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Book Club: Charles Yu on dead ends, self-doubt and Kung Fu

A portrait of author Charles Yu
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the L.A. Times Book Club newsletter.

Charles Yu, a corporate attorney turned novelist and television writer, struggled for five years trying to turn his perceptions of cultural bias into a book.

His epiphany came one night while walking his dog. That’s when he heard the novel’s opening lines in his head: “Ever since you were a boy, you’ve dreamt of being Kung Fu Guy. You are not Kung Fu Guy.”

He recalls thinking, “Now I can hear the voice of the character.”

Yu pushed through the false starts, dead ends and self-doubt to publish “Interior Chinatown,” a satirical novel about how Hollywood and society trap Asian Americans in stereotypical roles. He won the National Book Award for fiction in November.

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On Thursday Yu joins book club readers for a conversation with Times film critic Justin Chang. The book talk starts at 7 p.m., and you can sign up on Eventbrite.

“Interior Chinatown” is the fourth book for Yu, who juggles writing fiction with writing for television. His credits include the HBO series “Westworld.”

A lawyer by training, he started writing in his spare time and says he endured scores of rejections before breaking through in 2006 with a collection of short stories, “Third Class Superhero.”

When he’s writing a novel, he says he doesn’t bother with an outline. He works on a laptop but switches to paper when he feels stuck, scribbling in journals at home or in coffee shops.

“I’ve learned to be more comfortable just being in the mess,” he says. “I have no idea of where I’m going with this. That’s how I work.”

Charles Yu is the author of "Interior Chinatown."
(Tina Chiou / Vintage)

Yu’s top 10

Ahead of his book club visit, Charles Yu shared some of his favorite reads and how he survived the last year.

Last book that kept me up at night: “Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan.

Book I most enjoy rereading: “The Mezzanine” by Nicholson Baker.

Favorite book to read with my kids: The dictionary. Also, for my son, anything by Gene Luen Yang. My daughter and I have started to read books about politics.

TV show that got me through the pandemic:Lodge 49.”

Best movie I’ve watched lately:Underground Railroad” on Amazon. I know technically it’s a limited series, but it is as cinematic as any movie.

Favorite music right now: “Dynamite” by BTS. I can’t stop listening to it.

My theme song:Where Is My Mind” by the Pixies. It is a perfect song and a really good question that I ask myself all the time.

Something that might surprise people about me: I am an accomplished gymnast. (I am not. But wouldn’t that be surprising?)

Something I discovered about myself this past year: I kind of miss driving.

Next project: A few things I am excited to be working on but can’t talk about. But one that I am allowed to talk about is adapting “Interior Chinatown” for Hulu!

Keep reading

Shakespeare in the streets: Makeda Easter profiles teacher Melanie Andrews, who shared her lifelong devotion to the Bard with students over a 30-year career in South L.A. high schools. Andrews is artistic director of the Inner City Shakespeare Ensemble, a community theater company that pairs young performers with professional mentors. “The arts is an underground way to build people, to allow them to tell their stories,” she says.

From wild idea to proposed bill: L.A. author David Kipen talks about the inspiration for his modern-day Federal Writers Project, an idea that came to him at dawn.

Back to the library: The Los Angeles Public Library is reopening 38 branches across the city. A gradual rollout of services will initially include quick browsing, computer access, checking out materials inside libraries and Library To Go outdoor pickup.

What makes a home: Author Susan Straight writes about two novelsClaire Fuller’s “Unsettled Ground” and Joan Silber’s “Secrets of Happiness” — that helped her rethink family and home in a year of loss.

Vulcans don’t come easy: Charlie Jane Anders, author of “The City in the Middle of the Night” and other books, pens an interesting essay on the pitfalls of inventing an alien civilization. “Making a memorable alien is a balancing act,” she says. “You have to give them something audiences can pin on them so they stick out in everyone’s mind, but you don’t want to end up with a planet made up entirely of mining engineers.”

What’s the ultimate travel book?

For Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds, there’s no contest. “I love Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’ because it pokes wonderful holes in the American habit of worshiping all European culture — and in the long-standing European art of monetizing history,” he says. “It pokes holes in everyone, really, and casts a shrewd eye on just about all of the landmarks we continue to revere in Europe and the Middle East. Twain wrote it in his early 30s, before he’d won big fame with any of his fiction.

“I keep doubling back to Twain. In 1993, following a bunch of American college students to Europe, I wrote about how they did and didn’t echo Twain’s fellow travelers in ‘Innocents Abroad.’ In 2010, I got to visit Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Mo., and interview the folks who run the Twain museum there. And four years ago I got to follow Twain’s years in Nevada and California, including the spot where he nearly started a forest fire near Lake Tahoe. Basically, every time I see a chance to follow Twain somewhere, I take it.”

This week, Chris compiled this inspiring collection for 40 California road trips.

Book clubbers, where are you traveling this summer — and what books will you bring along? Share your comments in an email to bookclub@latimes.com.


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