Interior Chinatown is a deeply personal novel about race, pop culture, immigration, assimilation, and escaping the roles we are forced to play. Charles Yu's second novel is playful but heartfelt, a send-up of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes; it is his most moving, daring, and masterful novel yet.
Read more about the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction winner Interior Chinatown as we put the spotlight on novelist and attorney Charles Yu.
You won the National Book Award for Interior Chinatown last November 2020. How does it feel for your work to be critically acclaimed and recognized?
It's a strange experience. Wonderful and unexpected. I spent several years working on Interior Chinatown and for much of that time I felt lost and confused about what I was doing. Winning the award was something I never could have imagined--it's brought the book to a much wider audience, and allowed me the opportunity and privilege to be connected to and in conversation with many of those readers.
Interior Chinatown is written in a format of a screenplay. Was this initially intended to be a screenplay or was the screenplay format part of the meta narrative that you wanted to build?
On the long and winding path to the finished book, there were multiple earlier iterations that weren't in a screenplay format. It wasn't until a few years into the writing that I had the idea of doing it as a script. It started with the character of Willis Wu--when he showed up on the page (or in my head), his role as a background Asian actor was the core around which things started to take shape. In order to tell Willis's story, the book needed to shift between "on camera" and "off camera" parts of his life, quickly and in a way that wasn't overly confusing for the reader. Using the screenplay form allowed for that shifting with a visual and conceptual efficiency.
A lot of your work is concerned about a character getting to place where they can have agency over their own story and life. Why is this an important theme for you?
I don't know why exactly--I'm probably not the best judge of recurring patterns in my own work. It's only in retrospect that I notice or, more often, other people point out that there are a few ideas or subjects that I keep returning to. Even when I was a little kid, the thing I liked most was when cartoon characters would break the fourth wall or in some other way reference the artificiality of their environment -- like, here I am, a drawing, a flat two-dimensional being created by some god-like illustrator. That kind of thing fascinated me and disturbed me and I guess I've just never fully gotten away from stories that are in some way about stories. Probably because it's such a useful metaphor for exploring big questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What happens if I run off the edge of the world?
You mentioned in your previous interviews that you applied to medical school and then, eventually, went to law school. What made you gravitate towards writing? Were you able to work into your writing what you learned in law school?
I'd known I wanted to write since I was in elementary school, but I'd actually never written fiction in any sustained way until I was 25 or 26--after I started working as a lawyer. Being in a work environment, I could feel it squishing me into a box, could feel how it would take up all of my available brain space if I let it. So I carved out a tiny compartment in my mind for fiction, a place where I could hide or retreat to or stash any stray ideas that I might come across and want to save for later.
Being a lawyer definitely influenced my writing because they influenced my thinking. In both law school and in the practice of law, I had to become a more analytical thinker. I also learned to write more clearly. I'm not saying my fiction is always analytical or that my writing is always clear (definitely not in early drafts) or that I want it to be. But having spent time sharpening those left-brain tools helped me overall.
You also write for television. How is writing for a visual medium different than writing for a purely textual medium?
Certain kinds of interiority that work in prose fiction do not easily carry over to a primarily visual medium like TV. Which is not to say that you can't do it, just that in order to do it there sometimes needs to be a kind of translational bridge or analogue, a metaphor or other creative invention that evokes the internal world of feelings and thoughts and sensations. I'm not saying I know how to do it! But I'm trying my best to learn.
You write a lot of science fiction. What about the genre appeals to you?
The possibility of tilting the universe two degrees this way or that--or two-thousandths of a degree--and seeing everything new.
The events of the past sixteen to eighteen months or so feel unreal—many have said it feels like living in a dystopian universe. What do you think is the function of science fiction or even general fiction for readers living in unimaginable circumstances?
To remind us that the range of possibilities is larger than we are inclined to think it is. To give perspective, insight and maybe even hope.
Has the pandemic changed or affected your writing process?
It's hard to know yet all the ways in which it has changed my writing, but one thing I'm conscious of is a sense of perspective that I didn't have before. I'm feeling that time is more scarce and valuable than ever. And that probably means I should be more discerning in what I try to take on and less worried about getting it perfect (because it will never be) and more focused on getting to the heart of the matter--or at least taking a good shot at it.
What would be your advice for aspiring writers?
Stop aspiring. Aspiration is a trap. Write and revise. And then revise again. And then revise some more.
What are you reading right now? What's currently on your to-be-read list?
I'm reading Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, on the recommendation of my close friend Tyler Johnson, who's always reading or listening to something good or at least interesting.
Tell us something people might not know about you.
I wrestled in high school. 145 lbs. then 152. I wasn't very good, but I tried hard.
What are you working on next?
For now, TV and film development projects, including an adaptation of Interior Chinatown as a potential streaming series. But I will get back to prose fiction again soon--short stories and another novel, I hope.