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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Charles Yu Interview

Charles Yu's debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, now in paperback from Vintage, is a creative and evocative time travel story, about a young man searching for his missing father. Along for
the journey are a fictional dog and a time machine with attitude problem. It's a book that equally investigates human nature as it does quantum physics. Charles Yu stopped by Third Place Books to sign books and chat with
Vladimir over at Third Place Press.

V: HTLSIASFU is one of those books that, when you start to talk to someone who's read it, or is reading it, suddenly you end up finding all these different facets to the book. We talk about some of the narrative dynamics, we also talk about some of the world-building; there's so much stuff that we can explore each time, it's kind of prismatic, we all come up with a new thing. And for me, being a life-long science fiction fan, it's amazing: your book is very concise, and with all the ideas that you have in it you could write a book five times bigger. How did you stop yourself from making your book so detailed?

C: Every book starts with fear. I was a little afraid--I would also describe myself as a science fiction fan, I'm still confident in my fandom. I read Asimov when I was in eighth grade and I became hooked--and I wanted to touch on all of these things and then when I got to some of the world-building and, as you said, some of the meta-science fiction stuff and then the
science fiction stuff itself, as I would get too far down the road in any one area, I would get a little afraid that I was getting in over my head. I didn't want to start building a world and then suddenly realize I didn't
Author Charles Yu
have all the tools to make this what it should be. So I would consciously stop myself as say, "O.K. I'm making my world simpler, I'm going to make this smaller," and then on a large scale that's really what I did; the universe in which the book takes place is Minor Universe 31, and I really did want to get the feeling of a place that was pretty compact; it was easier for me to manage and feel like I could do a small world justice, I'll
try for a bigger world sometime in the future.
  V: It's interesting because by the very fact that you didn't have confidence in your world-building, you actually made the book much more accessible to people who don't usually read genre, because sometimes I think when people who don't read genre approach it, they're put off by all the meticulous details. Your book comes off a lot more similar in tone to certain poetry like Alan Lightman's "Einstein's Dreams". I don't know if you've read it-- 
C: Yes, yes I have. I appreciate at comparison. I love that book.
V:--  [your book] is so hard to describe and I had to find a starting point so that people could access the book. It's worked out in your favor in that it will have a broader appeal, because of the fact that you restricted
yourself. You mentioned earlier Asimov; are there any other influences that went into making your book?

C: The other big influence-- Asimov, because in the Foundation series he invents a science called Psychohistory, which was an inspiration for me creating Chronodiegetics- this fake science my book. The other major influence that I kept going back to was Nicholson Baker whose very first book, "The Mezzanine", is a book that takes place basically, during the course of a guy riding an escalator one level. The very first words in the book--I'm afraid I might get is wrong--are 'At almost one o'clock.' So he's already indicating to you that this is a book about being stuck between levels, stuck between moments; it's a book filled with footnotes, digressions, it's a book made from digressions essentially. And it's kind of about thought itself and what it's like to be in-between, and keep slicing more and more finely and more and more thin, the moment, and really look at something so closely. It's a book that takes place entirely in this guy's head. And as strange as it sounds, I wanted to write a book about an entire universe that in a sense, is an interior space. 
V: your thoughts on genre-- some people might say that this is a cross-genre book, but you were heavily influence by genre. How do feel about genre distinctions, how do they apply to writers and the industry. Any thoughts you have on that? 

C: I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I'm going to go ahead and try.
My guess is that a lot of writers who are not hard and fast in the genre,
don't approach the book at all--in terms of thinking in genre. They're
approaching it from a very one-off stance; they're saying, " what is *this*
book going to be?" and from book to book they can go wildly in one direction
or another. So unless you're writing Noir or Hard SF, or Fantasy, you're
probably not super-comfortable with labels. That said, I've now written two
books--the short story collection [Third Rate Superhero], and this novel,
and both have elements of speculative fiction, and I'm working on something
now and if I had to guess, it will also end up having many speculative
fiction elements in it. I don't know why, I'm not really trying to get away
from it, and I'm not trying to do it consciously.

V: They're essentially writer's tools rather than something that people think of as genre: convention-goers and such. It seems like a lot of writers outside of genre seem to be embracing these tools because they make stories more creative.

C: That's a great way to put it. I think with these tools you get to have
the benefit of lots of other stories as reference. There are symbols,
markers that I get to put in the background while you're reading my story,
and I get to cheat, I get to piggyback on some of those other stories.
Science Fiction is very rich with conventions, and I don't mean with
'rules'; people know how to read SF, they are expecting certain things, or
they know that there's this universe of stories told already, so that you
have this mental library of what's been done. And because of that it's
actually not limiting, it's more freeing, because people can go and read
your brand-new story having had some kind of instruction on how to read a
story like it but not exactly like it Did that make sense?

V: Yes, yes it did. That's a great way of putting it. 
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