Susan Choi’s latest book unveils major drama of a 1980s performing arts high school


Susan Choi’s novels, like the Pulitzer Prize finalist “American Woman” and “My Education,” are often disquieting books aimed at leaving readers unsettled about the choices we make in life. But in person, she is warm and engaging, asking questions of the interviewer, discussing family and schools. A question at the end of the interview about Monty Python (yes, Python fans, she knows it should read “silly walks” not “funny walks” ) leads to musings on her own re-assessment of the comedy group (for the better) and of John Hughes’ movies (she loved them as a teen but now finds them unwatchable).

In between, Choi, 50, discussed her new novel, “Trust Exercise,” which immerses the reader in the suffocating hothouse atmosphere of a 1980s performing arts high school and all the intense drama, heartbreak and scandal many remember from their teen years. “It was shockingly easy to time travel to that period of life,” she says. “It was interesting psychologically to be trapped in the mind-set while writing but to have the perspective to recognize what a trap it was.”

The novel’s second half, however, suddenly shifts the ground underneath the reader, who quickly learns that everything is not what it seems as Choi forces us to reckon with our own perceptions of our past and of how much to trust what we read or what we’re told.


She has always had a knack for misdirection, particularly in her novels’ riveting opening sentences and scenes, which often come at the story from an unusual angle and which carry additional power after reading the rest of the book. In “Person of Interest,” which was inspired in part by the Unabomber, opens with a scene of a professor next door to a bombing victim: “It was only after Hendley was bombed that Lee was force to admit to himself how much he’d disliked him.”

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“Trust Exercise” starts with a simple sentence, “Neither can drive,” then quickly draws readers into the 1980s high school romance of Sarah and David, with a theatrical trust exercise implemented by their iconoclastic teacher that leads to fumbling and groping that would never be allowed in a classroom today.

In a recent conversation with The Times, Choi shared insights into her writing practice, #MeToo and why teenagers feel like adults.

Are those opening sentences and scenes crafted from the start, or do you go back later to restructure it or add nuances that will resonate later on?

They are almost all first draft. Certain books I wrote because I had a good beginning and I thought, “Ooh, what should I do with this?” With “Trust Exercise,” I thought of “Neither could drive” and started from there. I wrote from that line through to the classroom scene. Then it sat for a really long time because I didn’t really know what to do with it.


It sounds much more serendipitous than it is — the beginning of “Person of Interest” was written during a period of such bad writer’s block that I would literally sit down to write some kind of a beginning every day. Out of all the discarded garbage, that’s the one that I thought felt like a good opening paragraph. I have countless beginnings that are bad and get discarded. Some are for books that never come to light.

Did #MeToo inform the dysfunctional sexual dynamics in “Trust Exercise”?

Even before #MeToo, there were repeated news stories in which a quote unquote beloved teacher is accused years after the fact of misconduct by former students. I was preoccupied by the counter-accusations: If it was so bad, why didn’t they say anything at the time, why didn’t they tell their parents?

When you’re a teen, you feel you have judgment and discernment, and you are separating from your parents. I remember at that age thinking that I had every right to be considered an adult, which I recognize now is crazy. I thought I was so smart and sophisticated and I was a feminist and so I could make choices for myself. But I did not know what I was doing for the most part.

If you thought at that age you wanted to be in a sexual relationship with someone three times your age, that doesn’t mean that relationship was OK. I think we have to say that just because you were under the impression that you had power doesn’t mean you did.

When did you decide to alter the novel’s trajectory so radically in the second half?


This evolved as a side project. I’ve been trying to write a book for a decade about my father’s family and their history in Korea. It’s my “serious” project, the one I apply to grants for. But it’s a quagmire. So when I was banging my head against the wall, I would work on “Trust Exercise” just for fun. Then I would drop “Trust Exercise” whenever it reached a point where I didn’t know what to do. At one point, the story played itself out, so I didn’t touch it for a long time. One day, I was getting into an elevator and I thought, “Oh, there’s another narrative scheme.” So I started writing the book again in a different mode.

How did teaching the novel to undergraduates and also your reading habits encourage you to think about breaking with the novel’s conventions?

I had a realization that I had internalized all these rules about the novel, and it was a completely arbitrary set of ideas. But the novels I’m reading now don’t do what you expected, and I’m less interested now in novels that did everything you expect. This also had to do with Trump’s election, which cast a very unsparing light on the ideas of storytelling and authority — it made all sorts of storytelling seem really suspect, especially seamless narratives that appear to account for everything. But the biggest thing really was my attitude that this was a side project no one is ever going to see.

Were you ever tempted to write the rest of the more conventional first half?

I did have ideas about what happened in the rest of the book, and some of it is even written — there’s definitely more in that universe of those characters, but it will never see the light of day.

Is the second half shift a meditation on perception and memory (seen through the characters) or about trusting storytellers and the relationships of readers and writers?


It’s a little of everything. I find memory fascinating — you can share an experience with someone and discover that your respective narration of it — about what happened and the meaning of the event — is completely different: “I was there and you were there, and didn’t one thing happen? No, one thing happened to you and one thing happened to me.”

But it’s also about the way narrative has enormous authority for us even when it is designated as fiction or even when people recognize it as false. Our politics has always been about who tells a better story, but now you see with immigration, for one example, that the storytelling from the Trump administration is rife with demonstrable lies, yet it still exercises enormous power.

The marketing for “Trust Exercise” calls it a “narrative-upending novel” and plays up that the second half “flips the premise upside down.” Did you want readers to know this in advance?

Someone at the publisher persuaded me it was better to signal that the book contains some sort of shift.

I’m not sure of their exact reason, but I think there’s this fear that there’s this risk the reader is initially going to say, “I’ve seen this before,” so maybe part of their thinking was to say, “This isn’t what you think it is.” But I worry that it’s overstated. The book shifts under its own feet, but it’s not a “She sees dead people” kind of twist. I do at times wish it wasn’t signposted quite so prominently.


Any concern that readers might feel the rug was pulled from under them, or did you want them to be skeptical of simply trusting the storyteller’s authority?

I wouldn’t be dismayed if those readers were slightly dismayed. I think it’s an appropriate response. But I hope it feels purposeful and not that you’re getting jerked around for no reason. It’s not a gimmick. I want the book to feel like it is more than the sum of its parts.


Trust Exercise

Susan Choi

Henry Holt, 272 pp., $27.00

Susan Choi is at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Choi appears at 10 a.m. April 13 in conversation with novelists Edan Lepucki, Caeli Wolfson Widger and John Wray.