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?
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?
I do think about that. I don’t know if I feel burdened by it. I feel it’s a challenge. I want the same thing. I really want to tell a story that’s complicated and challenging, and I don’t want to compromise the prose, but I definitely want people turning the pages. I guess it’s not a burden; it feels like an imperative. But sometimes I think, “Oh, what if I want to write a really quiet, strange book with no plot? Could I do that?” I do feel like there isn’t much tolerance for that kind of thing anymore, which is a shame.
In your acknowledgments, you thank Jennifer Egan and Jhumpa Lahiri for their “crucial advice and encouragement.” What was the most helpful advice that each one gave?
Jhumpa had been reading the draft, like, hot off the press—as soon as I wrote a page, practically, she read it. She was with me from the very beginning and sort of deserves credit for my ever finishing this book at all because she was so encouraging, and I was having such a hard time. But the really crucial thing she said to me—we were on this long drive together and babbling to each other about our projects and where they were, and I said, “Yeah, well, you know, now that all this has happened, I think I’m going to have this happen and this happen.” And she looked at me and she was like, “Susan, your book is done! The plane is landing. No more, take it out of the air. You’ve got to start winding it down now.” And I was like, “Really? It doesn’t feel like a full book.” She was like, “It is. Calm down, end the draft, and then look at it.” I had this idea that I was going to write this 500-page book about this woman’s life. I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t said that, because I did sort of lose sight of the story.
Then, I was having terrible struggles revising this book. There was something really wrong with Regina’s point of view. It’s hard to explain, but Regina’s point of view just wasn’t working, and that’s the point at which Jennifer read a complete draft and gave me the most incredible set of notes. And suddenly I was like, Oh my God! I know what to do! Sometimes that happens, and it’s so amazing. You just need to have somebody else look at it and talk about it. It helps if it’s someone as smart as Jenny.
In an interview you said you were interested in writing as a child and wrote a lot of stories, and then lost interest in your teens and became more interested in acting and visual arts. Did you stop writing because books weren’t seen as cool by your peers, or was it something else?
Definitely not. It wasn’t peer pressure at all. It’s actually bewildering to me why I made those choices, because I went to a high school that specialized in the visual and performing and media arts. There was a whole department at my high school dedicated to fiction- and poetry-writing and photography, and I decided to do the theater department. I think it was me taking my interest in writing for granted. I just didn’t see it really as anything special. I had always written little stories. I was one of those annoying kids who was like, “I made a book. Will you read it?” I think by my teen years I was annoyed by myself. I was like, “Uch, whatever. So, I like to write. Who cares?” So, it was really me. In college, I took fiction classes and took it a little more seriously, but I definitely wasn’t, like, the literary-magazine person. I wanted to be a graphic-design major. I think I devalued writing because it was something that I was actually pretty good at, and I was really bad at those other things—just terrible.
I saw that you gave a talk recently titled “Raising Independent-Minded Passionate Readers in the Digital Age.” You have two children. What’s your advice?
Oh God! That was so hard. I felt so unqualified to give that talk. The talk should have essentially been: “I don’t know how to do it!” My eight-year-old is turning nine in a matter of days and he really wants an iPod touch, so we’re in the throes of that debate: Do we buy him an iPod touch? What’ll it mean? We get a little too agonized about it, me and my husband. But I worry about it, I do. Because statistically kids read so much less, and even kids who do read are reading books at lower levels than in the past. I’m a bit of a knee-jerk Luddite about it. It’s just hard for me to find value in video games. At the same time I don’t want to be that mom who’s like, “No video games!” My parents were definitely very strict about certain things and it just made me want them desperately. I guess the best thing to do is to create a culture of literacy and books and love of that sort of thing in your own home and just hope it takes without having to be a cop about it.
Do you try to bang out a first draft quickly and then go back over it, or do you go chapter by chapter, trying to get each one done as perfectly as possible? Which is more helpful?
Oh, the former, for sure. But I used to do the latter and just discovered that it was a really bad process for me. I used to write a little, polish like crazy, write a little more, polish like crazy, and it just wasted so much time. I could never get a sense of what the whole thing was—to the point that once I did have a draft, which would take forever, I would realize, Oh, that thing that I spent so much time polishing, that’s not even going to be a part of the story. It was just a waste of time and energy, and clearly it’s still hard for me to see structure.
You teach creative writing at Princeton. What advice do you give to your young writers?
I usually just tell them to try to finish a draft. I feel like the most frequent piece of advice I give is just thrash your way through the draft without obsessing over it, just get to the other side and figure out how it works before you start tinkering. And also, a more fundamental thing is my super-hypocritical advice, which is: Write every day. But it’s sincere. I’m always saying to them, “You guys are students, you’re not working full-time, you’re not parents—so try to write every day.” I feel like when I had so much time to write, I wasted it.
Right. Even if it’s just checking in on the draft for an hour.
Yeah, like an hour. I taught a class where the only premise of the class was to write 350 words a day, every day, and you’d be amazed at how much you’ll end up with at the end of three months if you just write 350 words every day. I’ve done it twice now and both times it’s been amazing. And the students are always like, “Are you doing it too, Professor Choi? Are you writing 350 words every day?” And I always start out saying, “Yes! I’m going to do it with you guys.” And then, like the hypocrite that I am, by the end of the semester I’m like, “Well, it really didn’t work out for me, so think about how lucky you are that you were able to!”
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