Susan Choi: 2019 National Book Festival

Susan Choi: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Peter Vankevich: Wow, we’ve got a nice
little introduction here with our good friend,
Ron Charles, who’s probably the most present
of the Washington Post guys and gals that come here for
the fiction there every year. So I want to welcome you
and you’re back to back. You’ll be doing one right
after [inaudible] so. Ron writes book reviews
for the Washington Post. He said that’s enough
to say about him. So I’ll leave it
at that [laughter]. So he’s going to introduce and have a nice conversation
with Susan Choi. Welcome, both of you.>>Ron Charles: Thank you.>>Susan Choi: Thank you.>>Peter Vankevich:
Thank you very much. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: First, a word
of thanks to the Co-Chairman of the Festival,
David Rubinstein and the other generous sponsors who have made this
event possible. And if you’d like to add
your financial donations to this event, please note the
information in your program. We will have time for questions
after this conversation so I would have to remind you
that if you come to the mike and ask a question,
you will be recorded in the video that’s being
made and will be shown later. So if you’re, you’re on a
witness relocation program or something [laughter], just
stay in your seat [laughter]. Our guest today is Susan Choi. She is the author of five novels
including “American Woman,” which is the finalist
for the Pulitzer Prize. And “A Person of Interest,”
which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She is a recipient
of fellowships from the National
Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She teaches fiction
writing at Yale. And her new book is
wry and brilliant. It’s called the “Trust
Exercise.” I’m so glad you’re here.>>Susan Choi: I am
so glad to be here. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: I have
loved all your novels. They’re super smart, very witty. The “Trust Exercise” on
one level, is about a group of high school students
who revolve around the charismatic drama
teacher in an elite academy of the performing
arts in the 1980s. What is it that makes the
academic setting so attractive to you as a fiction writer? Because you’re just great at it.>>Susan Choi: Is it
attractive or is it irresistible or are those the same things? You know, a friend of mine once
said to me after my third book, “You just can’t leave the
academic setting alone, can you?” And I was sort of shamed.>>Ron Charles: You
hadn’t noticed?>>Susan Choi: I hadn’t
noticed, no [laughter]. We’re so blind to ourselves. Now, I really noticed. I sit down and think like, “Not
another student-teacher story.” You know, it’s a setting
I’ve spent a lot of time in. I’m a professor’s daughter. So I grew up in an
academic setting. I went to school like many of
us but now, I teach school too. So I’ve sort of been in academic
settings continually from birth. And I find them interesting. I keep finding them interesting.>>Ron Charles: Those teenagers
especially, this is your first, the first time you set us a
novel in high school, right.>>Susan Choi: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Those
teenagers are so tumultuous and so intense. And for most of it, it’s the
time of radical transformation, both physically and mentally. The voices in this
book seem just right. How did you get back
into that mindset?>>Susan Choi: You know, maybe
I shouldn’t say this in public. But I didn’t have to
get back [laughter]. It was, it didn’t occur to me until after the novel
was finished and people started
asking me that question that I might need to worry. But no, I found the, I found the
characters to really be there. And I didn’t ever have to think
what would a 15-year-old think or how would a 14-year-old
say that or would a 15-year-old
be in this situation? The characters just were
the characters to me. And thank God, it wasn’t
until the novel was over that I noticed that I
actually have a 15-year-old at home, my very
own and my child. My older child is now 15. The idea that my characters
and this person, my child, are the same age is like
horrifying to me [laughter]. Because I look at him
silently thinking, “You’re not like that, are you?”>>Ron Charles: Are you?>>Susan Choi: So I don’t know. The characters were there. They were just there.>>Ron Charles: You write
about teenage intimacy in a very intimate way.>>Susan Choi: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Teenage
sexuality.>>Susan Choi: Yeah [laughter].>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Susan Choi: And again, no. No, my 15-year-old
is not allowed to read my book [laughter].>>Ron Charles: All the copies
in the house are under lock and key with the alcohol.>>Susan Choi: They’re
in the basement, yeah. It’s not his thing
anyway, I don’t think.>>Ron Charles: No, but
[laughter] as you think about this, I mean, how do you
write about teenage sexuality at a moment when the characters
are just discovering it with such intensity?>>Susan Choi: You
know again, and you and I have had very funny
conversations in the past about the difficulty of
this sex scene, right? Didn’t you once call me
late at night to inform me that I’ve been nominated
for it’s like [Inaudible] Literary Tribe?>>Ron Charles: That was me. That was the Bad Sex Award
from England [laughter] which I didn’t think was fair
because that award is supposed to be for people who
write badly about sex. But not you.>>Susan Choi: Not people who
write really well about bad sex.>>Ron Charles: Which
is what you do.>>Susan Choi: That’s
what I did.>>Ron Charles: She
writes really well about bad sex [laughter]. There’s no award for that.>>Susan Choi: Just to
be clear [laughter].>>Ron Charles: That
award you should win. And you didn’t win the
Bad Sex Award anyhow.>>Susan Choi: Oh,
thank God [laughter].>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Susan Choi: It
was an honor just to be nominated as they say. [ Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: I
thought that I was the one to tell you that night too. I had forgotten that. But you wrote a lot about
sex in “My Education” too which is another
hilarious brilliant novel. But that’s at college level
though or graduate school level. But there are challenges in
writing about sex, I’m sure.>>Susan Choi: There are
definitely challenges and I think one of
the challenges for me has always been to
not, to not sugar coat it or gossify it or metaphorize
it or to not write badly, to not bring a lot of really
bad gooey prose to bear on this thing that’s very human. And so, I think in the
effort to write about sex in a way that’s straightforward
and honest, I think I’ve wound up writing scenes that sometimes
make people uncomfortable. With this book particularly, because the characters
are so young.>>Ron Charles: Young.>>Susan Choi: I think
that there are readers who have sort of, who
have sort of gone whoa. But at the same time,
I, you know, like let’s not deceive
ourselves.>>Ron Charles: No.>>Susan Choi: Like these are –>>Ron Charles: High school
kids do sometimes, I mean, I didn’t but [laughter]. High school kids do
sometimes have sex, I suppose.>>Susan Choi: It’s
been known to happen. Statistically, we have proof
that this is happening.>>Ron Charles: Drama class.>>Susan Choi: This
is not happening with my high school student,
but you know, elsewhere.>>Ron Charles: Drama class is
the perfect setting, isn’t it? It’s all about running to
manufacture authenticity.>>Susan Choi: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Which is such a
metaphor for your teenage life.>>Susan Choi: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, how can I best perform
like you know, spontaneity?>>Ron Charles: Yes, so you spend all day
trying to look casual.>>Susan Choi: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Be cool, you know. Don’t try it.>>Ron Charles: Were you
one of the drama kids?>>Susan Choi: I wasn’t one of
the, oh, I wasn’t really one of the true drama kids. I was a, I was like a fish
out of water drama kid to use like a terrible metaphor.>>Ron Charles: What
do you mean?>>Susan Choi: I was in a
drama program in high school. It was a really, it was a
really bad choice for me.>>Ron Charles: You
weren’t good?>>Susan Choi: I was terrible. I was so terrible
and I was so shy. And I was so awkward and stiff.>>Ron Charles: Why would you
make yourself do that then?>>Susan Choi: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s actually one
of the mysteries that I haven’t really
been able to solve. I can, I can penetrate
the inner motivations of characters better
than my own. I tried out for a drama
program in high school. I got in. I was miserable
from then on. And I wanted to be
a writer, you know. I would like sit in the
corner and write in notebooks. I was not made to be on stage.>>Ron Charles: It’s a perfect
capturing of the drama classes, just everything about the
pretentiousness of it, the exercises, the dialogue. I thought it was spot on.>>Susan Choi: But
also that there’s real like there is authenticity. I mean, that the students
really, really want. They want to achieve. They want to be stars. They want to get it right.>>Ron Charles: Right
and some are good.>>Susan Choi: And some
are good and some are not.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Susan Choi: But they’re
all, they’re all caught up in something that’s very,
as I recall it, it was, you know, very intense. And writing this book and then
actually revising the book, talking to other people
I’ve known who’ve, you know, even briefly sort of dabbled in
acting class, we all remember that amazing intensity.>>Ron Charles: And
vulnerability?>>Susan Choi: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Right. The charismatic manipulative
teacher is such a common influence
in many of our lives. I think your drama
teacher, Mr. Kingsley, is the best since
Miss Jean Brodie.>>Susan Choi: Oh, wow.>>Ron Charles: It’s
just, I mean, he is –>>Susan Choi: I may
cry, actually [laughter]. Thank you, Ron. That’s one of my favorite like
in my top five of all time.>>Ron Charles: He is a special
kind of person in this book. He’s a serpent of
a particular kind.>>Susan Choi: But he’s
not all, he’s not all bad.>>Ron Charles: No.>>Susan Choi: That’s the thing. I mean, you, I wanted readers to
understand why it would matter so much to have his approval.>>Ron Charles: The kids,
that’s who want his approval?>>Susan Choi: Yeah and
the reader needs to, needs to empathize with that. He can’t be this
two-dimensional villain. That’s not interesting. That makes the, that makes
the students seem dumb. And they’re not dumb.>>Ron Charles: No,
they’re not dumb. And he’s so complex
and so witty himself. Was there someone like
this in your own life?>>Susan Choi: I’ve
had so many teachers who have had elements
of that charisma.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Susan Choi: That
sophistication, I mean, I have other characters, as
you know, who also, you know, fulfill these characteristics
and yeah, I’ve had many teachers. Many teachers who were
dazzling in all of the good ways and in some of the bad ways.>>Ron Charles: And
that changes over time. You look back at some of
those teachers and you think, “Why was I so in love with her?”>>Susan Choi: Why
was I so dazzled?>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Susan Choi: Yeah, yeah. It’s a certain kind of person.>>Ron Charles: Other people
you realize you didn’t appreciate enough.>>Susan Choi: Exactly. Again, it’s like a force
of personality thing. There are some teachers
out there who do amazing work
very quietly.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Susan Choi: And you don’t
realize until years later why that person changed me.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Susan Choi: There are others
who there’s a lot of fireworks. You’re dazzled and then
later, you think, “Oh my God.”>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Susan Choi: You know.>>Ron Charles: Yeah, this is
the first time ever people have come by my office,
several people and said, “I loved that novel. What happened?” [ Laughter ] I mean, much of the pleasure
of this novel and we’re going to be very careful in
our discussions today to not give anything away. But much of the pleasure
of this novel comes in the sudden bewildering twists
that happened twice in the book. Would it be fair to say
that this is a novel about how we construct what we
know and what we think happened?>>Susan Choi: Yeah. I think that’s fair. I think it would be fair
to say that it’s a novel about how we tell our story
and who else may be trying to tell our story
since our story, our stories usually entangle
with somebody else’s. Usually, a lot of
somebody else’s. So that’s question of like
who’s telling the story and who’s getting it right
or wrong, in whose opinion. You know, people
remember the same event. People who have experienced
the same thing.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Susan Choi: Will
remember it very differently.>>Ron Charles: We’re used
to that sort of conundrum. But what you do in this
book is constructed in such a complex way. I’m wondering how you
did that physically. Did you have the whole
thing planned out? And you understood
where these twists and turns would take place?>>Susan Choi: God, no, no. And I [inaudible]. I had nothing planned out. I’m not a planner which
is, which is the fun of it. I’ve never successfully
planned anything I’ve written. I go slowly.>>Ron Charles: But
how can that be? I mean, the first part of
the novel is so complete and so compelling and then we
turn a page and everything seems to up and revolutionized.>>Susan Choi: Yeah, that’s
kind of what happened. I was writing this book. I didn’t really, I
didn’t really have, right, I definitely didn’t have a
plan because I, as I said, I tend not to make plans.>>Ron Charles: Go ahead.>>Susan Choi: But I didn’t,
I mean, so really the only, I have to say Ron, it’s like
the only department of my life in which I don’t make plans. I’m a big planner.>>Ron Charles: Generally.>>Susan Choi: In general.>>Ron Charles: Okay.>>Susan Choi: Vacations,
you know, all that stuff. But in my writing, I tend
not to plan because it, I’m never successful so
I’ve given up trying. And with this book, I
had a different project that I’ve been working
on for years. Years. If I ever actually try to plan any project,
it was that one.>>Ron Charles: This
other project?>>Susan Choi: It’s
another project.>>Ron Charles: Never published?>>Susan Choi: As of yet, no. And who knows if it
will ever see the light of day requiring all this
research and thinking and talking to people. So there was some
planning involved there. And it was going so badly, this
project, that I would play hooky from it and go work on
something else just for fun and that was what turned into
“Trust Exercise” eventually. But for a really long time,
it was just the writing that I was cheating on my
other writing with [laughter]. So I would sneak off and hide
from my failed planned book with this other thing. And so I didn’t, I, you know, we
had no long-term plans together because like we weren’t
supposed to be doing this. I was supposed to be
writing the other book.>>Ron Charles: It’s
just a fling.>>Susan Choi: It
was just a fling. And I really, I really
think that ultimately, that was what made the book work
was that I didn’t have a lot of premeditation about it. I would sneak off with it
for these flings every once in a while and I’d
put it down for like seven to 10 months a year. And give it no thought.>>Ron Charles: Well, I mean,
this isn’t going to be fair, but do you know what
happened [laughter]?>>Susan Choi: You’re in danger of making the book
sound confusing.>>Ron Charles: It’s
not confusing. It’s confounding. Do you know what
happened, really? Or is that the point
that we cannot know.>>Susan Choi: No, I do know.>>Ron Charles: You do know. Will you tell me later? [ Laughter ] Your title, I’ll move on. Your title, the “Trust Exercise”
refer to an exercise you do in drama class with Mr.
Kingsley with the students. But it has a larger meaning
in this context, right, about how we trust one another in relationships
and friendships. Can you talk about that? Trust as an exercise?>>Susan Choi: Trust as
an exercise in this book?>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Susan Choi: Well, I mean, I
think the main thing that comes out of the first section
of the book is on, oh no. I’m in danger of
giving things away.>>Ron Charles: It’s okay so
everything about the first part.>>Susan Choi: You know,
the thing about this book is that I wanted the reader
to kind of relax and open up into this complicated world
of emotion and first love and sexual obsession and all
of these juicy, human things. But then, this question
arises and the question is, is this really the way it
went down with these people? Or is it possible that the
person that we’ve been trusting to tell us what happened
has something to hide? And so, I think that’s where
trust comes into the book first and foremost is, is
you suddenly realize that storytelling always
has an agenda, right? I mean, even stories
that present themselves as being objective
have an agenda.>>Ron Charles: History, yes.>>Susan Choi: You know,
we know that history is, history is written
by people, right. It doesn’t just come down from like some mountain
carved on stone slabs. There’s always an agenda. So I think the question
of like who do we trust to tell our story is one of
the things that I was trying to get at with the book.>>Ron Charles: And this
book makes us a participant in that process which I
think is really unique and special about this book.>>Susan Choi: Well,
because you have sort of decide who you trust.>>Ron Charles: Exactly, yeah.>>Susan Choi: And there
are some competing, there’s some different folks
competing for your trust.>>Ron Charles: Right, right. I think that was just
really a fascinating process to go through. This novel takes
place in the ’80s, decades before the
Me Too movement but definitely it seems very
contemporary, very relevant to what we’re going through
now because it involves issues of sexual harassment or
taking advantage of people. About the complicated
exploration of our discussion of sexual harassment and the way
predators exploit particularly young women. How have you been talking
to people about that? And I’m sure people
must have asked, women must have asked
you about that issue. How does it make you
think about that?>>Susan Choi: Well, I mean,
one of the things that was so extraordinary about this
book was the timing of it but then also I always,
you know, because people say
like, “Oh, gosh. The book seems like it’s
about the Me Too movement. What amazing timing.” But on the other hand, I always
sort of want to make the point that the Me Too movement is
just a moment in the history of sexual harassment and sexual
misconduct which has been going on probably since,
since there were people.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Susan Choi: And
so, these issues that the book is exploring,
the book is set in the ’80s. These issues predate
the setting of the book. They predate Me Too. But the ways in which
as a culture, we’ve started thinking
more, I mean, I don’t know what adverb
I want to use here. It’s always a problem
in writing adverbs. So I think I’m not going
to use an adverb actually which is like my little rule. If you’re not sure, just don’t
use an adverb at all [laughter]. We’ve been trying to think
more about all of these issues. And I think, when I was working
on this book and as I said to you, like not really
planning or thinking about it, it’s not true that I
wasn’t taking in stuff that was happening in
the larger culture. And there have been so
many, so many reassessments of especially educational
situations that we’ve been reading
about for years and years and years now. The Horace Mann School is
one really good example from you know, my
neck of the woods. I live in New York where
students from the ’80s who, you know, in many cases,
never said anything until they were adults or
parents themselves and then, finally, you know, decades later
were able to say this situation that I was in educationally
wasn’t right. It wasn’t right that I
was never really able to speak about that until now. And so I was, I was thinking a
lot about this and reading a lot about this and thinking
a lot about the ways in which our cultural norms
have changed over just like the handful
of decades since. I mean, I’m not that
old, you know. And the ’80s were a really,
really different time. We as students, I think,
accepted certain behaviors that I would never
accept such things that were happening
in my child’s school. But it was, so it’s
remarkable the evolution. I think we’ve evolved a really
long way in a really short time. But it’s also remarkable
how long it took. Like why did it take so long
for us to sit back and go, “You know, wait a minute. Like the way in which this
teacher is interacting with these very young students, there’s something
fishy about this. It just doesn’t seem right.”>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Susan Choi: You know, so and
we’re still dealing with it.>>Ron Charles: Right. Colson Whitehead’s book, the
“Nickel Boys” made me think that what took so long? Why and people, and you go back and you see people
were reporting on this school throughout
the whole period of its life over and over again. The scandal would be revealed and then the outrage would
just sort of dissipate and the school went on.>>Susan Choi: Yeah, yeah. But we could say that about so
many things, what took so long? And we’ll keep saying it.>>Ron Charles: These women
are not helpless in this book. They’re not –>>Susan Choi: No. They’re not helpless
but it’s complicated. It’s complicated for them. I mean, one of the
characters in this book is as a young woman involved in
a very damaging relationship with a man who is much
older than she is. She’s a minor. You know, she’s 16 years old when she becomes
entangled with this man. This man is much older. He’s in a position
of trust, as we say. He’s a teacher.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Susan Choi: And she
really struggles as an adult with the question
of her own agency. You know, to what extent was
she an agent in this situation and what she’s unable
to see even as an adult, this character is the degree
to which she was powerless. Yes, she wasn’t helpless
but she was, she was a 16-year-old student
and this was a teacher invested with all of the authority that
a teacher is invested with. So even if she might have
fought at 16, oh, you know, I liked his attention. You know, what culture is it that tells a 16-year-old girl
one of the straightest paths to achievement and significance
for you, 16-year-old girl is to capture the attention
of an older man. That’s a cultural message.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Susan Choi: You know and
if a 16-year-old girl hears that message and falls prey to
it, and later, when she’s 30, looks back and thinks
that was my fault, she’s still not really
seeing the big picture.>>Ron Charles: Right. The novel, this novel explores
that in the most interesting and provocative and
thoughtful way.>>Susan Choi: Thank you.>>Ron Charles: Would
you be willing to take some questions
from the audience?>>Susan Choi: Of course.>>Ron Charles: Can we please
ask the questions, not spoil any of the twists or
suspense in the plot? There are people here who
would like to read the book and have that surprise.>>Susan Choi: That’s
a tall order.>>Ron Charles: I know
it is a tall order so I’ve asked you to
police yourselves. Also, we are completely –>>Susan Choi: We can’t see you.>>Ron Charles: Not
at all [laughter]. It’s completely black out there. The lights are so bright. So wave your hands around
and Susan would point to you and take your questions.>>Susan Choi: Oh,
I see him waving. Yes.>>Hi, how are you doing? Ron, you’re the best [laughter]. Susan, thank you very much. This is a great book. So I’m kind of sorry to
ask you this question. But there are some similarities
in structure, it felt to me, to Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry?” Not in the, not in the plot
or anything along those lines. So like just in the, in
the structure of that and I’m wondering when someone
else, another writer comes out with a book that
has, that has some of the structure you’re using
while you are still writing it or whatnot, do you just kind
of go, “Damn, that sucks,” or what, it’s interesting.>>Susan Choi: I mean,
luckily, I didn’t, you know, in the case of this book, no. I wasn’t, I was pretty
fortressed while I was working on this book from sort of
what might have been going on elsewhere in publishing. And I didn’t, I didn’t really
worry even after I knew about “Asymmetry” and knew
about like the, I think, structural similarities. The books still seem
to be pretty different. I mean, going back deeper
in my career, I did, I di have like a complete
meltdown the year that two books about the Patty Hearst
kidnapping. Two great, two great novels about the Patty Hearst
kidnapping and not both of them written by me. They came out very,
very close together. Mine and Christopher
Sorrentino’s great book, “Trance” and I did at the time, feel like the world
had come to an end. But it hadn’t. The world has room for both. So it was okay. Thank you.>>Ron Charles: You really
do need to wave your hand. We can’t see you.>>Susan Choi: I’m not sure if
we have another question as yet. So ->>Back here please
to the microphone.>>Ron Charles: I think
there’s someone there though.>>I’ll just make a way. She’s making a way over.>>Susan Choi: Okay.>>Ron Charles: All right.>>Susan Choi: Why don’t we ask
each other questions while we wait for a question [laughter].>>Here she is.>>Hello, thank you.>>Susan Choi: Hi.>>I’ve a question about
like your narrative process? Earlier on, you were discussing
how you prefer not to plan when you’re writing and
just to go spontaneously? So how would you describe your
process of creating characters and worlds and tying
them together when you’re first trying to create a new narrative
novel or book?>>Susan Choi: Because
I don’t plan [laughter]. So just to make sure I
understand the question. It was a question about sort
of how I build narrative given that I don’t kind of
engage in like outlining or other sort of pre-writing. That’s a great question. And I think the answer is
that a lot of, a lot of that for me happens in the writing. As strange as that
sounds, I write a lot. By which I mean, I sit down and
generate prose as much as I can. I always tell my students
whenever I get them at the beginning of a
semester, that I want them to write every day because
that’s kind of an ideal that I try to fulfill. I fail most days. But when I am kind of
in active writing mode, which is usually like, you know,
as [inaudible] second manage it, I sit down and try to
fill a page with writing. And I don’t really
think a lot about what that writing is going
to be about. I have written thousands
upon thousands of pages of just stuff waiting
for something that will seize my attention
and compel me to build on it. And what seizes my attention
is almost always a situation between characters who feel to
me as if they have the spark of life in them, to be honest. I mean, I’ve written lots and
lots of prose about places and things and conversations. Just all sorts of stuff that
is description that every once in a while, as I’m
generating my daily writing, a situation emerges. And it’s a situation
that has tension in it. It usually has all those things
your writing teacher taught you to try to infuse your stories
with in high school conflict. The thing with me is that I
find it really hard to sit down and invent a conflict, to
sit down and invent tension. It’s really hard to
sit down and say, “I’m going to write a
story today about people in enormous conflict.” You know, that’s a great way
to just have writer’s block for the rest of the day
like what do you do? So I just try to write stuff. I have a lot of generative
tricks that I use. You know, I often just start
describing something that I saw and allow the associative
process to carry me wherever it will. With “Trust Exercise,”
I, as I said, was escaping a difficult project
that was just not yielding to all my efforts and I sat
down one day and thought, “I’m just going to write
something really short today.” And the first sentence that I
wrote was “Neither could drive.” And oh, who are they? And immediately I knew, I
thought these are teenaged kids. They’re in love. And they want to get together but nobody has a
driver’s license. There’s no public transit. What will they do? So that was, that was a moment in which the sentence
started spooling out conflict and desire, problems
that I wanted to solve. And it ended up being the
first sentence of this book. The rest of your question,
I think can only be answered by really sort of specific
and not general statements. You know, once I
have that situation, I just try to pursue
it as far as I can. And I build on it.>>Thanks.>>Susan Choi: Thank you.>>There’s another question.>>Susan Choi: Yeah.>>Hi.>>Susan Choi: Hi.>>So you touched on this a lot. But what do you think is
so fraught about that sort of student-teacher
relationship where both like why is the teacher so
interested in the student and maybe not only in predatory
ways and then what sort of drives there for that student
also not inherently predatory or generally?>>Susan Choi: Yeah,
that’s a great question. Wow, I feel like I could
answer that in another book.>>Ron Charles: No [laughter].>>Susan Choi: You know,
that I mean, as someone who, so I’ve been teaching
now at the high school and the college level
for about half my life. And it only gets
more interesting. I have to say that the
struggle and the drama of trying to teach is, is just
bottomlessly fascinating. It never, it never gets simpler and I think there are
a lot of reasons why. I think one reason
has to do with power and how confusing it is to think
about and to talk about power in a pedagogical situation because in a pedagogical
situation, you want on the one hand,
a feeling of equality and colleagueship between
yourself and your student. I always want to treat
my students as equals. I learn a lot from my
students, possibly more than they learn from me. It depends on the year. And so there is this dream
of or an idea of equality that I think is incredibly
important. But at the same time, it’s not
an equal relationship at all. The student is not
the teacher’s equal. There is a power in balance
between those two halves and so that contradiction alone, I
think leads the way to a lot of the really complicated
and thorny issues in the student-teacher
relationship. And it’s very similar, I
think, in a lot of ways to the parent-child
relationship especially now that I’m a parent. And you know, find myself in
struggles with my children that aren’t so dissimilar to
struggles with my students where I both want to be,
I want my children to feel that they’re my equal,
that I’m their ally. That they can always come to me. And at the same time,
there’s still in an authority relationship
there, right? They’re still my child. So I think that, I think
that that contradiction between the equality that
we want and that imbalance of authority, I think that
that’s for me at the heart of why the teacher-student
relationship is so complex. And then I just think
that also learning in our country is an
incredibly endangered activity. And –>>Ron Charles: Endangered
by what?>>Susan Choi: Well,
so many things. I mean, I don’t want
to go too far off into the political realm here, in the nation’s capital
but [laughter].>>Ron Charles: You’re among
friends, I bet [laughter].>>Susan Choi: Well, I mean,
you know, just to put it simply, like teachers are really
stressed at like every level of teaching in our country. I think teachers are
really, really stressed. And they’re not receiving
the respect and the support that they deserve
institutionally or culturally. And so their job gets harder as what they do gets
more and more important. I mean, how many things
that are happening in our culture right now
do we think might be due to the failures of our
educational system. [Applause] A lot. Like I think we could trace our
biggest crises and I’m not going to name them but I would say that one I would
say is environmental and one I would say
is governmental. I would say that we could
trace these crises to failures in our educational system to a
populace that isn’t as educated as it should be or could be. Everyone deserves to be
educated and you know, students aren’t getting
education and teachers aren’t getting
support and providing it. And so I think that
that’s leading to a lot of tension also. I think teachers are stressed. Students are stressed. Teachers and students are
stressed out [laughter].>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Susan Choi: I don’t
even think that begins to answer your question
but thank you for asking it [laughter].>>Thank you.>>Ron Charles: We have
another question here.>>When you set something
in a particular time period, in this case, it was the ’80s. Do you intentionally think
about whether you want to include some historical
things that were going on to make that time
period come alive? Or do you try to leave that out to make it more universal
for every time?>>Ron Charles: No, [inaudible].>>Susan Choi: That’s a
really great question. You know, in the, in the
case of “Trust Exercise,” I didn’t want to, I
didn’t ever want to hammer on it’s the ’80s, you know. I didn’t want to, I didn’t
want to mention parachute pants or [laughter] you know,
[Inaudible] or any of the other great things
about the ’80s that I loved. But it was important
that it was the ’80s. So I think that just
from a craft perspective, what I always wanted to try
to do if I’m writing something that is set in the time
period other than the present, is to try to have that time
period really organically, just in every, in every fiber
of the story without having to like stick little
flags in the story that say, “It’s the ’80s.” You know, without having
to like have Ronald Reagan on TV giving a State
of the Union address. I want the world to be
the world as it was then and so, how do I do that? It depends on what the
concerns of the story are. And with “Trust Exercise,”
what it really was about was, what was this whole question of
the teacher-student relationship and how different that
was several decades ago. How differentially
though of that was. All of the aspects of it that weren’t really
thought a lot about.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Susan Choi: And so, and that
was the way in which to me, it was the ’80s, if that makes
sense that these cultural and social norms and
mores were different. But I didn’t, I didn’t want
to get hung up on you know, people’s musical
tastes or their hair. Although one of the
characters does in a way that I found poignantly ’80s,
sorry, she does try to go punk. You know, like years too
late because like punk had that highly delayed arrival
in the American suburbs. And so it was like,
you know, many, many years after
the Sex Pistols, she’s like got a
punk t-shirt on. But for the most part,
I try to do time periods through just what, what it was
socially and culturally like at that time, if that’s
relevant to the story.>>Ron Charles: You
have written several that like I call
historical novels but they’re definitely based on
particular historical events. Do you find that structure,
was it more freeing not to have that, to just
invent everything? Or do you find you like that
kind of to base the story on some historical
event that we all know, Patty Hearst or the Unabomber?>>Susan Choi: Yeah, yeah. I mean, in the cases of both of
those novels, it wasn’t so much that I wanted the structure as
I became so incredibly obsessed with the historical
event that the only way that I could really get over it
was to explore it fictionally. Because you know, fiction gives
you the opportunity to try to figure out what all that
stuff that doesn’t make it into the paper might have been.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Susan Choi: Right, which
isn’t to knock journalism at all but journalism doesn’t
necessarily tell you how everybody felt.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Susan Choi: And that was the
thing that was fascinating to me about the Patty Hearst
kidnapping. How did it feel, you know,
for those very, very, very young people
to do what they did? So I think that it’s
more that I get obsessed with the real historical event and fiction is the way
that I work that out.>>Ron Charles: Fascinating. Anyone else?>>Susan Choi: I see a sign
that says five minutes. Thank you [laughter].>>Ron Charles: What
are you working on now? This other project that
has dragged on and on?>>Susan Choi: Yeah, so the
other project that’s dragged on and on, I literally
drag it around now. I manage to, I have the sort of like obsessive-compulsive
disorder with disorder. I couldn’t stand how disordered
this project was so I decided that it all had to fit into a, do people know the
Container Store? Are people fans of
the Container Store?>>Ron Charles: Yes, I do.>>Susan Choi: Because I really
love the Container Store. And they make these clear
plastic shoe boxes with a lid. So this is the best box for a manuscript
that’s ever been made. It’s made for like a men’s shoe
but it’s a great manuscript box. You can enclose the manuscript. You can still see it [laughter]. And it can still
see you [laughter]. But it’s become a discreet
object and in a way, it feels like you’ve taken
care of it [laughter]. So that’s where that
project is now. It’s in a Container
Store shoe box. And I took it with me on
all my travels this summer. And I never opened
it [laughter].>>Ron Charles: Oh!>>Susan Choi: Never
opened the shoe box.>>Ron Charles: That’s so nice. Yeah, that’s nice. It’s just, it’s the first time
I’ve had a chance to meet you. It’s been such a pleasure. I think you’re such
a brilliant novelist.>>Susan Choi: It’s such
a pleasure to meet you.>>Ron Charles: And
please go buy this book, if you haven’t already read it. If you have read it, buy a
copy for a friend [laughter].>>Susan Choi: Or five. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: And once you
buy your copy, you can get Susan to sign it at 4:30
at the signing table.>>Susan Choi: Yes,
that’s right.>>Ron Charles: Right,
thanks so much.>>Susan Choi: Thank you.>>Ron Charles: Thank
you very much. It was great fun for me.

local_offerevent_note November 7, 2019

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