Susan Choi’s Novel About Teenage Emotions Is Painfully Accurate
"Trust Exercise" may be about high schoolers, but it isn't intended for them
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Set in and around a performing arts high school in the 1980s, Pulitzer prize finalist Susan Choi’s latest novel, Trust Exercise, introduces Sarah and David, caught in a teenage love affair that draws in everyone around them, including their classmates and their acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley. By turns witty, wise, and moving, around the halfway point a startling shift in point of view launches the characters forward in time in a reexamined conclusion that is both astonishing and memorable.
While at the AWP conference in Portland, Oregon, I had the chance to sit down with Susan in a hotel lobby for an interview. We spoke of everything from language play to Susan’s electric plot twists to the difficulties of being a teenager—and yes, spoilers, which, given the intricacies of Trust Exercise, were impossible to avoid during the interview but which of course have been omitted here.
Marci Cancio-Bello: I wanted to start with the way you use physical space in the book to portray the relationships between characters, describing who gets to observe whom, who is on stage versus who is in the audience, and which characters can move between these spaces. Can you talk about mapping out those spaces?
Susan Choi: I always think about spaces and have always had trouble writing scenes unless I knew what that physical space was like. While I was revising my last book, My Education. I was concerned that I had not depicted the evolution of a certain relationship in an effective way. These two people lived a certain distance apart, and in the scene they’re on the phone, and I thought, “She’s just going to hang up the phone and walk to this other person’s house.” Depicting that walk was one of my favorite scenes to write for that book, and once I wrote about her traversing that space, the emotional reality of the scene clicked for me.
With Trust Exercise, I thought a lot about where people lived and what their homes were like. Even from the very first line—“Neither can drive”—I was interested in the attraction between these two young people who can’t traverse spaces to get together. I grew up in a car culture, where getting your driver’s license was possibly the most important thing because you had no freedom without it and were totally dependent upon other people to get you places. Sarah and David want to get together but they can’t drive and there’s all this space between them. How do they cross it? I realize now it was similar to that scene in My Education where I was trying to get these lovers across a physical space so they could be together. That has to be something I’m preoccupied by at some gut level.
MCB: Because you’re working with teenage characters, those moments are so heightened. It’s important to them what they drive, who gets in whose car, and even where they sit. In one of the trust circle exercises, Sarah has intense emotional reactions precisely because she can’t see where David is sitting. These details are so beautifully done. I stayed up late each night reading this book, trying to pick out the threads, and wanted to read it again as soon as I finished. I couldn’t stop.
SC: I’m sorry to have kept you up, but that’s really exciting. One of the things I’ve been laughing about is that this book started as a side project. I was working on a different book that I still haven’t finished. I was just looking for something to do because my work was not going that well, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll finally write a short story.”
My dream has always been to write a decent short story, which is challenging and rigorous, and you have to have your structure under control. This was my attempt at a short story, which is really just the shortest book I’ve ever published. Everything just started spooling out and getting more complicated instead of tying up. At some point, when it was around 70 pages long, I thought maybe it would become a novella, but that didn’t work out either.
MCB: I love that this novel was a side project. Do you think that freed you up to write this one with less pressure?
SC: I think somebody gave me the term “side project” as I was trying to explain how this book had come to exist, because I certainly never thought of it as a side project. I thought of it as something I did to put in my writing time for the day when everything was going poorly. I was freed up in a way because I thought of it as something just for fun.
MCB: One of the most entertaining passages for me was when you played with language itself, the way a word can become either noun or verb with a different emphasis. For example, “OBject vs. obJECT” and “PERmit vs. perMIT.” Could you talk a little bit about those moments?
SC: It was really fun. A fair amount of that came out of procrastination. The transition from physical dictionaries and thesauruses to online has created a real space for high-minded procrastination because I would sit in my writing space trying to think of the right word, and I could just look it up. It used to be that I found it onerous to turn to the dictionary or thesaurus because I’d have to go get it off the shelf, open it, remember how the alphabet works—true laziness—but with the online versions, you can sit there and google Merriam-Webster, OED, etc. It became a permitted form of procrastination. I would think, “This is educational. I’m finally being a good writer looking up different words,” when actually I was just wasting a lot of time.
I was spending so much time doing this that it folded itself into the character voice. I can’t remember how I found a word list similar to the one in the book, but over the course of looking things up, I kept thinking of more and more words that worked with the varied emphasis. I was interested in “audition” because I couldn’t understand why it was called that. It’s one of those words where, as it is described, the subject performing the action is changed. That was an example of when procrastination actually pays off.
MCB: The very act of writing for yourself, but also for everyone who is going to read it, seems similar to the idea that as a teenager, everything feels deeply private but also deeply public.
SC: Yes, it is a strange, contradictory thing to do. At one of my AWP panels, the moderator asked about inhibition or fear as you’re working on a project; did any of us ever feel like we can’t say this or can’t write that, or shouldn’t. My response to that, which is also appropriate to this, was that it would never occur to me to feel that way while I was writing, because it always felt very private, but then there’s this strange transition where you show the work and expose this thing that felt like something no one would ever see, which is not ever true. You have to pass through the looking glass and then ask, “Actually everyone will see this, and am I still okay with that?”
MCB: Yes. When we’re young, our feelings are so strictly policed by others and ourselves that we feel like everyone is watching, but nobody’s really paying attention because they’re all noticing themselves too. At one point, the movement teacher tells Sarah that these feelings are a difficult gift, which is really insightful. You’re able to capture the complex feelings of what it means to be a teenager more than most books for and about teens.
SC: Oh, thank you. I hope to have captured that, but at the same time, I would not want my teenage son to read this book. That’s the weird conundrum, that maybe this story captures what it means to be a teenager but is strangely inappropriate for actual teenagers. I don’t think of this as a book that I would want a young adult to read, because there is something terribly bleak and painful about so much of it. The emotional landscape of teenagers is extremely complex, arguably more complex than that of us adults, and I believe in that idea that the movement teacher expresses to Sarah when she says that your experience of your emotional life is so much more intense than it will be when you mature, and that is really difficult but it is a gift because you are going to lose this capacity for heightened feeling as you grow up; the edges get sanded down and you grow all of the armor that enables you to get through life without having a really terrible time of it, but that’s a loss too. I really do think that’s true.
MCB: This story made me feel like I could better understand my teenage self better, but also understand other people better for their teenage selves.
SC: It has to be retrospective. I have heard of studies about music preference—and other forms of preference—there are reasons to believe that a lot of our lifelong preferences are set at this age, 14, 15, 16 where we’re exposed to things that sink into our emotional core and become the things that are precious to us, even though we might have an intellectual appreciation of other things later. I remember reading a particular study about music and thinking, “Oh no, no wonder I still tear up when I hear Journey on the radio. I’ll never be cured because I really liked Journey when I was 14.” But I think there’s a larger truth in it. That period of maturation when you’re passing from childhood to adulthood is critical for everything that comes after and makes us who we are, for better or worse.
MCB: It’s fascinating how your characters look back on their teenage years. At one point, David says, “They knew what they were doing. We knew what we were doing. Remember what we were like? […] We were never children.”
SC: It was as true as it was false. At that age, you are an adult, and you have opinions and judgments and you’re no longer this vessel for your parents’ ideas, and you’re also still a child. You’re so different from who you will end up being at 25 or 35 or 45. It is a difficult age for us to understand culturally. There is a weird social incoherence about the way we treat people at these different ages that we’ve chosen socially to represent adulthood: The age at which you can serve your nation in the military is different from the age at which you can drive a car or buy beer. You can look at a person and see an adult and also see a child, and you are right on both counts.
MCB: We can’t expect these characters to think about the repercussions of the decisions they make when they’re teenagers, but it deeply affects the rest of their lives. Can you talk about that level of complicity in their own journey?
SC: They make decisions that they make because they have agency, but they do not make decisions in the same way as they might later on. When my children were about three years old, I remember a friend of mine said that this is the stage at which children have all of this physical capability but no judgment, and there’s something analogous about their teen years. They have all of this knowledge and sophistication and agency and discernment and judgment, and yet they still lack a lot of those same things that they will acquire later, so it is possible to make decisions that seem really considered but if you put them in a time machine and push them forward ten years, they would never make that same decision. It’s quite complicated.
MCB: That movement teacher who recognizes this about Sarah is perhaps one of the most generous adults in the story, and yet the students make fun of her a bit.
SC: She is one of the few adults who actually recognizes that there is a difference between adults and teenagers, but the difference isn’t in the form of inferiority. She’s saying that they are different in this fundamental way that has to be respected, but since most of the other adults don’t acknowledge that difference, there is a difference in power that also goes unacknowledged. The movement teacher is one of the very few adults who sees them in their difference, respects them, and passionately supports who they are, and they are flattered by her generosity toward them, but they don’t actually recognize it for what it is. She’s really a minor character, but I loved what she said to Sarah because I felt like it’s one of the truths in the book, among a lot of non-truths.
MCB: I felt that this story teaches its readers about respect for the many subjects you’re tackling: respect for teenagers, respect for feelings, respect for other people’s emotional truths, which may not be your own. You’re teaching readers to pay attention to the complexities of other people’s place in the world.
SC: I started this book so long ago when I started procrastinating with it, that I was more interested in mining my memories of being a teenager, and my speculations about teenagers as a category, but this book took so long to evolve that in the course of it, I found myself the parent of a teenager. In a way, my child turned into a teenager more quickly than this procrastination turned into a book, but it’s been interesting having those two experiences in tandem. I got to thinking about the worlds of emotion and thought and experience that are locked inside my teenage child that I’ll never know. And it’s right that I shouldn’t know, right? They’re his. But it’s humbling to be aware of that.
MCB: Do you feel like you gave more space to the book because your son turned into a teenager while this was happening, and vice versa, that you gave him more space because you were understanding your characters better?
SC: The book was pretty far along to being what it was going to be as my son was becoming the young adult that he is continuing to become. It might surprise him to hear this, but I think that actually thinking about the book has made me a slightly different parent.
I think the book has changed my feelings as a parent more than my feelings as a parent have changed the book. Doing all the thinking the book required has powerfully reminded me that my teenage child is this separate world and it’s not for me to try to control that world, it’s not for me to try to spy on it or fully understand it. In a way, I have to figure out how to honor it and support it and protect it without trespassing. It’s tricky because in my own experience of being a teenager, in my recollection, that the adults in my life felt irrelevant. That’s probably as it should be to a certain degree, because you’re becoming an adult yourself, so you have to render the adults in your world irrelevant, but I think that still there was a role for the adults in my life that I still haven’t quite figured out, and I have to figure it out now as I’m the adult in my own child’s life. A lot of ink has been spilled on this subject, so I have a have a lot of help in figuring out how to be the right kind of adult. It’s a tough challenge.