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'Trust Exercise' author Susan Choi on power dynamics and timely fiction
Nick Schifrin: On the "NewsHour" Bookshelf tonight: The setting is a high school for the performing arts. The location? An unnamed Southern city. And the lessons are about consent, power, and memory.
"Trust Exercise" won this year's National Book Award for fiction.
As part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas, Jeffrey Brown met author Susan Choi at last month's Miami Book Fair and started by asking her, why set a story in a high school?
Susan Choi: I think I was initially exploring the relationships between students and teachers.
That's a relationship that's been interesting to me for my whole career. And I was really interested in the intersection between that relationship and this time of life, adolescence, the teenage years.
Jeffrey Brown: Why is it that that grabs you?
Susan Choi: I think it's that inbetweenness.
I think even -- forgive me, but the way you ask the question is part of what interests me. I think we don't really know how to talk about teenagers or adolescents. We don't really know whether to think of them as adults or as children, because they're neither.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Susan Choi: They have all of the intellectual abilities and emotional passions of adults, but less judgment and much less experience.
We don't really know how to treat these young people who aren't allowed to vote until they're, what, 18. Sometimes, they can drive when they're 16.
But our rules surrounding it kind of betray our, I would say, cultural incoherence.
Jeffrey Brown: It's set in a performing arts high school.
Susan Choi: These are young people who are already looking at their lives in a very adult way. They have chosen to dedicate themselves to a craft.
Jeffrey Brown: Right.
Susan Choi: They have chosen to spend their high school years doing pre-professional training. They are thinking ahead. They're...
Jeffrey Brown: They have an idea of what -- who they want to be.
Susan Choi: They know who they want to be, and they're almost like proto-adults, but they're not adults.
Jeffrey Brown: Right.
Susan Choi: They have this very charismatic teacher, who is brilliant, incisive, influential.
Their world revolves around him. And that's thrilling and that's dangerous. And so I wanted to explore what can happen in that kind of relationship.
Jeffrey Brown: So what you end up looking at are these kind of power relationships...
Susan Choi: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: ... right, between students and teachers, sometimes between students and other students.
And, of course, it gets to issues of consent. It gets to issues that are very much in the news on a news program like ours these days.
Susan Choi: Right.
What I certainly couldn't have planned would be how that exploration would become a general national preoccupation after, you know, the advent of the nationwide sort of MeToo movement in the fall of 2017.
I mean, I had pretty much already finished this book in its entirety. I was still working on the ending. And the ending of the book actually did change shape as a result of the national conversation that was taking place.
Jeffrey Brown: Really? It came out in a big way as you were finishing this novel.
Susan Choi: It came out in a big way.
Jeffrey Brown: Does it all surprise you?
Susan Choi: It surprises me and it doesn't surprise me. It doesn't surprise me, because we haven't solved the problems, we haven't figured this stuff out.
It does surprise me because it -- there are moments where it feels almost uncanny, moments in the Kavanaugh hearings, moments during the Jeffrey Epstein case, where these are almost uncanny real-life enactments of issues that I was trying to explore in this novel, which I started writing years ago.
And so that's -- it's startling. It's worrisome. It shows that we have a lot to do.
Jeffrey Brown: What was your feeling, though, as a writer, as you're finishing this novel, and then suddenly it burst into a kind of national conversation?
Susan Choi: I have never tried to write timely fiction, but I have always been interested in writing fiction that is reflecting on my times in some way.
I have written a lot of historical fiction, because I tend to find it easier to look back and to try to digest in that way. I have never even made the effort to write about the now.
First of all, I'm slow.
Susan Choi: If you're going to write about the now as a fiction writer, you have got to be a lot faster than me, taking five years for books.
So it was remarkable that our now and my book did kind of arrive at the same set of concerns.
Jeffrey Brown: Another notable thing here is the storytelling.
You -- the first part of this novel focuses on a young woman named Sarah, and then, a certain point about halfway in, perspective shifts ahead in time, and characters who were lesser parts of the first -- initial story are now at the fore.
Susan Choi: Yes.
I was thinking a lot about the storytelling that we do culturally and politically and historically, the storytelling that happens outside of novels, that happens across our entire culture, that involves us as a nation trying to decide, you know, who we are, how we're going to talk about things.
Like, one example would be immigration. For me, immigration had always been a positive story. My father was an immigrant. My grandparents on my mother's side were immigrants. Immigration, to me, has always been the great strength of our country.
Suddenly, to see that story changed so dramatically was enough to really change my relationship to my own storytelling, I guess. It's strange to say, even though my storytelling is in this totally different form, the novel.
I felt unhappy about a lot of the national stories that were being told about my country. And I'm a citizen of this country. And yet that's not my version of the story. And I knew a lot of people felt that way.
But I also started thinking about my fictional world. And I started thinking, I wonder if there are characters in my fictional world who feel similarly pissed off, marginalized and silenced by this story as it's unfolded to date.
It was kind of a fun thought experiment that immediately became a new idea for the direction the book would take, when this character who, up to that point we have given no notice to, suddenly pushes herself forward and says, you haven't been paying attention to me, but you should.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, "Trust Exercise," the winner of the National Book Award.
Susan Choi, thank you very much.
Susan Choi: Thank you.