybe that’s the trick.

Susan: I have to say, I couldn’t live without it.

Zibby: All right. Who knew? There you go. Thanks for doing this with me. I know you have a big event tonight at McNally Jackson with Michael Cunningham. Is that right? Or did ?

Susan: Yeah, that’s tonight at seven. We’re really excited.

Zibby: You’ll have to divert the conversation back to his work or something.

Susan: Yeah, or just him, his career, his writing process. I’m excited to talk about writing with him. We’re also colleagues. We teach together. We might even talk about that. We might even talk about our lives as teachers, which is a really important part of life for both of us.

Zibby: You want to Yale and you teach at Yale? Is that right?

Susan: Yes, that’s right. I went to Yale a long, long, long time ago. I’ve been teaching at Yale for not that long. I have been there since 2015.

Zibby: I went to Yale too. I wish you’d been my teacher.

Susan: I know, but I don’t think we overlapped. I think I’m older than you a little bit.

Zibby: Although, I have to say, the writing class I took at Yale was one of my favorites anywhere. I wish I could remember the teacher’s name. It was a prose writing class. I still have the essays I wrote for that. I should dig them up somewhere.

Susan: You should. I’d be so curious to know who your teacher was.

Zibby: She was so good.

Susan: There are people who have been there a long time. It’s a great place to teach. This is going to sound immodest, so I’m not talking about myself, but just from my experience, the students are amazing, my students that I teach. When I was a student, I don’t think I was amazing. As a teacher, I find the students to be just incredible. I love, love teaching them. I learn a lot from them.

Zibby: I feel like the standards go up every year. I feel like there’s no way I could get in now, if I were a young person as opposed to forty-three. Forget it.

Susan: I’m not commenting on you. I’m sure you could.

Zibby: I couldn’t.

Susan: I feel the same way about myself, though, absolutely. Good friends of mine that I made while I was at that school, we all agree we would never get in today. We were so lucky. I was clueless when I arrived there. I mean clueless about a lot of things, but also just academically, not super prepared. My students are just radioactive. They know so much. I don’t know how it happens. They’re so smart.

Zibby: I know. I’m feeling badly for my own kids who are very bright, but I don’t know, you have to be a rocket scientist to get into school these days. Anyway, that aside, but so much of what you end up writing about takes place in academic settings. I feel like you must have this special affinity towards not only teaching, but writing about teaching. It’s all becoming very meta for doing what you set out. Tell me about this draw you have to academia and also writing about it.

Susan: I do. I sort of feel like I need to get over it and stop writing about it.

Zibby: No, no. I hope I didn’t make you feel that way. Not at all.

Susan: No, you’re not at all. It’s funny. One of my dearest friends said, after reading a draft of a new book of mine, he said, “You just can’t leave academia alone, can you?” That was my second book. Now with five, it’s pretty clear. I think part of it is just my background. My dad emigrated to this country from Korea to seek an education. He became a professor. He was one of those parents who really, if he imparted anything to me, it was the importance of education and how much it would mean to him for me to get an education. That’s what I grew up with. If I’d grown up an army brat, maybe I would write about the military. But I grew up in that culture, so that’s the one I write about. Now I work in it too. I’m a teacher. I’m thinking about students and teachers all the time. I also think that the relationship between students and teachers, it’s super ordinary because we’ve all had that relationship. It also can be really fraught and rife with danger, depending. It’s the kind of relationship that can span the spectrum from being, hopefully, just a basically successful relationship to, not hopefully but often, a really, really strange relationship. I think I’m always drawn to when relationships that could be normal aren’t.

Zibby: Have you ever had an experience with a student even since 2015 that’s towed the line of normalcy in some way?

Susan: That’s a good question. I want to say from my perspective, the answer is no. I hope to god that that’s true and that I don’t have a student out there who feels like I crossed the line or abused my relationship with them in some way. I think about it all the time. I think constantly about the fact that it’s not just by not doing evil that you’re a good teacher. You have to really actively do good. You have to constantly be thinking about the fact that you have more power than your student. Even though these students are, like we just said, so smart, it doesn’t mean that they’re my equal. I always have more power than they do, and I have to be careful. Anyone who has more power than somebody else has to be careful all the time. You can’t just assume, I have good intentions, I’m not going to do anything that’s going to hurt anyone. I hope the answer’s no, but it’s complicated.

Zibby: I meant it more from their perspective, not that you would abuse your power. I felt like that went without saying, that you would not do that.

Susan: God, I hope not.

Zibby: I feel like adolescence and that particular time of life is when so much comes out, different mental illnesses. This is sort of going on a tangent, but even things like schizophrenia and all these things come out during adolescence. I always wonder, if you’re a teacher in those scenarios and different kids have different things occurring to them, how does that all interact?

Susan: It’s complicated. I’ve had students who were troubled. I’ve had students who had terrible experiences elsewhere in the institution that they needed to work out. I’ve had students who clearly were struggling with things. I’ve always hoped to be helpful, but it’s so complicated. I think students are dealing with so much. It feels to me like they’re both smarter than we used to be, again, not you Zibby, but me, but also —

Zibby: — Please, include me. Yes, for sure.

Susan: I just feel like their world is so much more complicated now than at least my world was as a student. There’s just a lot. There’s a lot to deal with. This idea that students are snowflakes I think is really unfair. I’m like, look at the world our kids are growing up in. Look at what we’re doing right now. Look at what’s happening. They have a lot to deal with.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about how you approach your novels. Each one, I’ve read, it takes you about five years on average to write. The Trust Exercise was almost like your diversionary tactic from procrastinating from another book that you were also and perhaps still writing. Tell me just a little bit about that and how you pick your projects and what the process is like when you’re writing.

Susan: Trust Exercise was my diversionary project, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t also take five years. Even though it was a side project, I was also working on it for at least that long. It’s funny. The way I work has changed so much. I’m only now wrapping my mind around how different it is. When I wrote my first novel, I had been struggling for so long. I had pieces of it that really came out of writing I was doing when we were in college, like short stories I was trying to make work. I went to grad school. I was still trying to make it work. I still just had a pile of junk. I left grad school with nothing to show for it and had a full-time job. I would go home at night and eat a can of tuna and just try to make this book work that I’d been dragging on for years. It finally came together like a patchwork quilt of all these different pieces. After that, I was like, I will never write a book like that again. That was a mess. I started doing this thing where I would write a book almost like on a dare to myself. This happened with my third book and my fourth. I started and I thought, every single day I’m going to write forward. I can’t look back. I can’t change anything. I have to write a certain number of words a day or I don’t get lunch, which is super motivating. If you start working in the morning, I’d be like, I’ve got to make my word count or no lunch. Sounds a little obsessive, but it worked.

Zibby: Did you enforce that? Did you go days without lunch?

Susan: No, no, no. I just wrote bad words, not bad like cuss words. I mean, I just wrote bad writing. Anything to get to lunch. I wrote these books in this kind of super rigorous way where I just drove myself forward. In the end, huge amounts of revision were required. One of these books, halfway through I just hated one of the main characters so much. I just continued as if she didn’t exist anymore. I was like, she just can’t be here. I was like, I’ll fix it later, and I did. Another one of these books, it was in first person. At some point, I was like, this in unbearable. I switched to third. I was like, I’ll just fix it later. That worked with those two books. I thought I had it all figured out and, in fact, would tell my students, this is how you write a book. Then it just all fell to pieces. I was trying to write this book that is the one that I’ve mentioned in interviews about Trust Exercise I couldn’t make work. I was doing all my old tricks, lunch, word count, forward every day. It was just horrible. You’ll have to take my word for it because it’s never going to be published in its current state, but this book just doesn’t work, wouldn’t work.

I was just so thrown for a loop because I was like, I thought I had the formula. I didn’t. Meanwhile, in order to make that daily word count, I started doing other things on days that I just couldn’t stand looking at this book anymore. Trust Exercise ended up being one of those other things. It was years of running away from this bad failed project and kind of sneaking into Trust Exercise and writing enough to earn lunch. Then after many years of this, I realized I have a big pile of this Trust Exercise thing and I have a big pile of this other thing, and I need help. I showed both piles to my agent. She said, “I think it’s the Trust Exercise pile we’re going to go with.” It was such a surprise. Now all bets are off because I’m like, clearly that recipe that I figured out for novel writing was not the recipe. Now I have to invent it all over again. It’s a little demoralizing.

Zibby: Or maybe it’s just the one book that didn’t fit. Maybe that’s the aberration. That’s the outlier.

Susan: Maybe. It’s also kind of empowering, I have to say, to just realize there’s all sort of different ways to do this. I’ve now stumbled upon a couple of them. There’s probably as many other ways as there are other writers. It’s actually been great for my teaching too because I tell my students, I’m like, you know what, there’s no secret to this. You may think you’ve found the secret. It’s going to stop working one day, and you’ve just got to roll with it and be like, I guess I have to find a new secret.

Zibby: This is reminding me so much of parenting because as soon as I feel like I have one thing nailed, this is how I handle tantrums, and the next comes and it doesn’t work. I’m like, oh, I have no confidence now because I can’t rely on anything. It’s so many things.

Susan: Oh, my god. You have four kids, right?

Zibby: Yeah, I have four kids.

Susan: See, I only have two, and I’ve totally had that experience already. With my first one, we did sleep training. My first one, he’s fifteen now. This is a long time ago. We did sleep training. He was the textbook baby for sleep training. We thought we were such geniuses, like the annoying parents of one child who would tell every other parent of a newborn, it’s just like this. This is all you have to do. Just get this book. Everything will be fine. Our second child came along, again, all bets were off. Sleep training, total failure. It’s exactly like what you say. We were just like, it’s as if we’ve never had a child. I can’t imagine having that happen four times.

Zibby: I can’t even remember the sleep training of the last one. I did have twins, so it wasn’t one after another. I cheated in that way.

Susan: Oh, my god, I am so glad they brought you those pancakes yesterday. You deserve —

Zibby: — Yeah, I deserve pancakes wrapped in gold or something, but it’s okay.

Susan: Yeah, and split of champagne too.

Zibby: I feel like I talk to a lot of authors who say the same thing as you, that with each new project it’s never a sure thing. I think from a reader’s perspective, having followed careers like yours and other authors, you just assume that when they start their next book, boom, no problem. It seems to me that everybody is filled with all sorts of insecurities and worries and that it’s this magical thing that happens and it might not happen again. It’s so interesting to hear that this has basically happened to you.

Susan: Absolutely. Not to be judgmental, but when writer friends that I know speak of always doing things a certain way or just having everything under control in terms of their process, I’m always highly suspicious. I don’t think they’re deceiving me, but I find it really hard to believe because I find it so much more common to talk to other writers who say, I feel like I’ve never done this before. Somebody can be mid-career, even late-career, and they’re like, I just don’t even know, it’s like I’m just starting out. Again, it’s useful for teaching in a way because I always say to my students, I hope this isn’t discouraging to you, but there’s no crypt of secrets that’s being guarded by those of us who’ve published books and you’re never going to get into it. I’m like, we don’t know. We have managed to figure it out totally through trial and error, sometimes more than once. It just keeps being the same trial and error. I think it’s just you get used to it.

Zibby: Why do you keep going back to the book that you feel like is so difficult and it’s not working? Why not just abandon that project and start something new? What is it about that project that’s making you keep cracking away?

Susan: You’re agreeing with devil on the one shoulder who’s like, just dump that project. I should.

Zibby: No, I’m not trying to encourage you to dump it. I’m just saying there must be something really compelling about it that makes you keep going back to it. You know it’ll probably end up winning the National Book Award again. It’s going to be this amazing book for the ages. What is it that is your stumbling block with it? What is it that keeps drawing you to it?

Susan: Zibby, I was hoping you were encouraging me to dump it. I was like, yeah, I should just — no, this book is complicated because it’s about my family. I think in the same way that your family is — I mean my extended family. It’s about my grandfather, mainly, and somewhat about my father. Family history is weird that way. Sometimes you just think, I don’t want to deal with this. I don’t care. This is the past. I’m shutting the door, but you never can. You can never shut the door on your own family’s history. Also, it’s really compelling. My grandfather, this is my dad’s dad — my dad’s a Korean emigrant. He came to this country in the mid-fifties after the Korean War had ended. His family was a really remarkable and fascinating family. My grandfather, his father was a scholar, a literary critic, a fiction writer, a translator. His focus was English and European literature. All of the stuff that I was studying in college, my grandfather, that was his field. He did crazy things like translated Joyce into Korean. What? Can you even imagine?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, no.

Susan: Not speaking Korean myself, there’s no way for me — I can barely read Joyce in the language in which it was written. I’m fascinated by this person because not only did he love the things that I love, literature and writing, but he also had a really controversial career in Korea because of Korean politics during his lifetime. Korea was colonized by Japan. That was a very unhappy relationship. Without getting too complicated, because we could talk about this for an hour and I’ve been researching it for a decade, under the colonial occupation of Korea by Japan, if you were a successful person, that was suspicious because what were you doing to make the Japanese authorities leave you alone? My grandfather published a literary journal. During the war years when Japan was allied with the axis powers and was using the Korean peninsula as a staging ground for their war effort and imperial expansion and committing atrocities in China, this is a whole lot of history here, it was very hard to publish a literary magazine, as you can imagine. That wasn’t exactly a priority.

It was very easy to suppress that kind of publishing. If you were the Japanese colonial government, you could just not give people paper. You could just be like, we’re sorry, little seditious Korean patriotic magazine, we’re just out of paper for you. Oops. No one in the international community could really accuse you of censorship because there’s just no paper. The Japanese colonial government was really good at that kind of oppression. My grandfather’s journal had paper. He continued publishing deep into the war years. After the end of the second world war when Japan was defeated and Korea was liberated, anyone who had been moderately successful during the occupied period came under suspicion, including my grandfather. What did he do to get along with the occupying forces? What did he do to keep getting paper? It’s such an unimaginable, thankfully, situation for us to live ourselves — sorry, I’m losing my words here. It’s unimaginable for us in the world that we live in now, blessedly, so I’m fascinated by it. I’m always wishing that I could learn more about what his life was like, especially because of these controversies. I think that kind of draws me. It’s sort of irresistible.

Zibby: Are you writing it as fiction or as memoir?

Susan: Such a good question. That’s one of the problems. I’ve been writing it as fiction. It’s not really working, in my opinion. I’ve wondered, is this a memoir? I’m not a memoir writer. I love fiction because I can take things in the real world that fascinate me and then I can bend them to my storytelling will and take liberties and make the best possible story without necessarily being bound to the facts. Facts are facts. You can’t bend them if you’re writing history or if you’re writing memoir. I don’t know. I’ve been grappling with this question for years.

Zibby: I think you should try writing it all as truth and then go back and do your big edit thing and then make it better where you need to. Why don’t you just get it all out? Just get all the facts out.

Susan: I’m trying. It’s interesting because every time I think, I’m so done with this, something happens that kind of pulls me back. Just last week this professor, an American professor at the University of Minnesota, got in touch with me and said, “I’ve learned that you’re the granddaughter of this literary figure. I’m translating his work into English. I need permission to publish the translations. Can you give me permission? I don’t know who else to ask, really.” I was like, here I am hooked again. My grandfather’s work is still relevant, intellectually and politically. People are working on it. Scholars of Korean history are actually studying it. That makes it hard for me to just go, I’m not going to look into it anymore. I’m going to try what you suggested, write it all down.

Zibby: Give it a shot.

Susan: Just give it a shot.

Zibby: Write it all down. Think of me before lunch. Then as you’re having your tuna sandwich you can say, see, that worked so well today.

Susan: I will, or I’ll text you and be like, damn you, Zibby, I can’t do this and I’m hungry.

Zibby: I’m sure you’ll find the words. You can just bang on the — . Research counts. I had wanted to talk to you about Trust Exercise, but all of this stuff is so interesting to me, so much more interesting. I mean, not more interesting, but just the idea of how your creative process is working, it’s just so neat.

Susan: It’s fun to talk about it.

Zibby: I read one interview when it was about to be the award ceremony. You were trying to be all cool about it, like, it’s okay if I don’t win. It’s just an honor to be nominated. But then you went up and won. I was just wondering, what was that like, this Oscars-of-the-literary-world feeling? Was it like an Oscars ceremony for you? What was that moment like?

Susan: Oh, my god, it was like an Oscars ceremony for me. I’m going to cry. I’m so grateful. Obviously, I’m so grateful to — one, I’m so grateful we had a ceremony. When I think about that night — it was in November, November 19th or 20th. It was the week before Thanksgiving. Just the excitement of — I rented a gown. I didn’t own a gown, so I rented the gown. I really liked it. Getting dressed up and going to this ceremony that started with a huge cocktail hour and everyone buzzing and elbow to elbow meeting other writers I really admired — John Waters was there in a brocade suit that was to die for. I was so tongue-tied. I stood next to John Waters like a weird stalker for maybe ten minutes and couldn’t even bring myself to introduce myself to him. That excitement of being in a room full of people, I hope whoever’s nominated for the National Book Award this year and for any other award like that, I really hope that they get that celebration. I just thought it was amazing to have that experience and then actually win. But now, it was just amazing to have that experience. Then afterwards, there was a dance party. At some point, I was like, oh, my god, it’s almost two in the morning. I have to go home. I haven’t been up this late since I can’t remember when. It was such a fun night. It was a blast, I have to say. I feel really lucky to have gotten it.

Zibby: That’s such a nice story. Yes, I feel like there’s so much longing now for all sorts of celebrations like that one.

Susan: I know. We appreciated them then, but god, we just had no idea how much we would miss it.

Zibby: I know. It’s really crazy. Do you have any other side projects that you’re using to get through your other big project? Do you have another simmering novel that’s treading along also?

Susan: I do, yeah. I do, actually. This all kind of goes back to what we were talking about when we first started talking, about what I thought was my method and how it’s clearly not.

Zibby: Not your hair, you mean?

Susan: No, not my hair, that other method. Not the ironing of my hair method. I used to really work on one thing. I was like, this is what I’m working on. Working on anything else is like cheating. I’m going to stick with this until I finish. I’ve found that I’ve turned into somebody who’s working on a bunch of different things at once. All the stuff that’s been on the backburner for so long, when I actually look closely at it, I’m like, there’s a lot here. There is another project in addition to this grandfather one that is a story about a family. I started working on it years ago. It’s another one of these things that every once in a while for some reason that I can’t explain, I want to write about them again. I go and find that file and add to it. I’ve been recently looking at that material more. It’s exciting if something that you wrote several years back still kind of captures your attention. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve written that I look at it again and I’m like, ugh, no. This stuff, it’s still kind of tugging at me. That’s exciting. That’s what I’m doing.

Zibby: I feel like you’re beating yourself up over your process when in actuality, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just the way you work. It’s okay. It’s great. How great to have multiple projects in the works.

Susan: Absolutely, I totally agree. I wouldn’t say it’s beating myself up so much as I’m constantly surprised by the changes. I’m getting better about that. I’m getting to be aware that there isn’t one right way. It’s really helpful to be attuned to different modes in yourself and not to think, I’m being lazy or I’m avoiding something, but to think, I’m in a different mode right now. I’m a space where this is what’s interesting to me. I can just go with that and that’s okay instead of feeling like I’m slacking off.

Zibby: I feel like we are all in a different mode these days, so it makes perfect sense.

Susan: Tell me about it, and we have a lot of time to be aware of our modes and to reflect on them.

Zibby: Yes, perhaps too much time. Thank you so much for sharing your time with me today.

Susan: Thank you. This was so fun.

Zibby: It was fun for me too.

Susan: It’s really great to be with you. I have to say, I’m so grateful that — I’ve had my phone propped up between a pair of five-pound weights, and I’m so happy that it hasn’t fallen over. It’s the little things to be grateful for in life. Thank you, five-pound weights.

Zibby: I have not even picked my weights up off the ground in the garage for this entire time, so at least you’re using yours.

Susan: Zibby, I’m not using the weights to work out, but I am using them to prop up my phone. They’ve done a great job. Thank you, five-pound weights. Maybe I’ll actually work out with you someday also.

Zibby: Thank you so much.

Susan: Thanks, Zibby. Take care. Stay safe. Bye.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.