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For author Charles Yu, ‘non-writing time can also be productive’

If you were to watch writer Charles Yu go about his day in a time-lapse video, he cautions that you might think to yourself, “Now there is a guy who is wasting a lot of time.”

The author of “Interior Chinatown,” who is also a television writer for shows such as “Westworld,” told the PBS NewsHour that he doesn’t have a strict work routine — and a good chunk of his day usually consists of activities that don’t involve writing, whether it’s walking the dog, going to get a snack or spending time with his family.

But Yu says non-writing time can also be productive.

“What I do is try to frame a question or idea in a useful or interesting way, set my subconscious to work on it, and then check back later to see if there’s been progress,” Yu said. He likens the process to when a computer has programs running in the background — you might not see the central processing unit in action, but every once in a while you might get an update from the progress bar. The same thing happens when he takes time away from writing, he said: “Ding, update from your brain: ‘here’s a sentence that might be interesting.'”

Below, Yu also discusses how the 2016 election made him reconsider the framing of the American dream — and thus served as the inspiration for “Interior Chinatown” — plus some valuable advice his wife gave him while he was writing the book.

What is your daily writing routine?

Wake up at dawn, run six to eight miles, eat three hard-boiled eggs, wash them down with a quart of black coffee. I write longhand, sitting on the ground and I don’t stop or allow myself any more food or water until I’ve written 2,000 words.

Just kidding.

It varies day to day, but usually some combination of sitting in chair, dipping into books, reading online, foraging for snacks, walking my dog, getting back to the chair. Doing that five or six days a week, morning to evening, with ample breaks for lunch and dinner and family time. If you were to watch me on time-lapse (very boring), you might say wow, now there is a guy who is wasting a lot of time. You might be right. A lot of days it feels that way.

But I also believe at least some of that non-writing time is productive. What I do is try to frame a question or idea in a useful or interesting way, set my subconscious to work on it, and then check back later to see if there’s been progress. It’s like when your computer has programs running in the background–the CPU is still working, even if you can’t see the window. And then once in a while, the progress bar announces itself, one of those little pop-ups. Ding, update from your brain: ‘here’s a sentence that might be interesting.’ Something like that.

What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?

I read “Animal Farm” with my children a couple of years ago. We took turns reading out loud to each other. A few pages at a time, a couple of nights a week, we got through it. At first, I worried it might be a bit early to tackle this book (at the time, my son was in fifth grade and my daughter in seventh). And initially it was slow going, with lots of confusion and giggling about pigs walking around on two legs and sleeping in beds.

Then slowly that confusion opened up into conversations. About allegory, about how a story can be more than one thing. Once we got going, there were so many conversations, discussions, investigations that spun out of our reading, sending us down rabbit holes of the best kind. We were wandering together, looking things up, asking questions. We talked about economies (what are they?) and governments (what are they?) and ways that societies organize themselves. Rules and who sets rules and who changes them and what fairness is. It became a garden of forking paths, and down every path was learning. For all of us.

What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?

“How To With John Wilson” on HBO. It wasn’t completely overlooked – a lot of TV critics praised it. Some of them even said it was the best thing on TV in 2020. Which is a big statement, considering there were 9 billion things on TV in 2020. It’s hard to describe the show in a way that does it justice. Basically, John Wilson narrates over footage he’s taken over the course of many years. The footage is mostly of New York City or its inhabitants. The episodes are around half an hour, give or take, and are sort of like essays that make you laugh and think and feel. I did not watch all 9 billion things on TV last year, but of those I did watch, this was my favorite. If you don’t have HBO, you can still watch some of his work on Vimeo. A good place to start might be with his film, “How To Live With Regret.”

What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?

It was from my wife, Michelle. And it wasn’t intended as advice. I was stuck writing this book. Very, very stuck. And confused and frustrated. I was working (“working”) in my office (i.e., my bedroom), on a Saturday afternoon, door closed. At that point I’d been working on “Interior Chinatown” for about five years. I’m in the room, spinning out, just a big lump of writer’s block and self-loathing. I can hear my kids messing around, running up and down the stairs, singing and shouting. And I hear Michelle tell them to keep it down, because “Daddy is working on his book.” And they did quiet down, of course. Not just that time, but a hundred other times over the course of many evenings and weekends over a number of years. Because they’re thoughtful, conscientious people, and also because their mother has trained them well.

Here I am, locked in my failure spiral, frittering away another afternoon. The clock is ticking, and out there is my family, being considerate. They care about my book more than I do. I felt this wave of shame and guilt but also clarity and motivation.

So the advice wasn’t directly about writing, and it wasn’t even said to me. I heard it through the door. But that was the thing that got me going, pushed me to finish the book. My wife would never have said it directly to me, but it ended up conveying a message I needed to hear. Which was: “You are a very fortunate, privileged person. That privilege comes at a cost. You don’t have infinite time, and you need to get back out there and be with those people you love. So get going, you dum-dum.”

Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when you knew it was over?

It was early 2017, after the election and inauguration. I’d been trying to find a way to write about immigration and assimilation. The frame I’d been using was one of fairy tales, of people coming to the United States and there being some magic that happens as they make their lives in a new land. And I realized that frame was the problem. It wasn’t true – there was no fairy tale. The story I’d been trying to tell didn’t work anymore, maybe never worked. So I had to find a new way in, and then I heard the first lines of the book in my head. It was Willis Wu talking – a background character who wants to be part of the larger story, dreams of having a role in the world. From there, it was still another couple of years of work, but in that moment I felt like I had something. As for when it was over – I’m not sure it ever is, for me. Sometimes as I’m reading during an event, I’ll see things that I wish I could change. But on a practical level, when I turned it in and my editors and agent said: You did it. You crossed the finish line. I trust them as much as anyone, so that was quite a relief.

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