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Susan Choi Discusses Her Writing with

"As I got to my 20's I realized I knew little about his life before he became my father." -Choi

Susan Choi was born in Indiana and raised in Texas. She is the author
of two novels. The Foreign Student (1998) won the Asian-American Literary Award and the Steven Turner Award for a First Book of Fiction. Her second novel, American Woman, was a Pulitzer Prize fiction finalist in 2004. At work on a third novel, she lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, Pete, and their son, Dexter.

The Foreign Student evolved from Susan Choi’s interviews with her father, who came to the U.S. from Korea during the 1950s.

CreativeParents: How did you decide to write about your father?

My father’s experience before he immigrated to the states was something I didn’t know much about. His stories were decontextualized – simple stories about events. He didn’t talk about his experiences. As I got to my 20's I realized I knew little about his life before he became my father.
I thought I’d write short stories based on his recollections. The short stories never really worked very well. The more he opened up, the more material I had.

A story should be a thing unto itself, but his stories went outside the boundaries. One kept getting longer and longer and it seemed to be turning into a novel. I’d wanted to write a novel but hadn’t known how to go about it. I’d attempted a novel once before and wrote some chapters that didn’t work. Here I found myself writing a novel unintentionally. This started turning into a novel of its own accord.

CreativeParents: Was it difficult getting your father to talk about his past?

It was difficult getting him to talk generally, and tell stories. The more I knew, the more pointed my questions could be. There always needed to be a starting point with a specific question… Otherwise he would say, “Oh it’s not that interesting.” When I asked specific questions, he wanted the answers to be correct. When I could direct the conversation and interview him it required a certain amount of knowledge. Our conversation would raise questions that I’d answer through research. He’d tell me about having to escape from Seoul. “Why did you go back? “ I could say, “How did you know that the North Koreans wouldn’t come again? “

CreativeParents: How did hearing about your father’s early life make you feel?

It was pretty odd because it was hard to connect the stories with him, and still is for me. There are so few photos of him from when he was young, before he came to the US. I’ve never seen pictures of my father before 1955; or seen pictures of my grandfather -- so it’s hard to visualize him in Korea in the 1940s. The oldest photos are from 1963 when he met my mother and she kept pictures.
Hearing the stories was like hearing about another person – a third party.

We went to Korea together in 1999 and even that trip wasn’t helpful in imagining him going through the experiences, because Seoul is so transformed. There’s no trace of my father’s former life in that city. Its one of the most urban, modern cities and so it was hard to picture what happened in the novel.

CreativeParents: At what point did you decide to make the book fiction?

I always knew it would be fiction. I was never interested in writing non-fiction. The things he told me were so sketchy that I had to fictionalize to fill in, and I liked the freedom that fiction gave me. I wish that I had taken better notes, or kept the notes I took. The novel and the real version of his life are now confused with each other, and it’s unsettling. I ‘ve rewritten our family history, unintentionally.

CreativeParents: What decisions were you making in determining what to fictionalize?

I found that the story started to take shape and had certain demands that real life material doesn’t make. Katherine was going to be one of a parade of people that Chuck meets when he comes to America – and then she started to develop. The relationship between the professor and Katherine and between the professor and Chuck gave the story an emotional engine. It kept going into flashback, and the developments in the present bore no relationship to the real life of my father.

A lot of his family’s story had to be pared away – he had five siblings and that was too much to include. There were complicated political issues about my family’s history. That was the wall I couldn’t get to the other side of. My grandfather’s political alignment makes him controversial in Korea. He was a well-know public intellectual, critic and magazine publisher. His political alignment, what he stood for, was called into question when the Japanese occupation ended because he was very successful in his career during the Japanese occupation. All of this is significant to my father’s departure from Korea. I tried to shift the center of gravity to the present – so that part didn’t make it into the novel.

CreativeParents: How was writing American Woman different?

I decided I wanted to do things differently after The Foreign Student. The Foreign Student is elliptical, and I wanted to do less back story and wanted a story that unfolded in the present and that was plot driven and that didn’t shuttle back and forth between the past and present.

On the second book I became more demanding of myself as a writer. A large portion is about the relationship between people living in the middle of nowhere – in hiding so they can’t go anywhere. I’d painted myself into a corner and I had to figure out what they would do from day to day. In American Woman I wanted to work on aspects of form that I hadn’t concentrated on in The Foreign Student. The first book is more organic and the second is more rigorously structured – I had ideas about its structure, and certain goals.

CreativeParents: Were there any authors that influenced your writing of The Foreign Student?

While writing The Foreign Student I read a lot of Graham Greene to embolden myself to write about the war as if I had been there.

CreativeParents: What was it like being considered a “Southern Writer?”

I was tickled and flattered. It put me in good company. The South takes literature really seriously, perhaps more so than in other parts of the country. It seems to me that more people read, and that people are interested in examining their history in a clear-eyed way. I met more people who are interested in examining racial issues than anywhere else. They are interested in their own history and don’t try to whitewash. At these literary events I met people who were reflective and thoughtful about their place in history.

CreativeParents: As the mother of a young child, how have you found balancing writing and being a parent?

In one way I've gotten a lot more efficient. I used to resort to all sorts of tricks and self-discipline to make myself stick to a writing schedule. Now, I have no choice: I pay a sitter to stay with Dexter so I can write, and when the sitter's here, I write! I have to --otherwise I just sit there thinking of all the money I'm spending!

But in another way it's much harder to achieve any kind of internal continuity in terms of the writing I'm doing. Before I had Dexter, whatever I was writing was my central preoccupation: I'd think about it on the subway, in the shower, while eating, and I'd get a lot of mental work done even if I wasn't at my desk. Now, I can barely remember what I've been writing even when I am at the desk. I'm always having to remind myself of where the project is, because my mind's on other things.

CreativeParents: Has having a child changed your actual writing, or your perspective on writing?

When I was pregnant, a pregnant character showed up in a thing I was writing, and once Dexter was born, this character had a newborn, so I guess the impact of Dexter on my work is pretty obvious.

CreativeParents: What are some of the next writing challenges you'd like to undertake?

Just getting another book done before the end of this decade feels like challenge enough. In the long term, I want to be a good writer and a good mother, which sounds very sappy and also very obvious, but which of course is going to be hard -- and really great.


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