Interview With 2020 Don Belton Prize Judge Charles Yu

The Don Belton Prize is open until June 30th! In this interview, IR talks with prize judge Charles Yu about his writing influences, humor, and what makes a great novel.

CHARLES YU is the author of four books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award and was nominated for two WGA awards for his work on the HBO series, Westworld. He has also written for upcoming shows on AMC and HBO. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, and Wired. His latest book, Interior Chinatown, will be published by Pantheon in January 2020. Check it out here.

Lots of us have “writerly obsessions.” How do you think about returning to subjects & themes in your work?

My thinking on this has changed over time. At first, I didn’t even know I had obsessions. Then after I’d written a couple dozen things, I started to see patterns. It was: hmm, what’s going on here? A little bit like every morning I would set off on a walk, and then realize I always ended up at the same park. The obsessions didn’t go away. I started to worry. For a while, I tried to get away from my usual topics, thinking they were limitations or that I would burn out my readers and myself if I kept navigating the same territory. Then, more recently, I hit a new phase. I became comfortable with my obsessions. It’s not that I don’t want to continue to break new ground or try things. I definitely do. But my obsessions have been with me for so long now. I’ve invested in them, and they’ve invested in me. Writing is hard enough, and I think most writers are very lucky to get even a little bit of territory to which they can lay any kind of claim. My topics are my topics; they define me, and I’m grateful for them. And as I age, maybe I’ll even gain a new obsession or two, or a new perspective on the ones I have.

You’ve written short stories, TV episodes, novels, and more. Can you tell us how you think about genre & medium when you write?

The thing all of those genres and media have in common is they depend on character and story. So that comes first. Viable ideas don’t present themselves that often. So when one does peek its little head out of the dirt, I try not to scare it away with the tagging gun. I’ve got to coax it out of the ground, get it to emerge fully and show itself. Once I’ve got the idea firmly in grasp (although sometimes they still get away), I can try to think about what kind of story is this? What genre or form feels right to cage it? Have I taken this analogy too far? Maybe. 

As for TV vs. prose, I was and am a fiction writer first, so words are the material I am most comfortable with. Television is a visual medium, so I have to think in images. 

Many of us are struggling to do creative work right now. What’s been helping you think creatively lately, even if it doesn’t manifest as writing?

Walks. Reading. Finding ways to have less noise and more perspective. Not easy, though—at the time I’m writing these responses, I’m 94 days into lockdown. Somewhere around day 70, I started to feel a bit foggy. It’s been a struggle. I’m thankful to have had assignments in this time—nothing like the pressure of a deadline to focus the mind.

What do you look for in a good novel?

Voice. Which for me can come from one or many places: choices with diction or grammar or syntax that perturb and excite. A liminal space—feeling like I’m in an envelope of consciousness, a permeable barrier between my thoughts and the text. That might sound a bit obscure or elliptical. What I mean is I love novels where my mind melts into the minds of the characters, and vice versa. 

Any advice for aspiring satire writers out there?

Ha! No.

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