Susan Choi Isn’t Giving Away the Secrets to Trust Exercise – Fox News


Susan Choi is not sure where her career is headed. “It could all be downhill from here!” she jokes over breakfast, but the novelist, whose best-selling Trust Exercise is up for a National Book Award, is not entirely kidding Right now, she’s dealing with the care of an aging relative and the financial pressure to teach year-round at Yale Her current book has been in progress since before she started writing Trust Exercise, and she’s still not sure whether it will ever be published “I really do, a lot of days, wake up and think, I will never write again.” At Wednesday’s ceremony, she’ll find out, along with everyone else, whether she has won the award for fiction, the last honor given out, like best picture at the Oscars She is downright dreading it. Her Yale students have counseled her to permit herself no more than one drink per hour Her friends have told her to focus on planning her outfit. She truly does not care whether she loses, she says—it’s a great list, she insists, and also everyone on it gets the “finalist” sticker on future editions of their books, which moves units regardless of who wins It’s more that she dreads having to sit in a ballroom while everyone watches her lose or win “It’s exciting but frightening. I wish I could be there, like, invisibly—as a ghost, under a sheet ” Unlike the protagonists of Trust Exercise, Choi has no great desire to be onstage  Since her first novel, The Foreign Student, was published in 1998, Choi, now 50, has steadily turned out increasingly complex and bold books that often take historical events or figures as source material Her second novel, American Woman, was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2004, and she has received fellowships from both the National Education Association and the Guggenheim Foundation With Trust Exercise, her fifth novel, she has done the seemingly impossible: created a work of fiction that, though it’s set mostly in the past, chimes perfectly with our surreally horrible historical moment Garnering something akin to literary virality has been something new for an author who, though critically lauded and award-winning, hasn’t always had the wide audience her intricate books deserve But this one was different in part because it was polarizing; while some readers adored it, others found its dissonant parts didn’t add up The book has 5,210 ratings on Goodreads and an average of three stars, because so many people thought it deserved five stars and so many thought it deserved one Part of the divisiveness surely has to do with the way the book’s parts conclude in a heightened, surreal fashion In the New Yorker, Katy Waldman wrote that these endings are like “the moment when you realize, right before waking from an unravelling dream, that the reason nothing makes sense is because nothing is real ” Some readers balked because they wanted sense to be made. Others embraced the dream logic  I wanted to meet Choi somewhat because I was curious about what she thinks is drawing readers to this book, at this moment—and what it is about this moment that made her write it “I was impatient with just the conventional story. It didn’t feel like adequate work anymore, or at least not right now,” she tells me between bites Not normally a breakfast-eater, she is ravenous after an inadequate dinner of pizza, eaten between trips to her front stoop to hand out candy to trick-or-treaters When I mention that a lesser person might have pretended not to be home to avoid the obligation, she looks at me like I’m out of my mind Of course you give out candy on Halloween. She is, as you’d expect from someone who has published a detailed novel approximately every five years for the entirety of her adult life, someone who takes her responsibilities very seriously Advertisement Trust Exercise’s rave reviews have only described the book’s first section, which is the only section it’s possible to describe in detail without giving away the “twists” that lend the book its dizzying depth That part concerns a group of 15-year-olds who go to a performing arts high school in Houston in the 1980s and their charismatic, manipulative teacher, Mr Kingsley. Repeatedly and in different contexts, he makes them do an exercise where they sit knee to knee and toss the same banal phrase back and forth, its meaning shifting each time  The book’s second and third sections are a literary version of this exercise, in a way The way a story changes depending on who tells it, we are shown again and again, can have lasting, devastating consequences As Choi shifts protagonists, she also explicitly calls into question some of the ways that “fiction” manipulates reality in the service of larger truths It’s a bold stance to take in a cultural landscape where novels can seem laughably low-stakes compared to the incessant emergencies of news headlines  But when I finished Trust Exercise, I didn’t feel like it was less important than real life Instead I was consumed with an urgent need to find out what “really happened,” as well as find out what other people thought about the metafictional tricks that Choi pulled on her readers It led me to do something very weird (for me): I organized a book club, so I could see whether my friends’ ideas of what the book had been about jibed with my own Together we decided on a theory. After talking to Choi, I have no idea whether our theory was right; when I float it to her, she demurs “Partly because I think what’s most interesting about the way that the book is operating in the world now without me is that there is all this debate It seems like I had to write it the way I wrote it, which was believing in an underlying reality—I guess what I would hope is that readers feel the authenticity of some underlying reality, but aren’t sure what it might be and argue about it I guess that’s what I would hope is happening. So I feel like I can’t provide like a decoder key ” The closest I get to a clue is when I ask whether in a screen adaptation of Trust Exercise she’d want the characters who share names—but not necessarily identities—in the book’s first two sections to be played by the same actors For a minute she goes over different possibilities out loud, but ultimately says that most likely they would be She also gives away the fact that it’s not a hypothetical question. She is working on an adaptation, though she doesn’t want to jinx it by saying much more about the process  Choi also mentions that Trust Exercise wasn’t even a novel that she intended to publish It began as a distraction from that other book, the one she’s still working on, which like her first novel takes some of her own family history as source material This next book goes back further in time, describing the life of her paternal grandfather during the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea At some point, years ago, she showed drafts of both books to her agent. “She was like, ‘Trust Exercise is the book we’re publishing And that other thing, you’re going to keep working on.’ ” Years later, she’s still working on it, though not as often and not as fruitfully as she wishes she could In part, she feels stymied by that story because it shares some of the themes of Trust Exercise, but it’s harder to draw readers into a story set in a cultural context that might be unfamiliar  Still, I suspect that, her present frustrations notwithstanding, Choi is just beginning to realize the extent of her powers It’s heartening, I tell her as we’re wrapping up, to see someone begin a career with skill and talent, then get stronger and stronger rather than petering out, and to begin to experiment at an age when some artists calcify into formula or repetition “I just wanted to see if I could do it,” she shrugs. It’s a good reason to do anything More Great Stories From Vanity Fair — Catching up with David Letterman, 10 years after this writer who worked on his show criticized him in an op-ed— Here’s why Chance the Rapper is the best SNL host we’ve seen so far— Here’s what we know about Harry and Meghan’s war on the tabloids— Lori Loughlin and her family are in constant chaos— Selena Gomez shares why she finally let go of Justin Bieber drama— From the archive: Meet the dynamite socialite princess of Bavaria Looking for more? Sign up for our daily newsletter and never miss a story

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