Author Interviews
6:08 am
Sat June 29, 2013

Steamy Novel An 'Education' In Youth, Love And Mistakes

Originally published on Tue July 2, 2013 11:23 am

Susan Choi's previous novels have pulled from events in the headlines: the Korean War for The Foreign Student; the Patty Hearst kidnapping for American Woman; and the Wen Ho Lee accusations for A Person of Interest. But her latest book, My Education, was inspired by something else — youthful passion.

My Education focuses on graduate student Regina Gottlieb, who finds herself involved in a very sexual — and very inappropriate — relationship with a married woman. Despite some graphic scenes, Choi tells NPR's Lynn Neary she didn't choose the topic for the sex.

"I certainly didn't sit down and think, 'I'm going to write an erotic novel.' I mean, I'm so — my own mother referred to it in an email as 'sizzling,' and I was so mortified," she says. "I wanted to write a book about being young and making mistakes, and if you decide to write a book about being young and making mistakes, you're pretty quickly — or at least I found myself pretty quickly — in love and sex territory."

Choi talks to Neary about youthful intensity, love gone wrong and why she turned away from research-heavy books.


Interview Highlights

On why she wanted to write a book about an intense, sexual relationship

"As awful as it sounds, I didn't want to do research for this book. Gosh, that does sound kind of suggestive. You know, the previous two books, they were thrilling books to work on because I really loved doing research; I sort of lost myself in it. And after I finished that most recent book, Person of Interest, I had a second baby, and I just couldn't do the research anymore. I was so exhausted, and I thought, 'I really want to write a book about people and relationships.' So laziness maybe led me to this subject?"

On the fun of writing a book that didn't require research

"I wrote so much of this book so quickly because I didn't really have that inhibition that I always had with the previous books. You know, my first book is about the Korean War. I always, writing those previous books, was worried that I would make some kind of mistake. Not an artistic mistake, but just a mistake, you know, write the wrong stuff. With this book it was a lot easier to just kind of look to my gut and think, 'Would she do it? Yeah, she would.'

"So I kind of wrote most of the first draft in this sort of, like, headlong rush — which is, in a lot of ways, the way Regina goes barreling through this series of events in her life, kind of obeying her appetites and her instincts, which often lead her way wrong and then, you know, finding herself — oh, my God — in situations that she didn't really anticipate.

"That happened to me when I was writing it. I didn't plan out everything that would happen, you know? It was fun."

On youth and the nature of sexuality and sexual identity

"There's a passage in the book in which kind of her older self reflects on it and says, 'We didn't really think about the fact that we were two women.' She says that that wasn't ever a primary thought, I think because there weren't a lot of thoughts. And I really wanted to bring that alive. Her lover — who's older, who's actually in a marriage — is sort of the one who's like, 'We just can't do this the way you think we can do it.'

"Regina's very young, she thinks like, 'What? What? What's wrong? We love each other. Well, why should we have to think about anything else?' And I wanted to capture both the intensity of that — thinking there's no obstacles — and her older self looking back and kind of marveling that she could ever feel that way."

On whether inappropriate, passionate affairs are a universal experience

"I hope it's an experience that most people have. I think it's a really big experience, you know, I think love is big, and I think love that doesn't go well, it's also — it's kind of important. I don't know. It's certainly been part of my life more than once, and I think that, you know, those experiences — which are really intense and painful, and they often, at the time, feel like the worst thing that could ever possibly happen to you — it's important to finding out who you are.

"I've at times in my past been so unhappy, and thought, like, 'I would give anything for this not to be happening.' And, you know, as people say, time passes, and then you think, 'I'm kind of glad that happened to me.' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Writer Susan Choi is known for big books about big topics, often inspired by recent history. But her new book, "My Education," is smaller, more personal in scope. It's the story of an intense love affair that turns a young graduate student's life upside down. Susan Choi joins us from our New York bureau, and she said motherhood changed her perspective on novel writing.

SUSAN CHOI: You know, the previous two books, they were thrilling books to work on because I really loved doing research. I sort of lost myself in it. And after I finished that most recent book, "Person of Interest," I had a second baby and I just couldn't do the research anymore. I was so exhausted and I thought I really want to write a book about people and relationships. So, laziness, maybe...

(LAUGHTER)

CHOI: ...led me to the subject.

NEARY: What about the sexual part of it? It is a very sexual book - an erotic book, at times, I think.

CHOI: It is. Oh, my God. I don't think I set out to do that. No. I know I didn't. I certainly didn't sit down and think, I'm going to write an erotic novel. I mean, I'm so, you know, my own mother referred to it in an email as sizzling and I was so mortified. So I think I wanted to write a book about being young and making mistakes. And if you decide to write a book about being young and making mistakes, you're pretty quickly - but at least I found myself pretty quickly - in love and sex territory.

NEARY: Well, let me ask you to read a short passage from the book. It's on page 58, and this takes place just after the character Regina has had her first passionate encounter with the person who she becomes obsessed with.

CHOI: With a super inappropriate person.

NEARY: A super inappropriate person.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: And it begins in the Alfa Romeo, which is a great way for it to begin, don't you think?

(LAUGHTER)

CHOI: It is, actually. And I should explain that Lawrence is going to try to drive that Alfa Romeo; it's her very upstanding friend who is appalled. I'll tell you what, she's done.

(Reading) In the Alfa Romeo, Lawrence lay his forehead on the steering wheel a moment as if in unutterable pain before starting the engine. I was trembling again with even more energy than before. I was barely sustaining contact with my feet. My appalling carnal stench was so strong now pinned into the car, that only the moment's paralysis kept me from jumping back out. Then it came to me that the smell was roast chicken.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: That have to be kind of fun to write, I would think.

CHOI: It was kind of fun to write. A lot of it was fun to write.

NEARY: So going back to what we were talking about in the beginning, after writing two books about very intense events, what is it like as a writer to sort of release and take on this kind of book that you are approaching as fun more than anything?

CHOI: I mean, I wrote so much of this book so quickly because I didn't really have that inhibition that I always had with the previous books. You know, my first book is about the Korean War. I mean, always writing those previous books was worried that I would make some kind of mistake - not an artistic mistake, but just a, just a mistake, you know, write the wrong stuff. With this book it was a lot easier to just kind of look to my gut and think, would she do it? Yeah. She would.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOI: And, and so I kind of wrote most of the first draft in this sort of like headlong rush - which is in a lot of ways the way Regina goes barreling through the series of events in her life - kind of obeying her appetites and her instincts, which often lead her way wrong and then, you know, finding herself - oh, my god - in situations that she really didn't anticipate.

That happened to me when I was writing it. I didn't plan out everything that would happen, you know. It was fun.

NEARY: One of the very intense affairs in this book is between two women. And these are women who are also sexually active with men. And what were you trying to say, if anything, about the nature of sexuality with that? Were you thinking about that at all?

CHOI: Yeah, there's a passage in the book in the book where kind of her older self reflects on it and says, we didn't really think about the fact that we were two women. She says but that wasn't ever a primary thought, I think because there weren't a lot of thoughts. And I really wanted to bring that alive. Her lover, who's older, who is actually in a marriage, is sort of the one who is, like, we just can't do this the way you think we can do it. You know, Regina is very young. She thinks like, what's wrong? We love each other. Why should we have to think of anything else? And I wanted to capture both the intensity of that, thinking like, there's no obstacles, and her older self looking back and kind of marveling...

NEARY: Yeah.

CHOI: ...that she could ever feel that way.

NEARY: Do you think that this story about this passionate, obsessive love affair, do you think that this is kind of a universal experience that most people - certainly most graduate students, perhaps - have at least one inappropriate, passionate affair in their life?

CHOI: I'm not going to say most graduate students. I mean, I think, well, let's talk about humans. I mean, I hope it's experience that most people have. I think it's really, I think it's a really big experience, you know. I think love is big and I think, you know, love that doesn't go well is also - it's kind of important. I don't know. It's certainly been part of my life more than, more than once. And I think that, you know, those experiences, which are really intense and painful and they often at the time feel like the worst thing that could ever possibly happen to you, it's important to finding out who you are.

I mean I've in times in my past been so unhappy and thought, like, I'll give anything for this not to be happening. And, you know, as people say, time passes and then you think, I'm kind of glad that happened to me.

NEARY: Susan Choi, her new book is "My Education."

Great talking with you, Susan.

CHOI: Great talking to you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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