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Interview: Wandering Through Time with Award Winning Author Charles Yu

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The protagonist of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a time machine repair technician by the name of Charles Yu, has been described by his creator, a writer by the name of Charles Yu, as a bit of a “sad sack.” Having abandoned his Masters in engineering, the fictional Yu wanders the timelines of Minor Universe 31 fixing the temporal mistakes of a cast of not-quite heroes such as Skywalker, L. – “not you know who… his son Linus.” With his grammar drive stuck in the Present-Indefinite, the fictional Yu manages to avoid looking too closely at, or progressing through, his own life – until the day when he shoots his future self in the stomach.

With the wry, and self-deprecating, emotional insights of the eponymous protagonist, it would be easy to assume that the fictional Yu is modeled after the one in this universe. Indeed, Charles Yu has stated on more than one occasion that much of the emotional content of the novel is autobiographical. Yet, there is a huge dichotomy between the relentless underachieving of the time machine repair tech, and the biography of the author who, among his other achievements was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, for authors to watch. The real Charles Yu holds a Bachelor’s degree from U.C. Berkley, a law degree from Columbia, and is a lawyer for a visual effects company started by James Cameron. So the question had to be asked:

Have you always been an overachiever?

Yu’s response, while seemingly out of line with his accomplishments, was characteristically wry. “I would say that I thought of myself, and my parents thought of me, as an underachiever.” Yu goes on to say that he “always felt like a slacker.” It wasn’t until adulthood that Yu realized the “impossible standards” that he and his parents (“as parents always do”) had set. Yu attributes some of these lofty goals to his role as the child of Taiwanese immigrants who wanted a better life for their children. “They had assumed that I had a certain level of ability…” Yu goes on to explain that the assumption was that any “failures” on his part such as the failure to be accepted into medical school were due to a lack of effort. He says that it wasn’t until adulthood that this perception, “flipped” for his parents and for himself. All parties “realized that my work ethic was higher, and my ability wasn’t.” He also says that he and his parents began to relax after the birth of his first child. (Yu is married with two young children.)

Whether Charles Yu would have made a good physician may be debatable, but a careful reading of his work renders one point quite clear. When it comes to writing, Yu may indeed have a great work ethic, but he suffers from no lack of talent. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is meta-fiction at its finest, a nesting-doll of story lines, each tucked within the other, and driven by one of the best-extended metaphors out there. In How to Live Safely the time machine is human existence, powered by memory and more specifically by language. The Grammar Drive, stuck in the case of the protagonist in the Present Indefinite, is such an elegant invention, that it is worth following the thought process of its creation.

“So, here was the basic order:
• I had an idea of a guy who keeps popping up in different universes, but that wasn’t going anywhere. It was hard to tell a cohesive story.
• Then, I thought, ‘why not time travel?’ And that morphed into ‘okay, he’s a time machine repairman.’
• Then what helped was the title. The original working title was How to Live Safely in a Hypothetical Universe. Changing that to “Science Fictional Universe” made me realize ‘oh, it’s meta-fiction.’

• That led me to the idea of time travel based on language. Verb tenses are all about time.
• Once those two things came together, one language related and one science fiction related, that’s what excited me, and all these weird phrases came up.”

Weird phrases, indeed. One of the quirkiest, and most weirdly phrased, entities in HTLS is Ed, a “non-existent yet ontologically valid dog.” When asked from what corner of his psyche Ed sprang, Yu has yet another verbal flow-chart ready. “Ed…The idea of a dog, I can’t take credit for. My agent (Gary Heidt) read an early draft and said, ‘I think he needs a dog.’” Yu agreed that his protagonist, stuck “in a box with himself” and a neurotic AI, needed “another being.” “But just a dog, that’s not much.” So the quandary became, “how to make a science-fictional dog.” Yu went through several prototypes in searching for Ed. A robot dog was deemed “too predictable.” The concept of an alien dog still elicits the verbal shrug best described as “enh.” Then Yu had a thought – “what about a dog that’s ret-conned out of another story?” However, Yu still refers to Ed as his “biggest problem with the book.” “I don’t know what he looks like.” (In further discussion, we agreed on something scruffy and mutt-ish.) But there’s still that pesky problem of ontology. “He does exist and he doesn’t really exist. What does that mean?”

In a meta-fictional triumph, the paradox of duality infuses not only the story-line of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe but the book’s own existence as well. In the tacit conflict between literary and mainstream or genre fiction, Yu has joined a growing cohort of authors seeking and achieving a middle ground. I asked Yu if this merger of literary and genre fiction was on his mind during the process of writing HTLS. “I think I was thinking about it – not in overt terms. But, I was thinking about getting a feel for the texture of this reality, Minor Universe 31, a feel of a place that was science fictional and real. From far away, it is science fiction, but then when you get up close, on a granular level it’s realism. I had to ground this universe in that, otherwise the story wouldn’t have emotional weight.” This blending of a story grounded in real emotion, but set in a science fictional universe led Yu to some conclusions about his own work. “After the fact, I realized that’s what I do – blend speculative fiction and realism. I like the idea of a sentence that you can find in either genre.” We discussed the bookstore model of segregation by genre or content, and the limitations this places on the discovery of new styles. “People like categories, but a book doesn’t have to be a category.”

Yu’s blended style of storytelling may be a generational byproduct. Certainly several of the authors who, like Charles Yu, have successfully mixed what Yu calls “Literature with a capital ‘L’” and science fiction, have been those whose formative years were spent in the grip of the television and, more specifically, in the golden era of sweeping science fiction drama. How to Live Safely is peppered with pop-culture references from the 1980s. Kids call “dibs” to be Han Solo and ride Huffy bikes. When asked about a generational influence on his writing, Yu is candid. “Yeah, for sure. I’m probably admitting something I shouldn’t admit to, but I watched a lot of TV as a kid.” Yu is less apologetic about his comic-book consumption. “These are the stories that we had growing up. It makes up our form of literature.” Yu ponders reaching beyond the borders of geekdom, of stretching “out of his comfort zone,” but concedes that he probably “won’t get away from it, and why would I want to?”

Yet, despite the obvious influence of epic sci-fi on his writing, in Yu’s own universe “Minor Universe 31, everyone is searching for something. There are no big stories. Most storylines are broken or cast off.” Here is where realism meets science fiction. Minor Universe 31 is populated not by heroes, but by time machine repairmen and the guy who keeps the books on the Death Star. In Minor Universe 31, when people are given access to time travel, the most common thing they do is to revisit the “worst day of their lives.” When asked about this slightly pessimistic view of his characters’ behavior, Yu answers, “I’m not sure that’s what I would do immediately.” However, he soon changes course. “The time machine is powered by memory and regret. That’s how you get there.” He pauses, and one can hear the switch from Minor Universe 31 to the universe of reality. “That’s mostly what you do. You go back and think about what you could do better … I have happy memories, but I don’t visit them as often as the times I was a total idiot.”

The question of returning to the scene of one’s failures opens the door to the world of the debut novelist. Though How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is listed as Yu’s first novel, his short story collection Third Class Superhero garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. For me, this begged the question, is HTLS truly Yu’s first novel? It turns out that Charles Yu “will confess to the carcasses of three novels. Well, they’re not necessarily dead, but…” In one rather unfair twist of temporal mechanics, Yu relates that one of his literary corpses belongs to a novel that he had “started a long time ago, but then a book came out that seemed like it.” He also says that he recently “started a couple of things that are proto-novel-ish fragments.” “Now they’re idea carcasses that I go and steal meat off of.” Yu pauses for a moment, slightly abashed at the scavenger metaphor, but then shrugs off the apology. “I like the image of things that I can harvest ideas off of.”

Ideas are not something Charles Yu seems to lack. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe layers ideas and concepts until the notion of losing oneself in a novel is redefined. I asked Yu if he ever got lost in his own story during the writing. “Yes, a lot. In the beginning it was a complete mess. In the middle, it was less of a mess. And toward the end, my editor at Pantheon, Tim O’Connell – I won the lottery with this guy – read the book so many times and helped me tinker with it, to shape the chronology and fix logic. I was trying to make the ending ambiguous but evocative.” Despite the twisting, braided timelines, Yu says that he “didn’t do a lot of outlining or diagramming” while writing the novel. Though one of the first things he created – an outline of the time loop – exists as part of the novel, of the rest, Yu says, “it was a short book, and I wanted to hold it in my head.” Yu wanted to leave open the window for serendipity, for “weird things” to wander into the novel. “There’s less of an opportunity for surprise with an outline. I know myself. If I have an outline, I’ll stick to it too closely.”

Yu’s novel pops and buzzes with the weird and serendipitous. But, to the author, the greatest serendipity seems to be the book’s reception. When asked if there was anything about the novel that he felt had been missed or misunderstood, Yu replies, “more than anything I’ve forgotten things that I put in there. Perceptive readers are reminding me. I love what people have taken away from it.” Yu says that the coverage for the book “has been amazing. I expected a proportion to be negative, especially from science fiction readers.” One can almost hear his head shaking. “That was a stupid assumption, and didn’t give science fiction readers enough credit. If anything, sci-fi readers are more open to stuff that’s hard to categorize than other readers.” Yu largely credits the reception of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe to the work of his publicist at Pantheon, Josefine Kals. He hesitates, asking if it would be okay to give her a plug in this interview. “She’s done an amazing job of getting coverage.”

As far as I can tell, this is characteristic Charles Yu. Throughout the interview, his tendency was to downplay his own achievements while extolling the work of those around him. One had to wonder, with critical acclaim for his first novel, and a National Book Foundation award for his short story writing under his belt, does a guy who once considered himself to be an “underachiever” feel an increased pressure to write well? Yu, who describes himself as a solitary writer, says that while there is an increased pressure, there is also a sense of reward in writing for an audience. “I’d hate for someone to hate the second novel, but it makes it easier to feel that someone will read it. It keeps motivation going.” After a slight pause, Yu switches direction once more. “On the other hand, there’s satisfaction in solitude. I can do it at a pace that feels natural…” He lets the thought linger, an ending both ambiguous and evocative.

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