Charles Yu, author of the National Book Award winning novel, Interior Chinatown, answers our questions about his funny, challenging, and moving book.
Amy Brinker: Now that Interior Chinatown is in paperback and some time has passed, has anything changed about how you think about the book? I mean, winning the National Book Award was huge…
Charles Yu: Yeah, it was–it was really shocking, because, but even when you publish a book, or at least in my experience so far, it doesn’t feel like it’s a public thing, if that makes any sense. I mean, it’s public for a little while, and then it sort of like, goes into the sea of books, and the award, just at least for some window of time, made it feel like, oh, people are going to be paying attention on a level that I’m not used to.
AB: Interesting, I would think you would be used to that, since you’re a TV writer as well. Does that feel more public?
CY: That’s true. In TV land, you’re right, it’s a very different level of scrutiny. I mean, when you’re sitting in the room, you know at a minimum, hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions of people might see this.
I haven’t personally felt that [level of scrutiny] with a book until this time. It was incredibly gratifying and weird and shocking, and it’s just also, as much of an honor as it is, it also just makes you think, look at all these other nominees and finalists, there are so many great books every year. It’s just fun to be part of that conversation, to be on the long list and all that.
AB: Novels are also just more intimate and personal, I guess, but especially this book, which I know took you many years to write.
CY: It’s really true, yeah, you can hide behind the show and the big marketing campaign, but when it’s just one name on the cover on the book, then you can’t hide. Yeah, [writing Interior Chinatown] took a really long time. It might even–depending on how you count it, it was 5, 6, or maybe even almost 7 years. I had points where I wanted to give up. The first phase was actually quite different–it was like, a bunch of fables about people coming to a new land.
It’s not a long book, but there’s some trickiness in terms of, what is the reality of this world that Willis lives in.
The screenplay format unlocked a new world for me, in which I promptly got lost. I needed to go through that door, but once I got in, it wasn’t like it all became clear, I then had to figure out how it worked. Everybody is playing a role, a version of themselves that doesn’t feel like it fits quite right, and the script really helps, I think, both visually and narratively, for the reader to say, oh, here’s the story on one track, and here’s what’s going on with the interior of these characters on another level, and being able to quickly jump back and forth between those two was what I was really trying to get right when I was writing the book.
AB: When you were doing research and working on this book, did you interview family members or anybody in your life to hear about immigrant experiences?
CY: I did. My parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and they both came to the US in the 60s, and growing up, I had heard a lot of their stories, and internalized them, so a lot of what went into the book, at least in early drafts, started from seeds of either small biographical bits about their experiences in the US, as very recently having arrived here, or there was a feeling or some moment that stuck out, some sentence that my parents used to describe it, and I would kind of use that to craft something fictional about it, so a lot of the sections that deal with Old Asian Man and Old Asian Woman are based on their experiences.
AB: You’ve talked before about asking yourself a question, letting that percolate, and then having thought manifest in work later, so your non-working time is as important as the working.
CY: It’s also just what I tell myself to justify all of my time wasting, but I think it’s true. I think you can’t just count the hours where the cursor is blinking or where you’re actually typing, because if I did, that would be very depressing. It would be like, oh, it turns out I do all of my writing in about 30 minutes a week. Like, 90 percent of my productivity can be traced to the time between my first cup of coffee and lunch, and that’s it.
I have to believe that the subconscious is really working, and the conscious, it’s all working, and I’ve gotten more attuned to how to create the right conditions so that I can have my brain working all the time or a lot of the time.
AB: Do you have an example of a question you would ask yourself to get the gears in motion in the background?
CY: Yeah. Often, I find that just forcing myself to type a very, very bad version of something, and just confronting how bad it is, and knowing, though, that it exists somewhere, and then kind of crystallizing it, that is like, step 1 — I call it the negative one draft, because it’s two drafts away from being a first draft, and it really takes the pressure off of it.
AB: Near the end of the book, there’s a timeline of some of the laws that were put in place that prejudiced against Asian Americans. Were there ones you didn’t know about? Did you learn anything unexpected when doing that research?
CY: Yeah, I mean, I learned a lot. The specific things that I knew were the Chinese Exclusion Act of, I think, 1882, and then the Naturalization Act of ’65, which is when my dad came, and there’s kind of a wave right at ’65 and a few years after, because the US had lifted these quotas, these very strict numerical quotas on immigration from countries. Other than that, I didn’t have a sense about about how many laws in various states prohibited Asian Americans from owning land or having the right to sue or how early they went back in terms of the 19th century. Just the conflict between whether or not Asian Americans were going to be accepted here stretched back almost 200 years, so yeah, that was really eye-opening for me.
AB: There was a recent profile of Steven Yeun and it had a great quote: “Sometimes, I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you”.
CY: I was joking last week that if he had given that quote before I published the book, I might have just, like, thrown the book away, because it kind of nails it.
AB: So efficient!
CY: Yeah, exactly, and it fits in a tweet! Yeah, the sense of invisibility. What I really wanted to explore with Willis Wu is, on the one hand, as Generic Asian Man, he’s in the background. He has no voice. He doesn’t have lines in the story, so no one is paying attention to him. On the other hand, and this is the brilliance of Steven Yeun’s quote, is, he’s paying attention to everyone else. That’s his job, because he doesn’t want to get in the way of the story.
He also has an angle on the story that you don’t normally see. It’s this weird angle, off to the side, from the back, where you can kind of see parts of the story that you maybe aren’t intended to see, because nobody cares what it looks like from random background Asian guy’s perspective, so yeah, I mean, to me, that’s a feature of my consciousness, that I really wanted to describe in this book: this sense of being very aware of not fitting into the main narrative, and sometimes wanting to hide, sometimes wanting to be seen, but always having this kind of anxiety about whether or not I fit at all.
AB: Do you have a favorite moment in the book, or something that you’re proud of or glad you included?
CY: Well, my favorite lines in the book are not my own, they’re the epigrams. I think the one that opens the book, Bonny Tsui’s line about Chinatown basically standing in for the ambiguous Asian everywhere captures kind of the doubleness of this place. It literally physically exists, but it’s also a place in the imagination, I think, the cultural imagination of: here’s where we keep the Asian stuff.
You know, maybe I’m just sentimental, but the parts that I really wanted to make sure got in the book were the conversations between Willis and Phoebe. I’m a dad, I have a son and a daughter, and some of those communications I’ve had with my kids are some of the most honest and intimate, tender moments that I’ve ever had, where they’re saying things that sort of opened my eyes.
Charles Yu is the author of Interior Chinatown.
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