Earlier this spring we named Trust Exercise by Susan Choi one of the season’s must-read books. This novel takes readers to a performing arts high school where relationships between students and teachers unfold and then change in unexpected ways. Bookish chatted with Choi about her novel, the structure of Trust Exercise, and the serendipity of the book’s title.
Bookish: The reader never learns exactly where this novel takes place. What was your motivation in keeping the setting under wraps?
Susan Choi: I didn’t think of keeping it under wraps so much as the fact of the location wasn’t as important as the kind of location. The kind of place that it had to be was a place that was a sprawling sort of suburban-style American city where you have to have a car to have freedom and independence. I grew up in a city like that—Houston. The city in the book is a lot like Houston and a lot like other places in which the conditions of your life as a teenager are highly determined by whether you can drive or not. I’m a New Yorker now. I’ve adopted that city and my kids are growing up here, and the conditions of coming of age are so different because they have freedom of movement. That was a key element to me.
The other thing was that I wanted the characters to be in a place that isn’t a cultural capital, or at least it isn’t at the time of this story. It isn’t a New York or a Los Angeles, and because they’re aspiring performers they’re acutely aware of being from a place that’s not a cultural capital. They’re always yearning for and aspiring to go where the bright lights are. That describes the place where I grew up, but it also describes so many other places. I wanted to generalize the specificity.
Bookish: Do you consider the narrative shift in the middle of this book to be a sort of trust exercise with the reader?
SC: It’s funny, I very, very rarely manage to write a book that has a title from the beginning. I’m usually left madly floundering around looking for a title. Before I even knew this would be a book, I thought maybe it would be a story or maybe nothing. I started it for fun, and the file I created always had that title. It started with me writing this scene in which the students are talked through a trust exercise. I didn’t have a grand plan at all. And that title kind of just stuck to the file as the file accumulated more and more material. It wasn’t until I had completed the book that the applicability of that title to the way the book works overall occurred to me. I was like, oh, that’s nice! It was serendipity. With the way the book redirects itself midway, it came out of a lot of things that I was thinking about storytelling, authority, who gets to speak for whom, and who might want to push back against the way they’ve been spoken of by another. That touches on issues of trust, definitely.
Bookish: The first part of this book really immerses readers in theatre training. Do you have a background in theatre?
SC: I don’t have a background beyond having attended a theatre program when I was in high school, and continuing to be involved as a backstage person throughout college. I was way into the undergrad theatre scene as a techie in the wings.
Bookish: What was it like to switch prose styles over the course of writing this novel? How did you get inside Karen’s head when her voice was so different from the narrator’s in the first half of the book?
SC: The voice tends to come first and then everything else follows. It’s never worked for me to think, here’s a character and they should have this kind of voice, let me try to force that. If I can’t tap into a character’s voice, I can’t really write the character. Karen is so close to my heart, and I think she coalesced out of so many sorts of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and observations—all of that detritus in one’s brain that is just sort of lying around waiting to be assembled into one shape or another. That voice just really came together for me before I had conceived of the character. I recognized it. I usually have a gut sense of what needs to happen, and I kind of just listen for it.
Bookish: Trust Exercise makes two big jumps forward in time. How did you decide which events would happen on the page, and which events would be alluded to off the page?
SC: This is such a fun question. It’s a trial and error more than anything. I love those big leaps when I encounter them in work that I’m reading. I always find them so daring, and I think that they point to something that I really like about literary choice-making, which is how much you can surprise yourself and the reader by what you choose to include and choose not to include. With this, there were things that I initially thought had to be on the page that I couldn’t figure out how to put on the page or I did and they just didn’t work. There were things that I wrote where I thought, actually the leaving of this offstage is stronger than putting it onstage. That’s happened with all of my books—the floor gets littered with chunks of scenes that had to be created in order to be rejected.
Bookish: Names are a contentious thing in this novel: The reader never learns the real names of most of the characters. To you, what is the significance of “real names”?
SC: It’s true that the names keep getting thrown out, or a lot of doubt keeps being cast on them. I think it’s tied to the same sort of question of authority and who has the authority to give an account of who and what. I wanted the reader to think about the ways in which we receive information and accept without question information from what seem like authoritative sources, not just in literature, but also in life. Humans are surprisingly and maybe wonderfully trusting creatures, and we’re biased towards believing what we hear. We want to believe what we hear. Playing with names was a way of playing with that and allowing readers to trust the source and then get the rug pulled out from under them.
Bookish: Consent, or lack thereof, is a theme simmering under the surface of this novel. What drew you to this subject?
SC: This is one of those things that always comes together in retrospect. I never set out to write about a theme. It’s hard to set out to write about something abstract. Themes, for me, are discerned by readers, and then I go, “Oh yeah, that sounds great, I agree!” That’s definitely the case here. What was compelling to me, which ended up being a large piece of this dramatization of what other people would call a theme of consent, was the enormous, dizzying changes in subjectivity that we all experience as we change throughout our lives. I was also interested in what it’s like to experience in a really vivid and authentic-seeming way agency and choice in a circumstance that you might later in your life view completely differently, because as much as you were experiencing agency and choice, you were actually in a radically disempowered situation you weren’t even experienced enough to recognize. That’s why I think consent is such a complicated issue.
Bookish: In Karen’s section of the book, she switches back and forth between writing in the first person and the third person. How did you approach writing these sections?
SC: It was kind of intuitive, like music. I sort of knew when the tune should change. To me it felt very deliberate on Karen’s part and very funny. I just love Karen. I know it sounds weird to say that about a character. I loved her wit and her nimbleness in switching back and forth. To me, it was her saying “Oh! You’re going to tell Karen’s story? Let me try I’m both the teller and the told about. I’m holding all the reins.” It was interesting when early readers read that section and suggested that maybe there should be more of a system to when she switches. I was like, “There is a system.” The system makes sense to me intuitively and I don’t think it should have such an elaborate set of rules that it stops seeming organic. It felt right. I really love constructive criticism, especially if it’s really specific. I’m never quick to say “No, I think it’s fine as it is.” But in that case, I think the final version of her switching is pretty close to how it was in the earliest draft.
Bookish: This book has a really unusual structure. What are some of your favorite novels with atypical structures?
SC: Gosh, there are so many. How To Be Both by Ali Smith is really radically different, and I love its playfulness. You can read either half first. In some printings, one half comes first, and in other printings it’s the other. Depending on how you read it, the experience of the story is really different.
Zachary Lazar’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant is so inventive and there’s a whole section in there that’s a New York Review of Books article but it’s made up. I love Jennifer Egan’s work, both The Keep and A Visit from the Goon Squad. They’re brilliant in terms of how they inventively use structure just to surprise the reader. I’ve gone on the record far more times than I can count raving about Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation, which was first published in German. It’s this incredible book told from the point of view of a house that is there as the tides of history wash over it. It’s like a full novel version of that section of To the Lighthouse, the “Time Passes” section.
Susan Choi’s first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction. Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, A Person of Interest, was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2010 she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. Her fourth novel, My Education, received a 2014 Lammy Award. Her fifth novel is Trust Exercise (April 2019) and her first book for children is Camp Tiger (May 2019). A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she teaches fiction writing at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.