Wonderbook Interview with Charles Yu

Charles Yu is the author of the critically acclaimed novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and the short story collections Third Class Superhero and Sorry Please Thank You.

Because Yu has an essay in Wonderbook, the interview conducted with him was limited to the topic of autobiography, and thus much shorter than the others.

Just to give readers a sense of the interplay of the imaginary and the real: can you point to a few things in your novel that are autobiographical, and a couple of things that may feel like they are…but in fact aren’t?

A lot of the smaller scale details are based on autobiographical information. It’s on the larger scale that the book diverges from our lives–my parents and I have quite a good relationship, and we are generally a happy bunch these days, and not nearly as melancholy as the book might lead one to believe. Although the presence of grandchildren in the real-life picture might have something to do with that…

There are SF/pop culture references in the book, like to Star Wars. That feels like autobiography in the sense that those are the pop culture things you remember from growing up, or young adulthood. What’s the risk-reward to making those kinds of specific references in fiction?

The risk is dating the book, pegging it to a specific country and place and subgroup, which could have the unfortunate effect of making some readers feel excluded, which is not the intention at all but certainly could be the result. The reward is grounding the book, pegging it to a specific country and place and subgroup, which could have the effect of making some readers enjoy and identify more strongly with the book. It’s a double-edged thing, I guess–the upside of this kind of specificity also comes with a particular downside. In this case, those references were essential to the story–they were the intersections, the few points where Minor Universe 31 touches this one. I needed something to ground the story in realism (at least in an emotional sense), and those references actually helped me to do that, I think.

On the whole, I’d have to say that I don’t have any hang-ups about pop culture or name-brand references in fiction, as a writer or a reader. In fact, I think name brands and titles of fictional works, especially movies, are probably underrepresented in fiction, at least in what I read. Considering how pervasive advertising and entertainment are, it seems like it’d be almost required to have them in books; yet there are a lot of good novels I read that somehow seem to exist in a world free of proper nouns.

Is there what I’d call secret autobiography in your work? Things that aren’t necessarily apparent to the reader, but that resonate to you?

There is some secret autobiography (and I love that term). I think it probably does get through to the reader, even if they don’t always know what it is that’s getting through. I’ve had that experience myself, this sense that what I’m reading has encrypted information, that there’s a dimension of the text that is curled up very small (like a Calabi-Yau manifold, whatever that is) and isn’t visible to me, and yet is nevertheless there.