Trust Exercise

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership. This is live at Politics and Prose. A program from Slate and Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., featuring some of today’s best writers and top thinkers.

S2: So today, I am very excited to introduce a conversation between author Susan Choi and Nicole Chang. Susan Choi is an author that I feel almost needs no introduction. I struggle to refrain from simply listing all the awards and accolades, not her novels have garnered Asian-American Literary Award for her debut as the Foreign Student Pillow, Pulitzer Prize finalist for American One Black American Woman Lambda Literary Award for My Education just to name a few trust exercises. Susan Choi’s fifth novel, it’s a structurally daring narrative that dives deep into its themes of consent and coercion. Three suburban high school setting. Through three acts, each upending the last choice. Writing follows, manipulates and challenges the reliability of its main players. David and Sara, freshman at a competitive school for performance arts who fall in love with each other. And Mr. Kingsley, the magnetic theater teacher who subjects his students to the titular trust exercises in class. Susan Choi is joining the conversation today with Nichole Chung, editor in chief of Catapult magazine and the author of All You Can Ever Know A Memoir about Adoption, Motherhood and the Search for One’s Roots. It’s great. Her forthcoming book will be a memoir and essays examining grief, class and health care inequality. So without further delay, please give a warm welcome to Susan Choi in the culture.


S3: Good. All right, thank you so much, JD. Thank you all for being here, Susan. It’s an honor to be in conversation with you today. I loved the book. And we’ll talk about it. Would you mind starting by reading for us? Yeah, I’d love to.

S4: I’m a little less ready than usual because I tragically left my cruddy reading glasses that I’m used to elsewhere and had to go just buy new cruddy reading glasses that I’m not used to. So they have sticky stuff on them. But thank you, Jade, for trying to do sticky them. I’m going to read from early in the book, but not from the very beginning. So I do want to give you a small amount of context.


S5: Not too much trust. Exercise starts in a performing arts high school. It’s the 1980s and the students include Sara and David, who’ve just had a pretty spectacular breakup.

S6: Sara’s now former best friend, Joel and other miscellaneous students who, like Sara, David and Joel, are all 10th graders in the theater arts program of this high school. Their teacher is Mr. Kingsley. Their acting teacher. And I think that should do you OK for this scene, which takes place early in sophomore year. Mr. Kingsley has just informed them that it’s time for them to do ego reconstruction. As so often before, they grew uneasily aware of their crotches as they sat down cross legged and felt the icy touch of the linoleum numbing their asses. Most of them had privately concluded that ego deconstruction reconstruction was some sort of flesh lists orgy and they were helplessly blushing, their skin crawling with arousal and dread. The wall of mirrors doubled their circle around which Mr. Kingsley paced in orbit. His gaze was cast somewhere beyond them. His very way of gazing told them plainly how far they fell short of last year as sophomores of their own potential.


S7: Of the actors he’d known in New York, they felt their deficit all the more sharply because the unit of measure was wholly unknown. Sarah tried to see David, but he’d placed himself near enough to her laughter. Her right that she couldn’t see him, but far enough that she couldn’t sense him. Would David be chosen? Would Sarah be chosen? Joel, Mr. Kingsley murmured in a tone of regretful admonishment. Sadness almost at her failure. But what had Joel done? She was pink. Year round and a summer’s worth of sunburn had her modeled and peeling all over her face and down into the cleavage broadly exposed by her tight V-neck top. The new raw pink skin turned bright red at the sound of her name. All the curls of dead, half peeled skin seemed to rustle with fear. Her surface was disgusting. Sarah thought, Joel, please stand at the circle’s exact center. You are the hub. Invisible lines radiate out from you to each one of your classmates. These lines are the spokes, your classmates and you. And these spokes make the wheel. You are the hub of the wheel. Joel. OK, Joel said, blushing fiercely, a fountain of blood pounding under her skin. I’d like you to choose one spoke. Now look down the length of that spoke. Someone’s at the other end. Someone you are bound to by that spoke. Passing through you and passing through them. Who’s the person you’re looking at? The linoleum doesn’t feel cold anymore. Please, no. Sarah realizes staring straight ahead at Joel’s middle at her soft belly concealed beneath the tight top. I’m looking at Sarah, Joel says huskily. Her voice almost a whisper. Tell her what you observe. You didn’t call me all summer, Joel. Barely chokes out. Go on, Mr. Kingsley says, gazing somewhere miles away. He’s not even looking in Joel’s direction. Perhaps he’s using the room’s giant mirror to watch Joel’s burning skin, her glittering eyes, her too tight top out of the corner of one eye.


S4: And I would call you and you wouldn’t call back. And I mean, maybe it’s me, but it’s like I feel like stand up for your feelings, Joel.

S7: Mr. Kingsley barks out. We were best friends and you act like you don’t even know me.

S6: The strangled grief in her voice is far harder to bear than the words. Sarah is frozen a statue. She’s staring blindly at the opposite wall with its door to the hallway, as if she could wheel herself out of this room. And then suddenly it’s Joel who bolts. Joel stumbles headlong through the circle, practically stepping on Colin and man while she wrenches open the door and unleashing a wail disappears down the hall.


S7: In her wake, no one breathes. No one looks anywhere but the floor. No one even looks at Sarah. Life is suspended abruptly. Mr. Kingsley, wheels on. Sarah. What are you doing? He demands. And Sarah flinches and alarm go after her.

S6: Sarah lurches to her feet and out the door. Unable to imagine the faces she’s leaving behind, even David’s. She isn’t even able to find where he was in the circle. The halls are deserted. The slippery black and white checkerboard wrapping harshly against the hard soles of her boots, her punk boots, cruel, toed with metal stilettos and three large silver square buckles, each behind closed classroom doors on the West Hall. The freshmen and juniors doze through the requirements. English and algebra, social studies in Spanish.


S7: Down the south and east halls, the real life of the school can be heard. The jazz band splashing through Ellington, the lone pianist’s hands, prancing over the keys in the dance studio and the thumping of bound bloody feet. The smokers’ courtyard is empty. It’s sun bleached benches bearing only acorns from the massive live oak. The outdoor classroom, a walled in rectangle of grass with a stage at one end, is also empty. It’s streetside gate padlocked. Sarah Wills, David, not Joel, to appear in these secretive places. David, to be sitting on the empty smokers’ bench. David to be sitting underneath the oak tree. The rear entrance leads to the rear parking lot where the students park and also eat lunch on the hoods of their cars when the weather’s good. Joel is outside. The doors doubled up, honking with sobs. Joel clearly meant to escape in her car, but was slowed by her grief. The keys to her Mazda poke out of one fist. This is the brand new rocket like little Mazda Joel bought with cash more than ten thousand dollars in cash. She once showed Sara stuffed into a coffee can under her bed. Sara didn’t know where this money came from, drug sales. She assumed possibly something else. Each day, Joel drives the car to a friend’s house a few blocks from home and then walks the rest of the way so her parents won’t see it. Joel is not convoluted, but simple. Not sullen, but sunny. Yet she has the extensive clandestine life of a career criminal. And this used to enthrall Sarah. Now Joel appears stripped bare, her essence exposed. She’s just a party girl over, eager to be liked. The inside startles Sarah not because of its unkindness, but because this, she suddenly knows, is the source of insight. Mr. Kingsley is constantly trying to extract. He paced with impatience last year when they told each other during observation such things as You’re a really nice girl or I think you’re handsome. Yet at this moment, Sarah equally knows there’s a story unfolding into which her true feelings don’t fit. She’s supposed to hug Joel, make it up to her. She knows this as surely as if Mr. Kingsley stood there supervising it all. She has the strong feeling he is there. Joel, precociously fleshy and pungent, so obliviously manifests the carnal that Sara’s own self-conscious cardinality becomes disgusting to her along with her own flesh, her own scent. Joel’s enormous breasts are heavily freckled. They’re trapped. Clefts increases are constantly sweaty. Joel’s crotch encased in her jeans, trails an old factory banner like some sort of sticky night flower to inflame jungle bats. Joel sleeps with much older men at school. She disregards boys as if they’re not even insipient men. She only has eyes for Sara. Half closing her eyes, almost grinding her teeth. Sarah takes Joel into her arms. Joel clings to her gratefully, soaks her shoulder with tears and slick snot. This is also self-control. Sara thinks this brute willing of the self to take action. Until now, Sara thought self-control was only a restraint, not putting the chair through the glass. I’m really sorry. She hears herself mumbling. I’m so messed up right now. I didn’t mean to seem distant. Things have just been so crazy. What’s been going on? I could tell you had shit going on. I just knew. Soon the counterfeit is complete. Sarah intended to confide in no one. And if someone Joelle least of all. Now, as if reading a script, she tells Joel about the decoy tennis racket. The empty snack bar. Confession made. She’s in receipt of Joel’s whole devotion again. Joel sobs turned to mirth, her abject supplication to glee. She clings to Sarah no longer from the weakness of grief, but to prevent herself. Rolling merrily on the sidewalk. Having bought back a friendship she no longer wanted by defiling the one thing she cared about most.


S6: Sarah knows it doesn’t matter that she enjoins Joel to a secrecy that puts Joel into raptures. Joel is practically wrapped like a vine around Sarah as they stumble back into the classroom.

S7: And almost literally into David, because they’ve been gone for so long. Classes ended in David’s the first on his feet to escape at the sight of David. Joel bursts out laughing and covers her face. David shoulders roughly past Sarah and Sarah feels bonfires ignite on her skin. Mr. Kingsley, also on his way out, says as if as an afterthought. Sara, come by and see me tomorrow at lunch. Not even David in the course of escaping, fails to hear the summons or fails to understand what it means. Even Joel, who has so misunderstood her entire transaction with Sarah, understands what Mr. Kingsley’s summons means. Joel tightens her hot grip on Sarah with sisterly envy. Sarah has become the kind of problem they would all like to be. Things.


S3: So good. Thank you.

S8: So I have been obsessed with this book, I took it on vacation like about a month ago and like ever since, all I’ve wanted is to talk to people about it. I feel like I’m one I know has been simultaneously freaking out about it. It’s just such a great, heartbreaking, tender, shocking story in so many ways. I have a lot of questions for you that would unfortunately delve into spoiler territory.

S9: And we will keep this spoiler free. But, you know, I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say, you know, the first half of the book pretty much is told from one perspective, one narrator. And then suddenly halfway through, we switched to the perspective of a different character with a different name than the character we thought she was in the first. And you think, OK, like now I’m really going to get the truth. But in fact, she’s also not always the most reliable voice. And so, yeah. And the third is something else entirely. But I guess I’m just wondering, like, where did this structure and all these voices come from? Was that always the plan for this book? No, that was never the plan for this book.


S10: I don’t I tend not to have a plan for my books, which is. It’s nerve wracking. It’s also fun. I find it to be more, I guess, motivating to write books that I have no idea where they’re headed than to. I mean, the truth is I actually have no no ability to plan ahead. So it’s not as if I’m choosing life. You’re not like an outliner. I’m not an out. I don’t understand those people. I don’t understand those people either. And I I somehow I I would think that they were all liars if it wasn’t that. I actually do know truly brilliant fiction writers who are outliers. And so I’ve seen it happen. And I’ve I’ve never been able to understand. I mean, just everyone writes everyone who writes writes very differently. And I tend to write my way forward into a fog every day, sort of thinking what will come next. And my desire to know is part of what gets me to sit down and actually work every day. This book was a little bit different because almost all of my previous books I’ve written in such a way that that was the thing I was doing. Like I was I was doing that for better and mostly for worse. It was the one thing I was trying to complete. And every day I would kind of sit down and banging my head on the wall about that thing. This book was actually originally just.


S11: A thing that I started to waste time while I was trying to finish a different book that was going very poorly, and so I would sneak away from it and do other things and try to feel like I’d put in my writing time. And one day I started I wonder as I started writing what we’d actually end up being the first page of this book. And then I wrote a few more pages and left it for years, actually.


S10: But periodically I’d return to it and add a little to the file. Always kind of just for fun. And I didn’t know where it was going and it didn’t really feel like it was going anywhere. To be honest, it was kind of going forward into into Murck that didn’t really dissipate.

S12: And one day when I happened to feel like picking it up again and it had been. I mean, more than half a year since I’d looked at the file. When I picked it up again, that different voice that was very irate about everything that had come before.

S7: Just kind of entered my mind, like the thought of someone who was in the fall of 2016.

S13: So I was going to ask if maybe your own mood had something to do with it.

S14: But I didn’t want to presume my own mood was definitely connected to it.

S5: So in the fall of 2016, for some reason, I was thinking a lot about storytelling and all of this sinister and damaging forms of storytelling that I had never really given a lot of thought to before.

S7: All of the forms of storytelling that seem to be taking place on it on a national level and inflicting so much damage.

S4: And I kept thinking, how can these stories possibly be told? How can so many people possibly be listening to them? I’m feeling really angry about it.

S5: And and so it was it was when I turned back to a trust exercise, I guess not that surprising that suddenly in the world of that story, there was someone there who was also really mad about the story that was being told in that world. Yeah, I loved that.


S8: And I was going to ask about this later because I felt like people who haven’t read it yet might need a little more information about the story. But just since you mentioned storytelling, first, with all the switching voices, it really felt like this book has so much to say about about that and about who gets to tell stories and who listens and whose voices are kind of be raised. And when you’re looking back on a shared history like whose perspective kind of wins the day. I love that this structure just flips all that. Know if you could you talk a bit more about that second character that we get once we get the story from a different angle. Like, why did you want to follow this voice? Like and how did how did the voice develop as you wrote? Did you know the story would completely be different?

S10: This is truly never happened to me before, and I’m pretty sure it will never happen again. But. I just said I wasn’t an outliner and I’m really not. But when that voice entered my mind in September of 2016 and I even remember that it was like meeting someone, I even remember what was happening that day. It’s Karen. I should just say that because I’m going to ask more questions about her.

S4: So it’s this character named Karen or Karen. Her name is Karen. But when Karen. You know, sort of introduced herself forcibly to me on this day, I.

S10: Unlike at any other point in my writing life, an enterprise never happens again.

S5: I knew exactly what she was mad about and I knew exactly how her. She essentially kind of comes into contest, right. She’s a she comes in to challenge the narrative and say, like, screw that. That is actually not that is I don’t agree. And I knew really almost immediately what it was that she disagreed about. And I kind of knew how she was going to disagree. So was it this thrilling? Again, like never to be repeated moment in my fictional career where I thought, oh, my God, I actually know what’s gonna happen. I could outline it or I could just write it. And I and I wrote it really quickly. That in part. The second part. Yeah, the second part I wrote more quickly than I’ve ever written anything. It was actually done before the election was, although in a way the election was already done. But I bet between like September and late October that all came sort of tumbling out and. At the same time as I knew what was gonna happen. I also understood for the first time that I was working on a book because I’d been kind of lying to myself all along. At that point I had, you know, like 80 to 100 pages of trust exercise and I kept hoping it would be a short story. I’d even sent it to my agent, thinking that she would have some brilliant idea of how to cut it. And she’d just kind of sent it back. She’s like, I don’t know what this is. Should she had no help? But. When Karen came along, I both knew what her piece of it would be and knew now that this was a book that had no ending because I knew that Karen wasn’t the end. Right. And so it was both total certainty about her and sudden complete uncertainty about the rest.


S8: When I talked about high school, because, you know, that’s the setting for at least the first half of the book is this performing arts high school in an unnamed place. But it feels like suburban near an urban place. You need a car to get around. If you don’t have a car like you might as well not be alive kind of play. I really spoke to me.

S13: I grew up in a place sort of like that. But I just think that you wrote about the vulnerability and the scariness and that weird in between ness of teenage life so well, really so much better than many people who attempt it. And I mean, I was remembering how there’s a great line I’m going to look at because I wrote it down. Sorry. Basically, we’re one of the characters says we knew what we were doing. We were never children. And he’s looking back on their teen, their shared teen history. But I mean, that’s true. And it’s not like, of course, they were children in a way. I just felt this rush of empathy for like my teenage self, which doesn’t usually happen. Right. And I to like why was there a particular reason that you felt like you wanted to write about this this age group for this time and life?

S5: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t actually choose to write about the age group or the Times so much as I was really interested in writing about it. I was really well, I guess I was. But secondarily, I was really interested in writing about this student teacher dynamic that is in the book enacted through in part these trust exercises. These and the scene that I read actually sort of gives a hint of of one such write this. This is a exercise that they’re being taught to do. That’s called ego reconstruction, where they’re supposed to stand up in front of their 15 year old peers and begin and practice like radical honesty with them. And in nightmare. Yeah. And. And, you know, this was this was something that I was fascinated by, because these exercises are a lot of these are like sort of classic acting class exercises. And you can find them in in a lot of in a lot of kind of.


S15: Methods for for learning to be an actor and then are we being recorded?

S11: Yeah. So some of these some of these exercises also arguably appear in slightly different form in the practices of certain unconventional 20th century religions that I’m not going to name.

S5: And I initially was really fascinated by that conjunction because I was doing a lot of research into this 20th century religious practice that I’m not going to name in other book. My thought initially was that I would write a book about this, but then I got increasingly scared off about the about the prospect. And so.

S11: But meanwhile, while researching this religious practice, I hadn’t noticed this really striking similarity between these practices and these acting exercises, and I started thinking like, well, that’s really interesting because in the religious context, these seem to be exercises that are intended to sort of coercively mold disparate individuals into a kind of a more uniform, compliant mass. And oh, that maybe is what. What is also going on an acting class sometimes. And so that that was what took me into the story initially was the idea of those practices and teachers and students, especially young young students, teenage students.

S8: I wanted to talk more about that teacher student relationship or relationships. There’s a lot of this book has so much to say about consent and like power and often like there are many student characters. I don’t think this is a spoiler either to say that they are either manipulated or exploded or even preyed upon in certain ways by teachers and by adults in authority positions. They’re consistently kind of led by the nose, by them and then let down by them. And it just made me think about like how difficult it really is to like interrogate that past history. And I’ve I’ve seen some some questions that you’ve gotten about whether this is a me-too book. And I think it is, isn’t it isn’t. But that’s probably too simplistic a way of putting it. Sorry, I was just reminded about how in high school, like in other schools I’ve been part of, you know, there were these like persistent rumors about certain educators. And I mean, to our shame, I think we actually. I don’t think we knew what to make of those. You know, like you have this weird fake worldliness when you’re a teenager. Yeah, that’s really well-put. Right. It’s a year old, you know. So you feel like you have to approach even these horrific things with kind of this jaded. Like I you know, I can look out for myself. In fact, like, who’s really looking out for the teens in this book? Yeah. Just what made you want to write about this particular subject like that, those relationships and that power imbalance?


S15: Yeah, well, that’s really you put it really, really well. And that’s something that I think is incredibly.

S7: Important to grapple with and really hard to grapple with this idea, the fake worldliness, which doesn’t feel fake to a person that age or at least as you know, as somebody who was once that age, I remember it not feeling fake at all.

S11: I felt very, very much at the age of 14, 15, 16, as if I was in charge of myself, as if I had really great judgment, as if I had enough experience to really know what I was doing. And also, I I remember distinctly feeling that it was important for me to be able to exercise choices about what what I did and who with.

S10: So when you when you remember vividly how it felt to have what what what felt like complete agency, and then you think back on situations in which really.

S12: What was happening was not okay. What how did what do you do with that? Like, wait. So the character Keryn has this experience as a as a young woman, a slash girl, like we don’t even really know what to call her rages 16 year old. And she, you know, feels both like a woman and like a girl. She hasn’t experienced that. On the one hand, she chooses.

S15: And on the other hand, arguably, she’s she’s drawn into by an extremely manipulative and very, very experienced older person much later in her life.

S12: She can not.

S15: She’s kind of riven down the middle by this sense of having been exploited and this sense of having been an agent who chose.

S12: And those two things are really, really hard to reconcile. And I think that. It can happen to us at any age that we can be exploited by those who have power over us. And yet at the same time also have the experience of a feeling we’ve chosen the situation. But I think that it’s particularly common at that age where you’re not a child, but you’re also a child. I mean, I didn’t feel like a child at that age. So in a lot of ways, I 100 percent agree we were never children is you know what that character says. But at the same time, I now have children that age and. Oh, yeah, they’re children. They don’t think so, you know. But I know that they are.


S8: Yeah. It would have been simpler if when she was like interrogating. History is so hard for for anyone to do, I think at any point in their life. But it would have been simpler if when Karen looked back she were able to like make the call and say, this is absolutely not my fault. Like I was a victim. And I thought it was interesting and so powerful that that wasn’t that wasn’t the narrative choice you made. She’s clearly she blames herself as much as anyone for what happened. And I think that’s just a kind of a powerful thing to think about, too. Given the conversations that we’ve had around me, too, and everything else, you know, we are looking harder at people’s pasts. And like often it’s just a really hard call to make in your own life. And what’s happened to you? Like, how do you resolve it? I thought it was just great how the novel didn’t really wrap that up for her. But it’s also very sad.

S5: It’s very sad. Yeah. Because it’s it’s it’s too easy to. And and it’s so and it’s it’s too easy to be able to say.

S10: One or the other.

S15: Kerins not able to do it in the end, the thing that so for me that one of the things that so important about her inability to decide I was a victim, I was I was wronged by someone. And regardless of the fact that I feel like I walked into that trap with my own two feet. I was 16 years old. The other party was much older. I’m able to understand now that that I was damaged, which she can’t do, and the fact that she can’t do that. Among other effects, it completely removes the possibility of alliance from her life. She’s unable to ally herself with other women, which is another thing that I really wanted to sort of look at in terms of how that feels.


S6: And she can’t you know, it’s it’s a period in the book.

S15: It’s a period during which women are coming forward and pointing backwards to things that happened in the past and saying, I might have seemed to agree to it at the time, but like, let’s look at how old I was. It wasn’t okay. And Karen looks at those women with this mingled scorn and kind of longing, like on the one hand, she’s like, well, you made a bad choice. So tough on you. And on the other hand, I hope what comes across is how wounded she is by being unable to count herself among them and sort of put herself beside them. She can’t do it right.

S8: I don’t think in any way it like the story should be read as like an endorsement of that scorn that she has. But I think it’s really powerful the way it’s presented in the book. It is interesting to like what you said about her not allying herself with women, of course, like there for a lot of her, the part of her story is the person she’s really expressing the most anger with, at least on the page is Sarah, you know, who might have done some things that like, you know, I could understand her feeling betrayed. It wasn’t like the main perpetrator. Right. Right. And who was also the same age as she was, actually, and a child like her? Similarly, kind of a you know, a victim. It’s interesting how looking back, even as adults, none of them can actually refer to themselves as, you know, victims or whatever. I love like the rage kind of simmering under like this book. And if you’re willing, I would love for you to just talk a little bit about that. It felt. It feels like purposeful. It feels like it does really serve the story. But like at its heart, in certain ways, it’s hilarious. But like angry book. Did you feel that as you were writing it, was that something you consciously leaned into?


S10: Yeah. I mean, I did feel I did like understandable.

S4: I I did feel really I mean, I still feel really angry about a lot of things. Sadly, I’m not actively writing right now. I’m not I’m not like pouring it all into some.

S5: I’m not being productive with it. But I was. I was.

S10: Angry and it was an anger that had pre-dated, you know, that particular fall. And it’s interesting because this book having been written really, as I said intermittently, which I’ve never done and which is really weird for me, you know, that I would have written this book for like I worked on it for like a couple months in the fall of fifteen and then a couple months in the fall of 16 and then a couple months in the fall of 17. And before that, I I’d written the early pages of it so long ago. I literally can’t even remember when when exactly I had started.

S12: But it was sort of telling.

S11: Once the book was done to look back and realize that a lot of the sections of the book had been written during particularly stressful moments.

S10: And and to kind of be forced to conclude like as if I were watching myself from the outside, that I’d been kind of provoked back to this material at really specific moments. And and, you know, prior to the election moment, again, I’d been working on this other book, which I continued to conceive of as the book that I was writing and tell basically the the bitter end when it’s, you know, wreckage was kind of revealed to me. Someone read it and was like, I don’t I don’t think you should show this to anyone else for a while. And I haven’t.


S11: But, you know, the moments at which I would abandon that and go to this material, that notable one that pre-dates the fall of 16 was the fall of fifteen when I had returned to my alma mater, Yale, to teach for the first time. So I was returning to a place where I’d been actually pretty unhappy student for the first time to be a teacher. The fall of 2015 at Yale was a very, very painful roiled. I mean, I don’t know if any single semester in the past decade could compare to it. It was. And just Google it. If you were wondering. But it was it was a really painful time to be on campus. And because of a series of things that had happened around privilege and race and identity and and really painful clashes between students and teachers, and so was such a strange space to be in to return to a place where I was psychically a student and to take on the responsible role of teacher. And I think that that is probably reflected in this book.

S13: Also, those tend to sting. I’m asked a couple more questions and then we’ll open it up to start thinking of your questions now. So you must have been getting incredible reactions to this book from readers. What if you have a favorite one? I’m just always curious or one that surprised you the most.

S10: I do actually have one favorite. I mean, I have I have the reactions to this book so far have been the most gratifying of my career. It’s been really a joy. It’s it’s really thrilling. But one of my favorite reactions, which was fairly early, came from a couple that I think, you know, Julie Buntin and Gabe Habbash, who are husband and wife, brilliant writers. So they had both read the book early and as they later told me, got into an enormous fight about I love this.


S14: He fought for hours and then later related this to me. And I was sort of initially horrified. And then they were both like, we really enjoyed it.

S3: Did they tell you specifically about Julie’s my editor? We’re really good friends and feel like. Did they mention, like their sides, I guess?

S10: Well, all I know is that Gabe said to me, okay, I’m going to present you with three options.

S5: Tell me which one is closest to. Right. And he said this, this, this.

S14: And I’m not going to say what they were. And I said this. And he goes, yes. And I was like, okay, I’m really for the details. I should ask Joseph Grails.

S8: OK. So something else I want to ask is just I ask this of everybody. But if any, this book blew my mind. Have you read anything lately?

S14: Anything you don’t recommend if they leave your book in the lake, such as I loved you about your book. Okay. Literally the the book I have most recently read that that I I was when I was fishing Venice. She wasn’t, but I was her.

S5: Nichol’s book is is amazing. It looks like this totally different niches. This is this is non-fiction. It’s a memoir. It’s. Anyway, thank you. I. I wept buckets.

S8: The question, I guess, was also leading into if they love your book and the unconventional structure and narrative shifts. I mean, are there other books you’d really recommend they pick up?

S5: Oh, yeah. That’s a really fun question. You know, I.

S11: Later, sort of looking at the DNA of this book, I was able to realize that certain books that I probably read in the past like six to 10 years, might have worked their ways into it. And one of the ones that I know was really influential was Jennifer Egan’s novel, The Kaep, which dippie I don’t know if people know this book. Some people are nodding, which is great. So the keep I did an event with Jenny in which I was able to answer a similar question by by telling her it’s truly the keep was a real game changer for me.


S4: And I said, you know, and ever since it came out four or five years ago, she cut me off and said, 12 years ago, I think. And then we both stared at each other in horror.

S5: So I think that Cate might have come out in like before 2010. But that book has this moment at which with such grace and uncompromising abruptness, the narrative just like yanks itself out from under your feet and you’re like, whoa, I did not see that coming. And it’s so fun. And, um, and so that that certainly, I think was in the back of my mind.

S13: That’s great. Thank you. Well, I could ask you a million more things, but I want to make sure the audience has a chance. So we’ll do about 15 minutes. Please come up and use, I guess, this microphone. I think that one’s probably on to either just come up and speak into the microphone.

S5: Don’t be shy. Don’t be shy. Yay! OK.

S16: Hi. So. So some qualities that struck me about the the two perspectives. Sarah’s and Karen’s. Sarah’s perspective just felt so embodied, so intimate. And there was also this really interesting blurring that happened at times where she was almost making this claim to be able to tell you what other characters are thinking. Particularly David, or to be able to tell you kind of what the whole school is thinking almost in. And she it’s it’s again, there’s this blurriness. Whereas Karen’s perspective, she wasn’t even committing to telling you whether her perspective was her own as a singular person’s. So I was wondering, were those qualities, were those inherent those perspectives as they emerged to you? And if not, kind of at what point in your process did they emerge and how did you think about that?


S7: That’s such an interesting question. I think.

S15: I mean, it’s a difference between the kind of classic novel perspective of ammunition third person in which the novel says to you, the reader, there’s a godlike presence in this book that’s able that has authority. It has its telling you the truth. It has the ability to process the world for you and present the world to you. And you should trust it not. Sorry. Pun unintended. And so that’s, I think, the sensibility of of the early part of the novel. But it’s exactly the kind of thing that Karen is made crazy by, because Karen is basically like there is no God, there is no authority, trust no one. Everyone’s lying, maybe even me. But I’m the person who’s telling you about the liars. So I must be the truthful one or maybe not even know. So I think that’s the thing is that Karen’s a real rabble rouser. She doesn’t really believe in that. She doesn’t believe in authority, I think. And in the novel is sort of built on this idea that there is an authority, I mean, it’s such a funny thing because novels are defined. It’s fiction. So the definition is that it’s made up. Right. And yet as readers, we believe we like buy into this world and we think like, oh, there’s a truth in it. Like people have asked me what happens to my characters after the book ends? And I’m like, I don’t I don’t know nothing because they don’t exist, I’m afraid.

S10: So I think it’s Karen who who really kind of wants to shake things up and remind us of that things.


S17: Well, the questions. Just please.

S4: Looks like that this short person I wouldn’t have asked this.

S18: Had there not been the opportunity. Why were you unhappy as a student at Yale?

S4: Only answer if you want to, obviously. I’m happy to answer.

S15: It’s a simple answer. I was I was very ill prepared to be in a place like that. I did not receive a very thorough academic preparation for a place like Yale.

S7: And when I entered Yale, which was a long time ago, I think that there was less.

S15: I mean, you know, even now, I think kids fall through the cracks a lot, but at that time there was a there was a lot less of an awareness on the part of the institution that they really needed to make sure that you were OK once you got there. I mean, there is a bit of an arrogance around institutions like Yale where, you know, you got here, you must be awesome because we are.

S5: So do you. Do you and. And I just didn’t know how. I didn’t know what. I didn’t know what was what. And.

S8: And so I floundered again that not quite being an adult, but feeling very much like an adult like phase.

S5: Yeah. Yeah. No, just one small anecdote that I just remembered. I mean, I got to Yale and I went to Yale by myself. You know, I sort of packed off and put on a plane. I didn’t know you were supposed to have your own bed sheets. Like, I just remember being shown my room and there was this like bare mattress. And I I didn’t I went by sheets, you know. So I just didn’t I was very unprepared for college.


S8: I was, too. If it makes you feel any better. First generation attendee’s and crossed the country and did not know what was up either. Other questions.

S19: I’m sorry, I was if you minutes late, sorry if you said this already, but have you done any acting or taken any acting classes? And if not, how did you get into writing from that perspective? And if so, what did it teach you?

S10: I did attend high school that had a theater program.

S5: And so I did take acting classes when I was a teenager. Some of which did incorporate some of the unusual exercises and activities that I then modified for the book. I immediately realized at that age that the stage was not the place for me and escaped it as soon as I could. Although I love the theater, I went to college and became a techie. I became like a backstage nerd, which I which is a world I still really love.

S8: It’s interesting, too. I was I was I also had a question about the theater aspect of the book. I did very, very few productions in high school. But what I remember to sort of a similar cult of personality around the drama teacher and also it was a it’s a weird place where like everyone’s like so embarrassed of their feelings at that age and in drama. It’s one of the few places where you can lean into those feelings, but also you’re supposed to channel them in different ways. And I thought you captured that so beautifully. Yeah. I’ll be quiet.

S14: It’s a it’s a it’s a weird conundrum.

S20: Hi. What can you’d say about being the daughter of a Jewish mom and a Korean? Is it right, Jewish and Korean? And what could you say about that? How did it go? Growing up?


S21: How did it go?

S4: That’s a you know, I. Did you have siblings, Jeff? Siblings? No, no siblings. The experiment was was short lived.

S14: And, you know, it was pretty interesting.

S22: I.

S10: I have to say, in retrospect, looking back at my own childhood, I think my parents were both very. I don’t think either of them fit very comfortably in their respective like contexts of origin or they never would have tried to make a life together, they didn’t succeed, but they remain very friendly with each other once they threw in the towel that things had improved considerably. But I think that my father was a was a quite a typical Korean man for his time and place. And I think my mother is sort of the same.

S5: And again, to to to back up what I’m saying, I feel like I’m going to, you know, stray into the land of possible stereotype, but. I think my you know, my biggest evidence is that neither of them really seemed keen to hang out my mother with Jews. My father with Koreans when I was growing up, they both seemed to have wanted to kind of get away from their pasts and their families and their home cultures. And so my upbringing was. A little rudderless. I have to say, you know, and I’ll and also on the upside, it was quite. Just by default, it was kind of inclusive, like I don’t think my parents really knew what to do.

S15: So during I mean, they’re both atheists, but during the Christmas holidays, like we had a tree and a menorah.

S14: And every once in a while my mother made lot cause and my father put soy sauce on them, which s was sounds like a sitcom, but these were like rare moments of harmony for it.


S4: For most of the rest of the time, they were actually totally at odds with each other. But it was it was it was interesting.

S8: We have time for like one more, maybe two if they’re quick.

S5: Oh, is that OK with you? Make sure.

S18: But you wrote a memoir. Yes. So I haven’t read your memoir, but I’m interested in that whole subject. How did you how much of your self did you have to give up to write the memoir?

S13: Laguer private person Oh, my memoir is a memoir about growing up adopted I’m Korean my adoptive families white. So growing up in a transracial adoption in a very white community in Oregon and then searching for my Korean birth family at the same time I was pregnant with my first biological child. And so the focus of the book is actually pretty narrow. I mean, to get everything, adoption’s a huge subject race in America and family. These are huge topics to kind of get what I wanted into the story and not have it be 800 pages long. I did have to keep the focus pretty tight on that aspect of my life. And it was something I was really comfortable and ready and eager to. Well, eager might be overstating it. I was comfortable sharing that. I’d had practice putting myself out there and talking about adoption and race, and it felt like something important to do so. But yeah, I think when you write any book fiction and on your kind of giving up a little bit of yourself in it, it it cost something to come and do events. And I think that’s true for fiction writers as well. So they yeah, it was deeply personal. But I I guess I still feel like there are parts of my life that are just mine. Thank God. So I actually have a quick wit. Oh, do you wanna know? Oh, well, just because that’s a writing question I feel in there always some writers in the audience and you’ve written five incredible books now, which is like magic. So honestly, like, how do you write your second book? But, you know, like if you have any advice, I guess, for people who write are thinking about writing about either their life or is made up lives. How do you read a sixth book is what I want to know. I mean, I can’t help you.


S10: I guess one thing I’ll say, which will probably disappoint everyone, including me, is that it doesn’t seem to get easier figuring out how to write a book. I don’t. I was incredibly disappointed. After I finished my first book to discover that trying to write another book was much more difficult than trying to write the first one. Sorry. And it hasn’t really gotten easier. I think for me the biggest problem is discovering what book it is like. The work has gotten a lot easier. Actually, I’m much better at. It’s much easier for me to sit down and just do the work, which is which is which I defined as sit your butt down, produce a bunch of words that are actually arranged in sentence form in the English language. And, you know, don’t move for at least three hours and then you can. You’re allowed to have lunch and then try to do that a little more before you just knock off for the day.

S11: So I can make words and sentences a lot more easily than I used to be able to. But I can also do that. I can produce reams of writing and not produce a book. So that’s the challenge is really like what of the many things I write about or generate sentences about which one of them is going to end up being. Going the distance. And I mean, as is obvious from my like allusion to the to the wreckage of what I thought was book number five. It’s it’s possible to go on for a really long time with something that turns out not to be the book. And I haven’t figured out how to.


S5: It’s like trial and error seems to be the only way to help you figure that out. But I’m glad we got just exercise in the meantime. Thanks. We’ll both figure it out.

S14: I think we must believe, OK.

S13: It’s been about an hour. So, Susan, we’ll be signing books. I’m not sure what to tell you doing it.

S3: So can we get one more round of applause for speakers? Because this was to you. Thank you.

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