Susan Choi ’90 — a Yale alumna, current lecturer in English at Yale and the author of “Trust Exercise” — did not want to know the exact time the shortlist for the 2019 National Book Awards would be announced last Tuesday so that she could go about her day as usual.

Yet, Choi’s plan was cut short by a reminder about the announcement from her mother — Choi said that she was “so busy scolding [her] mom” that she missed a call from the National Book Foundation. The next morning, Choi returned the call while she was on the train to New Haven to teach her weekly class “Introduction to Writing Fiction,” and she found out that “Trust Exercise” made the shortlist for the National Book Awards.

The National Book Awards honor one writer each in five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature. The final winners of the awards will be announced on Nov. 20. Choi said that being on the shortlist is already a prize for her, and that she appreciates this time between the shortlist announcement and final reveal, when she can “just be thrilled to be on that list with such amazing books.”

Although Choi said that she was “elated,” she did not mention the nomination in class. Mia Arias Tsang ’21, a student in Choi’s class, said that she found out about the nomination from her English major friends, who excitedly texted her to say that her professor’s novel had been selected as a finalist for the National Book Awards.

“My publisher had sent me beautiful flowers to the English department, so after class I went and got my flowers,” Choi said. “I felt like Miss America going to the train with this huge bouquet. It was all very funny.”

Published in April this year, “Trust Exercise” is a coming-of-age novel revolving around two students at a competitive performing arts high school.

Choi said that the teenage subject interests her because of its ambiguous place in society. Teenagers are at times condescended to as if they are children, while being held to the high expectations of adulthood at others.

“As a culture, we’re just really confused about these beings that we’ve all been,” Choi said.

According to Choi, the many unanswered questions about the teenage experience coupled with its importance in one’s lifetime make it a fascinating subject for a writer to explore. The influences of adolescence potentially have more impact than the experiences of adulthood.

“I know it’s true for me,” Choi said. “At that age, things just print really deeply.”

Regarding her own teenage years, Choi said that she has many “clear recollections of things being unclear.” Part of the challenge of writing “Trust Exercise” was trying to create a “controlled representation of confusion” — preserving the sense of adolescent emotional confusion without disorienting the reader, she said.

Choi wrote much of “Trust Exercise” on Yale’s campus, during her first semester as an instructor at Yale in the fall of 2015.

“I have such vivid memories of sections of ‘Trust Exercise’ that I wrote while I was sitting in the fourth-floor stacks in Sterling, next to a window at one of those little metal tables,” Choi said.

Choi said that although she was not consciously writing about Yale, her surroundings always end up influencing her writing in inexplicable ways. According to Choi, teaching creative writing has made her more successfully analytical of her own work.

Tsang said that “Introduction to Writing Fiction” is her favorite class this semester. She said that Choi is especially skilled at recognizing the individual strengths of students with different levels of experience in fiction writing and facilitating an inclusive classroom environment.

Richard Deming, director of the English department’s creative writing program, described Choi as “one of the most gifted novelists working today.” Deming said that both students and faculty are fortunate to have Choi as part of the English department community.

“Susan just came to the collected sections of ENGL 123: ‘Introduction to Creative Writing,’ and her visit was galvanizing,” Deming said. “Several students told me that after hearing her, that they raced home to write. There’s no better compliment for an author.”

According to Deming, taking classes with writers who are actively publishing allows students to learn that writing is often a process-oriented craft.

“Writing isn’t only about producing some object, some beautifully polished diamond,” Deming said, “But it is the mind moving forward … and discovering our unfolding moment through language, and a keen attention to life as it is being lived.”

The 2018 recipient of the National Book Award for Fiction was “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez.

 

Carrie Zhou | carrie.zhou@yale.edu