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10 Questions for Charles Yu

“Dear Applicant,

We appreciate your interest in our supergroup and the time you’ve invested in applying for the Associate Hero opening.
While we acknowledge that your abilities as 'The Outsider' (i.e., heightened powers of perception, an ability to subtly blend in with your surroundings) could be assets to our organization, at the current time our invisibility needs have been met.
On behalf of everyone here, thank you for your interest in our organization. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

—from “RE: Your Recent Application to Our Group”, Winter 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 4)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
One of the first things I finished was a short story titled “Problems For Self-Study,” which is a love story told as a series of physics problems. I wanted to tell a story about how two people fell for each other, but put some kind of twist on it. I remember I had my college physics textbook lying on the floor of my apartment (why? I have no idea—I’d been out of college for a few years by that point and had certainly not used any physics since then). The idea occurred to me—bodies in motion, problems and solutions, people traveling on trains. It was romantic and the kind of feeling of trajectories that I was searching for, as well as a vocabulary that I could use to wrap the love story in. It ended up being published (after a lot of editing) in Harvard Review, which was thrilling and unexpected for me.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now.
Donald Barthelme’s use of different forms was eye-opening for me. I loved the way Richard Powers combined science and emotion in his novel Galatea 2.2. Also, Jonathan Lethem’s novel, As She Climed Across the Table for its central metaphor and how it was the basis of a melancholy and touching love story. I read Lorrie Moore and A.M. Homes and Denis Johnson and fell hard for their voices. And Vonnegut: my favorite novel is Slaughterhouse-Five.

What other professions have you worked in?
Right out of college I worked as an MQTO at the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco, on the options trading floor. I woke up at 4:45 every morning, caught the BART into the city, drank a large cup of coffee and when the market opened at 6:30, a hundred angry men (and a couple of women) started yelling at me to update the quotes on the screen. It was hell, and paid nothing, and every day I dreamed of escaping. Which I did the next year, to law school. I finished law school, then practiced law for 13 years, which was a whole other lifetime. Four years ago, I left the law (for now, at least) and became a TV writer. So that’s my day job now.

What did you want to be when you were young?
A writer. I carried a bag of books around. Also, at some point, maybe a dancer. Because my younger brother Kelvin (who is now a writer and actor) was a really good dancer. People told him he would be an entertainer someday, and now he is. And I wanted to be as cool and coordinated and stylish as he was. But I just didn’t have it. Not that I ever really tried. But somewhere in my secret heart, I imagined being good enough to dance in a music video someday. Yikes.

What inspired you to write this piece?
TV and film are saturated with superheroes. In the latest Avengers film there must have been a hundred of them. They come in every color and every body morphology. And yet—where are the Asians? Are there even any? There must be some very strong filter, screening out all of the superheroes or supervillains of Asian descent. I wanted to imagine the hiring process that led to this.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Los Angeles! Both for real and my mental map of it. I grew up in LA, and except for stops at Berkeley and in New York, have lived in LA all my life. Its topography—physical and otherwise, shapes the worlds (and fragments of worlds) that I create.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Nothing specifically—I find songs I like and put them on a Spotify playlist for myself and will sometimes listen to that. That is generally for revising/editing. For composing new drafts, I’ll usually write in silence.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I usually read a bit before diving in. Sometimes too much—I’ll tell myself that I need to finish this book or that one before starting. Which is helpful in some ways, but also a sneaky form of self-sabotage, or at least procrastination. Sometimes I’ll go for a run to clear my head. Also helpful, also a form of backdoor procrastination, I think.

What are you working on currently?
I just turned in a draft of my next book which, with any luck, will be out sometime in 2020 from Pantheon. I’ve been working on this book for years. YEARS. I don’t want to say how many years. So for the first time in a long time, I’m not working on that book. And I’m diving into a few things—some for TV and film, a couple of short stories for anthologies, and already noodling on a new novel.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano, and also Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. They’re both excellent procrastination material.

CHARLES YU is the author of three books, including his most recent story collection, Sorry Please Thank You. He has written for HBO, AMC, FX and Adult Swim. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Wired, and Slate, among other publications.

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