Q&A: Susan Choi Talks My Education and Getting a Little Help From Her Friends Jennifer Egan and Jhumpa Lahiri

Susan Choi’s fourth novel, My Education, is an erotic, sharply written tale of a young graduate student, Regina Gottlieb, who finds herself drawn to the devilishly handsome Professor Nicholas Brodeur, a man notorious on campus for seducing his students. One of his many sexual crimes: “He was rumored to ask female students to read Donne to him while he lay on the floor of his office, in darkness, it was presumed masturbating himself.” Though she doesn’t need to take his class, she enrolls anyway and soon becomes entangled not only with him, but also his alluring wife.

Choi's previous novels include A Person of Interest, a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award, and American Woman, a 2004 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, which was loosely based on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Choi lives in Brooklyn with her husband, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, and their two young sons. Later this month, she will read at the PowerHouse Arena on July 17 and at Greenlight Bookstore on July 30. Here, she talks about the “best lesson” she received in writing about sex, her struggles to raise young readers in the digital age, and the book advice she took from her two friends, Pulitzer Prize–winning authors Jennifer Egan and Jhumpa Lahiri.

I imagine when you’re starting a new book you have certain ambitions or new ways you want to push yourself as a writer. Was there something with this book that you hadn’t done before that you hoped to achieve?

Adrian Kinloch

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My Education

By Susan Choi

Viking, 304 pp., $26.95

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There is, and I don’t know that I did. One of the books that was most prominent in my mind when I started this book was one of my favorite books, The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. I had read that in between finishing A Person of Interest and trying to start this new project. It’s such a gorgeous book. It’s about young people sort of venturing out into the world for the first time and trying to be adults. It follows these characters through many years of their lives in this way that allows you to see them develop psychologically and emotionally. The way in which you see them change I found really moving, and I wanted to do that. I really wanted to show Regina change over time, especially in terms of the way she feels about relationships and her own sort of personal responsibility.

I guess it’s safe to say that this is your most erotic work.

Yeah, it’s definitely safe to say that.

Are there authors you looked to for good examples of how to write about sex?

I love authors who write about sex in a really honest and straightforward way that sometimes has a little bit of humor in it. I love Nabokov, which I guess is an obvious predecessor to look to—although I could never compare myself, I could just aim for it. The way he writes about erotic love, especially, of course, in Lolita, is so incredible, but also, despite the subject matter, often so funny and so human. I just love his whole approach to sexual love. And I’d say my friend Francisco Goldman, who is an amazing writer. I’ll never forget when I read his novel The Ordinary Seaman. There are sex scenes in that novel that are so endearing and wonderful and real and hilarious between these two young lovers who meet in horrible circumstances. The only place that they can go to do it is this decommissioned ambulance at an auto-repair place. The sex scenes are really raunchy, but they’re so sweet. I remember reading it years ago and thinking that this is the best lesson in how to write about sex.

In your book, Regina is drawn to Nicholas because he has a bad reputation for sleeping with his students. Why is she going after such a scoundrel?

It’s just a reality of love and attraction. We’re constantly attracted to people who are bad or wrong. I’ve known many such figures in my life as a student. There have always been these handsome naughty professors who were accused of harassment, but people were fascinated with them. And there were lots of women who were turned on by the very things they deplored. People can pounce on me for saying that, but it’s true. It’s a definite thing to deplore these supposedly predatory men while at the same time finding them really attractive. Like, look at Fifty Shades of Grey. Look at this recurring figure of the sadistic, controlling, predatory, sexually irresistible man. Regina is as much a sucker for that kind of thing as anyone. And then the irony is that she discovers that he’s actually a bit of a bumbling mess. He’s not the Don Juan that she is hoping for.

When you’re writing, do you ever feel burdened by the fact that attention spans are shorter and that readers want to be quickly grabbed and entertained?

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