As soon as Charles Yu gets my recreational time machine repaired, I’ll zip back to the beginning of the month to post this when his book was actually released. In the meantime, just pretend that you’re reading this two weeks ago.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is an ingenious mishmash of science fiction, family dynamics and meta-fiction. I reviewed it earlier after I picked it up at Comic-Con, and now that the book is finally out I spoke to Yu about being a geeky dad, writing on the side and stories about stories. For a small taste of Yu’s writing, check out “Some Notes from a Freelance Protagonist,” a short story he wrote for Powell’s which is both an entertaining short story and a treatise on the uncategorizable types of stories that Yu writes.
GeekDad: We often like to start off interviews by checking to see if our subjects are GeekDads themselves; I can tell you’re a geek from your book, but what other geek cred do you claim? And what’s your dad cred?
Charles Yu: My dad cred is pretty legit, I think: my wife and I have a 3-year-old daughter and a 15-month-old son. My daughter loves stories already, and my son loves to destroy things. As for geek cred, how about this: I was on the math team starting from eighth grade through twelfth grade. And I can recite from memory the first 350 digits of pi. My goal is to get to 1,000 digits. I already regret admitting that.
GD: How long did it take you to write How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe? How do you make the time to write while practicing law and raising kids?
CY: It’s somewhat hard to say, because the basic concept was floating around in my head and in my computer for almost a year, but I couldn’t get traction for several months. Once I found my footing, the actual writing of the version that we ended up submitting to Pantheon took place over about a 6- or 7-month period. Although it felt a lot longer than that.
I’m still practicing, as an in-house lawyer at a visual effects company. I know this might sound strange, but actually it’s not hard to make time to write, because I don’t need large chunks of anymore. In fact, if I have too much time (anything more than 4 or 5 hours), I’m often less efficient than if I just have an hour or two a night. I think the subconscious works on things when we don’t realize it, and the time constraint actually helps me get it out with more of a sense of urgency. My wife plays a big part in it, too. She’s very supportive in many ways. We may not have much free time, but because of her, I have managed to carve out a small region of psychological space, which is just as important (if not more so).
GD: The book has real emotional weight, particularly in the somewhat strained relationship between the protagonist and his parents. How much of that is based on your own relationships with your parents?
CY: Some, but perhaps less than one might think. I’m close with both of my parents, and I had a much happier childhood than the Charles Yu in the novel. Although I did draw on my own life and relationships with my parents in writing the book, it was more of a jumping off point. I imagine Universe 31 as a nearby place to our own. There are a few points where the two realities touch each other, and those are key points for sure, but there isn’t significant overlap between the universes. For one thing, in real life, I’ve got a brother (and of course there’s no brother in the book). And there’s a silliness to our family, at least to my brother and me, that is missing from the book, again because there’s no brother character. We invented the most ridiculous games as kids, and played them with deadly seriousness. We also invented a lot of our own alternate universes, in which we were always the two most powerful beings. To be autobiographical, those scenes in the car wouldn’t just be silence between a dad and a son, they’d have two brothers in the back seat, silently punching each other.
GD: Speaking of your parents, have they read your book? What was their reaction?
CY: My mom read it within two days of getting it. I think she liked it a lot more than my first book, and she said it made her reflect a lot on her own life. I didn’t want to give her an advance copy because I wanted her to see the published edition. My father has it, too, although I’m not sure if he’s read it yet. I think he’s at least dipped into it. He’s a very thoughtful, deliberative person, and it’s possible he has read it and is just waiting to formulate his thoughts before talking with me about it. I’ve encouraged both of them to keep in mind that it’s fiction, and not to read this as a roman-a-clef about our family.
GD: Having written short stories and now, a novel, which do you prefer?
CY: I don’t know if I have done enough of either to know if I have a preference. I hope I get the chance to continue doing both, although at the moment most of my ideas seem better suited to longer stories.
GD: Do you have anything else in the works?
CY: Right now I am primarily working on a new novel, but I’ve also been trying to develop an idea that I hope could take the form of a serialized, possibly graphic/comics story.
GD: One of the things I really enjoyed about HTLSIASFU and your short story for Powell’s was the way you play around with meta-fiction, the way characters in your stories know they’re in a story. What inspired you to come up with that idea? Do you think there’s a lot of other stories to be told in this sort of a setting, or do you feel like you’ve played out the meta-writing for now?
CY: That’s actually something I’m wrestling with in the new novel. On the one hand, my ideas always seem to gravitate toward the edge of the frame, trying to push on that fourth wall. I think it would be impossible for me to completely keep it out of my next novel completely, but if I do have a layer of meta in the new book, I want to make sure I do it in a way that I haven’t done before. On the other hand, some part of me feels like there may be more stories to be told in Universe 31. Not with the same characters, or even in that world, necessarily, just that there might be some unmined conceptual territory that I might go back to some day. Some of those ideas have asked me if I might try to work them into that serial idea I’m trying to write. I’m trying to channel the meta-writing toward the comic book idea, because it’s a more natural fit, which is probably something that’s probably obvious to GeekDad readers. I mean, Crisis on Infinite Earths is basically one huge intertextual metafiction.
GD: Who are a couple of your favorite authors? Any books that you’ve read (recently or otherwise) that you just can’t stop talking about?
CY: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. I’m glad I hadn’t read this book when I was trying to write mine. Although the worlds of the two books are very different. Universe 31 is intentionally sparse, devoid of furniture. But the sheer density of Harkaway’s world is so intimidatingly inventive, if I’d been aware of it when I was writing HTLSIASFU, I might have been shamed into stopping. Harkaway’s book makes me wish I’d populated my novel more, with ideas and people and verbal energy. There’s always next time, I suppose.
GD: Well, thanks so much for taking the time for a few questions. I really enjoyed your book, and it was a pleasure talking with you!
CY: Thanks so much!