Charles Yu
Photo by Tina Chiou

Charles Yu: “Reality is taking notes from fiction”

Short Profile

Name: Charles Yu
DOB: 3 January 1976
Place of birth: Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation: Author

Charles Yu's book Interior Chinatown is out now via Penguin Random House.

Charles, when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a scientist, I think. That's the first thing I remember. I loved science and I had this image that I would go on to develop a pill that you could take once a day and you didn't have to eat. (Laughs) I don't know why. And then I wanted to be an astronomer. But there was a phase where I thought I would want to be a kind of hybrid between a video game character and a sort of elite fighter. This was probably based on video games where there are these really buff, impossibly good fighters. And somewhere among all this was Bruce Lee. I watched Fist of Fury and Enter The Dragon, and there was something about him that was also not quite human. He was just too cool and obviously a kind of physical genius in terms of his fighting, grace, and velocity with which he moved.

It’s interesting how culture-specific idols shape our fantasies as kids. I grew up in Romania and I remember wanting to be a gymnast like Nadia Comaneci.

I remember Nadia Comaneci, it was on the news all the time about how she got perfect 10s and she had broken all these records! Even for an Asian-American kid in LA, she was absolutely world-famous. But I think, to your point, there was something special for my brother and I growing up in southern California, where there are other Asian-Americans, but we didn't go to school with many. And on the block where we lived I didn't play with any other Asian-American kids. And there's such a lack of seeing Asian American role models in American media, especially like Bruce Lee — an action hero and an icon, really. So I remember feeling, “He's ours.” There was this special attachment to Bruce Lee and to the idea of being a kung fu fighter, and I think that felt like our own thing on some level.

“Sci-fi was a way of being transported to a different reality, or of gaining a new perspective on this reality.”

You’re best known for your sci-fi books How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and Sorry Please Thank You. When did your interests shift to science fiction?

Well, I definitely remember being in junior high when we started to read Isaac Asimov. I read his short stories and his Foundation series, which is this epic galactic-scale story in which he constructs a whole society and a whole theory of human behavior and civilization. That was my first real encounter with a multi-book series of sci-fi, that helped me gain understanding of a book as not just words on a page. It made me feel like there's a world out there that I could be transported to and I go there over and over again. But I didn't think about sci-fi until years later, after I graduated from law school, actually.

I guess your life as a corporate lawyer required more of an escape than junior high.

I wouldn't have thought of it with the term escapism back then… I mean, I think it is true that at an early age, it certainly was a way of being transported to a different reality, or of gaining a new perspective on this reality. So, yeah, I think that was the in-pull for me early on — but I think that there are many other uses and values to sci-fi that have evolved over time.

Such as?

Well, in some of my work, sci-fi works not only as a lens onto imagined realities, but also as a way to engage with this reality, or to give voice to marginalized groups. Because I think this genre-wrapper of sci-fi can allow stories to be told in ways that a straight, realist story wouldn't get to.

Like in your short story Standard Loneliness Package, where in a future world, call center employees are hired to experience grief, pain, and heartbreak for wealthy westerners who would rather avoid those feelings.

Right, as a writer I do think that it's cool to have a conceit when writing sci-fi, like, as you pointed out, in Standard Loneliness Package there's a world where you can outsource your pain to other people. To me, that's an inherently interesting idea, I wrote it over a decade ago, and it's only become more and more resonant today, now we have this big share-economy and as technology advances, there's even more possibility of that becoming closer to our reality. But I think as a writer what I get really interested in is what the sci-fi does to my sentences.

Because you have to think in a completely different way?

Exactly, if I sit down and try to write a story straight, realism, naturalism, then I think in all of the ways that I normally think, like with a habitual, day-to-day, sort of boring mind. (Laughs) But when I sit down and I put on the lens of this genre, it forces me to use different eyes and ears and tools and bring that to the actual writing. I’m interested in how it shapes my diction and my syntax in ways that are not expected.

Can the label of sci-fi also be constraining due to its perception as more “genre” than “literary”?

As a reader I think there's a huge range of what you could put under the umbrella of sci-fi and that's why to me, ultimately, especially around the edges of it, it starts to break down. So does it really matter what you called it? Or does it really mostly matter where you shelf it, or how you market it? You know, I love reading novels and going, "I don't know what to make of this. Where does this fit in the spectrum of genre, or literary versus genre?” None of that really carries a lot of weight when you're actually engaging with it. I feel like there's a huge range from super hard sci-fi all the way to something much softer, where it's a kind of one twist on this reality and you're in a speculative world. I'm a fan of things all along that spectrum.

“I had no idea what I was doing and I had no idea that I had no idea. I was just kind of stumbling blindly into the unknown.”

You recently wrote in an essay for The Atlantic: "As it turns out, science fiction can not invent anything weirder than the brute reality of the universe itself." That seems especially true these days.

And we're already starting to see the first trickle of the current crisis influencing the genre, but I don't think this is really the stuff yet. I think that anywhere from like two to five to 10 years from now, is when we'll see all the ways that this is shaping. We're still in it, but if I had to make early — most likely wrong guesses — I think there will be a kind of wave of grappling with the fact that it's hard for genres to surpass the weirdness of what we just went through, because it seems like it's almost taking notes from our fiction. But at the same time I wonder how much of that is our projection onto it, as a kind of natural impulse to make a story out of it or to attribute meaning to things.

Would you say your stories are driven by a desire to make sense of the weirdness?

Well, for instance, with my first book, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, I had no idea what I was doing and I had no idea that I had no idea. (Laughs) I was just kind of stumbling blindly into the unknown and writing something that was really personal in a lot of ways. It's a really weird book, where the time machine is powered by regret and memories — but I knew this was ultimately a family story. Whereas with Interior Chinatown, for example, which is just as personal, I both wanted to bring in some of the legal and social history together with a satire of Hollywood while trying to engage with a more public conversation about race and racial stereotypes. I didn't know if I was up for that, if I were able to kind of thread the needle and both engage serious issues, but not take itself completely too seriously.

Was writing Interior Chinatown in the format of a film script a way to put on the lens of the genre?

That's a really good way to frame it. There is actually a freedom in that, and I think you can get away with things. I think people think "Well, this is not proper literature. What am I reading now?" Even just visually on the pages, it looks so different. I hope that already puts the reader in a slightly different perspective, thinking, "Maybe I'll change my expectations about what I bring to this." And then, what I hope is that it over-delivers. That it's under-promised and it over-delivers in terms of the weight it actually carries.