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Oct 23, 2008

Susan Choi extracts timeless insights on identity and empathy from a stimulating mix of personal memory and headline news.

By Janyce Stefan-Cole

Being the close relative of a fiction writer entails certain risks. No one knows this better than the father of Susan Choi.
Her first novel, The Foreign Student, tells the story of a 1950s Korean émigré and former USIA translator who is attending college in Sewanee, Tenn. Choi’s father was a 1950s Korean refugee and wartime USIA translator who attended college in Sewanee, Tenn.
The protagonist of her latest book, A Person of Interest, teaches mathematics at a Midwestern university. Choi’s father teaches mathematics at a Midwestern university.

On the joys, challenges and pitfalls of writing a novel: FLYP Media sits down for a video interview with Susan Choi.

Her first novel, The Foreign Student, tells the story of a 1950s Korean émigré and former USIA translator who is attending college in Sewanee, Tenn. Choi’s father was a 1950s Korean refugee and wartime USIA translator who attended college in Sewanee, Tenn.
The protagonist of her latest book, A Person of Interest, teaches mathematics at a Midwestern university. Choi’s father teaches mathematics at a Midwestern university.
The novel opens with a bang—a letter bomb from the “Brain Bomber” to be exact, which explodes in the office next to that of Choi’s hero, Dr. T.K. Lee. The real Unabomber of 1980s and 1990s headlines, Ted Kaczynski, was a classmate of Choi’s father at the University of Michigan.
How does her father feel about being at the center of his daughter’s fiction? With a smile, the author says her father is “an enormously patient man…a very good sport.”
Like other novelists with Choi’s abilities—her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2004—her work is less interesting for the ways in which she uses such facts than for the ways in which she alters them.
In A Person of Interest, for example, she refuses to give her hero a Korean—or any other—ethnic background. “I’m so tired of the preeminence of ethnicity in fiction, especially in mine,” she says. “I’m so sick of people saying, ‘oh, it’s because the character is Korean’, or ‘it’s because she’s Japanese.’”
American Woman is based on the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. The novel’s protagonist is Japanese-American, modeled on SLA kidnapper Wendy Yoshimura. At one point, an SLA comrade tells Choi’s character, Jenny Shimada: “Your skin is a privilege. Your Third World perspective’s a privilege.”
Shimada cuts him off: “Stop saying I’m from the Third World when I’m from California.”

ROOTS OF ACCLAIM
Susan Choi was born in South Bend, Ind. At the age of nine, when her parents divorced, she moved to Houston with her mother, whose parents were Russian Jewish émigrés to America.
After graduating from Yale, Choi did graduate work in creative writing at Cornell for three years, leaving without her doctorate but with an unfinished story based on five pages of notes on her father’s recollections of his youth.
Moving to New York City, she took a job at The New Yorker as a fact checker. On nights and weekends, she reshaped, elaborated and finally subsumed her father’s story into The Foreign Student, which was published to wide acclaim in 1998.
Not long after, she quit her job at The New Yorker, where she had met her husband, fellow fact checker Pete Wells, now an editor at The New York Times. He and their two young boys have made no appearance in her fiction, at least not yet.
In addition to her family, Choi finds inspiration in newspapers. Just as American Woman addresses Vietnam-era radicalism, A Person of Interest draws not only on the Unabomber case but also on the bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, the espionage case of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee and the post-9/11 anthrax mailings. All three are cases in which the lives of people wrongly identified by authorities as “persons of interest” were scarred or ruined.
For Dr. Lee, becoming a “person of interest” in the Brain Bomber case actually leads to a kind of redemption for a cranky, regretful man who, without Choi’s talent and sensitivity, would have been very difficult to like.
This was a challenge she set for herself quite intentionally. “It’s easy to sympathize with likeable people,” she remarks. “It’s not easy to sympathize with people who on their surface are extremely difficult and not engaging.”
But why would Choi make relating to her main character hard on herself on purpose? Her answer goes to her reason for writing novels in the first place: “A book thinks things through,” she explains.
“It would be falsely cheerful for me to say that I don’t sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and say to myself, ‘why am I writing novels, which everybody says is a dead or dying art form…Should I be doing something more relevant to this particular moment?”
She finds her motivation in “that transforming and strangely transporting feeling you get when you’re really immersed in a book and you become entirely wrapped up in sympathy for another human being who’s been really effectively realized by the author. That’s important, especially now, when we feel we’ve made all this progress in terms of social prejudices, but at the same time, there are all these new obstacles that keep coming up, all these new fears that we have.
“I mean this current election season, in which so many people are convinced that one of the presidential candidates is deliberately deceiving them about his religious preferences. I find that amazing. I think that maybe it’s because people are afraid of this person and don’t really know how to imagine themselves into a person who is slightly different from them—that imaginative act seems to be really hard these days. I think that the novel helps with that. It’s entertainment, too, and that’s important, but I think it’s a kind of entertainment that makes us more tolerant and tender as people with each other.”
In the hands of a writer like Susan Choi, maybe the novel has a future after all.

What happens when you become a “person of interest”: Susan Choi does a reading for FLYP from her new novel, A Person of Interest.


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