When Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown won the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, it took a lot of people by surprise. The novel, which addresses, among other issues, the stereotypical ways Asians have been characterized in Hollywood, was written in screenplay format, a strategy that might seem unusual. Yet Yu has long been a boundary pusher; his debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, revolves around a time machine mechanic named—wait for it—Charles Yu, who essentially rewrites the fiction in which he is living, even as we read. Recently, Yu and I corresponded by email about his exhilarating, groundbreaking work.
This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.
Why write Interior Chinatown as a screenplay? What did it offer you?
The screenplay format offers the ability to work on two levels: “inside the story” and “outside the story.” Willis Wu, the protagonist of the novel, starts outside and desperately wants in. He gets there, eventually, but in the process, he has to negotiate some boundaries. To have a character, Willis, dancing in and out of a story, it helped immensely to have a clear delineation. A script provided that, both visually and conceptually. Readers can see what is inside the story (the script) and what is not (Willis’s inner monologue, told as stage directions or asides). Willis being trapped inside that construct, of a story where someone else is in control, is a core idea of the book.
You’ve always been a world builder. Was the process different here than in your previous work?
It was much longer. First, I had to find the form. Then, I had the challenge of understanding the “rules of the world.” I had to accept that these rules aren’t like gravity or laws of science or anything that strict. There are some features that are implied. The world of Interior Chinatown is delicate, I think, and it does have its own internal coherence, but you have to sort of soften your gaze like with one of those Magic Eye stereoscopic illusions and just be in it, if that makes sense.
In 2014, you became a writer for HBO’s Westworld. What’s the relationship between writing for the page and writing for television?
The main thing—and this is obvious, but it took me surprisingly long to understand it—is that television is a visual medium. Prose means nothing in TV—or very little. You’re drafting blueprints that many people (production and lighting designers, costumers, actors, directors, cinematographers) will use to generate visual images. It’s also a tangible and highly practical medium, constrained by money, time, physical reality. When you write a book, you are director, actor, set decorator, everything. You have an infinite production budget, limited only by your imagination. You can conjure an entire universe for one sentence, then discard it. Writing for television has made me more concise and less precious. I’m not sure those are unequivocally good things, but in many contexts they are.
You’ve had an idiosyncratic journey as a writer. You started as an attorney and wrote when you could. How has that changed now that you write full-time?
While I was a lawyer, I dreamt of unlimited writing time. What I realized after quitting was that the job had been a tether that helped in a few ways: (1) I got material; (2) working a day job freed me from feeling like writing had to pay the bills; and (3) most important, it took away some of the psychological pressure to produce, since I had another job. Now, the challenge (and I know it’s a privilege to have a “problem” like this) is to feel sufficiently invested, to make sure I’m doing things that I’m compelled to write. To write about things that will actually make a reader think, feel, laugh.
Interior Chinatown took a long time to coalesce. What was the process?
I got a contract in 2011, began writing in 2012, thought I was almost done in 2013, realized I very much wasn’t done in 2014, started writing for Westworld right before 2015 and stayed on until 2016, finally figured out what I was doing in 2017, reworked the internal logic of the book throughout 2018, and finished in 2019. It was published in 2020, right as the pandemic began. In that time, I wrote, scrapped, and reconceived the book no less than three times. It was a long road, but worth it.
Why do you write?
I write in order to connect with others. The most exciting and awe-inspiring places I’ve been are spaces created by writers, worlds I entered through the point of view of a fictional character. I feel immensely lucky to be able to do that for others, to bring them inside someone’s head or to their planet or universe or cubicle.•