Charles Yu is the author of three books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, and was nominated for two WGA awards for his work on the HBO series, Westworld. He has also written for upcoming shows on AMC and HBO. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in a number of publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate and Wired.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Charles Yu
This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
When I was eight years old, I went on a week-long trip with my class to Yosemite. While there, I started writing poems. I don’t know if they were really poems—I was eight. But they were a form of expression, and I was lucky enough to have a teacher, Mr. Phil Cott, who encouraged me to keep doing it. I wrote poetry in college at Berkeley as well.
I didn’t start writing fiction until after I graduated from law school. I was procrastinating. Instead of studying for the bar, I started going to Borders and reading contemporary fiction. I remember thinking: whoa, this doesn’t feel like the stuff I read in school. In voice, in diction, in form, it felt closer to my own experience, to a form of consciousness that was more recognizable and accessible, and it made me want to try my own hand at fiction.
You’ve published a few books—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?
Publication is both the greatest thing ever and the most disappointing thing ever. At least for me. From the moment when you get the call (or email) from your agent: they’re taking the book, and then through the whole process (editing, galleys, cover art, book design, pre-publication reviews and marketing and publicity, reviews, touring), working with the brilliant editors and publicists and other professionals at the house who help turn a manuscript into a real-life book, it’s just so gratifying and creative in its own right. I’ve gotten to work with uncommonly talented people, and have benefited enormously from their contributions to the work and the process. It feels like, and is, a dream come true.
But then, after all of that, there’s the moment when I realize: my work could have been better. I haven’t written my best book yet. And then it’s back to the blank page, to try again. That’s been true for every book so far, and I expect it’ll continue. The thing that’s changed over time is probably me getting to that point sooner. To stop thinking about what I’ve done and begin thinking about what is still left to do.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
Family, identity, emotions, thoughts, the weirdness of existence. Feeling like an outsider. The stories we tell ourselves, and some of the contemporary genres forms we use to tell it: superheroes, robots, advertising, TV shows. I don’t know how much my writing has actually evolved. I think most of my preoccupations have stayed the same—if anything’s changed I might be a little faster at figuring out why something’s not working. Not that I know how to fix it, necessarily. Just that it’s not working. And maybe a little faster at figuring out why I’m interested in something.
What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
Donald Barthelme opened up my mind—there are stories of his that feel like vast, unexplored continents to me as a reader.
I remember reading a book by Ben Marcus, THE AGE OF WIRE AND STRING, when I was first starting to write fiction, and that was like a brain injection–another person who did things I didn’t know were possible.
I read a couple of A.M. Homes’ collections around the same time, and spent a lot of time trying to imitate her voice, her immediacy, the way she could close the gap between narrator and reader so that you were right in someone’s head from the first line of a story.
There are too many to name, but those are a few.
Besides books, you have also written for HBO’s Westworld. What can you tell us about your experiences as a writer for a TV show versus writing a novel or short story? What would you say are the major differences between the two?
To me, the key difference is that in a novel or a short story, at least in what I read and write, the constituent unit is the sentence. In a television script, the constituent unit is a story beat. One is language-based, the other is not.
Zooming out a little, that difference on the micro-scale translates to a difference on the macro-scale. A novel or short story can take virtually any form. An episode of TV is more constrained, by necessity. We’re in a time when the variety of styles and forms and modes of storytelling in TV is exploding, but there are still parameters that exist in TV—mostly human characters, who are mostly in scenes involving two humans talking or doing stuff, who have “arcs” that are to some degree fairly traceable through an episode, a season, a series—and these parameters are optional in fiction.
A key similarity in both fiction and TV is that a good story is a good story, and people can feel it when it’s there.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
In 2007, I was named by the National Book Foundation as one of its “5 Under 35” for that year. I was selected by Richard Powers, on the basis of my first (and at the time only) book, a story collection titled Third Class Superhero. The book had come out in the fall of the previous year and although it had gotten generally good reviews, it had gotten one bad review in a very important newspaper, and that had seriously bummed me out, to the point where I had spent a few months reconsidering things, wondering if I was a terrible writer, if I should just stop trying. So when I hear from the NBF about this honor, it was this incredible gift, at just the right time. It’s probably not smart of me to admit how affected I was/am by external sources (both negatively by the review, and then positively by the 5 Under 35 award), but at that time I was just starting out and it really meant a great deal to me. I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Powers and to the Foundation for that. And then I didn’t even get to go to the award ceremony/party because I had to work (at my then-day job, as a lawyer).
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Read more than you write. Listen more than you speak. Find books that you love and figure out how to have a conversation with them. Try to find books that you might otherwise not find—create conditions for accident or serendipity or random bumping into things. Don’t try to play someone else’s instrument. Figure out what instrument you play, and play that.
After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?
My goals are not that different than they were. I still feel like there are stories in me I want to tell, that I need to tell. They present themselves from time to time, and then I struggle to get them out, with varying results. I’ve learned a little bit about what instrument I play, and how to play it, and what sounds I make that tend to be interesting and melodious, but I’ve learned even more about my limitations, and the limitations of that instrument. I hope to get better at playing it, and maybe even try to learn a new instrument (or modify my existing one to make fuller, richer, or just different sounds).
As for publication, who knows? I’ve been crazy lucky so far, to have books and stories published, but I don’t take that for granted. The opposite, actually—every single time something is published, there is a real chance it’ll be the last time. On both sides. Maybe no one will ever accept anything else I submit. Or maybe I won’t ever finish or submit anything else again. There was a time, probably after my second book came out, that it sort of felt like, well, this is how it’ll be—I’ll write books and publish them every 3 or 4 years, plus or minus, and I’ll have this “career” or body of work, or however you might think of it. But I don’t think about it that way anymore. Every short story or novel is a unicorn. I’ve had a few unicorns already—more than I am probably entitled to.
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