Suspend Your Disbelief

Time as a Malleable Material: Part Two of a Conversation with Charles Yu

"I read all over the spectrum. And I honestly wish I could write a realist story."

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Time as a Malleable Material: Part Two of a Conversation with Charles Yu

From the Archives: In part two of Shawn Andrew Mitchell's interview with Charles Yu, the two writers continue their conversation.

Editor’s Note: For the first several months of 2022, we’ll be celebrating some of our favorite work from the last fourteen years in a series of “From the Archives” posts.

In today’s feature, part two of a two-part interview, Shawn Andrew Mitchell and Charles Yu discuss the management of time in and out of fiction, realism, and human-to-robot consciousness transfer. This interview was originally published on May 8, 2013.

If you could farm out the experience of having just clicked over to Fiction Writers Review while sitting at your desk sorting through paperwork or copy or spreadsheets, or trying to forget the old man who just coughed up spittle on you on the subway, or blocking the memory of the person who just broke up with you via text, or contemplating your receding hairline while mourning the loss of your grandmother, would you do it?

Charles Yu’s most recent collection of fiction, Sorry Please Thank You, traffics in these kinds of questions, plopping intelligent and often humorous narrators into situations that could easily come off as whimsical or zany if they weren’t handled so deftly. His characters again and again find themselves in worlds beset by technologies and afflictions they never anticipated and certainly don’t understand, and they want to make sense of things, giving language to their experiences in prose styles that both reflect and create their realities. It’s a tall order for any writer to fill, but Yu does it with aplomb while still managing to churn out direct, funny, heartfelt and frequently lyric sentences. It’s good fun to watch his characters feel their way around in the dark.

Yu’s previous books include the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon, 2010), which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine; as well as the story collection Third Class Superhero (Mariner Books, 2006), for which he was the recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Five Under Thirty-Five Award and a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His work has been published in The New York Times, Playboy, Slate, and elsewhere.

Recently he took time out of balancing his work, family life, and the incessant demands of the advanced computer we carry in our pants in order to talk about reading, writing, philosophy, the management of time in and out of fiction, and human-to-robot consciousness transfer—all via the virtual conversation interface we call Skype. I beamed onto his phone from the future of a quiet Sunday morning in South Korea. For him it was a quiet Saturday evening in Los Angeles.


Shawn Andrew Mitchell: A lot of your fiction plays around with time. Not just in a time stamp way, though some of them are set in the future or have time stamps or references to The United States of China. How do you think about time as you’re working on your fiction?

Charles Yu: A story is most interesting to me as I’m writing it if I’m doing something strange with the time signature. I find that I’m the most dead and my writing is the most lifeless when I’m telling a story in a relatively conventional, chronological way. I think that in some ways a novelist’s raw material is time itself. What you do with it, how you compress some events or skip over them or take parts of the past and stretch them out so that they touch the future. I’m imagining a kind of malleable material. That’s what we’re messing around with most often.

And maybe I’m just speaking for myself as a reader, but that’s what I’m most drawn to. I don’t even think that’s necessarily a genre or sci-fi thing. I just read Alice Munro’s latest collection, Dear Life, which I thought was brilliant, and she’s incredible at that—she can jump within a sentence or two back into some character’s distant past. She’s a master of this swirling kind of non-linear way that your mind lives through time. And that’s what I think Nicholson Baker does too. He does it in The Fermata the most explicitly, since it’s about this guy who can stop time. But he does it in his other books too, where there’s this kind of special quality to the passage of time that’s very strange.

Is it an intuitive thing for you when you’re writing, figuring out how to carve up time and shape it, or do you start with some kind of external framework in mind?

Probably more the former. It’s intuitive in that I want to stumble on it, and I don’t know if I’ve done it many times. There’s a story in my first collection called “Florence,” about a guy who’s all alone on a planet and his job is to watch a shark who just swims around all day. It’s on a time scale that’s very long. And the planet’s very distant. He only gets visited once every X number of decades, and it’s the person who’s dropping off food for the shark. That story was playing with large time scales, but in a very overt way, same as the novel. I want to be able to do that intuitively. My goal is to have that Munrovian gift of being able to fool around with time, which I’m sure is just part of what writing is to her. A lot of the writers I love, even just within straight realism, are so good at jumping back and forth between memory and the present. I don’t think I have any kind of grasp on that. I have to really think about it and then try to do stuff and it doesn’t always work.

Sometimes you talk directly about time and realism in your fiction. There’s one story, titled “Realism,” in which the narrator keeps asking himself how time would work in a universe like his, and feeling like Realism just doesn’t quite capture it correctly. It’s almost always a slightly high school-ish error to associate a narrator with the author too directly, but that narrator seems pretty ambivalent about realism, and it doesn’t sound like you are.

No, not at all. I think that’s probably more a function of me not being fully in control of what the tone is of that story, because someone else pointed that out a few years ago and I realized it maybe seems like  an attack on realism, and I would be the last person to want to do that. I’m not sure what an attack on realism would be for anyway. There’s so many other things to attack. I definitely read and enjoy what I guess you would call realism. Alice Munro, for instance, or Philip Roth. I read all over the spectrum. And I honestly wish I could write a realist story. Not to say I don’t like what I do write, but every time I sit down what I’m really trying to do is write something that wouldn’t have to have any kind of device or wacky premise. I always want to write something that feels like it could stand on its own. For whatever reason, sometimes it just gets going faster once I have a hook or some fun idea. But if I could write an Alice Munro story, I would, I’d do it all day long. I’d do it over and over.

So you tend to start with a fun premise-y sort of situation whenever you’re getting rolling?

It comes all over the map. Sometimes you just hear the first line, and it seems like you should see where that goes. And sometimes it dies and sometimes it keeps going, and then other times it is an idea. I find it’s best when it’s an actual sentence, not an idea. My sentence-driven, language-driven stories are better than my premise-driven stories, just as a general rule.

Better how? And which stories do you consider language-driven vs. which do you consider premise-driven?

Maybe that’s too simplistic. I should refine that to say that I usually start with a premise or a piece of language, and if it is the former, I need to make sure that I also find the necessary language to flesh out that premise. If I don’t, when I don’t, I find myself doing a bit too much of what I think of as bricklaying, laboriously stacking sentences and paragraphs, just filling space. When I realize it, I stop myself, revise, throw things out, start over, all of the above. Sometimes I don’t realize it until after the story is done, though. I’m not going to pick on any of my stories, though. It wouldn’t be fair—I’m the one who did that to them.

You talked about your brother being a big intellectual influence on you. Do you share your fiction with him?

No, not beforehand. I don’t actually show it to anybody except my editor and my agent. If I submitted a story now, I’m not sure I’d send it to anyone; I might just send it to the magazine. But for the novel my editor and agent were the only two people who read it before it came out.

I’m like the anti-sharer. I talk about things with friends and my brother, and I love talking about ideas and about stories specifically, and people’s work if they’re working on something, but I can’t show anyone anything ever. It kills me. I’m weird. If I’m in a Starbucks, I have to turn my screen away or put my coffee next to me. I don’t even want the possibility of somebody looking at the screen. It’s pathological.

So I won’t talk about it. Not even with my brother, and he’s probably the guy who I talk most with about writing. But I certainly wouldn’t talk about it with friends, until it’s actually happening, because it stifles it. I go back to it and I think I killed it. Something happens.

What do you tell people when they ask you what you’re working on?

I’ll say, “It’s early going.” Or, if they know enough and ask if it’s another science fiction story, I’ll say, “Yeah, not really. I guess it’s sort of speculative.” I’m as vague as possible.

That’s usually what I do, too. I give something vague and non-committal, or I’ll just say I don’t like to talk about what I’m working on. But if you say that, they’ll reply with “Oh, you’re going to be that guy?” But it really does seem to kill it if I share, so I have to be “that guy.”

You should just say it’s a zombie spy novel about vampire hunters.

That is what I say sometimes. Or sometimes I tell them I write something like Literary Sci-Fi Horror Smut Comedy, and they just think I’m an asshole and they don’t ask anymore questions. Although that is kind of accurate.

This is probably only a certain subset of the population, but if you said that it would make me want to read it right away. Have you read Grace Kilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps?

Yes, I have. Did you like it?

I did. I thought it was great. The reason I bring it up is that I feel like that book could have five or six adjectives or genres smashed together, which kind of goes full circle to the Sapir-Whorf thing. I’ve experienced that a little bit with my own book often being shelved in Science Fiction. It’s interesting to see how categories define things. But how do you categorize any book? Let alone something like Kilanovich’s? There are a lot of books like that. Where do they go?

You just shelve her in general literary fiction and hope somebody finds her, I think. I assume you have to talk about this sometimes. It doesn’t sound like you categorize yourself as Literary or Sci-Fi, do you?

No. I don’t. I don’t think it’d be proper to call me a science fiction writer. I don’t know that any science fiction readers would go, “Yeah, that’s a science fiction writer.” Literary fiction is a little too amorphous, though. It’s kind of a catchall. It’s negatively defined. I wish there were a way to be shelved in both. Though you don’t actually think, “Oh, there’s my favorite literary fiction writer,” right? You think of favorite writers, period.

Let’s go back to when you started writing—at least your shift from poetry to fiction. You said it was when you were in law school. Do you have any theories about why you started then?

I think I have a two-part, fairly concise answer. One, I realized I was entering into this career where I was not going to have much time or space for any kind of expression. It was going to be a pressure cooker of a job. So in some ways I was drawn toward finding some kind of medium of expression that I could have privately. It would be one thing if I were a filmmaker or musician—you need time and space to do that. But you can sort of write fiction in your head, in bits and pieces. It’s almost the most portable thing you can do. So it was a survivalist thing.

And the second part of it is probably more practical. I started reading a bunch of really great fiction. I just hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing for years in law school. I read David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers. Donald Antrim I read, and George Saunders and again Nicholson Baker. I was going back to read some of the guys I read in college, like Richard Powers and Don DeLillo. I feel like there was a bunch of years in the late 90’s where there was a lot of good fiction, which is probably always true, but maybe it’s just that there were a lot of years when I was not paying attention. And now I was also old enough to say, “OK, there’s no more school, I need to find the stuff that I really want to read for myself, for the rest of my life. I have to make my own syllabus now.” For the first time I did that upon graduating from law school, and that made me go, “I want to write this, I want to write fiction too.”

This next one is kind of a broad question, but it’s something I’ve noticed in a lot of current fiction, including yours. There’s a quote in your story “Troubleshooting” that has to do with it: “You started life crying. Learned to talk so you could communicate your wants more effectively.” It’s a sentiment that I agree with, or that I want to agree with because it sounds good, but I’m not sure about it. Because we say a lot of fiction is drawn toward tragedy or the loser or the complaint, but we could just as easily say that soon after crying we started giggling and laughing. Yet it always seems like we’re drawn to dysfunction and the sadness of things. A lot of your characters are, I wouldn’t want to say “losers,” but they’re stuck in situations where they’re doing things like waiting for the guy to bring the shark food or for a woman to love them. Why do you think that fiction’s formula seems to be Human = Weak? Why are we so drawn to that kind of corollary? I’m not sure exactly what the question is, but…

Charles Yu (Photo by Tina Chiou)

I’m not sure either except that I know that if I could answer it, I would probably have finished my next novel. It’s a fundamental question. In fiction that’s really engaging, that people go to for a kind of nourishment, or challenge, or something more than just pure entertainment or escape, in that kind of fiction, is there a slight, or maybe not so slight, balance toward the negative, toward the depressive or melancholy, toward the brokenness or flawedness of people versus aspects of people and their lives that are more fun? Because I’ve had people ask, “Why is everyone always such a loser in your stories, or so sad? Are you a sad person?” Putting aside that question, people might be a little surprised to find out I’m actually pretty positive, and I’m happy. I haven’t had a lot of real dysfunction or pain, so why would I choose to write about it? I wish I knew the answer. If I had to venture a guess it might be something like, not so much the every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way thing, but for me broken people are inherently more interesting. It probably has something to do with how, in the end, it’s all broken. That sounds really bleak, but ultimately everything’s finite and everything’s coming to an end, and that’s what the big baseline is. So to get in touch with anything fundamental, it’s going to eventually get to something broken or flawed inside of the characters.

Speaking of broken, here’s the last question: If you could transfer your consciousness to a fresh young immortal robot body at the time of your death, or at any point during your life such as at a mid-life crisis or at retirement, would you do it?

Wow. No, I wouldn’t.

Why not?

I think I want to die, and I think I want to die in my meat body, not in any other kind of way. I’m not sure I want consciousness to go on. When I was a kid, and even through adolescence, I was so afraid of death—my own death, my parents’ death. And, I don’t know, maybe it’s different now that I have my own kids, or maybe I’m just getting older, but I think, “I don’t need this to go on forever.” I’ll be good at some point. I’ll come to peace with it, maybe I’ll find some kind of higher answer, but even without it, I don’t want to go on forever.

So you’ll pass on the eternal robot option?

I think I would, yeah. I think I would.

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