A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Regina Gottleib, the main character in Susan Choi’s new novel, “My Education,” is not your typical graduate student. She develops an outsize fascination for one of her male professors, but it’s not your typical crush: it’s his wife with whom she ends up having an affair. The attraction is torrid, all-consuming and ultimately, emotionally catastrophic. Fast forward to the next decade and we meet Regina again as a happily married mother who seems to have put her past behind her, but not completely. The story has energy, humor and lots of sex. A conversation with Susan Choi about her new novel and her career as a writer.
- Susan Choi author of "A Person of Interest," "American Woman" and "The Foreign Student," and lecturer in creative writing at Princeton University Lewis Center for the Arts.
Read An Excerpt
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from “My Education” by Susan Choi. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Choi.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Graduate student Regina Gottlieb becomes obsessed with one of her professors, but it's when she falls deeply in love with his wife that her life really gets complicated. She's the main character in writer, Susan Choi's, newest novel. It's titled "My Education." Susan Choi joins me to talk about her new book and her career as a writer.
MS. DIANE REHMWe'll take your calls throughout the hour, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Susan Choi, it's good to meet you.
MS. SUSAN CHOIIt's great to be here.
REHMYou know, in the past you've written some rather different novels from this one, one could say politically charged novels. This is charged in a different way. Tell us how come.
CHOIHow come -- you're right. My first three books, I think, all had some history or some politics or both, you know, Korean War, seventies radicals. The most recent one before this one was a sort of a fictionalization of the Unabomber case. And I loved doing that kind of research, and I loved, you know, kind of grabbing things out of our recent history and trying to dramatize them. This book is a much -- I don't want to say it's a smaller book, but it's about people and their relationships, and it's about emotions and feelings.
CHOIAnd to be totally honest, I didn't want to do research. I was so tired after my second baby had been born, that I just kept thinking, there's got to be a novel that I can write that's just about people and their emotions that doesn't require going to the library. And, you know, so I guess it was that impulse that led me to look for a different kind of story. Also, the desire to do something different.
REHMAnd you found some inspiration in the book "The Line of Beauty."
CHOIWell, I loved this book by Alan Hollinghurst, and I had just not responded that way to a novel in so long, and it's a novel about being young, and it's a novel about being seduced. It's a very different kind of seduction. The young protagonist, who's a man in that book, falls in with a very powerful and glamorous family. And I wanted to write a book about youth and about the mistakes of youth, but, you know, obviously, to go in my own direction, but that was the -- that was the train of thought that I started on.
REHMSo the train of thought begins, and then what happened to it?
CHOIWell, you know, it begins, but I already had in my mind a young woman protagonist, and, you know, the other thing that I kept thinking of in terms of youth was, again, you know, my children had a big impact on the making of this book, which is ironic, because, of course, this is the book that now that both my children can read, I am storing on high shelves so that they cannot get a hold of it. They're five and nine, and it just would not be appropriate.
CHOIBut I was thinking, you know, in my early 20s, I thought of myself as a woman who liked children, and was an adult, and now that I'm in my, you know, 40s and have children, I kept thinking, God, what was I thinking back then in my early 20s? I just knew nothing about life. And so I started thinking that I really wanted to write a book about a young woman who kind of goes from that earlier phase of adult hood feeling like she knows it all to a slightly later phase where she really does know a bit more and can look back at that earlier moment and go, oh, my God.
REHMWell, and that's the interesting part of it. The novel begins with Regina Gottlieb having this fascination for this really attractive male professor who dresses in these long dramatic coats and really looks very enticing. Tell us about Regina Gottlieb.
CHOIWell, she is -- I think she's wonderfully naïve. She believes that she has it all mapped out. You know, in the very first pages of the book, she says that she had recently graduated from college and grown up, and she sort of capitalizes the phrase grown up as an indication of kind of the fact that she really hasn't. She sees this professor who has a terrible -- he has a terrible reputation on campus. She's been warned about him, and so, of course, being not quite as grown up as she wants to think, she's immediately intrigued. She thinks, oh, here's the professor with the bad reputation.
REHMBad reputation as...
CHOIHe is reputed to be a sexual harasser. And what I enjoyed with the book, without giving too much away, is that he really turns out not to be what he seems at all. Regina's drawn to this bad boy reputation, and he turns out to be kind of a total, sort of chimera. He's not that man, he's a much more tentative, uncertain -- I felt very tender towards that character toward the end. He's just -- he's not the man he seems to be, and she ends up wounding him.
REHMIt's fascinating because she attends his class. First class she attends all these students who really are into his subject, his presentation, his dramatization. She doesn't know a thing about what he's teaching. She is totally ignorant, and she admits it. She goes to him and she says, you know, maybe I've made a mistake here. And what does he do?
CHOIYeah. It's the beginning of their actual relationship. She decides to take his class and turns up dressed like a sex kitten and makes, she feels, pretty accurately, she makes a fool of herself because she turns up in this class which is actually full of serious scholars...
CHOI...doing serious scholarly stuff.
CHOIShe's kind of taken aback. He turns out to be a really accomplished scholar.
REHMAnd serious professor.
CHOIVery serious. And there she sits in her rather sexy attire feeling like this is the first major mistake she's made, and she grows up a little bit even at that moment. She goes to him, after attending the class a few times and never saying a word, and says, can I talk to you. And he says, I'm so excited to even hear your voice, as you haven't...
REHMHe's very clever that way.
CHOI...as you haven't uttered a word so far. So she says, you know, I don't really know why I signed up for this class. I'm not qualified to comment on this subject. I feel foolish, and I'm going to drop the class. And he says, you know, instead of entirely dropping away, why don't help me out? And he hires her to be his teaching assistant in a survey course he's teaching for undergraduates, and she says, but I don't know that subject either. And he says, you'll learn.
CHOIChaucer. She says, I've never read Chaucer, and he says, you know what, all you have to do is read it.
CHOIAnd so this is the beginning of their actual friendship, which turns out to be a very different relationship than the one she first envisioned when she sort of spotted him and thought, oh, I'm going to pursue that dangerous man. He becomes a real friend to her, and she turns out to be the one who betrays that friendship.
REHMHave you ever known a woman like Regina Gottlieb?
CHOIWell, not just like her, but I feel like maybe we've all been a little like her, I mean, you know, I've known so many young women, and I've been that young woman who was attracted to the very person who is purported to be the worst possible person to be attracted to. You know, you're told like, oh, he's a bad guy, and you're immediately thinking, oh, really? So I feel like we've all known her, and maybe been her, or at least I have.
REHMHas Regina got good friends there at the beginning?
CHOIYou know, she arrives in this town knowing no one, but the first person she meets by a stroke of luck turns out to be a lifelong friend. She answers an ad for a housemate situation, and finds herself in the home of this unusual character named Daniel Dutra. He's just known as Dutra. He's this med school student. He's an utter pragmatist. He's kind of a blowhard. He has an opinion on everything. He takes her to bed, and...
CHOIRight away. And then they sort of step back and realize that actually they just want to be friends, and they become very good friends. He stays with her through the whole book.
REHMSusan, did you have any problems within yourself thinking about, well, perhaps not quite then your five and nine year old girls and whether you wanted to write a book that you would then have to put on the top shelf?
CHOIThey're boys, actually.
REHMOh, forgive me.
CHOIBut same question, it doesn't really change the question. You know, I think with me, and probably with a lot of writers, you write the book that you're writing. It's really hard to -- or at least it's really hard for me to decide in advance I want to write this kind of book. And, you know, this book was a really tough labor. I had such a hard time writing it. I wrote a whole sort of false book before this book that was just no good.
REHMWhat's a false book?
CHOIWell, a false book, I mean, it was a false alarm. It was a wrong start. It just went on for too long. I wrote it -- I wrote a sort of a 200-page long novel that, you know, when my editor looked at it she said, do you need more time?
CHOIAnd I thought, oh, okay. I guess I do. And, you know, this book came out of that book because the Martha character is -- makes a brief appearance there, and she was the only thing that people really liked about that previous book.
REHMTell us who Martha is.
CHOIMartha is Nicholas' wife. So Regina meets this dashing professor who is not what he seems. Shortly thereafter when she becomes his TA, and she becomes his colleague and his friend, and immediately, you know, she notices she starts dressing differently. She show up in the Chaucer lectures wearing baggy jeans and ugly sweaters, and she stopped wearing makeup. She sort of wants to seem like this kind of workman-like person.
CHOIYou know, turning up to do her job, and not long after that she meets Nicholas' wife.
REHMSusan Choi. Her new novel is titled "My Education." "American Woman" is one of her previous books which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She teaches at Princeton. Short break. Right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Writer Susan Choi is with me. She teaches at Princeton University. Her novel "American Woman" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Now she's come out with a brand new novel. It's titled, "My Education." It's an interesting education for Regina Gottlieb who begin the novel very, very attracted to her professor and then she meets his wife. But, Susan Choi, you want to go back to the question of what your thoughts were while you were writing this book in regard to your children.
CHOIWell, I think is most accurate to say is that I didn't have thoughts regarding my children. And I think that's the interesting thing. Probably other writers have the same issue. But I think, you know, once you get into a book you're so relieved to be there. It's so hard, for me at least, to find my way into the right story. That I didn't give much thought to what the result would be when that story kind of left my head and my laptop and went out into the world.
CHOIAnd I think that's, you know, that can be for better and for worst. I mean, it's sort of a necessary lack of circumspection to get the writing done. I think that, you know, if you're constantly thinking like, oh, god, what if my kids read this...
CHOI...it's very inhibiting.
REHMSo what are you thinking now?
CHOII'm thinking that I sure hope they don't read it until they're adults and, you know, it's very hard to imagine what sorts of adults they'll be. But I hope by the time they are adult, they'll have the perspective to maybe cringe and go, ugh, that was mom's sexy book. Maybe they'll avoid, you know. It's hard to know.
REHMDo you have any similar feelings about any of your prior books?
CHOII think all of my books have content in them that I would hesitate to expose my kids to at their current tender ages. Although it's fascinating that we're having this conversation now because a dear girlfriend of mine whose son is 13 now, she bought my third book for him, "A Person of Interest." And she came to a reading of mine in New York and said, you know, will you sign this book for my son.
CHOIAnd I know her son well. I've known him since he was born. And I said, what? Are you sure? And she said, yeah, I'm sure. You know? And so, as the mother of a 9-year-old, this chasm between 9 and 13 to me is unimaginable.
CHOIWho knows what my 13-year-old likes? We learn as we go.
REHM800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Tell us about Nicholas Brodeur's wife.
CHOIWell, Nicholas Brodeur who Regina starts to get to know in a different way than she had thought. She becomes this colleague and his friend and she immediately realizes something is amiss in his life. He...
REHMShe's pregnant when...
CHOIShe first spots his wife when she's enormously pregnant. Her eye has caught -- she's still in that class. She's still not talking. She's still sitting in that seminar tongue-tied before she finally drops out. And one afternoon, Professor Brodeur who was so articulate and he, you know, he pretends to read aloud from the text, but he's actually always reciting from memory. She notices this, that he has everything memorized but he pretends he doesn't.
CHOIHe's incredibly erudite and he has a beautiful reading voice. He sort of enthralls his class. One afternoon he stumbles, he just loses his composure. And she looks to the doorway and there's a woman in the doorway, enormously pregnant. Quite strikingly beautiful. Extremely pissed off looking. And then she passes on by. And Professor Brodeur recovers his composure and goes on.
CHOIAnd Regina, sort of startled by his apparition, she doesn't even imagine this might be her professor's wife, but it is. That's who that person is. And shortly thereafter, this baby is born and Regina fellow teaching assistant Lawrence who knows the family rather better starts giving her indications that it is not a happy marriage or a happy time in that house.
REHMAnd the baby?
CHOIThe baby is a baby in the first part of the book. The baby is sort of the key to what I was trying to capture with Regina because, you know, Regina becomes preoccupied by this woman who happens to have this baby. Regina just doesn't give much thought to that baby. She just kind of doesn't care. As she started to -- she becomes more and more, to her own surprise, attracted to this woman and then entangled with this woman.
CHOIAnd all the while there is this little baby. And Regina is just sort of oblivious to this little person who is part of the picture. And that was the thing I wanted to get when I started the book because I wanted to show that transition from being a seemingly grown up young woman but really not having a clue to being, you know, by the end of this book, Regina is a mother herself.
CHOIAnd she looks back at this time when she was blind to the impact she might have been having on the life of this little child and she's quite amazed by herself.
REHMIt's really interesting because you say she comes at the relationship at a desperate disadvantage. What do you mean by that?
CHOIWell, she tumbles into this unexpected affair with this older woman who is a professor, married, a mother, a mortgage holder, just, you know, has more than a decade of experience on Regina. Martha understands, I think, in her core from the very beginning that this is a bit of a wild fling. Martha is desperately unhappy. Her marriage is already unraveling, clearly. Regina doesn't get it.
CHOIRegina thinks that this is true love. And she -- although she cannot see beyond the next hour, because she's so besotted, I think in her naïve youthfulness she really believes that this wonderful thing that's happened to her is going to stick. And even at the very beginning, her older lover is saying, this isn't going to work out, you know that, right? There's no way someone like you, young, unattached person with no experience in life and someone like me, extremely entangled, experienced person. This isn't going to last.
REHMBut still, Regina believes.
CHOIWell, that's love for you, isn't it? I mean, you know, isn't that the condition of love when that kind of argument really falls on deaf ears.
REHMAnd where is Nicholas as this affair between Martha and Regina continues?
CHOIWell, the affair is sort of percolating but it doesn't really happen until, you know, of course this is an academic setting. So you have to wait until the summer for these irregularities to really take shape. You know, that's the academic calendar. Let's wait until finals are over. Nicholas has gone off on his annual solitary canoe trip. And this affair begins in earnest. And Martha knows from the very beginning just how long that canoe trip is scheduled to last, Regina doesn't even give it a thought.
CHOIAnd then finally one day, Martha says to Regina, you know, Nicholas is back in town. You didn't think that canoe trip was going to last forever, did you? And, you know, Regina has to admit to herself that she was just trying not to think about it as much as possible.
REHMI wondered as I was reading this, I mean, clearly, the ages are different. There is the presence of a child, a husband and wife who are disaffected. So all of those absolutely same characteristics wouldn't necessarily have played out in the life of someone you know or even your own. But did you take a snippet here and a snippet there or did all flow from your fabulous imagination?
CHOIOh, no. Not -- I mean, thank you, but nothing entirely flows from my imagination, fabulous or not. Of course there are snippets altered, reordered, re-imagined from life. That's the case with all my books. I mean, all my books are indebted to the life that I've lived and the life that I've seen. I think that this book, because the protagonist is a young woman who has experiences somewhat in parallel with mine, it's easier to see how those experiences from my own life might have flowed in to this kind of soup that results.
CHOIBut that's been true of all my work. All my work has a lot more of me in it than you might think. Even the previous novel to this, which is from the point of view of a man in the '70s. There's a lot of me in there too.
REHMDid you know early on that writing was going to be what you had to do?
CHOII knew really early, I mean, in childhood that writing was something that I love to do and that I was good at. And I think that that was part of the complicatedness was that even when I was little I can tell I was good at it, this sounds so immodest but, you know, you're in school, you're trying to do your times tables and then you're doing your little creative exercise and the times tables are not going so well and the creative exercise is praised by your teacher.
CHOISo, you know, that's an early indication that writing is something you're good at, maybe better at than math. My poor father is a mathematics professor, so he suffered a bit of a disappointment when it turned out that it's just not my strong suit at all. Yeah, from early on, I wrote for pleasure and I developed a kind of confidence in my writing that made me really devalue when I set off to college to sort of find my way in life. I thought, oh, writing, you know, I've always written.
REHMSo I'll strike out in some new direction.
CHOIYeah, exactly. It's funny, you know, sometimes the things that come most easily to you are things that you start valuing less. And that definitely happened to me. In college I thought, oh, I'll do this, I'll do that, I'll do the other. I had all sorts of ideas. And it wasn't until my early 20s that I came full circle back to writing, really none of those other ideas worked out.
REHMSo did the writing take bloom in college or after?
CHOIAfter, after. Like I said, in college, I sort of neglected or even avoided writing very much, sort of shrugged it off, became a little scornful, a little kind of self-deprecating about it. And it was after college that I realized that none of the things that pursued in college had really clicked. Nothing had clicked.
REHMSo the first book that you actually began, did you have faith that you were going to really write a book?
CHOINo, my god. You know, I actually went to graduate school, like Regina, except that I went to study creative writing. And there I was given wonderful funding and the attention of incredibly talented mentor, professors and the attention of incredibly talented peers. We would sit in a workshop. I just produced absolute, you know, pardon me for saying it, but just garbage. I mean, I spent two years not finding my way to anything that seemed worth publishing.
CHOIAnd so after that, I thought, I just squandered two years in the considerable resources of prestigious program and, you know, what have a I done? So I was living in New York, working full-time and I just -- I was so despondent really about the situation. I took out the stuff that I'd been fiddling around with in grad school and started kind of fiddling again. And after a while, there was a certain momentum.
CHOIAnd I remember I would come home after my day at work or I'd, you know, stay in on Saturday instead of going out and having fun. And I would kind of chisel away at this thing while pretending in my mind that I wasn't doing anything in particular. And I remember at some moment I secretly thought, maybe this is going to work out.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Susan Choi is with me. We're talking about her latest novel titled, "My Education." Join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. You know, as you were talking, I was thinking about all the people out there who think of themselves as possibly writers, who are listening to you being given hope by what you said.
REHMBecause for so many people, the idea of being a writer must be something that simply comes to you, that you don't have to really work hard at. That you just sit down and do because it's so easy.
CHOIOh, that couldn't be further from the truth. It's not just easy to do it and it's just not easy to succeed at it in the sense of publishing it and getting it noticed. It is such a hard -- I feel so fortunate. I really at times can't believe that I'm sort of sitting here with four books under my belt. I'm still surprised, to be honest. And I teach brilliant -- I have amazing students. And, you know, I constantly think almost like a parent.
CHOISurely this could be published. And, you know, it's an even harder road than it was when I started.
CHOII think it really is. I think it's harder to get published. It's harder to get noticed. Publishers are under more pressure than ever. You know, it's -- even just in terms of notice. Fewer book reviewers, fewer book review pages, fewer places to get the word out that you've published something if you've even managed to do it. It's a tough thing to recommend to a student.
REHMHow did you get that first book and tell us about it.
CHOIThat first book which I, you know, was writing on evenings and weekends and then started to secretly suspect was going to be a book. And so I had to immediately psych myself out by thinking, oh, no, I'm not writing a book. I'm just doing something here. I'm not going to get too worried about it. I did finish it and I was very lucky. I was working at the New Yorker magazine as a fact checker.
CHOIIncredibly fantastic experience, but like a really elite and privileged place to have managed to land as, you know, a post-grad living in New York. And embarrassing as it was, I wandered down the hall and had to admit to editors that I'd greatly respected that I, yes, had written a novel and did they know anyone that I might send it to. So it was a tough thing to do, but at least I got to do that.
REHMSusan Choi and the book she's written now, her fourth, is titled, "My Education." We'll open the phones when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Novelist Susan Choi is with me. Her latest, which is her fourth novel, is titled "My Education." Her earlier novel "American Woman" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She teaches at Princeton. And Susan, would you read for us from the beginning of "My Education?"
CHOII'd love to. This very first section is simply titled 1992. Since arriving the previous week, I'd kept hearing about a notorious person. And now as I entered the packed lecture hall my gaze caught on a highly conspicuous man. That's him, I declared inwardly, which of course was absurd. It was a vast university of thousands of souls. There was no reason these two kinds of prominence, scandalous noteworthiness and exceptional, even sinister attractiveness must belong to the same human being, yet they had. The man was Nicholas Brodeur, though I knew it for sure only later.
CHOIThat first time seeing him, even before being sure who he was, it was already clear that his attractiveness was mixed up with a great deal of ridiculousness. He wore a long duster coat, in the heat of September. His filthy blond hair stuck up and out in thatchy spikes from heavy use of some kind of pomade, as if it were 1982, not ’92, and he wore Lennon shades with completely black lenses, as if it were outdoors, not in, and overall, in his resemblance to a Joy Division poster, he comported himself as if twenty and not, as I’d come to find out, almost forty.
CHOIStill he was the best-looking man, by a league, in the room and certainly the best-looking man I had seen in the flesh to that point in my life. I hadn’t yet lived in one of the world’s great cities, where such specimens congregate, but even now that I have, he still ranks. And he must have realized. There was in his posture a kind of inverse vanity, a suggestion that he engaged in his sartorial ridiculousness out of some impatience with the effects of his beauty. He stood alone at the back, his feet away from the wall and his shoulders slumped against it. An ambiguous expression that was not quite a smile slightly lifted the sides of his mouth. His hands remained stuffed in the duster’s deep pockets. The inappropriate hoodlum charade seemed to chide anybody who stared, as I did.
CHOICasper was the only fellow student in my program I’d managed so far to befriend. When he arrived and dropped into the seat I had saved him, I directed his eyes to the man. Oh my, Casper said. Do I want to (bleep) him, or just be him? Just being him did seem the lesser risk. I’d been inoculated against the villain Brodeur before I’d even enrolled. On my visit to campus the previous spring, my informational coffee with a second-year poetry student had been interrupted by a timorous and blushing undergraduate whom the second-year had caught in a fervent embrace, and then presented to me portentously as someone any woman considering coming here needs to talk to.
CHOIIn the course of preparing her senior thesis under Brodeur’s direction, the undergraduate had been victimized by him, in what precise way it would victimize her further to ask her to relate. The result, thus far, had been a petition demanding his firing, but the second-year was confident that far more severe retribution would follow. This was only the most recent petition, and the most recent of his sexual crimes. He was rumored to ask female students to read Donne to him while he lay on the floor of his office, in darkness, it was presumed masturbating himself.
CHOIHe was said to recite bawdy couplets referring to breasts while directing his gaze in the classroom at actual breasts. He’d attended, at the repertory cinema on campus, a screening of a late-career, poorly received film by Roman Polanski, the rapist, and unlike the rest of the solemn, censorious house, there to sharpen the critical blades, he’d apparently laughed so hard as to have literally fallen from his seat onto the floor. Amid all this baleful intelligence it came as a superfluous footnote that his relations with his wife, who was also a faculty member, were obscure and chaotic.
REHMSo interesting that that last sentence of that build-up comes to his wife Martha. All right. It's time to open the phones. I think we've teased people enough. To Mishawaka, Ind. Hi there, Ron. You're on the air.
RONWell, thank you for taking my call, Diane.
RONI do love your show.
RONIt happens that I know -- Susan, I know your father fairly well, as my wife taught with him for 30 years. And in fact, we had him over for Thanksgiving dinner a couple years ago before he retired. And, you know, I really loved your first book. I think it was "The Foreign Student."
RONThe experience -- he, you know, escaped the Korean War and came here. And it's clear that he was quite an outsider. And, you know, it was difficult in those early years for you and for the family. How does being Korean and being an outsider in that manner and being from a family of intellectuals, how does that affect your character development, your imagination of characters?
CHOIYou know, that's a great question. And thank you so much for calling from my home state of Indiana. I think that without being conscious of it all the time, or really maybe any of the time except at a moment like this, I've always found the outsider a really fascinating figure. I didn't notice probably until I had a couple of books published that there were these common themes of the outsider looking in. You know, in "The Foreign Student" whose protagonist is based very closely on my father's early life, his experience coming from Korea to the U.S. in the mid 1950s. Going to school in the deep South where he was neither black nor white, which was a very strange position to be in.
CHOIYou know, that book definitely was fueled by my fascination with and kind of my compassion for that situation of being really outside all the categories. And, you know, my second book also has a protagonist who's just not quite in any category. She's a young radical in the '70s. She kind of falls in with a bunch of anti-Vietnam War protestors. But she herself is Japanese American. And so she's kind of an outsider even to them -- even to this group of young people who have decided to kind of set themselves outside of the United States policy to criticize it.
CHOISo, you know, I didn't -- I certainly didn't grow up with my dad and my mom feeling like an outsider. I had really actually a very happy childhood in South Bend. But I think that some consciousness of what it's like to be slightly outside the categories was always there.
REHMWhat about your mother? Tell us about her.
CHOIWell, my mother is of Russian Jewish descent. She was born in Detroit. And so, you know, she's in sort of a different situation because she's the daughter of immigrants, whereas my father was the immigrant himself. He came to this country in his twenties, so already as an adult he came to the U.S. And they met of course in a college town.
REHMAnd to what extent do you think her life influenced your thinking? I mean, in a sense with your father teaching math, you said you had an apology to make to him. What about your mother's influence on you?
CHOII think my mother's influence is so thorough that I can't even put a finger on it. I mean, my mother was and is my mom. My mother perhaps lives in fear that I will turn my novelistic interest toward her or her family. My mother has the most amazing family. Such a large and vibrant and almost kind of epic family story, that although as a novelist I continually thought about it. I've never even known how I would grab hold of it, maybe to her relief. I mean, my mother's family is -- she's the youngest of nine children. A bunch of them went to Israel in the '50s and made their lives there. I mean, it's an amazing story. And I think a story that I'm not sure I could justice to.
CHOIAnd my mother's probably listening with relief.
REHM...it's a very rich background in terms of what you bring, your life's history...
REHM...and what they have brought to you. Here's an email from Rich who says, "Sitting here driving, listening to your show I just heard Susan drop what I consider a very important golden nugget, not only to current and perspective writers, but to anyone seeking a passion in life. When she mentioned those nights she would get home after working fulltime and chisel away at her work. That right there, the natural drive when you're willing to do something after a long day's work along with that small thought of, this could possibly be it, that's a golden nugget to anyone currently working to find their passion."
CHOIOh, thank you.
CHOII'm so glad. Yeah, I mean, at the time I think I often was motivated by the thought, this is temporary. I did secretly hope it would work out but in my mind I also knew you can't assume it will. You can't assume it's going to work out.
REHMYou know, one thing I want to ask you about, and that is Martha's relationship to her baby.
REHMIt seems very, very uncomfortable.
CHOIIt's very uncomfortable. And one of the things that I really enjoyed about taking Regina through this 15-year journey where she starts as a young woman observing Martha and ends up as an older woman with her own children, is that, you know, she herself experiences motherhood in a very different way. To her own surprise she loves motherhood. She loves having a baby. She adores her son. And, in fact, she adores him so much that she thinks, what is this similar to? Have I ever felt this way before?
CHOIAnd she thinks back to her adoration of Martha and realizes that the two feelings had nothing in common. They only thing they had in common was the words that you would use. You would say I adore, I am besoughted with. But she says -- she didn't -- the feeling was completely different. And she thinks like, that's so weird. It makes all the words seem very ineffectual. But she also finds that she feels great compassion for Martha now as a mother herself. She wonders why she doesn't judge Martha harshly for having been so unmaternal. And -- but realizes that instead she just feels she understands her better.
REHMIs it simply that Martha doesn't have that maternal instinct?
CHOIYou know, I think one of the reasons I wanted to skip forward 15 years was I wanted to show people that Martha actually grows into motherhood in her own way. We see her -- every -- it's like a grand reunion, everybody comes back 15 years later and you get to see that things turned out okay.
CHOII don't want to give too much away but we do meet Martha and her son again and they have found a very loving relationship. They have learned how to be together.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Jacksonville, Fla. Hi there, Jamie.
JAMIEHi. My question -- you mentioned this earlier about the hope of writing students and here's an example for you. As a writing student at FSU, writing poetry and short fiction, I was wondering how do you know when you've written something small or you have an idea and it has the potential to be developed into something longer and more substantial. Like, is there an inclination that you have or a sensation that makes you think, oh there might be something to this?
CHOIThat's such a good question. It's so hard to know. I think you have to go first with your gut. And then if at all possible, borrow someone else's for a second opinion. Seriously it's a funny thing. You know, writing this book, I thought this book would be twice as long. I had all these ideas for the second part. And a good friend of mine who's also a brilliant writer, read what I had so far and said, Susan, you are going too long. You know, she said, the story was behind you. You're actually in the epilog now. Wrap it up.
CHOISo sometimes your own instincts will fail you, but that aside your own instincts, I think, are your best guide, yeah.
REHMBut how soon do you show something you're really struggling with to someone else?
CHOIIt's so relationship specific. I think that if you're a young writer, by which I don't mean you're a young person necessarily but, you know, starting out as a writer, one of the most important things you can do is to try to find peers -- maybe they're also writers, maybe they're just passionate readers -- but you'll know if they get it. You'll know if they get what you're trying to do.
CHOIAnd, you know, in my life, thank god, as the result of being a student and knowing amazing people, I've accumulated a crucial core of readers. And you figure out which readers work for which situations. And if you're lucky you'll find someone who can really look at your stuff when it's very rough and who can say, this is what I think is compelling. This is what I think is not compelling. And you know what to follow.
REHMDid you have any trouble trying to decide how to end this novel?
CHOIYeah, I had a -- well, that story I just told is the strongest evidence that I was having trouble even knowing when to end the novel. Once I realized that the novel was actually, you know, as my friend said, coming in for a landing, you know, she was like the -- you know, the wheels are out, the runway is approaching. Figure this out. I re-visioned the whole thing from that perspective and realized like the arc was almost complete. And then it was easier to figure out the ending. But it took that first misstep.
REHMAnd quite frequently when I talk with writers, the book is here, it's finished and they're already working on something new.
CHOIOh, lucky them. I envoy those writers. I am working on trying to figure out what the next thing is. It always takes me a little while. I wander lost in a desert of ideas, by which I mean there are no ideas there. I just wander lost in a desert of my brain. I'm used to it now. This is my fourth book. And after every book there's been kind of this fallow period. So I know now not to panic. And hopefully a year from now I'll have a better idea what comes next.
REHMGood for you. Susan Choi and I have no doubt you will reach that idea and move forward.
REHMAnd thank you for being here. Susan Choi. We've been talking about her latest novel "My Education." Susan Choi teaches at Princeton. Her novel "American Woman" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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