Charles Yu

Author and 2020 National Book Award winner for fiction
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Tina Chiou

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Charles Yu:  I grew up in the '80s and '90s, watching-- basically never seeing Asians on screen, and when I did see them, it was often in these very kind of minor and very stereotypical roles. And, you know, I think the book was me trying to wrestle with what this does to-- both internally, but I think also what it does to everyone else as well. It can have a warping effect.

Jo Reed: That was Charles Yu—he’s the author of the 2020 National Book Award for fiction Interior Chinatown and this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.  Charles Yu was a successful lawyer who was also a successful writer. What followed was a short story collection, a novel, numerous stories, book reviews, and essays in magazines. Then television came calling, and Yu found himself writing for the first season of the HBO series West World and has spent the last five years writing for and producing other series like Legion and Here and Now…and of course writing fiction.  I think the career trajectory is important when you consider the premise of his novel—the National Book Award winner Interior Chinatown.  Written in the form of a television screenplay Interior Chinatown is an insightful, funny, and searing exploration of Asian-American identity and representation in popular culture.  It’s the story of Willis Wu who is doomed to play various generic Asian characters in a TV procedural called “Black and White,” and that omnipresent television set dictates the roles of everyone in the book based on their race, gender, and age.  To call this limiting for the people involved is quite the understatement and at the heart of the book. Our hero Willis Wu wants more—he wants a story of a story of his own.

Charles Yu:  Willis's job at the beginning of the book is, you know, specifically, Generic Asian Man number three, slash delivery guy. So, he's kind of a utility player. He's very much a background, you know, character. He's the guy in the back delivering food or unloading a van, and he doesn't generally have any lines in the show. He doesn't have a story, to say the least, right? So he's just kind of there, as part of the scenery. And yet, you know, this book, what it-- I was trying to do was imagining a narrative from that person, who the story is very much not about. He exists in this show called "Black and White," which is, you know, a police procedural. If you imagine, you know, "CSI" or "Law & Order," some version of that. And it's called "Black and White," because there's one Black cop and one white cop, and they are the leads of the show, they're the heroes. And, you know, what Willis dreams of is actually being part of the show in a bigger way. The highest that he can-- you know, the highest level that he can attain, as an Asian in the world of "Black and White," is to become Kung Fu Guy, and use his sort of very specialized skills of Kung Fu to, you know, be part of the action, basically. And so, the book is about Willis trying to climb that ladder, and what happens when he gets closer to the top, and, you know, where that journey takes him.

Jo Reed: I know you spent a long time writing this book. How long? How many years?

Charles Yu: Yeah, it depends on how you calculate it, but I would say more than six, less than seven.

Jo Reed: Here’s the question. When you began this book, is this the story you were trying to tell, or did the story itself change throughout those years?

Charles Yu: That's a great question. I would say the latter. I think I didn't know what the story I was trying to tell was, and that was part of what took so long. I thought I knew, and I discovered, you know, it along the way. I think, in terms of the actual, you know, words, the prose, there were chunks of it that made it from the beginning to the end. Some of those kernels were like the backstories of Willis's parents were there pretty much from the first draft. But the story itself didn't have a form yet, you know? I just-- I didn't know how to write it. I couldn't hear the voice that it should be written in. And without those things, I just kept trying-- it's almost like I was trying on different outfits, you know, and none of them fit right. And so, it wasn't until more than four years into the process, where the current form actually sort of presented itself, for whatever reason. And that's when, really, the writing started to happen.

Jo Reed: When you decided, okay, I'm making this a screenplay.

Charles Yu: Yes. You know, it wasn't so deliberate. It was more like I heard the first lines of the book, and I thought, oh, you know, that's interesting. That felt like not me just, you know, rehashing the same things I'd been trying for years at that point. It felt like, oh, I can-- I hear a voice now. I got a sense of the tone and who Willis was. And then, from the fact that Willis was an Asian actor, you know, came a bunch of other choices. Like, well, if he's an actor, is he in a show? And if he's in a show, does that kind of dictate the form of the book?

Jo Reed: "Black and White" bears-- as you said, more than a passing resemblance to  "Law & Order." And, of course, we've all seen those episodes-- I don't know, how often do they happen, one every other year, it's set in Chinatown? Something like that?

Charles Yu: That was my memory. I mean, it felt like it-- yeah.

Jo Reed: And the cringe-worthy lines that Willis, when he's lucky enough to get a speaking part, is called upon to say, with an accent, even though, of course, he doesn't have one, having been born in the United States, we've all heard them, you know? I read them in the book, "It's a question of family honor," And anyone who has ever turned on a TV will find these cringingly familiar. And I want you to talk about that familiarity, because I do think, in a lot of ways, it's really at the heart of what you're talking about in this book.

Charles Yu: Yeah, it is, and I'm glad you highlighted that. It really was kind of the original thing that I was trying to get at, which was, you know, I grew up in the '80s and '90s, watching-- basically never seeing Asians on screen, and when I did see them, it was often in these very kind of minor and very stereotypical roles. And, you know, I think the book was me trying to wrestle with what this does to-- both internally for, you know, someone who has to watch that and say, okay, that's the representation of me or my family or my community, but I think also what it does to everyone else as well, which is, you know, when you only see certain groups in this kind of very limited like sometimes physical location, like a Chinatown setting, and you see them speaking with accents, or you see them doing martial arts, you know, and all of their storylines have to do with some sort of cultural difference or some sort of horrible secret, you know, that dishonored the family, it really skews the perception, right? I mean, for many people, this might be, you know, the main way they interact with Asian Americans, is through these stories. I mean, if you don't live in a big city where there's lots of Asians, you may think, oh, that's interesting, this is a sort of like window into this community. And I think, even if you do, it can have a warping effect, to only see this kind of story. So, you know, I think that's really what I was trying to do, is take that story and sort of investigate it from the inside.

Jo Reed: Right, because it's like the TV show that's America. And all of us having assigned roles, and some of us are at the center of the story, and, as you put it so beautifully, the light on the set hits our faces just right. And then, others remain the unnamed guests.

Charles Yu: Right, yeah. That partially comes from my actual experience on set, and partially comes from being a viewer. But I think, after having worked in TV, I even got a sort of more specific and deeper look into how much goes into making that reality, you know? How much attention is paid to how well the stars are lit. I mean, literally, most of the time you're sitting around on set is actually lighting setup, to make sure the shot looks beautiful, or looks how it's supposed to look. All of that attention is paid to these details. And then, you know, meanwhile, you're telling a story that isn't at all like reality, you know? So, that kind of disjunct is, to me, sort of both disturbing but also, in a weird way, amusing, that, you know, you can be paying all this attention to basically the plausibility of this fictional world, and, at the same time, be getting something else like egregiously wrong.

Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And, of course, you wrote this book before COVID, and I read it during the pandemic, and, of course, during the rising violence towards Asian Americans that the pandemic has unleashed. And the book and the issues it raises are just so tragically timely.

Charles Yu: Yeah. They are. The book came out in January of last year, and, you know, as I was basically finishing a short book tour, the world was shutting down. And, you know, of course, at the time I was writing it, I would have-- could never have guessed that we would see the kind of, you know, wave of anti-Asian sentiment that we're seeing now. But, that said, there's a kind of, you know-- sadly, a kind of evergreen quality to some of these ideas and themes, because, you know, even though this, you know, idea of the China virus or "Kung Flu" is new, it taps into something pretty old.

Jo Reed: Exactly. And that's why it has resonance.

Charles Yu: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Your procedural is set in, of course, a Chinese restaurant, because why not, and it's called "Golden Palace." And Willis and his family live in an SRO above the restaurant. For those who might not know, what is an SRO?

Charles Yu: An SRO is single room occupancy, and it's essentially-- you know, you rent a room, maybe by the week, maybe by the month, and there's a shared bathroom down sort of at the end of the hall, and a shared kitchen area. Essentially, it's like a dorm, you know, for either individuals or potentially families.   You know, you see this sort of arrangement in Chinatowns. And it also functions, for me in the book in a kind of fictionalized way, as the place where all the Asians are kept, you know, when they're not being-- you know, when they're not playing the extras. It's like, okay, when you're done with your day of work as sort of the background players on this show, they all go live there. And it's very much backstage, you know, in this story, of like this is where they really are and they live their lives and they're human beings here, and then they go on-camera, and they're sort of playing these flattened versions of themselves, these roles as Asians.

Jo Reed: I really appreciated the scenes in the SRO, and the way the book explored the struggles of people and their poverty, and the various ways people in poverty cope. Because you don't see a lot of poverty in literary fiction. You just don't. Nobody ever has to work, as far as I can tell. And it's so important, I think, to understand economic struggle and the way it can compound racial inequity, and, you know, they're interlocked, frequently.

Charles Yu: Yeah, I agree. It's-- you know, I wanted to write about these characters in sort of all of their dimensions, and, you know, them as human beings, as bodies who have to eat and who have to, you know, count their, you know-- clip their coupons and figure out, you know, what they've got left at the end of the month. I mean, those sorts of stories are-- it's-- at least up until very, very recently, it's sort of impossible to imagine telling that version of like the Chinatown story, of like what's it like for, you know, the shopkeeper who's actually worried about making the mortgage or-- you know, or paying the bills. And so, that was part of the kind of dimensionalizing of these characters as human beings.

Jo Reed:  We find Willis who wants to be Kung Fu Guy. That's really what he wants. And then, he's realizing, as the book unfolds  that Kung Fu Guy is really just another Asian stereotype. And, for him, deciding to be a father to his daughter really serves as his “Come to Jesus” moment with that, I think.

Charles Yu: Right. Yeah.  Yeah. I think the way you framed it is really helpful. It's essentially a decision between two roles, you know? As Willis gets more successful, you know, within the system that he's-- of "Black and White," he finds, one, that it's not all that it-- he maybe thought it would be, in terms of glory or feeling like he's made it. It comes with its own tradeoffs. And-- but, as you said, the key, really, is that it's just another role, you know? It ends up being-- even though, I guess, the pay is better, the visibility is better, he still very much has to play by someone else's rules, and he's still just as constrained as he ever was. And at the same time that's happening, another role is kind of emerging for him, which is to care about someone else, you know, to stop thinking about being-- and specifically, his daughter. So, the book-- even though it starts out in a place where Willis is very much trapped in a role defined by his race, I hope, and I think, it expands to incorporate so many other roles that he plays, you know? As a son, as a father, as a husband, as a member of this community.

Jo Reed: Yes, very much. Disappointing son, good son, you know, the son even has a multiplicity of roles.

Charles Yu: Right.

Jo Reed: You break out of the screenplay at moments, especially when we get the backstory of his mother and father. It's pretty much in narrative form, though it's framed by scene headings. And I thought that was a very moving part of the book. Did you do research as you wrote the story? I know your parents were both born in Taiwan.

Charles Yu: Yes, they were, and they did immigrate. And some of the, you know, I guess tangent points are somewhat very, very loosely based on, you know, stories they told me about their own time coming over, you know, from Taiwan to the US in the '60s. So, there was some research, I guess, just in the family sense, of like, you know, talking to them, interviewing my parents, and just trying to learn more about what it was like for them, what they felt, things that happened to them. And there was also, you know, some legal research, you know, especially towards the backend of the book, about, you know, as Willis goes deeper into the history, it doesn't just focus on his own familial history but, he learns more about kind of the long struggle of Asians in America, in terms of trying to secure rights. In a lot of these court cases, they're basically trying to figure out, (who) are Asians like-- you know, how can we analogize them? What minority group are they closest to? And so, for Willis, that's part of his education as well.

Jo Reed: Were you surprised by those laws? You have them in-- I want to call it a preface, it's called "exhibits," and it's before a court scene, and it's the timeline of laws. Were you surprised by this? Did you know about all these laws? Or was it a discovery for you as well?

Charles Yu: It was a discovery. I was surprised. I mean, I'd had a vague awareness of, you know, the major ones, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, and, of course, Japanese internment, and the '65 Act, which actually opened things up, because that's actually what allowed, you know, my dad to come over in '65. So I kind of knew some of the highlights, but what really surprised me was kind of the number and scope of so many of these laws, and also learning about a lot of the anti-Asian resentment that happened, especially along the West Coast, where basically Asian workers had been brought over as cheap labor. And it caused a lot of conflict, because they were seen as basically taking jobs from people. And so, there were massacres of Asians in Washington State, in California, elsewhere in the Western US-- over 100 years ago, this was already happening. So, yeah, as I got deeper into some of that, it did surprise me.

Jo Reed: You know, "Interior Chinatown" is a book that deals with, as we've talked about, very important issues, very serious issues, often in a tone that's really light and playful. Talk about that interplay and that juxtaposition.

Charles Yu: Yeah. I think, for me, that was important in the writing of it. You know, in order to keep writing it, I had to entertain myself first, you know? If I start to get bored, I definitely stop, because I think, if I can't keep my own interest, then what reader is going to want to stay with me?

Jo Reed: That's always a good rule of thumb.

Charles Yu: And so, for me, you know, I don't think of it as like I'm writing punchlines or trying to make someone laugh, but I am aiming for a tone, as you said,  one, to not take myself or the book too seriously, even as it gets into some heavier subject matter.  I think there's people better qualified to write the serious version of some of these things. I wanted to bring whatever sensibility I have, and also just experience, as a TV writer, just to kind of come at it from that direction. So, yeah, it was mostly just a practical thing of, like, this is how I know how to write, and so this is how it comes out.

Jo Reed: And, at the same time, though, you're not afraid of emotions or deep feelings. Because there are moments where it's funny, and I'm laughing, and then there are moments that are so piercing, it just took my breath away. When Willis was taking care of his aging father, and you have a line where he realizes that he's still his father but he's not his dad anymore. Oh my god. I mean, people of a certain age will absolutely know that feeling. It's so profound.

Charles Yu: Thanks. Yeah. I-- when you say people of a certain age, I'm like, yes, definitely. And I agree. My editor, Tim O'Connell, calls it kind of revving my engine, when I'm sort of just writing sentences but not really getting to the heart of the matter. And then, sometimes the gears actually engage. And it's usually when I'm writing towards something that hurts, you know? It's like, oh, I know why I was avoiding this. It's because I don't like the way this makes me feel, you know? And then I have to keep typing, because that's when the writing's actually starting to happen.

Jo Reed: Well, we mentioned it's a screenplay, but man, you really went the whole nine yards. It's formatted like a screenplay, it's even in Courier font.

Charles Yu: Yeah, right, which was, you know, a choice that I had some anxiety about, to be honest, because it's not the prettiest font. But I just felt like, to go the whole nine yards, it was all or nothing, you know? The form of this was so important to me in the writing of it, and I think, as a reading experience, for people to say, oh, I'm really in this, you know? And what it does sort of visually and what it does for the sort of narrative, to be able for Willis to jump in and out of the story quickly, right? And for the reader to follow Willis as he jumps in and out of the story.   I thought-- early on, can I really sustain this for a whole book? And-- but I knew I had to try, so.

Jo Reed: You've had multiple careers, and you began as a corporate lawyer. And I want to know how you made the shift to writer.

Charles Yu: Yeah. Slowly, and then all at once.  I was writing for most of the time that I was working as a lawyer, up until just a few years ago. I graduated law school in 2001, and I started working. And that's actually the same year I started writing fiction. So, I was publishing stories. I then got to publish a couple of books, and then, a few years ago, I was working in-house as a lawyer for a technology company, and I got a call asking if I'd come meet  for this job on a TV show. And, you know, it wasn't completely out of the blue, because I'd started working with an agent for like TV and film rights, but it was somewhat unexpected because I hadn't actually been thinking that I could make that shift. But for whatever reason, I think, they were looking for somebody who could tell a story in a more serialized way. And so I got the job. And my wife and I had to talk about it, because it was-- you know, it's a scary thing. We have kids and a mortgage, and would we have health insurance, all these kind of practical things were part of the decision. But, you know, I made the kind of decision to leave the law then, and I have since been lucky enough to keep working.  

Jo Reed: You've been doubly blessed by the National Book Foundation, first, obviously, for winning the award for fiction in 2020, but years ago, for it's program, 5 under 35, Richard Powers chose you as a writer to watch.

Charles Yu: That was an amazing moment for me. I, you know, still remember when I got the email. I was at work, and--

Jo Reed: You were lawyering.

Charles Yu: I was lawyering, yes. And at the time, we'd only had our first kid. She had just been born. And so, what happened was, a few months earlier, my first book came out as a short story collection. And, you know, as debut short story collections go, it did all right, and it got a couple of reviews in major publications, and I was thrilled. But, honestly, you know, after a few weeks, the book just slips under the radar as books do, right? And so, I was kind of thinking, will I actually ever write a book again? I was, you know, somewhat discouraged, because it just felt like, you know, a miracle that it had ever happened. And then, I remembered that I'd gotten a sort of negative review in The New York Times, which was a bummer, because I'd been so excited to find out the book was going to be-- anyway, all of which ended up to this sort of like doubt that I'd ever do it again, and then, I find out that Richard Powers had picked me for that, which was incredible, because I had read him in college, and I admired his writing greatly, and it was just this huge boost of validation, of like, okay, well, if Richard Powers believes in me, then the least I could do is try again. So, I did.

Jo Reed: Well, you were at HBO, and you worked on "Westworld," and you went on to work at other networks and other series, but I wonder, when you wrote "Interior Chinatown," were you thinking of those writer's rooms where you had been in, and sort of your position there, and were you able to advocate for a more nuanced or subjective representation for Chinese Americans in particular, Asian Americans in general?

Charles Yu: Yes and no, you know? I was thinking about it after it became clear, oh, I'm going to really try to do this in the form of a script. Then I was like all of the experiences that I've had over the last few years came in handy, you know? I could, with some limited sense of authority and more just knowing the specifics of how things actually work, what it's like when you're trying to make a show, what it's like in the room, the decisions that go into that, in terms of the writer's room-- and so that was fun, you know, actually getting to map one world onto the other, you know? And use all those tools, and forms, and techniques.  So, in terms of being in the room, you know, I'd had, generally, a pretty good experience, in terms of rooms being run by people that were interested in inclusion, in being sensitive to cultural authenticity, you know?  I've worked on some shows where people are really listening and well-intentioned and trying hard to make sure that they don't fall into some of the same traps that TV has in the past. But, that said, I think it's more structural, you know? It's like, these are all stories that I'm not the one who created it. I don't get to tell that story. And so, there's only so much I can do. I'm really writing in service of someone else's idea. So, yeah, I mean, it was a somewhat limited influence I could have in anyone else's room.

Jo Reed: Well, that leads brilliantly to my next question, which is about the differences in process of writing for television as opposed to writing fiction. I mean, TV is so collaborative, whereas, with a novel, there's you and a page, or the screen-- and I get there are editors, but it's really your work.

Charles Yu: Right. Yeah. It's both the kind of freedom and the terror of being completely in charge of, you know, the domain of my fiction. I mean, maybe not completely. I guess my editor would probably take issue with that. It’s collaborative in the sense that I have a couple of really trusted readers, my editor and my agent, but, yeah, other than the two of them. You don't have to think about, is this filmable? You don't have to think about budget or location or actors, you just think about where can this take me. It's language and it's ideas and it's spaces that don't have to be physical or tangible. And so, in that sense, it's a completely different kind of activity than, you know, the very real and practical activity of writing for screen.

Jo Reed: Did you miss the collaborative process that comes with television?

Charles Yu: I mean, I do. I miss that. I miss people. There's a lot of fun with it. I think there's this cool thing that happens sometimes in a room where you see someone pitch an idea, and you're like: where's that coming from? And then, it sort of gets kicked around, and a few pitches later, you realize that it's kind of grown into something, but only through group activity, the random walk from one mind to another, it ends up getting to a place you never would have sort of imagined. And so, that's really cool. I try to import that a little bit into my fiction, is like imagining the voices of some of my coworkers, sometimes. It lasts for a little while, and then, after a few weeks, I'm just left with my own voice inside. I'm alone again.

Jo Reed: Okay, and, you know, here's the question, what are you working on now? And you can say nothing.

Charles Yu: No, it's definitely not nothing. I'm working on a number of things. So-- one of which is the-- a TV adaptation of "Interior Chinatown." So, that's for Hulu. And, you know, I'll have to try to figure out if I can, you know, come up with a device or a bunch of devices that make the show work in the same way or maybe not in the same way the book worked, but in a way that, you know, translates it from page to a visual medium.

Jo Reed: That's great. Well, thank you so much for giving me your time. Thank you for writing this book. I really-- I liked it enormously. I thought about it a lot. And thank you.

Charles Yu: Well, thank you for reading it and for this conversation. I really appreciate it.

Jo Reed: That is writer Charles Yu we were talking about his National Book Award winner. Interior Chinatown. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed stay safe and thanks for listening


Charles Yu’s novel (and National Book Award winner) Interior Chinatown is an insightful, searing, and inventive exploration of Asian-American identity and representation in popular culture. Written in the form of a television screenplay, Interior Chinatown tells the story of actor Willis Wu who is doomed to play various generic Asian characters in a TV procedural called “Black and White.”  But the series is a metauniverse, forever in production, dictating the roles of everyone in the book based on their race, gender and age.  Our hero Willis Wu wants more—he wants a story of a story of his own: he wants to be Kung Fu guy.  In this podcast, Charles Yu talks about writing Interior Chinatown as a screenplay, his desire to give a story to the “generic Asian man” we see in the background on TV series, the impact of Asian-American stereotypes in an omnipresent popular culture, and his own time spent in a writers’ room on a television series.