Susan Choi readily admits her first two books were a struggle to write, but her latest novel, “A Person of Interest” (Viking, 368 pages, $25.95), was almost effortless.
“My first two books, I really labored over them, learning how to create characters and write a story,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in New York City. “But I was excited every time I sat down to write this book, probably because I liked the main character so much even though he’s a deeply flawed individual.”
Choi was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 novel “American Woman,” which was loosely based on the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Her most recent novel again borrows some plot lines from a famous American crime, the Unabomber killings in the 1990s.
“My father was shocked to find out that the Unabomber was Ted Kaczynski,” said Choi, “because the two of them had been classmates in a doctoral program in mathematics at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s.”
In Choi’s new book, Professor Lee, an Asian-American, becomes a ‘person of interest’ for the FBI, which is investigating a series of bombs from the Brain Bomber, a technology-hating psychopath. Although Lee is not involved in the crime, the suspicion exposes many of his weaknesses and personal entanglements over the years that have led to his emotional isolation. Lee begins to wonder if the bomb that killed a colleague was meant for him. This causes him to act a bit oddly, which arouses the suspicions of the FBI, and soon the entire college community.
Life in academia
“My father spent a lifetime in academia,” said Choi. “So I know personally how alienating that life can often be. I also borrowed many of my father’s traits when creating Professor Lee. Like my father, it was important for Lee to be an immigrant to this country. It didn’t matter where he had come from, but I needed a character who didn’t quite understand all the nuances of American society.”
She did just enough research on the Unabomber to help her create a story, but she wasn’t as interested in the bomber as she was in Professor Lee. “Ted Kaczynski is certainly a fascinating character,” said Choi, “but I think Lee is even more interesting, the way he has ended up so lonely and isolated. He and the Brain Bomber are similar because they really don’t care so much about what outsiders think.”
The research she felt was essential was how the FBI conducted their investigation of the Unabomber. “That’s the part I needed to know,” said Choi. “What has always fascinated me about that case was how the Unabomber’s brother, David [of Schenectady], turned him in. That’s a novel right there.”
On Tuesday, Susan Choi will read from her new book at 8 p.m. at the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus.
One of the few struggles she had with ‘A Person of Interest’ was the ending. “The ending changed radically from where I initially thought it would go,” said Choi. “At one point, Lee’s daughter Esther was going to be a character, but by keeping her offstage, the novel seemed to work on a stronger emotional level.”
An enjoyable part of reading the book is how it moves through time back and forth from the present to the past. “I think it’s a very linear novel,” said Choi, “and it’s not difficult for me to write this way. It’s sort of a symptom of the way I think. It’s also a great way to show a reader what a character is like.”
Ideas come slowly
Choi thought that by now she would be blazing away working on a new novel, but her ideas are coming slowly. She’s also the mother of two young children, which is taking up a lot of her time. She has also taken a year off from teaching. “But I’ll be back next fall, teaching undergraduates at Princeton,” said Choi. “I love teaching. A full load is too much, but a few classes are perfect for me. When I’m teaching too much I don’t have the energy to write, but a few classes will often inspire me to write.”
She is looking forward to returning to the New York State Writers Institute. “I came up to Albany in April of 1999,” said Choi. “I did a reading from my first book ‘The Foreign Student.’ ”
She is also looking forward to seeing New York State Writers Institute director Donald Faulkner, who taught her when she was an undergraduate at Yale University. “When I read up there in 1999, I remembered an audience that was very appreciative and seemed to know quite a bit about books and authors.”
Her advice to beginning writers is to write a little bit every day. “I know that’s such a typical writing-class piece of advice,” said Choi, “but it’s very powerful. Even writing just a paragraph a day is beneficial. Early in my career, I used to wait for a good idea and then I’d begin writing, but now I realize I get good ideas just from the act of writing.”
Where: University at Albany
When: Tuesday; Reading at 8 p.m. in Recital Hall at Performing Arts Center of Uptown Campus; seminar at 4:15 p.m. in Standish Room at the Science Library
How Much: Free
MORE INFO: New York State Writers Institute, 442-5620