On November 18, 2020, Charles Yu won the National Book Award in Fiction for his novel Interior Chinatown. The book follows protagonist Willis Wu’s efforts to ascend from “Background Oriental Male” and “Generic Asian Man” to “Kung Fu Guy.” Yu says that influences for the book were Paul Beatty's The Sellout and the movie Groundhog Day. The book was also long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie medal and short-listed for the Prix Médicis étranger award in France (a French literary award for translated works).
Timothy Tau: I was really blown away by the novel. But one of the first things I wanted to ask you about is your background [and how you started writing]. I've read that when you were at Berkeley, you sort of focused on poetry but not fiction writing.
Charles Yu: My parents really wanted a doctor in the family; my dad is actually an engineer, and so I think I took CS 3 and I took a FORTRAN class or something, and I was taking math and physics, but even then, I think the idea was, “Oh, I'd apply to medical school.” So I abandoned engineering pretty quickly. I started taking bio classes and my parents just really wanted me to be a doctor and I wanted to make them happy, and I went all the way through with it. I applied to medical school, and I got all rejections, so I didn't end up going to medical school. Which is a good thing. For people, and for humans.
I can't remember if it came from me or from my dad, but I thought about patent law, and I did actually spend a summer as an associate for a patent law firm called Lyon & Lyon, and it was in New York and was a really great experience. They were a great firm, and I just felt like after a summer of it that it wasn't [for me]. I switched into corporate after that and became a transactional lawyer. I practiced M&A (Mergers & Acquisitions) and securities … for two years. I lasted a few years at the firms, and then I started working in-house.
I started writing short stories right as I started practicing. I was young then, I was dating my now wife, but we didn't have any kids or anything, so even if I would get off work really late, I’d still have time and energy to peck out a few words or something. Over the course of basically four years, I wrote about 10, maybe 11 stories, which became my first book, but that was from ’01 to ’06.
Tau: So with regards to your background in law, the really interesting aspect of Interior Chinatown is that there's a legal backdrop. There's actually an appendix with statutes and discussion about a California Supreme Court case [e.g., People v. Hall, 4 Cal. 399 (1854)]. At the end, there are excerpts from the Chinese Exclusion Act, and also during the last very awesome and surreal courtroom scene, there's the citation of precedent and law. I found that to be a really fascinating aspect of the novel, and so I was wondering, how did you get the idea or what was sort of the seed of the idea to draft the novel? Did you have it as a previous short story draft, were you always planning to write a novel about this issue or was it sort of like a culmination of many different things?
Yu: Probably the last one. Yeah, it was a culmination. I had been wanting to write an immigrant story about people that come [from a different country] — in my case, my parents are both Taiwanese and they came from Taiwan, so I wanted to write a story about immigration and assimilation, really: like the attempt to try to become Americans and what that feels like, and I really had a hard time for years. It's a little fuzzy, but I would say probably 2013 is when I really started to try to write this, and for a while, I just had a really hard time figuring out a basic frame for the story. I went through many different versions, a lot of them were sort of magical realist. But I settled on [something closer to the novel now], I think after the president got elected in 2016.
Yu: Yeah. in 2017, I think it felt a lot more important to me to actually [write it]. It was just a real kick in the pants to just be like: you gotta finish this, you gotta write this, it's about immigrants, and it's about exclusion and assimilation, and it just felt much more important [in 2017] to tell this story. Not that I thought it was or I didn't have like delusions of grandeur, but I [thought] if I'm ever going to try to tell the story now, it might reach people, and people might care more.
Tau: I was wondering what your influences were, maybe if you had any influences for Interior Chinatown, but maybe overall in terms of your fiction writing and also your screenwriting?
Yu: Well, in terms of influences, there's a novel called The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which won the Booker Prize and was really acclaimed. I had read that at some point in struggling with how to write this, and the level of invention in the book was really inspiring to me. Another inspiration, Ithink it’s pretty eclectic [the sources I drew from], were things like Groundhog Day, it’s one of my favorite movies, and I felt like that cyclical structure in it –
Tau: Have you seen Palm Springs?
Yu: Yeah, I’ve seen it – actually a friend of mine, Andy Siara was a screenwriter on that, it was very clever… I think the circular nature of the existence for Willis and the other Asians was also something that I was like, “well, if I write this as a linear narrative, it doesn't capture some feature of his life, his existence.” So that was an inspiration. And then the books that I use as epigrams that I steal quotes from, American Chinatown [by Bonnie Tsui] and San Francisco Chinatown [by Philip Choy] were really informative in terms of research and learning about these things – I feel there's another book, it's escaping me at the moment, but...yeah, those are the big ones.
Tau: I was just interested in if you had sort of a similar experience growing up and [if] Willis Wu aspiring to become the “Kung Fu Guy” or this paragon or model example of Asian-American masculinity was an expression of that experience?
Yu: Yeah, totally. I'm in my mid-40s now, and I grew up for a lot of years never seeing any Asian faces or Asian American faces specifically on screen, except for when I would watch Fist of Fury or something, aka The Chinese Connection.
Tau: Or maybe The Joy Luck Club in the 1990s.
Yu: [E]very few years, there would be an “Asian thing of the decade,” and you think, okay, maybe we'll start seeing more things now — and then they would go away. I think that absence, that invisibility on screen [is an issue]; I have some internal doubts, and I've even had some people say (not a lot of people, but some people have said), “Is this really such a bad [thing]? Is this the worst thing that you can complain about? Is it that bad?” And I mean, sure, there are worse things than not having good representation or any representation on screen, but does it matter? I think it really does matter, and I don't think it just matters for Asian Americans. I think we have a warped reality on screen, for many reasons — I'm not saying it's all just racism or discrimination, but that reality shapes how we think about ourselves as Asian Americans, right? How we think about that ourselves, and also shaping, I think, everyone's thoughts about what an American looks like. And I think increasingly, even now, there is a sense of “we're still a perpetual foreigner” or a “not-quite assimilated group” on many levels because it may be easy to separate us out.
Tau: “The Other.”
Yu: Right, so I am still using that kind of xenophobia even now in the novel. I think the fact is there is still a relevance for this kind of story and for stories that try to look at “why Asians seem to be unassimilable,” at least on screen? And I do think it's getting better. It's nothing like it was — 2020 is way different than even 10 years ago. You see people in roles now, not just in Crazy Rich Asians, but you see Asian American leads on things now and it's great, it's really cool.
Tau: Definitely. What I really loved about your novel is how there's this sort of stereotypical archetype of the “Kung Fu Fighter,” but it's something that these characters aspire to. You reclaim kung fu as part of Asian culture and not as a stereotype. And I think that came across at the end, where it's almost like Willis Wu was trying to strive for something “beyond”: something [that would resemble] a complex human being versus just a two-dimensional cardboard stereotype.
Yu: Yeah, I think you said it. Unlike (what is it) Seinfeld's, “No learning, no hugging,” I didn’t want there to be “some learning and hugging” for Willis. There's an arc for his character, to use that term. It’s internal. The title of the book indicates that this is a book that really is about trying to humanize someone that we don't often see dimensionalized fully on screen, especially trying to just make this background person a protagonist and say, “This person has a story to tell and a story worth listening to.”
Tau: So the really exciting thing is the fact that this is going to be a Hulu TV series! It breaks a lot of boundaries in terms of a literary work and you are also in place to actually adapt your own novel as a screenplay, being an experienced screenwriting and TV writing professional yourself. Do you have any current ideas on how you're going to do that, considering the very experimental “fourth-wall-breaking” nature of the novel?
Yu: Yeah, there's a long and arduous road between right now and [when and] if it somehow makes it to the screen, and it involves what you said: figuring out how to translate some of these pretty, I would say. experimental and “out there” ideas and devices. What's the analog for any of that stuff in a visual medium? [I]t's a challenge. It’s also exciting, but it is really ... it's kinda hurting my brain at the moment.
Tau: Your screenwriting and TV writing credits are also very extensive: You've written for shows like Westworld, Legion, Here and Now, Lodge 49, Sorry for Your Loss. You started out in fiction; what prompted your transition into screenwriting? Was screenwriting a skill you’ve always wanted to develop, or did it just sort of happen where you got hired on a job and had to translate your fiction writing chops into screenwriting skills?
Yu: It wasn't really intentional, but it wasn’t like it was a totally random accident either. I had started working with a TV and film agent after my second book [How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe], so what that really meant was they basically shopped the rights around for my books and that sort of thing, but at the same time, I was getting to go out on the occasional meeting with people that work in TV and film. Through those meetings, I met somebody at HBO, and eventually [over the course of four or five years] I got this call about “would I want to come meet to talk about Westworld?” I wasn't intending on breaking in, I didn't think that was possible ... and then they started hiring people, more fiction writers and just non-traditional TV type people, and so I was a beneficiary of that trend.
Tau: Westworld seemed to be a great match for someone like yourself who does a lot of sci-fi writing. [D]o you feel, since you've written for shows that span the gamut from drama to horror to supernatural, that your background in sci-fi readily lent itself to being able to write screenplays for those shows?
Yu: In some ways, it helped. But I also have learned that a lot doesn't transfer. There's a lot of that I really had to learn about the form of writing for the screen. It's a visual medium, so just a very different way of telling stories. I'm thinking about how to communicate feelings or ideas or information. So it's been a bit of a [feat] — there have been times where it's been challenging.
Tau: An amazing part of Interior Chinatown [is that some of] the pages are actually pages from a screenplay. That's such a novel storytelling means, at least in fiction, because you hardly ever see that transition into a completely different format. Going back to Interior Chinatown in terms of martial art movies, were you a fan of kung fu films growing up, or do you have a favorite martial art film?
Yu: Yeah, I mean, some of the first things I ever remember getting to see were the Bruce Lee movies that were available, I think, on VHS; it would have been Fist of Fury. And I remember it being called The Chinese Connection. I feel like it had a different title depending on how it was released. I also remember Enter the Dragon, Game of Death; certainly those were the beginning and then in later years, there were other things like Bloodsport (laughing). If you remember Bloodsport with Jean-Claude Van Damme.
And then later, I guess there would be some of the bigger, more epic-scale films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Some of those, and then in between, obviously there would be Jackie Chan films, Jet Li movies. So it was all in there. I think I'm probably not any more or less steeped in it than someone who grew up roughly my age watching that stuff, but ... yeah.
Tau: It seems in the novel, Willis Wu aspires to be the “Kung Fu Guy,” which is sort of like the archetype of Bruce Lee. And for every Asian male or Asian American male in that Chinatown SRO (standing room only) setting, that's like their dream role, because it's the closest thing to a leading man that these characters have. I was wondering about your thoughts; on one hand, [Bruce Lee] was probably the first Asian American mainstream leading man, but at the same time, there's that duality of him being limited to martial artist and having to “kick ass with kung fu moves,” which limits the dimensions of a modern Asian American man. It seems to create this stereotype going forward, which your novel certainly comments on. I was curious about your thoughts on Bruce Lee and that dual aspect of his legacy.
Yu: Yeah, you said so much in the way you framed it, I feel like I don't have that much to add because I agree with pretty much what you said. Did you watch Be Water, the 30-for-30?
Tau: Oh yeah, the ESPN documentary. A friend of mine, Bao Nguyen, did that [I wrote another Hyphen Q&A piece about a project he did].
Yu: In a lot of ways, it was weird to me how much some of that stuff resonated with the stuff I put in my book because I was like, “Well, I thought I was making this up, but I must have been kind of in the water, in the water supply or in the ether” — and that's where I drew a lot of these ideas from. He really struggled with the very thing that Willis is struggling with; it’s just, “They don't see me as a leading man, they'll never see me that way unless I go prove it.” But I think to the other part of what you're saying is also really interesting. For me growing up, Bruce Lee was like, he's not even a human, he's basically a superhero! He’s too awesome to be a human. So it's not attainable. As much as it's exciting to have that, it also still doesn't really provide a realistic model, if you're an Asian American boy growing up, like whatever! There's all these other models for most people, but for [Asian American males] it's like, well, you're either a nerdy person with a bowl cut and a pocket protector or you don't exist or you're Bruce Lee, you know what I mean? Those are the only choices.
Tau (laughing): You’ve got to have like an eight-pack … and be well-versed in martial arts.
Yu (laughing): Exactly.
Tau: It’s almost like a parallel with the whole “Model Minority Myth.” I think, especially for young Asian American boys or young men growing up, it's like they have that sort of pressure to be this superhuman idol because that's the only real model out there, and as a result, you lose that complexity of all the different shades of an Asian American man. [When] the late, great Toni Morrison was writing a lot of her novels, her objective [was] to portray the sort of “everyman-ness” of the African American male, and I felt the parallel with your novel is that you definitely portray that with the character of Willis Wu because he overcomes that obstacle of being cornered into a limited type of representation.
Tau: My last question is, did you have any advice [for] aspiring fiction writers or screenwriters who [are going through] the same things that you did early on in your career?
Yu: Yeah, I can only speak from my own experience, but ... I felt it was like two decades of just trying things and failing and stumbling and having to pick myself up. [J]ust keep going and through it all, try to stay focused on developing your voice. I think that’s what people get interested in largely, at least in my experience, is hearing from somebody who's doing or saying things in a new way or an interesting way or just a way that people haven't heard before, so I would say develop your voice and keep at it, and if you love what you're doing, hopefully you will find your audience, one way or another.