The Work of Inhabiting a Role: Charles Yu Speaks to Chris Fan

“I am paralyzed by the infinite degrees of freedom that you start out with, and so constraints can be freeing. To say, I can start here—I'm writing a story about time travel.”
Charles Yu and Chris Fan

This season, we’re partnering with Novel Dialogue, a podcast where a novelist and a literary critic talk about novels from every angle: how we read them, write them, publish them, and remember them.

Charles Yu won the 2020 National Book Award for Interior Chinatown, but some of us became fans a decade earlier, with How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010). He brilliantly uses science fiction conventions to uncover the kind of self-deceptive infilling that we all do every day, the little stories we tell ourselves to make our world seem predictable and safe when it’s anything but. His other work includes two books of short stories (Third Class Superhero and Sorry Please Thank You ) and some episodes of Westworld. In this episode, he speaks with Novel Dialogue cofounder John Plotz and Chris Fan, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine, senior editor and co-founder of Hyphen magazine, and noted science fiction scholar.

The conversation gets quickly into intimate territory: the pockets of safe space and the “small feelings” that families can and cannot provide, and that science fiction can or cannot recreate. Graph paper and old math books get a star turn. Charlie’s time as a lawyer is scrutinized; so too is “acute impostor syndrome” and the everyday feeling of putting on a costume or a mask, as well as what Du Bois called “double consciousness.”

In conclusion, we followed the old Novel Dialogue custom of asking Charlie about treats that sustain him while writing. Later, we reached out with this season’s question about what new talent he’d love to acquire miraculously. He had a lightning-fast response: “the ability to stop myself from saying a thing I already know I will regret. I would use this on a daily, if not hourly, basis.”



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View a transcript of the episode here.


Mentioned in this Episode

Charles Yu photograph by Tina Chiou.