Interview: Charles Yu

words by Shahab Zargari
| Thursday, July 12th, 2012

photo by Larry D. MooreI was scheduled to call Charles Yu on a Thursday at 1 p.m. sharp…but I ended up calling (and missing him) at 2 p.m. thanks to my own error when I scheduled the call in Google Calendar. I was both embarrassed and frustrated. It seemed that I had become a character in one of Yu’s time-bending sci-fi satires — now all I had to do was build a time machine, go back to 1 p.m., and call the Charles Yu of the past.

Unfortunately, that was not an option, but Yu was kind enough to reschedule for the next day. What follows is a bit of our phone conversation in which we discussed several of his published works — including his new collection of short stories, Sorry Please Thank You — while reminiscing about luck dragons and Douglas Adams.

First of all, why [do you write] science fiction?
Well, I always gravitate back toward [it]; this way of engaging with the universe and looking at it and analyzing it is not only exciting, but it’s the way I look at the world.

When not writing sci-fi, what genre do you tend to read most?
Non-fiction science.

That makes sense to me, because non-fiction science seems to permeate everything you write. Due to your outstanding wit and love of fantastical science fiction, you’ve been compared to such masters as Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams. Does this bother you, intimidate you, or make you do back flips of joy?
(laughter) All three. No, sorry — it doesn’t bother me. The last two. So I’m intimidated while doing a virtual backflip. I mean, that’s the dream, right? Not only to be compared to people you idolize, but who you idolize in a specific way that influences who you are and what you write about. What do you think?

The wit and the love of fantastical science fiction is there. I definitely see that parallel.
It doesn’t bother me at all. The part that’s intimidating is that it seems crazy, right? I’m like, no, I just wrote a book. That’s crazy. But it’s flattering.

Is your book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe a truer never ending story than the German book entitled The Neverending Story? [laughter] Have you read The Neverending Story, or just seen the movies?
I have not. To be honest, I was not aware there was a book. Are we talking about the same movie where there’s a large Falkor?

Right. The book is actually quite enjoyable. It’s a rich and beautiful story…the movie only presented the first third of the book and rewrote it for Hollywood. But anyway, do you believe that your novel is a truer Neverending Story?
The novel turned out how I wished it would, which is an infinite loop built out of this neat number of parts. I think a giant flying dog-like dragon is cuter and more entertaining than my fake science and attempts to talk about humanity.

[Your book] definitely more melancholy than cute, for sure.
Exactly. And I’m happy about how the structure came into place. I’m not sure if it’s a truer Neverending Story… But if there is one thing I’m happy about with that novel, it’s the fact that it turned out, structurally, how I intended it to — which is odd, because there are a lot of people who read it and didn’t like it. There’s one online review out there that I read that said “This is not a proper time loop. This guy doesn’t know what a time loop is.”

And that actually makes me happy because I agree that its not a proper time loop. It’s a collapsing time loop that turns into a paradox. So, in that sense, it is a “neverending story.”

So, what inspired you to write a fictional book about time travel where your main character is you?
I couldn’t engage with the material for a long time, and I didn’t really know why. And then, for whatever reason, when I [added] this autobiographical element — or, at least, my name — it started driving the writing forward because it added a meta-fictional element. It’s not so much that it’s autobiographical, although there are elements that overlap with my actual life. It’s a book about a book narrated by a guy whose name is also on the cover.

You’re still stuck in the time loop, aren’t you?
I’m glad you brought that up. Yeah, I am, and I need your help getting out! (laughter)

In the appendix, you say that you must “keep stalling, see how long you can keep expanding the infinitely expandable moment.” What does that mean, and have you been successful at it?
[It means] whatever [the reader] wants to take from it. That’s a total cop out answer, but it’s true. If I were writing a paper on my book…now that’s an idea. Maybe I should write a term paper on my own book…for my next book.

A sort of analysis.
Yeah! It’ll be called How to Read Safely How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

By Charles Yu, about Charles Yu.
As interviewed by Shahab. (laughter) You’re part of the loop now.

Tammy would not approve.
(laughter) Anyway, to answer your question, the book is about the elasticity and contraction of time. The malleability of time and how we use it in our lives and our memories and our families and the stories we tell ourselves and to each other…and that sounds like jacket copy, but I mean it. If I were to write an English paper on it, I would say that is one of the motifs of the book. Hopefully that appendix ends this melancholy book on a more upbeat note.

How do you write your first drafts? With outlines and a pre-planned structure, or by writing free form and letting the story materialize as you type?
It is mostly writing free form. I don’t outline in general. I’ll just type a bunch of words or write a bunch of words long hand, and after a while they start to gain a critical mass, if I’m lucky, and some of the [parts] aggregate into sentences. And then those sentences, if they’re interesting, will just persist. It’s almost like a laboratory environment where I’m growing live cultures, and day after day I’ll go back to the same story and help it grow. And when they grow big enough, they just stick.

A lot of the times, something I thought was going somewhere will just die. And I’ll kind of watch it die because day after day it will just die out. In my mind, what I’m doing with all of these words that eventually combine with others, is like planting a bunch of seeds and seeing which ones will grow and prosper, and hope that they’ll tangle with each other and eventually form some sort of bush.

I find that really interesting because I wasn’t really sure how you would answer that. Because your final work, whether it’s the short stories or larger work, there is a lot of technicalities to it. Whether you’re explaining how Google purchased Universe M-31, or how a zombie finger is found in a supermarket. It’s so much well-crafted detail that one would assume you have it all outlined and planned out from the get-go.

Sorry Please Thank you, your newest book of short stories is quite good. A few of the stories really stood out to me as well. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” I found to be truly hilarious. And “Inventory” has got to be my favorite. This story revolves around another Charles Yu — or maybe it’s the same Charles Yu, I’m not sure. But you send him to so many different dimensions every single morning. He wakes up and you’ve got him enduring another set of rules and people and situations. Who is this Charles Yu, and why do you do this to him?
Yeah, he really is like the second-hand version of myself who is trapped in another dimension. It’s like in Superman II when General Zod was trapped.

In that glass prison?

How did you land your deal with Pantheon? What can aspiring authors learn from your journey?
I published my first book Third Class Superhero with Harcourt, and by the time I finished my novel my editor was no longer at Harcourt. So we went elsewhere, and I was lucky enough to start working with my editor, Tim O’Connell. He was incredible. He actually agreed to start editing my novel, just sort of pro bono. He was willing to help me shape it. So when you asked earlier about how I piece all of the detailed information into the story and the structure, Tim was a big part of it. He helped me figure out how to shape the novel in a larger sense. The pieces were there, but he helped me put them together and see how they fit together.

That’s very cool.
Yes, he’s a brilliant reader, incredibly articulate, and he saw exactly what I was trying to do. In fact, he saw more than that. He saw what I should be trying to do, and so after he helped me shape it, he then helped me get it acquired by Pantheon.

The people working at these publishing houses are incredibly talented people. Tim, Josi, everyone I’ve been working with are all extremely smart and amazing. They work really hard to try and make books. Writers make manuscripts, but the publisher is what makes you an author — they make that book. There’s a lot that happens. Not everyone will have the same experience as I have had with their editors and publishers, but I’ve had an incredible experience at Pantheon, as you can tell.

One thing I can tell aspiring authors is this: if you are lucky enough — and I admit it, I’ve been incredibly lucky in my path — to find yourself in one of these publishing houses, that’s just the very beginning. It’s still up to the writer to work with the team there who are there to help you. It’s a team effort. You don’t just hand them your manuscript, and six months later they hand you a book. Part of the process of creating a book is all of the meticulous editing they do, all of the other packaging  they do to make it into something that will catch a reader’s eye and will draw the reader into the story that you wrote.

Your new book is a collection of short stories. Were these stories all written after “How to Live Safely…,” during the same time, or a mix of both?
Some were written around the time I was starting to work on the novel, and some were written after the novel was done.

The short stories are broken up into the “Sorry,” “Please,” and “Thank You” subsections, but I couldn’t really see why those specific stories were paired under those headings. If you can kind of explain that, that would be great.
I had kind of an emotional scheme to it all. I knew I wanted the sections to be those words: “Sorry,” “Please,” “Thank You,” and then “All of the Above.” In some sense, I think there could have been some swapping. I don’t think there’s any big secret that some of the sadder ones are in Sorry.

Yeah, that first story was a doozy. Sad as hell.
(laughter) Yeah it was kind of a bummer, but I did want to start the collection with that story, as it set the tone for that section. I do love that story though. I don’t mean to say it’s a bummer, you shouldn’t read it. I mean, I hope people read it. I love that story — and the rest of the stories aren’t as sad. I tried to order them so that in a way they get a little happier.

Charles Yu will be at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday, July 14, 2012, taking part in the Wrinkle In Time panel, as well as hosting a book signing.

12 noon: book signing at Random House booth #1515
3 p.m.: A Wrinkle In Time sci-fi panel in room 23ABC

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