Thursday, December 2, 2010

TAKE TEN: Author Charles Yu

For most of us, the future is something that is to be looked at with excitement and wonder, not knowing what can happen next. But what if you did know what was going to happen and how your own actions could alter it for the good or the bad? That is one of the lines of thought in author Charles Yu's book HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE*, however, you might be surprised that it's not the only one that readers will pick up on---and Charles wouldn't have it any other way.

After a fascinating interview with Cyrus Webb on Conversations LIVE Radio, Charles Yu gave more of his time to Webb for this Take Ten interview to talk about the premise of the book, how the main character got to share his name and what he hopes is the legacy his children will take away from what he is accomplishing as a writer.

This is their conversation...

Charles, what makes you feel better about being a published author: the response of the readers or how it makes you feel as a writer?

That's a really hard question.  On the one hand, the work is the work, and regardless of whether ten people or ten thousand people have read it, at the time I finished it, I felt like it was a real thing.  Not a perfect thing, but something that I had unearthed, relatively intact, from wherever books come from: The ether?  My heart?  The collective unconscious?  On the other hand, I would be lying if I said that the response of the readers wasn't invigorating.  And I mean both the positive and the negative ones.  To be engaged with people, to have written something that they are responding to emotionally, critically, etc., that connection is sustaining for me.

Are you in any way surprised by the way people are responding to your debut novel HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE?

I think I'm most surprised at how different people's readings of the novel have been.  Some people focus on only the time travel, others on the quantum mechanics/parallel universes, others on the immigrant story, others on the father-son story, others on the fact that it is, in large part, also a story about writing.  It's really been great to hear from people, and to see how varied their responses are.

Take us into the writing of the book. I had the pleasure of interviewing you for Conversations LIVE on the radio and you shared part of your story there. Why did you decide to name the main character after yourself?

Well, the truth really is that I put my own name in as a placeholder, and the story started to develop from there.  After a while, I thought about changing the name, but it felt wrong, like I'd be ripping something out of the fabric of the novel that was too tightly sewn in there.  Plus, it's another layer to the meta-fictional nature of teh story.  Which is not to say it's all (or even mostly) an autobiographical story.  "Charles Yu" and his parents are definitely fictional characters. 

Relationships between people are an important aspect of the book, but so are relationships between man and technology. Do you feel that the advancements we have made in the world have somehow adversely affected the way we deal wih one another?

At the risk of sounding like I'm saying nothing, I'd say that technology can isolate people, can create environments, social, physical, and mental environments, whose net effect is to decrease empathy.  On the other hand, there are technological innovations (maybe some of the same ones) that allow for modes of communication, connection and collaboration that feel new.  Yes, I straddled the fence pretty well there, I think! 

Charles, we sometime hear people talk about if they could go back and undo something in their own lives they would. Have you had that thought, and what would you like to do over if given the chance?

It's hard to say, now that I'm married to the woman of my dreams, and we have two kids.  If I changed anything from before the moment I met my wife, maybe I wouldn't have met her, you know?  What I think about now, on a semi-frequent basis, is how I'm acting today toward people close to me, how I want to act in a way that I'll be happy with at some point in the future looking back.  You know, like making sure I'm taking the time to maintain my relationships with family and friends, that I'm never taking anything, including the luxury of time, for granted.  I know that sounds like a Hallmark card, but I'm for real about this.  Maybe a less cheesy way to say it is that I try to live in a mode of Anticipatory Regret Avoidance.

I have shared with you some of the points I got from the book. As the story's creator, what do you hope people take away from it?

I don't know, really, because I wouldn't want to limit what's in there.  Even though I wrote it, I'm not sure I have any privileged access to the contents of the story or even my own mind.  Readers have repeatedly surprised me with takes on the book that are so insightful and creative that I almost feel like they're doing more of the work in reading than I did in the writing.  It's a family story about time, memory and regret, that's about all I feel comfortable saying!

As you mentioned, you are also a husband and father, Charles. When you look at your children and they see what their dad is doing with your talent,what do you hope that inspires in them?

Above all, I hope that I'm teaching them how to be empathetic, how to see other people.  A lot comes from just that one thing, empathy, right?  Both in terms of how we live and work with other people, and also in terms of producing creative work.  I hope it doesn't sound like I'm moralizing, although maybe that is what I'm doing.

As a published author you are seen as an authority on topics. One of course is the matter of success. What do you say to aspiring writers who want advice about their own careers?

That's kind of you to say, but I hope no one is really looking to me as an authority on anything other than perhaps how to feed a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old at the same time.  And even on that topic, I'm not really an expert (that would be my wife).  My advice for writers starting out is to only work on things that feel absolutely necessary to you, and to do it with conviction.  And lots of rewriting. 

What's next for you?

I've got a couple of things I'm kicking around, but mostly I'm working on another novel.  Too early to say much about it, as it's changing on a daily (or hourly) basis!

Thanks again for this opportunity, Charles. If our readers want more information about you, where can they find you?

Well, speaking of technology, I'm reachable on any number of social networks, including Facebook ( ) and Twitter ( ).  Thank you very much for allowing me this opportunity, Cyrus.  It's been a pleasure. 

* To listen to Webb's interview with author Charles Yu about the book on Conversations LIVE, visit this link: Yu's title was also chosen by Conversations as one of its Top 100 books of 2010. To see the complete listing, visit