Good news: Sorry Please Thank You, a short story collection by Charles Yu, is available today!
Yu is the author of the mind-bending How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (reviewed here), one of my favorite books from a couple of years ago. I wrote about Sorry Please Thank You back in May and said that you should just pre-order a copy, but if you didn’t follow that excellent piece of advice there’s still hope: just go to a bookstore (if you can find one) and pick up a copy.
In honor of the book’s release, I interviewed Yu about writing sad stories, being a dad, and his favorite Ray Bradbury story.
Liu: Let’s start with a follow-up to my last interview with you: how are you doing on memorizing pi? You’ve had two years to work on it — gotten to 1,000 digits yet?
Yu: Ugh, no. I was going to do some more for approximate-pi day (7/22), but I didn’t, so I’m at 450 digits, which is about 100 more than I knew last time we talked. I’m glad you reminded me of this. Your reminder has made me feel ashamed and inspired to get back to it. There should be a word for that, the combination of being ashamed and inspired. Ashpired. Inshamed. Yes, inshamed. So many of the things I do in life are because I feel inshamed.
Liu: Ah, yes, never underestimate the power of inshamation. Here’s the other follow-up: how’s it been being a dad? By now your kids are both mobile and talking — which I know from experience can be easier in some ways and harder in others. Has being a dad changed anything about the way you write, or the things you feel moved to write about?
Yu: Well, for one thing, my kids are preventing me from learning pi. But other than that, it’s incredible. Mobile and talking, indeed. They’re so much fun, and say and do and think such funny, ridiculous, innocent, curious, painfully honest things that I can’t get enough of hanging out with them. Well, that’s not totally true. By about 7pm on Sunday night, after a whole weekend of them, I’m a little tired of them. You know what I mean.
It has definitely changed things, both in terms of what I’m moved to write about, and what I want to write. My daughter loves characters so much. She loves morality in stories, asking questions about why this person did this, watching her reason through it with her own internal calculus that she’s developing. She and my son both demand impromptu stories from me, all day, every day, and coming up with them is like writer’s boot camp for me. Basic exercises that make me realize how out of shape and flabby my storytelling muscles are. It’s like living with two little story editors all the time.
Liu: That’s great — it used to be that people needed to have kids to help on the farm, take over the store; now you can have kids to help you edit!
Two years ago you said you felt most of your ideas seemed “better suited to longer stories,” but your latest is a book of stories rather than a novel. I must say, as much as I enjoyed HTLSIASFU (and would be eager to read another novel of yours), I really liked your short story collection for the way I can get a small taste of a whole bunch of different concepts. Kind of like dim sum. Do you still feel that way, or are you leaning toward short stories now? Any word on that novel or possible graphic/comics story? And while we’re at it, what’s your official stance on dim sum?
Yu: Ha ha! Yes, dim sum. So, first of all, I love dim sum. Do you have good dim sum in Portland? There’s excellent dim sum in LA, although you have to drive a little bit from where I live to go get it. I am really hungry right now. Thanks a lot. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, dim sum. No, no, that’s not it. See what you did to me?
Oh, right, stories versus novel. I still feel like I’m leaning toward longer things. I’m working on a novel now, and I think that’s what I would like to do more of in the future. I will never stop writing short stories, but the novel is a digressive form, and I think that fits the way I think and write better. Mmmm, dim sum.
Liu: Yeah, we have some great dim sum in Portland, too — next time you’re in town we’ll go try some, and then for dinner we should go to some steak house, to see if the “dim sum : short stories :: steak dinner : novel” simile holds up. My understanding is that in LA you have to drive a little bit (or a lot) to get anywhere, including next door.
I mentioned in my review that I was sad not to see “Notes from a Freelance Protagonist” in the collection — any particular reason that got dropped?
Yu: I was sort of sad about that, too. I think it didn’t get included because it wasn’t quite fiction, exactly. But I’d love for it to be in something, somewhere, in the future. It’s still kind of an idea I want to expand on, setting it in the world of Minor Universe 31 (but without any more references to “Charles Yu”). I’ve played with the idea of a freelance protagonist character in that world, and with the idea of a RetCon Squad, and I still think it could work well in graphic form. I’ve made some stabs at trying that, but I can only draw stick figures, so everything just looks like a game of Hangman.
Liu: What’s the story behind “Inventory”? Reading it seemed at first like this depressing window into your life — but then there’s the implication that maybe it isn’t. Have you had a lot of people making assumptions about who you are based on your fictional Charles Yu character?
Yu: Oof, ha, well, um. No, not a window into my life. I really had this idea of a fictional space as a kind of laboratory, where you could do thought experiments. I even thought of doing something like that: 101 Universes, where each page would be a new universe. It got condensed into “Inventory.” But yes, definitely with the novel, and now with this story, I could definitely see why someone might assume that I had a depressing childhood and am now slumping my way toward middle age. But I’m actually quite happy. See! Look, I’m smiling.
Liu: Let’s talk about Ray Bradbury, since I saw your story “Earth (a Gift Shop)” in Shadow Story. How did you get involved in that project? Was it hard to decide what to write for it? You cite “There Shall Come Soft Rains” as the influence on this particular story of yours. Do you have any other favorite Bradbury pieces?
Yu: I was asked to submit something for the anthology by Sam Weller and Mort Castle, who put together the anthology. I was seriously daunted by the list of contributors they had rounded up, and I still am. Deciding what to write was very nerve-wracking – I kept thinking, “Ray Bradbury is going to read this story.” That’s a lot of pressure! And I heard from Sam that Mr. Bradbury did read it (at least I think he did), and enjoyed it. That was a quite a feeling. Pride and relief. Pri-lief. It’s like being in-shamed, but the opposite.
Oh, and yes, I love The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes. In terms of stories, “The Veldt” is one of my favorites, but there are so many.
Liu: I finally did get around to reading The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (as well as his more recent novel Angelmaker). Thanks for the recommendation! Any other books you’ve read recently that I should put on my list?
Yu: I’m glad you liked them! Nick Harkaway is incredible – reading him, I feel like a weekend jogger watching an Olympic miler. He’s faster and has more endurance than I can imagine.
In terms of non-fiction, James Gleick’s The Information was incredible. In terms of fiction, I loved Ben Lerner’s novel, Leaving the Atocha Station.
And you were the first to turn me on to Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion. Unnnnnnnnhhhhhhhhhh that book is so good it makes me mad! Thank YOU for that recommendation.
Liu: I actually did start reading The Information, and it was fascinating, but the hardcover book was just a bit too heavy for travel reading. Still have it on my shelf to work through slowly. I’ll put Leaving the Atocha Station on my list. And I think Warm Bodies is one I actually heard about through Nick Harkaway on Twitter. So it all comes around again.
Do you have a favorite story in the new collection? (And on a related note, which of your children do you like better?) No, just kidding. You don’t have to answer that.
Yu: Ha ha. All my stories are like my children, meaning I have to wipe their mouths every fifteen seconds.
Liu: When are they going to turn HTLSIASFU into a big-budget special effects–laden Hollywood summer blockbuster? And who will play you?
Yu: I don’t know! 1492 Pictures (Chris Columbus’s production company) optioned the rights, which I am really excited about. It’s listed on IMDB (yes, I check, I’m not too ashamed to admit that. Or inshamed, either) as “in-development” for a 2014 release, but I imagine there are many steps between now and a movie actually happening. I would love it if my brother, Kelvin, could play me! He’s an actor, and a writer on the animated show, Bob’s Burgers. Or maybe he’ll do the voice for some future, cartoon version of HTLSIASFU. But seriously, if they ever make a movie, I hope you’ll come to LA and watch it with me.
Liu: Sounds great! I’ll put that on my calendar.
Sorry Please Thank You retails for $24.95 and is available now.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book.