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Susan Choi talks process, teenagers, and the infamously tricky ending of Trust Exercise

The author isn’t sure how much she believes her own unreliable narrator.

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Susan Choi in conversation with the Vox Book Club

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The Vox Book Club spent this very nerve-wracking November leaning into a spirit of uncertainty with Susan Choi’s twisty, vexing, knife-sharp novel, Trust Exercise. And at the end of the month, as is tradition, we met up with her on Zoom to get the scoop. Over the course of our conversation, Choi walked us through her writing process, what’s so confusing about teenagers as a category, and even a little about how to approach Trust Exercise’s infamously tricky ending.

Check out the video above to watch our full conversation. I’ve also collected a few highlights, lightly edited for length and clarity, below.

If you are still in the mood for reading after all this, the Vox Book Club will be spending December on Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth. Sign up for our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything in the meantime.

Now let’s talk about trust.

You’ve said you started working on Trust Exercise as a break from other projects. So when you began doing that work, did you know the way the structure would develop? Or were you more straightforwardly telling this high school romance story?

I didn’t have any idea how the structure would develop. I didn’t even really think of it as a structure that would need to develop because I just was trying to do some writing of any kind to get through the day. The project that I was working on just wasn’t going well. And so I think I initially thought, “Maybe this will be a short story.”

I started putting stuff into a file that I called Trust Exercise from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of it as a book or anything, just a space where I could write some stuff. That wasn’t the stuff that I wasn’t succeeding with, at the time.

And so when did that transform into this very structured, very intense project?

There were two kind of critical moments where [the project] started changing. One was in the fall of 2016, when I was, again, actively working on something else. These pages had been lying untouched for the better part of the year, maybe a whole year, actually. And a train of angry thoughts that I’ve described elsewhere, having to do with the election, ended with me thinking, “I wonder if there’s anybody in that story of mine who’s as angry as I am right now.” It was this idle thought. But I think that there must have been something else going on at a deeper level.

A lot of the time with me, writing is happening when I’m not aware of it. I’m sure it’s true of all writers. There’s that active time that you’re sitting at your keyboard or your desk or whatever and actually trying to put words together. And then there’s all this passive time that you’re walking around, seemingly doing other things, as far as you can tell. But I think that our minds are at work.

So that day, I think I must have had this material on my mind without realizing it. Because as soon as I had that thought, my immediate answer was, “I know who it is in the world, that story, who’s angry.” I just knew.

She was this very minor character, who I paid almost no attention to. And the fact that I paid almost no attention to her was part of why I understood that she was angry. I suddenly thought, “That’s exactly why she’s angry.” Because you’ve paid almost no attention to her, and how do you know she’s not worthy of being at the center of this book, instead of being a footnote on the edge?

That was the big moment where the book took that turn that you see it taking now as you read it.

I know you’ve gone back a few times to the academy in your fiction and to the idea of exploring the power disparities between student and teacher. What draws you to exploring that relationship in your fiction?

Part of it is that learning and teaching are at the center of my life and always have been. I’m the daughter of a professor, and I have spent a lot of time in school. I’m a teacher now, and I’m really incredibly attached to my role as a teacher. I don’t think that I’d be a very happy writer if I didn’t also teach writing because it’s very solitary, writing, and it really helps me a lot to be connected with students. So in the same way that I’m attached to that educational setting, I’m alert all the time to the ways in which it goes wrong.

Stories like that are always catching my attention: stories of teachers who have been accused of abuse, ways in which students are exploited or just let down. All of us are probably interested in the stories because we’ve all been a student at some point, if we’re lucky, but I just paid particular attention to them. And there’s so many stories that have been accumulating, even before Me Too really shed a harsh light on this. There were so many stories that were coming up constantly about alleged cases of abuse on the part of teachers of their students. And so all of that was going into this file in the back of my brain.

One of the things that I think the book captures so well is this experience, as you said, of how we’ve all been a student. The structure allows you to experience both feeling yourself to be really adult and mature when you’re 15, when you’re like, “Yes, I know what I’m doing.” And then you slip into Karen’s point of view, and it’s like, “Oh, no, those are children.” So how do you think about capturing that disparity and the dual sense of having been a kid and feeling like you know everything and, in retrospect, just not knowing anything at all?

We have these very layered selves, right? We evolve. I’ve just been reading Ted Chiang, and in one of his great stories, the narrator speaks of not being the same man as he was in the past, but of being continuous with him. I love that phrase, “continuous with him.” Like, yeah, I’m not the same girl I was when I was 15. But I’m continuous with her. We’re still in close communication.

What was interesting to me was these situations in which a former student came forward, years or even decades later, to speak out about something that had happened to them when they were young. And often, it was not until they were in middle age, like me, that they were able to articulate what they felt had happened. I was really fascinated by that because I thought, “There are all these different selves that are at work at the same time.” There’s that youthful self that might have felt that it was choosing that situation, or might have felt that it was in control. And then there’s this older self that is horrified by what happened. And then there’s that youthful self that was actually really injured and that the other youthful self didn’t maybe want to acknowledge.

It was really interesting to me to think about all of the different ways in which we might feel ourselves affected by those situations. And I wasn’t consciously thinking, like, “Is there a way that I can capture this in the structure of the story?” But I did want to capture that change that I felt even just generationally, between the ways in which we thought about these things when I was younger and the ways in which we think about them now.

I have teenage children now. And the things that I assume about what’s happening to them in school are very different from the things that I thought were okay when I was a student their same age.

There’s such a nice contrast with the kids in this book. Because on the one hand, they’re so much more isolated than the teens of today are. They don’t have the internet, they hardly ever leave their town. But on the other hand, they just are assumed to be independent and basically adults in so many ways. It’s a very interesting look at how quickly that little slice of life has changed.

And also they very much want to be treated like that. I think that’s part of the conundrum that I’m still always so compelled by. Not in terms of this book, which is for me part of the past, but in terms of the issues of, what are people at this age? They’re not children. They’re not adults. They have this enormous intelligence, and often powers of discernment that outstrip those of the adults around them, and at the same time, vastly less life experience. They want to be treated with respect, and we have to treat them with respect. And at the same time, there’s a certain amount of sheltering that is required.

It is really freaking confusing, I have to say, as a parent and just as a human being. And I often wonder if we’re striking the balance correctly now.

I had so much independence when I was a teenager, and I think teenagers today have vastly less. I don’t know if that’s better. And at the same time, I think that I was open to certain situations that I really wasn’t ready for. And happily, unlike so many, I’ve been really lucky to have emerged unscathed from my teenage years.

It’s a give and take. We need to protect more, and at the same time, not smother and hover and let them become adults.

There’s such a jolt when Karen takes over the book and electrifies everything. One of the things that I was surprised worked as well as it did was the way she slips back and forth from first to third person, in the same sentence. That sort of unstable identity and sense of what she wants to tell us. How did you think about that slippage in her voice while you were writing?

The most honest answer would be that I didn’t think about it a lot. Initially, it was part of the voice that came to me. And it’s weird, but narrative voices, for me, always have to be tuned into. It’s really hard for me to make one. It’s more like I think about a character for a while, and then I sort of start to hear how they sound. I heard Karen sounding like that pretty early on.

In fact, the very first line that occurred to me was the very first line in that section. It’s something like, “Karen stood outside Skylight Books waiting for her old friend, the author.” And when I heard that, because I did hear it before I wrote it down, I knew that it was Karen narrating herself, in that kind of tongue in cheek, but also kind of bitter, badass way that you might narrate your own day, if you were being sarcastic.

I knew that Karen was narrating herself, and that she was doing it both to be kind of funny and because she was really angry. And it wasn’t until I’d written much of that section that I had the sense that Karen objects to the way her story has been told to this point, so now she’s telling her story. Which includes narrating her story as if she were an omniscient narrator, observing herself, but also then breaking in and being like, “It’s me, Karen. Don’t forget, it’s me, Karen talking about Karen.” So that sense of what it meant that she would switch back and forth between those registers came later. And it was really the sound of it that I heard first.

Since this book came out, the name Karen has picked up a lot of different associations. Do you think that will change how a reader will approach that part of the book now?

I think it really depends on how deeply that reader is already imprinted by the kind of cultural “Karen” idea. You know, Karen who calls the police if you’re barbecuing in the park and you happen to be a Black person. Or Karen who goes straight for the manager if she doesn’t get the refund that she wants. If you have a lot of those Karens knocking around in your mind already, then it’s going to be hard not to see this Karen in that light.

Which, interestingly, almost fits with this Karen’s character. Because her name isn’t Karen. She bears it like a cross. She basically says, “My name never was Karen, but fine. I know that you named me Karen because you wanted to denigrate me.” That’s part of her complaint.

It’s so funny, because I have nothing against the name Karen. In fact, I know lovely wonderful Karens who are understandably aggrieved by this way in which their name has come to mean now. But I did think it was the kind of name that someone might resent.

I want to talk a little bit about David, too. In the Sarah section, he’s a point-of-view character, and he’s very sympathetic and easy to understand. And then by the time we get to Karen, he’s kind of calcified into this much darker and less likable character, and you don’t get inside his head in the same way. Karen has what seems like a pretty good idea of what he’s thinking, but we’re not in there the way we were with Sarah. So how did you think about that character arc as it developed?

I’m not sure I’m willing to say that Karen has a pretty good idea of what David’s thinking. If I had to choose favorites in the book, which I’m glad I don’t have to do, I really love Karen. I really love that character. And I find her to be the most believable character emotionally. But I also think that she’s very suspect in many of her observations, if not maybe all of them.

Karen is an interesting problem for me as a reader. Like, I made Karen, and then I was like, “Wow, what a conundrum. I don’t know whether to believe a word you say, Karen.”

I find her to be emotionally incredibly honest. But that doesn’t mean that the way in which she reports on the world is all to be trusted because her emotions are so strong. And one of the things that she hates and resents is the David-Sarah love affair, by which she feels incredibly — not just excluded, but just kind of shown up for the rest of her life. Karen can’t get over the fact that when they were young, young people, David and Sarah had this romance that is kind of beyond any romantic experience Karen has ever had. She still resents that.

There’s this moment when David and Sarah are reunited, and Karen kind of doesn’t want to see it. You end up seeing it through the corner of Karen’s eye. She’s almost not really wanting to acknowledge that something emotionally consequential is happening. So I do think that Karen delivers a highly exaggerated David and Sarah.

And then that’s one of the things that I wanted the book to sort of trouble the reader with: Are the David and Sarah that we meet through Karen at all fair depictions of David and Sarah? Or are they distorted in the same way that Karen feels Sarah the author distorted Karen the minor character in part one?

I think it’s interesting that David is both incredibly, I hope, for readers, compelling, and for me, the author, almost the only redeemable male character in the entire book. David is the character who loves and doesn’t prey on anyone. And in a way, if he does become calcified, it’s because love didn’t work out for him. It’s not for a darker reason.

But the other thing that I like is that Karen and David actually do have this bond. Karen doesn’t really want to admit it, but David gives her a chance. And that was something that was really important to me too, is that David is the person who gives Karen, knowingly, the chance to be a star on the stage finally, and unknowingly gives her this opportunity to carry out this act of revenge.

So much of what gives this book its power is how elliptically it talks around the trauma at the center, so you have trouble seeing what it is. Do you think that writing around the traumatic experience creates something more emotionally truthful than just sort of straightforwardly being like, “Well, this happened and it was terrible”?

I think that there’s definitely a lot to be said for the “this happened and it was terrible” school of writing. And I don’t know if there’s necessarily any way to decide which is more effective. I don’t think either is more effective.

In the case of what was going on in this book, I did want to explore going back again to what I keep sort of returning to, which is these real life stories that I was intrigued by, and the delay, always this extremely long delay between the moment at which something happened and the moment at which whoever it was felt able to speak. And I was really interested in that delay. I kept kind of trying to get in there and think like, “Well, what’s in that delay?” In large part, this book was about that problem, the problem with what happens when you can’t say, “Well, this happened and it was terrible.” And often it is possible to immediately say, “This happened and it was terrible.” But what if you can’t?

So now we’re going to open it up to audience Q&A. We have a couple questions about the setting of this book. Jenna asks, “It’s in the south and it seems suburban. Is the location intentionally not disclosed?” And then Anonymous says, “As a Houstonian, it seems obvious Houston is the setting.” But they’re curious as to why you hinted so much without wanting to go so far as to name the city.

Houston’s my city, and I love Houston. But I’m really, really particular about the role of the place in a story. I’m really preoccupied by places, and I like writing about places. And I also like writing about settings.

When I say “place,” I mean, like, Chicago. Versus a setting, and by “setting” I mean a kind of place that has a certain kind of influence on its inhabitants. And I want Trust Exercise to happen in a setting, not a place, if that makes sense.

It is very much like Houston, but I didn’t want it to be a Houston story, in part because I wanted to broaden that context and explore the things that made me want to write about Houston. Which weren’t just Houston, but other aspects of Houston that it shares with similar places. Primarily for me, the dichotomy between, say, a Houston and in New York, where I live now — growing up in Houston, there was no mass transit, and the car was the currency. And if you didn’t have a car, you didn’t have a life until you had a car. I wanted those realities to feel really urgent to the reader, and for Houston not to distract from the fact that that’s the way life is in so many places for young people, if there’s no mass transit.

I love Houston dearly, but I wanted the things that I was exploring about Houston to also connect the reader to other places. This story could be happening in so many places where there’s no mass transit, and where it’s not a cultural capital, yet. It’s not LA, it’s not New York. And so those young people think, “I have to get out of here to be who I want to be.” And the answer to that feeling is a feeling that’s shared by people in a lot of different places.

We have a few different questions, of course, about the ending. John says, “I’m guessing you don’t want to explain every detail, but I’d like to hear as much as you’re willing to divulge/discuss about the final section. What do you feel we should pay closer attention to about this book? What do you feel most readers miss and might benefit from rereading?”

I don’t know if I can say there’s something most readers miss. I’ve been awed by the way most readers read this book. I’ve felt in the end that I missed things.

I have very specific ideas about what happens in the end. I didn’t write this book to go, “Who knows! Anything could have happened!” For me, something very specific happened. And there were specific motivations on the parts of various characters to alter or change details to conceal certain aspects of their experiences.

Readers have argued in favor of other things having happened in this book than what I intended, and their arguments are so convincing and so well grounded that I’ve ended up feeling like I missed certain ways in which this book can operate.

But I will say, about the ending: Part two unleashes uncertainty about part one. Karen says, “That was all this book that my friend Sarah — who isn’t even named that — wrote about us, and she lied.” So then you’re like, “What’s true?” But then you spend time with Karen, and Karen challenges her own credibility. As I said, I believe every word that Karen says, but I also believe that Karen is really unreliable. Which is a conundrum.

With part three, I’ve thought a lot about how to signal to the reader that part three is solid. Part three is on the bedrock of fictional realism as we understand it from novel-reading. When we read novels, we know that they’re made up because they’re novels. But they operate under these conventions that we’ve all internalized. And one of them is the conventions of realism, in which we conclude that what we’re reading in the novel is true to the world of that story. I wanted part three to be that in this book, to be the true, conventional realism of the book. Where the reader would arrive there and go, “Oh, for the world of this story and these characters, this is the truth. It’s not all of it, but what we’re seeing is the truth.”

Claire doesn’t know that she’s a character in a story. Claire’s the first person you encounter who is not identified by Karen as being just a bunch of characters in Sarah’s book, in part one. Nor are they someone knowingly narrating and trying to set the record straight. That’s Karen in part two. But Claire doesn’t know that she’s in a story. Just like any movie that you see, where you’re like, “Oh, these characters, we’re supposed to think that this is their life.”

That’s what I wanted the reader to conclude from part three. I don’t know if I succeeded, but that would be my pact about the book. That was what I meant: for the reader to feel in part three that they are peeking through that fourth wall and into a real fictional world.

Join us in December to discuss Gideon the Ninth, and subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to be sure not to miss anything.