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Conversation from the Shadow Lands. An Interview with Charles Yu


LEV GROSSMAN: People describe you (as they do me) as a writer who works in the shadow lands between literary fiction and science fiction. Is that how you’d describe yourself?

CHARLES YU: As much as I like the idea of being some kind of creature lurking in the shadow lands, I can’t say I do think of it that way. I wish to politely yet firmly deny the premise of the question. There’s a kind of “implied map of fiction” embedded within the whole way of thinking about this—the idea that “literary” is Norway and “science fiction” is Sweden. Not only do I not think those two sovereign nations are mutually exclusive; I don’t think they are even well-defined territories, right? I don’t believe in the genre distinction.

It’s not as if I sit around classifying myself. When I sit down to write, I don’t think, Today I shall write fabulist-inflected literary fiction, etc. It’s more like, Unnngggh, and, Grrrrr, and, I can’t believe I squeezed out 150 words today and they all suck. But maybe that’s just me.

I’ll flip the question back to you: how do you describe yourself?

LG: I once thought as you do. Lately I’ve been getting more interested in borders. I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing the different conventions of literary fiction and fantasy off each other, and I feel like you can’t do that unless you’re committed to the idea that somewhere out there there’s a line between them. Though I wouldn’t want to have to actually point to it.

I’m pro-border: I like them because I like sneaking across them.



LEV GROSSMAN: What do you think makes your work different from “straight” science fiction?

CHARLES YU: Tone. Voice. I like playing science-fiction songs on my acoustic guitar. I would argue that you are doing something more complicated: you are writing something that works on two registers: if someone wants to listen to your stuff as a “straight” fantasy, it’s wildly successful on that level. But if someone wants to look at all the lyrics, and read the liner notes, and knows music theory and history, etc., and appreciates all that you’re doing on all of those levels, that stuff is there, too. You make a complex wave that can be decomposed into constituent frequencies.

LG: It’s important to me that my books can be read by someone who’s just looking for straight fantasy. I love that reader. I want that reader to have everything he or she wants. But then, yes, there’s all this other stuff that’s resonating above and below it, too. I think of Watchmen as a model. It’s a magnificent, brutal dissection of superhero comics—but if you so desire you can read it as a great superhero comic. There’s always that option.


LEV GROSSMAN: Another thing I wanted to bring up, since I don’t know a lot of other people in this position, is that we’re both serious, published fiction writers who haven’t quit their day jobs. Do you wish you could write full-time?

CHARLES YU: I haven’t quit… yet… although I may be reaching a point where I am starting to daydream about a life without a day job. Or, if not “without a day job,” then maybe a more typical situation for a writer, where some combination of publishing and writing-related activities provides enough income to live on (and, more importantly, for my family to live on!). For the first few years, I was so ecstatic just to be doing what I love and having it published that it felt almost greedy to try to make it into a livelihood. Lately, though, and I don’t know if it’s age or something else, I’m starting to wonder what I might be able to write if I could spend more than a few hours a week on it. How about you?

LG: I can remember when I first got this job. The first time I actually got to a review a book, for money, for Time… I felt like I’d broken through into another plane of existence, I was so happy. Now that I’ve done it for a dozen years, forty, fifty hours a week: yeah, I daydream. The daydream goes something like, Here I am, forty-four years old, at the height of my creative powers, and I’m writing yet another picture caption while I could be composing some amazing novel-type thing. Other times I think maybe the tension between my working life and my fiction is important, keeps me grounded and hungry to write.


CHARLES YU: Can we talk about the Magicians books? I’ve been tiptoeing around it, but I think we’re sufficiently warmed up to get into it now. What was it like to write a series, and live with characters for such a long time? Did you always know from the beginning where you’d end up? And, selfishly and greedily and desperately, I have to ask: is this really the end? And, if so, would you ever write another series?

LEV GROSSMAN: When I started The Magicians, it was kind of a dark time for me, personally and professionally. Dark enough that I couldn’t imagine anybody publishing the book, let alone any sequels, so I never planned anything more till The Magicians was already out. Thinking about sequels might’ve jinxed it. So instead I made them up as I went along. But the other thing about the Magicians books which is probably not that obvious, what with all the magic and such, is how autobiographical they are. Whatever else they may be, they’re me working through some problems that ten years ago were just about crushing the life out of me. So they’re very connected to a moment in my past which on the one hand is very much still me, but on the other hand is two children, three novels, a house, and a marriage ago—and a decade of therapy. So I feel like I have to let go of the Magicians-verse for a while and move on. If I come back to this world—and I certainly might—it will have to be as some future me, with some radically different angle, which present me can’t imagine yet.


CHARLES YU: Can a happy person do good world-building? Or have you reached an age where you’ve got enough historical darkness that it’s easily accessible?

LEV GROSSMAN: I actually worried about this for a long time: writing while not being miserable. But I’ve come around to the position that being unhappy is somewhat overrated. We have this cult of mild, functional depression around writers, like it’s some kind of literary secret sauce. And I definitely think demons are an important part of the literary psyche. But pretty much everybody has demons, and if you can face your demons enough to write about them, I have terrible news for you: you’re pretty mentally healthy. This is a lot of what The Magician’s Land is about: on some level it’s Quentin going back to all the demons that kicked his ass in the first book, one by one, and facing up to them.

CY: So, if not the Magicians-verse, where have you been spending your time recently? Near some inter-genre borders?

LG: I’ve been writing a Knausgaardian confessional autobiography. They’ll never see it coming.

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