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The Multiple Dimensions of Charles Yu

The novelist and ‘Legion’ and ‘Westworld’ writer discusses his new book, ‘Interior Chinatown,’ and onscreen representation

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Charles Yu is a visionary novelist, adventurous TV writer (from Westworld to Legion to Lodge 49), and unofficial time-travel expert: His first acclaimed novel, 2010’s flamboyant and tender How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, starred a flustered repairman in a TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device whose Tense Operator was usually stuck in Present-Indefinite. But despite his love for science fiction in all of its forms (his first book was the 2006 short-story collection Third Class Superhero), he doesn’t want to get stuck in any one role or mode or, uh, tense. Nor does Willis Wu, aspiring actor and protagonist of Yu’s fourth book, this week’s Interior Chinatown. The role Willis is hoping to transcend, specifically, is that of Generic Asian Man.

“Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy,” the novel begins. “You are not Kung Fu Guy.” Instead, Willis’s acting repertoire thus far includes Disgraced Son, Delivery Guy, Silent Henchman, Caught Between Two Worlds, Striving Immigrant, and Guy Who Runs in and Gets Kicked in the Face. Interior Chinatown mostly takes place in an apartment complex above a Chinese restaurant that doubles as the set for a gritty/sexy cop show called Black and White, named for the ethnicities of the two gritty/sexy leads and content to treat all the restaurant’s employees, who double as background actors or at best Very Special Guests, as interchangeable Asian American stereotypes.

Willis climbs that ladder, a comically humiliating spectrum of roles with Bruce Lee as the platonic ideal, but his success gravely affects his relationships with his parents, his cool older brother, and eventually his wife and daughter. “Your kung fu is worthless here,” he is informed while struggling with parenthood; he learns that in a bedtime story that starts with, “There once was a little girl who was …” it’s what you say next that matters, representing either limitless possibility or the absence of any other possibilities or meaningful roles altogether.

It’s heavy stuff, but delivered with a light, playful, endlessly inventive metafictional voice that Yu, a Los Angeles native born to Taiwanese parents, has spent the past decade honing on the page and onscreen. For those who fear that science fiction is now synonymous with dystopian doomsaying, his work is especially vital in this fraught Future-Indefinite moment, hilarious and even silly in a way that’s also sneakily profound. But Interior Chinatown, even in its goofier fake-cop-show-screenplay mode, is ferocious in its determination to shrug off Asian cultural stereotypes, a struggle Yu delved into just as explicitly in a recent Time essay headlined “What It’s Like to Never Ever See Yourself on TV.”

I spoke to Yu over the phone last week about science fiction as its own stereotype, book sci-fi vs. TV sci-fi, ill-advised binge-watching parenting strategies, and the joys and identity-crisis perils of cultural blockbusters from Law & Order: SVU to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

This book is about actors, about acting roles, about stereotyping people onscreen, and I’m curious if you’ve found similar stereotypes and frustrations as a writer, in terms of the style or genre boxes people try to put you in. As a writer, is there a Kung Fu Guy equivalent that you aspire to or sought to avoid?

I don’t know if it’s exactly the equivalent, but the box I’ve gotten put in is Science-Fiction Writer—or Speculative Writer, sometimes people will say. And it’s not a negative at all. It’s positive for me. But it’s only a constraint when I go and try to write something, for instance, like this, which, they’re like, Well, where are the robots? Where’s the time travel, dude? And so I very much was nervous about taking the step into talking about race, and talking about being an immigrant or a child of immigrants, and playing other roles. Like, I’m a dad, I’m a son, and I’m a husband, and I wanted to write about all of those things. And I do want to do it in an entertaining way, but it doesn’t always have to have sci-fi, I hope.

I was really struck by the line, “Working your way up the system doesn’t mean you beat the system.” Is that system an active and tangible thing you’ve encountered in your own writing and career?

I definitely have been in systems. I started as a lawyer almost 20 years ago now, and that’s the ultimate system, you know. Literally you’re a First Year, and then you’re a Second Year—I don’t know if you know any lawyers or are a lawyer, but probably not.

No.

You never know when you’ll find, like, ex-lawyers. There are ex-lawyers everywhere. I am one myself, and that’s the ultimate, you know, a Third Year gets paid different from a Fourth Year and a Fifth Year. So I’ve been in that system, and I’ve also been in writers’ rooms now on TV for a few years, and it’s actually a very similar system—you can get a different title every year as long as you keep moving up. And so I’ve never beat any system, that’s for sure. I’ve been beaten by systems. But yes, in the course of writing this story, what I wanted for this character is to both have success, but realize that the success came with certain costs, and that it wasn’t going to go the way he thought it was gonna go.

Is Black and White, the show, inspired by any one thing or any one show in particular? I imagined you watching Law & Order: SVU and this complete idea popping into your head, but it’s probably not that straightforward.

Well, no, you’re close to the mark there. That was actually the one I watched the most of. I binge that. I don’t know if it’s a saying, but I’ve heard the idea that you could literally turn on a TV at any time of day or night, and there’s a Law & Order on some channel. And that was very useful: My wife and I have two kids, and there have been a lot of times spent holding babies that are not quite asleep or just falling asleep, so that was the perfect program for me to just sit there, because one episode would just roll into the next. It’s very comforting and hypnotizing, and you start to get a feel of the pattern. I didn’t come up with the idea until years later when I was like, Oh, that’s the template, and that’s a way in to tell this story. I have watched other procedurals, but Law & Order: SVU is definitely my jam.

I wonder what the psychological effect is—they say babies, toddlers can sort of sense things. Like, if you’re watching SVU, what’s that doing to the child that you’re holding? I wonder if there’s any scientific study in that vein, of what you’re unknowingly transmitting to your children when you’re watching your shows like that. Because I’ve certainly done it.

Anyway, so the way the sexy cops investigating a Chinatown murder keep saying, “Honor is very important to these people,” or “Maybe it’s an honor killing,” or “This is a different world” ... as a civilian, as a reader and a TV viewer, when it’s a story involving Asians or Asian Americans that wasn’t primarily written or produced by Asians or Asian Americans, does it usually read as totally, hopelessly off to you?

Yes. But before I say that, now I’m still thinking about—now I have massive retroactive guilt about what I did to my kids.

I’m very sorry. That’s what I get for thinking out loud. It’s going to be fine.

Oh, no. But I will be more careful. But it’s too late. My kids are too old. But your question, sadly, it’s a trope, but I think it’s recognizable enough that I felt like I could write a book starting from there. The Very Special Episode. The Cultural Episode. Sometimes it’s Chinatown, sometimes it’s the Hasidic community—it’s some sort of ethnic enclave or world that we as “Americans,” mainstream Americans or whatever, the audience gets to take a tour of this normally isolated community. Not isolated, but you get to be a tourist for an hour, and it’s through the eyes of a Law & Order episode, or a procedural cop show.

And the tropes, I haven’t watched a whole lot in recent years, maybe it’s gotten better. But as recently as a few years ago, it’s a bit of a mishmash of things that feel right, or seem like they should be how Asian Americans talk to each other, but doesn’t really capture reality or nuance or texture. Even when the tropes are true, there’s more than three things we say to each other. We don’t just talk about honor all the time.

There’s a huge controversy just this week about that new book American Dirt, which has blown up into this really broad and severe argument about who gets to tell what story, and who gets to review that story once it gets told. It strikes me overall as quietly a really nice setup for your book. Are you following that situation at all?

Yeah, I’ve read a little bit of it online. I’m definitely hoping to capitalize on American Dirt. [Laughs.] Anyone who doesn’t want to read that book or anyone who hates reading that book should also buy this book, because it’s a companion.

No, it’s fascinating. I think it’s an interesting conversation regardless of where you come down on it—it’s actually the biggest part of why I wrote this book. You asked earlier about being a sci-fi author, and as exciting and fun as it is to write about other worlds, part of wanting to write about this world—our world—in a sort of demented, satirical way was to be part of a larger conversation. So it is interesting to me about the timing of it all, and yeah, I’m following it with great interest.

The experience of first joining Westworld, of writing for TV, is that just an entirely different universe and skill set and experience than writing fiction for yourself? Is there much crossover there at all?

There is some crossover, but it took me a while to figure out that there’s not as much. I’m not a musician, so this might be terrible, but maybe it’s like being in a band and learning a different instrument. There’s principles in music that apply, in a general sense of, like, stories and character. But there’s a whole bunch of craft in screenplay writing that you can actually get better at—not to say it’s formulaic or rule-based, but I’ve been in rooms where people really have, or their scripts really have, a lot of craft that I don’t know yet and want to learn.

Whereas in fiction, there’s certainly a lot of craft, and I don’t know it, and I didn’t get an MFA, but no one’s going to come in now and say, “This is the way you have to do this book.” Because it just wouldn’t work that way. Everyone’s got their own thing, and whatever craft I should’ve learned 20 years ago in an MFA, I didn’t, so for better or worse, I’m stuck with my style.

Are book sci-fi and TV sci-fi totally different animals, to your mind? Is one better, or at least more appealing to you personally, than the other?

Gosh. I mean, I love both. It sounds like I’m going to hedge, but I am gonna pick one. I think there’s stories that, for better or worse, you could not visualize at all, so the book is going to take you to places—it probably happens to all readers at some point, and I wish it happened more to me. But I feel like when I was a kid, it happened all the time. Like you go to an actual universe, in your head. I remember being there in that feeling, when you’re taken somewhere else. And I don’t think TV gets there. Because there’s always a level, no matter how great it is, where you’re like, That is a person standing on a soundstage wearing a costume. But there are moments in TV that can approach that sort of feeling. They’re just, for me, pretty rare.

Is there one book that transported you when you were a kid?

Yeah. Gosh. I feel like it was probably [Isaac Asimov’s] Foundation. In eighth grade, I read pretty much the whole thing—that was the original trilogy. And I eventually read, Asimov wrote like four more books in that series. But yeah, that was such a fully realized universe, with its own made-up science, you know? And it probably stayed in my head as like, You can do this. You can make up a universe.

I think for a lot of people, science fiction and dystopia are interchangeable at this point, which speaks to our public perception of our future, I think. But I really appreciate how funny your books are, and the way that the humor heightens the drama and the seriousness of it, instead of detracting from it. Is it important to you to keep things lighter, or strategically use lightness as its own form of heaviness?

Gosh, I like the way you said that. I don’t know if I do that subconsciously, but yeah, for whatever reason, there’s an almost reflexive impulse to cut against something—especially when I feel like I’m getting a bit sentimental or emotional, to swerve away from that direction, or lighten the tone. I totally agree with what you said: Science fiction does not equal dystopia at all, and yet it says a lot about where we are now, I think, and also what kind of stuff gets made or gets a lot of attention. But so much of sci-fi, especially I remember reading as a kid, it’s like, it’s more about wonder or possibility, rather than, here’s the worst-case-possible thing that can happen to all of us.

Your essay for Time, weirdly enough, made me think about Jordan Peele’s two movies so far: Get Out was very specifically about race, and then with Us, he talked about wanting to tell a story where the characters just happened to be black, but their being black wasn’t the focal point of the story necessarily. In terms of developing your own future projects, do you have that dichotomy in mind between wanting to tell very specific Asian and Asian American stories, and also just telling stories that just so happen to involve, to star, Asian Americans? Is there a distinction in your mind that way?

I feel like this book was my attempt to do both. Just to say, this story happened to have an Asian American protagonist, and what I’m trying to do is figure out why it can’t just be Option B, like you said. Why can’t it just be a story about a guy? And what is it about Asians in America, if that’s what it is? And then in the course of telling that story, I realized, Oh, I also want to talk about how it’s not much better for the leads. Black and white are also trapped in these two-dimensional roles, in my fictionalized universe.

I would love it if you kind of exploded that distinction. You know, it’s like, why didn’t what’s on the screen reflect what we see out here? I’ve seen so many shows where it’s at a hospital, and there aren’t any Indian or Asian doctors, or Persian doctors. We just don’t see it. And I’m not just saying that workplace shows should have proper racial proportions, you know, although I am kind of saying that. But just that there seems to be a filter on reality, and I entered it from the perspective of, How come that filter catches so many Asians and then filters them out? But yeah, I would love to, and I plan to, and I think I have already in the past, told stories where the race of the character is not mentioned at all. And so I plan on telling both kinds of stories going forward.

You had moved on at that point, but Season 2 of Westworld, they introduced Samurai World, which is obviously a very tricky thing with the potential for a very broad Wu-Tang Clan–style conception that boils down a lot of different cultures and countries in a Kung Fu Guy sort of way. Speaking broadly, as a writer navigating a TV industry that’s always grappling with these issues of diversity and perspective and sensitivity, are those issues of representation always at the forefront of your mind, or more of a low hum in the background, or sometimes not much of a factor at all?

The best way for me to describe that is it’s a low hum, like you said, that occasionally erupts in my consciousness when I’m reminded. It’s a slap-in-the-face type of thing: Oh yeah! That’s sort of how I go through life, too. I’m not thinking like Willis is all the time—that I’m a Generic Asian Man—until I have an interaction with someone and I’m like, Oh yeah, that’s what I look like. That’s how my face looks to this person, and that’s part of how they’re seeing me, evidenced by the fact that they just said that or did that. But I think in TV, I have a higher awareness of it, though, because it is something where I’m like, That’s not reality, but it controls what we see out of reality because we spend so much time watching that thing, and now we’re trapped in the reality that it’s projecting onto us. So how do we break out of that loop?

Just because Bruce Lee comes up in the book as this deified figure, I was curious what you thought of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, the Quentin Tarantino movie, and if you had followed at all the controversy over the Bruce Lee scene, and if you felt any particular way about it.

Yeah. I’m so glad you asked that. I have followed it a bit. I see the argument—I might be misstating it, but I see the argument that Tarantino makes. It’s like there are two arguments, the way I understand it. One, I’m using Bruce Lee as the standard for being a badass, and he’s really functioning to show you how badass Brad Pitt’s character is. So, like, the question in a writers’ room would be, “How do we show our protagonist being really good at his job?” And the answer was, “Have him beat up Bruce Lee.” And in that sense, he’s kind of a demigod, right?

He’s like the Boss Mode that you had to engage to go, “OK, our guy’s better than the boss, or he ties him.”

So on the one hand, I get that. It’s a fictionalized character. Of course, he is real, and I understand that Bruce Lee’s family, they’re still watching, going, “You’re using an actual person—you can create fake people for everyone else, but you can’t mythologize an actual person.” And here’s where I think it gets more complicated, and I think maybe Tarantino wouldn’t understand, or maybe he does understand, I don’t know. I can’t speak for him. But on the side of the debate where they’re like, “Calm down, come on, it’s a movie, and it’s Bruce Lee, and he’s a mythological character anyway,” it’s like, Yeah, but that’s all we have. Like, if you have 10 superheroes, you can have one of them be silly. But if you take the only guy for a lot of people, it’s tough. To me it just goes to part of why I wrote this book, which is, he’s not being used as a character—he’s being used as a prop. And that’s the whole point of Interior Chinatown, that the Asians here are the background for the lead characters’ story.