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Playing with Process with Susan Choi

When Susan Choi graced CLA’s virtual stage this February, Choi’s calm, rhythmic tone seemed to ground every viewer in their seat. She read from her short story, “Flashlight,” which follows Louisa, a ten-year-old girl who lives through the loss of a parent.

After her reading, Choi spoke in conversation with SJSU’s English Department Chair Noelle Brada-Williams. Brada-Williams first prompted Choi with a question concerning Choi’s latest novel, Trust Exercise, and about the kinds of trust readers place in literature and in authors.

Choi smiled.

She discussed how she writes for her readers’ enjoyment and that she wants her readers to trust her. Since Trust Exercise takes the reader on a disruptive adventure of surprise and doubt, Choi wanted her readers to feel like they were in good hands, which acts as just one of the many trust exercises in the novel.

Choi also mentioned how Trust Exercise explored authority and how stories “structure” our lives:

“We make sense of the world through narrative, and often damage can be done in this way and is done in this way through the narratives that are told to us or we uphold.”
—Susan Choi

Later in the evening, Choi acknowledged that she had been working on Part One of Trust Exercise for years in between different projects, but it wasn’t until Donald Trump came into office and started “speaking for America” that she began to wonder if any of her own characters felt anger about how their stories were being told. As Choi began to ask herself these questions, Part Two came to her very quickly and the novel Trust Exercise started to form.

When asked about her writing process and subject matter, Choi described how small moments or scenes seize her interest so much that she simply must write about it. Choi went on to mention how she is a visual writer, so location and settings details are important parts of her process. For example, when Choi was writing American Woman, she wasn’t able to get a strong sense of her characters until she physically stepped into a house in upstate New York.

Towards the end of the evening, Choi reiterated that her writing process is constantly changing. Right now, she is focusing more on the process of writing, as opposed to the end result (a novel). Before leaving CLA’s virtual stage, Choi encouraged the writers in the audience to be playful and more exploratory but to make sure they actually sit down and write. “Writing is when the ideas come.”


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