From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: Charles Yu

Charles Yu is the author of four books, including his latest, Interior Chinatown, which won the National Book Award for Fiction and the Le Prix Médicis étranger, and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He has received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, been nominated for two Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the HBO series Westworld, and has also written for shows on FX, AMC, Facebook Watch, and Adult Swim. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Wired, Time and Ploughshares.

What books were important to you when you were younger and just getting into science fiction and fantasy, and have your feelings about those titles changed?

Asimov’s Foundation series. The concept of a quantitatively precise social science (psychohistory) was so cool to me as an eighth-grader. I also read the seven books of Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality around the same time. I haven’t gone back to re-read either in a long time, and I’m sort of curious how my memory of them would match up with reality. On the other hand, maybe I don’t want to know. The impression those two series left is still with me and I don’t know if I should mess with that.

Does the influence of those stories show up in your writing in any noticeable ways?

In my first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I invented my own made-up discipline (chronodiegetics). It’s not really like psychohistory, which is much harder sci-fi, whereas my sci-fi is definitely on the fluffy side. But the idea of making up a field of study, coming up with theorems for it, that was really fun and helpful in constructing Minor Universe 31.

In the first book of the Incarnations series (On A Pale Horse), being Death is basically a job. One of the things I find myself coming back to in my own writing is weird jobs: third class superhero, time machine repairman, generic Asian man.

So, yes, I’d say both series have had influence, both general and specific!

How did reading become writing for you, and what was the journey to breaking in like for you?

I’d written poems as a kid, and I took poetry workshops as an undergrad at Berkeley. But I didn’t make a sustained effort at writing until my mid-twenties, after graduating from law school. Instead of studying for the bar exam, I found myself at the bookstore every day, reading story collections. Going into a new career as a lawyer, I think I was searching for a creative release valve, some private headspace I could carve out. So I started writing little things in the margins of notepads, or sending emails to myself with scraps of language. My first pieces were very short, weird experiments. I don’t even know you could call them stories.

After a few months (I was young and dumb but that was kind of an asset because I didn’t realize how little I knew) I started sending those experiments to literary journals. I got hundreds of rejections. As soon as a story was rejected, I’d take it out of the SASE, slip it into the next publication on the list, and send it back out. It was painful and humbling, but after a couple of years, I found myself with a few stories published. And then I entered a contest sponsored by Mid-American Review, and Jean Thompson judged it, and selected my story as the winner, and from that story, I got an agent.

You are known for novels as well as short fiction. Are there important differences in the way you approach the two formats, or are they similar? Do you struggle more with one or the other?

They’re very different. Novels are long enough that they can’t have perfect unity. In assembling it, there’s going to be some glue, some staples, some seam. A story can have that unity—of form, language, shape, sound. At least in theory. So it’s a lot more pressure on every sentence.

One thing they have in common is that I struggle with both equally.

Has the Pandemic and/or current events impacted your writing practice? And how have you adjusted?

I have more time. And mental space. So that should help, in terms of getting immersed, except there’s so much news and it’s mostly terrible. I find myself alternating between periods of doom-spiraling and then furiously typing out thoughts and feelings, trying to make some sense of it all. But not too much sense. For me it’s also important not to assume I know what’s going on, where things are headed. Living day to day, appreciating what I still have – my wife and kids in this household, Zooms with other family and friends. And writing. Sorry, that got a little heavy.

Coming up to your recent story, The Only Living Girl on Earth, with Scribd. Something about the satirical humor reminded me a bit of Douglas Adams, but with a more soulful, bittersweet feeling to it. There’s also this confidence and ease to the voice. At Fantasy, we get a lot of humor pieces in slush. What is the key to writing humor or satire and making it work?

I wish I knew. When I try to be funny it never works. Or when I write a sentence and sit back and am kinda pleased with it, usually what happens is that I’m told to cut it because it’s not actually as good as I thought it was. Mostly I try not to take myself too seriously.

When I do get lucky and come up with something amusing, it’s usually because it’s honest. Basically it all boils down to Homer Simpson: “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true.”

In your interview with Bomb Magazine, you said that the 2016 election was the catalyst for Interior Chinatown. What was the catalyst for The Only Living Girl on Earth?

The original impetus was an invitation to contribute to an anthology honoring the work of Ray Bradbury. I wrote a very short piece, “Earth (A Gift Shop)” that was inspired by Bradbury’s story, “There Will Come Soft Rains” but over time I found myself still thinking about the story, returning to it and adding. Which I don’t usually do, but there was something about this idea that I couldn’t get away from. Out of the blue, I got an email from Amy Grace Loyd, an editor with whom I’d worked in the past, asking if I might have something for Scribd—and this just felt like the perfect format and venue for the story.

Editing the piece last year, with everything going on in terms of the pandemic, the election, it was hard not to think about civilization and how precarious it has felt recently—especially in the past few months.

One of the things I love about this story is seeing the entire world distilled over and over again in different ways, rendered as a theme park or as a kitschy item in a gift shop. What is the subtext in this? Or: what is the conversation happening with these ideas?

Theme parks are physical manifestations of the stories we tell ourselves. Our fairy tales, our fantasies, our nostalgias, even our fears. Places where we reduce, distort, package and present our culture to ourselves. Souvenirs are our artifacts. Not the only ones we’ll leave behind, but probably the ones that will survive the longest—a thousand years from now, archaeologists will be unearthing plastic commemorative cups in their dig sites.

I get the sense from looking at some of your other interviews that one of the themes which interests you as an author is the complicity of participation, even if one is unaware of said complicity. There’s this passage in The Only Living Girl on Earth – “We are the customers, but we are also the underwriters of this entertainment.” What brings you back to this theme?

I’m always interested in our blind spots. What we take for granted. The things that are most invisible are the things I want to look at the most, because it’s in them where we hide our tacit assumptions, our beliefs.

While there’s this conversation going on around culture and the distillation of things and, I think, also some sly commentary on capitalism, this story is really centered on, or grounded by, family. It opens with the conversation between mother and daughter, beautifully capturing that combination of tension and love. I feel like a lot of Jane’s character arc, or her journey, actually happens in that last section, and really ties in with the setting. What is important to you in the depictions of family throughout this piece?

I wanted to write about home. Is it a place? A feeling? The sound of a mother’s voice, a daughter’s voice? Jane is a quarter million miles away from her mom. And yet there is still a closeness, an intimacy between them when they talk. They create that together through their conversation, this subspace channel for their minds and hearts and memories and worries.

What do you like most about the central character, Jane? What is important to know about her or her journey? Do you relate to her in any specific ways?

I like her curiosity and, I like that, despite her sarcasm, she’s an optimist. At the beginning of the story, she’s doing her job, earning a wage, restocking kitschy tourist stuff, and as the story goes on, she gains perspective and scope and history and maybe even a sense of duty or at least attachment as the steward of the remaining bit of Earth culture, however fragmentary it is.

The last section, more so perhaps than other sections, at least for me, ultimately evokes a sense of cultural disconnectedness, as well as the notion of extinction or annihilation going unnoticed. Can you talk a bit about the last section and how it relates to the earlier pieces, “Gift Shop” and “America: The Ride?”

Ooh, without spoiling it, I had this idea of living in a bubble. Of being oblivious to change, or maybe a society assuming its own competence or even permanence. It’s during times of success, of material wealth, that societies can get most complacent, insular, stagnant.

What is the heart of this story for you? What do you really want readers to know about it?

With Jane and her mom, in their conversations, and also when Jane’s alone, thinking about the shop and the merchandise in it. I’d love for people to come to the story for the fun of it, the ideas and the jokes, but for me the heart of it is Jane’s relationship with this place, her home.

What was the hardest thing about writing this one, and what was the most fun?

Getting the shape right, first within each section and then structuring the whole so it builds. The most fun was coming up with souvenir names!

Looking at your short fiction, is there a story which stands out for you as important, which you really want people to read, and why?

You mean, other than this one? Well, after they’re done reading “Only Living Girl,” I’d love for people to read “Fable” which was published in 2016 (I think it’s readable online, and also available in audio, both at The New Yorker website). I’ve had good responses from readers over the years about that story, and so if someone’s not familiar with my work, that’s probably as good a place to start as any.

What else do you have coming up which you’d like readers to know about?

I’m working on a feature adaptation of this story—it’s too early to share any details, but I’m excited about the possibilities of visualizing this world.

Thank you for your time!

Thank you for the great questions and the chance to talk about all of this!

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, where he’s been on staff since 2014. He joined the Lightspeed family in 2014 to work on the Queers Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, starting as a slush reader. He eventually worked his way up to associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He also reviews books for LocusLightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.