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Book Talk: Susan Choi returns to probe love, youthful selfishness

Author Susan Choi in her latest book starts with a graduate student's fascination with a professor when she arrives at a prestigious university in 1992. But the initial attraction is where similarities between "My Education" and usual tales of college love end.

The award-winning writer, in her fourth novel, sends student Regina Gottlieb on a journey in which she indulges her fascination with Professor Nicholas Brodeur, before it goes in another direction. Through it all, her youthful self-absorption plays a central role.

Choi won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction for her first novel, "The Foreign Student." Her second novel, "American Woman," was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, and her third, "A Person of Interest," was up for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award.

The author, who teaches at Princeton University, spoke to Reuters about "My Education" and her writing process.

Q: There are a lot of tales about students who are drawn to professors. How did you make your version different?

A: Obviously, the fact that Regina doesn't end up with that professor at all. I don't often do a lot of advance planning in terms of plot. So, I didn't try to incorporate a twist. It's more that I sort of knew what the story was about and tried to find my way in. But (Professor Brodeur) is the engine of the story in that meeting him is the key to everything that follows, but not in the way that readers would expect.

Q: What other techniques do you use in your writing process?

A: What's become most characteristic in recent years, I think, is the dogged pursuit of momentum. Ever since having kids (now ages 9 and 5-1/2), I became a much more - I don't know - almost a more mechanical writer. I realized that I couldn't spend a lot of time waiting for inspiration. I had to sit down every day and try to bang out a certain number of words.

Q: Did you face any challenges in writing "My Education?"

A: There was one very protracted false start. A couple of people read it and asked, ‘Do you need more time?' But what was interesting about that kind of icky reception in both cases was the brief appearance of this character who would later grow into Martha (Brodeur's wife). They were the handful of pages that people said made them sit up and take notice.

Q: The protagonists in this novel are not just professors, but parents. A significant age difference between Regina and Martha adds to that theme. What were you trying to convey?

A: I feel there's an abyss in experience dividing the young childless woman and the slightly older woman who has a child. I was interested in examining that abyss. Regina started out as this very young quite self-centered woman who really can't even ponder the reality of this baby that is quite central to (Martha's) life. There's this whole section to the book where she's never given thought to motherhood at all. One of the things I wanted the reader to understand about Regina is that she later regrets that myopia.

Q: How would you sum up Regina's education?

A: I think she really gets an education in sort of what is realistic and even desirable in life. There's this one passage where she's thinking that when you're in your 20s, you think love is supposed to be insane and that any other kind of love isn't love. And you get a little older, you realize that's the kind of love that never works.

I think part of Regina's education is realizing that life is complicated and full of obstacles that don't comport perfectly with your heart's desire, but they sort of become the most important part of your life. - Reuters, 2 August, 2013.

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