On Oct. 21 at 5:30 p.m., renowned author and lecturer for Yale’s creative writing program, Susan Choi, held a talk at the University of Maine’s Minsky Recital Hall about her latest novel entitled “Trust Exercise.” This novel won The National Book Award for Fiction in 2019.
The event was hosted by the Stephen E. King Chair in Literature, a program headed by UMaine’s own Professor of English and published author, Caroline Bicks. The event was the first in-person lecture the Stephen E. King Chair Lecture Series has had since the onset of the pandemic, and a congenial return to in-person events for Choi, who is quite active in the creative writing community.
Choi opened the talk by ruminating about her relationship with the creative writing process.
“I think a lot of writers agree that our own work is often a mystery to us,” Choi said. “It’s exciting to encounter something that gives our work a flash of light.”
Choi related her own work to a concept explored by literary critic, Andrew Miller, who said creative writing explores the author’s unled lives through their characters.
“My own books start in some aspect of my personal experience,” Choi said.
From that point on, things are molded to the characters and the story takes on a life of its own, but the roots of the story are in lived experiences. It’s a process Choi used to craft the characters in “Trust Exercise.”
The story takes place in the suburbs of a hot, southern, American city in the 1980s, a reference to Houston, Choi’s childhood home. Its characters are a group of hormonal and aptly dramatic high school theater kids returning to school for their sophomore year. Being a theater kid herself for a time, Choi drew from her experiences to craft a compelling narrative. Choi adds that the work builds off of some of the “intense emotional moments” associated with her time in the program, but that it is definitively different from her own life. It’s a “worst case scenario version of the past,” Choi added.
Choi read aloud an excerpt from “Trust Exercise,” wherein the characters’ fiery relationships to one another are explored upon returning to the theater. It’s dramatic with little moments of subtly involved awkwardness, instead of employing a tough to bear, “second hand embarrassment” style, level of nuance that hits the reader in the best of ways.
Choi then went on to read from her newest project, a short story called “Flashlight,” which is about a 10 year-old girl named Louisa who visits a child psychologist office and the ensuing tension between her and the psychologist.
“It makes use of certain landscapes of my own childhood really well, but brings this mindspace into the service of a much darker scenario,” Choi said.
Choi spoke about the impact Japan has had on her work. Her father, a professor, moved their family there for a brief period of time while he taught at a university.
“It was a weird rupture in my regular American life that really stuck with me,” Choi said.
The experience had a profound effect and ultimately helped her shape the many characters she writes about, even Louisa in “Flashlight.”
After the conclusion of the readings, the lecture was opened up to discussion and the audience members fired off question after question to Choi, trying to gain some insight into her own writing process, personal background and unique take on literature.
The King Chair program was established through a gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation.
“It supports the creation of innovative learning opportunities for students, and activities that advance creative writing, literature and the humanities on campus and in the community,” Bicks said.
Bicks has tapped literary authorities such as the Boston Globe Spotlight team, a Hollywood script writer and more recently, Stephen King himself to speak, as well as creating writing workshops where students can integrate these speakers’ advice into their own works.
“It’s about bringing artists to campus who have taken their skills and passions as humanities practitioners into the wider world to change it for the better,” Bicks said.
In the case of Bicks and Choi, the two met first at the Bread Loaf School of English in Ripton, Vermont at a summer master’s program. From there, Bicks acquainted herself with Choi’s work.
“From the moment I took this position, I knew I wanted to bring Choi here,” Bicks said. “She’s made a career of challenging conventional perspectives through her extraordinary body of fiction.”
The Stephen E. King Chair Lecture Series will continue throughout the year, bringing in outside authors and other important figures in the literary field. You can find more information at www.umaine.edu/stephenekingchair.
Choi’s work, “Trust Exercise,” can be found on bookshelves now, and her short story, “Flashlight,” can be accessed online. For more information about Choi and her works visit www.susanchoi.com.