“I have a preoccupation with locations and the landscape,” says Susan Choi, “almost to a fault.” She recalls her time as a writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in 1997-98, laboring over the right words to capture the sunset at Herring Cove. But though she makes light of what she calls her “painterly sensibility,” Choi is serious about how much location matters to her. A child of the Midwest, she has “always been desperately in love with hills and coastlines.” Her reading at FAWC is a welcome return to the Outer Cape, which has become, for her and her family, a yearly pilgrimage.
In her 2019 National Book Award winning novel, Trust Exercise, Choi’s teenage characters navigate an unnamed, traffic-clogged city. The performing arts school they attend is the center of their confounding universe. By necessity, they are pedestrians on streets with no sidewalks, though “in their city only the poorest of the poor, or fresh victims of crimes, ever walked.” Suburban sprawl surrounds the fictional Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts. Lacking hills and coastlines, the students flail.
During “some brief, mad phase” of her own adolescence, Choi decided to audition for a high school theater program and, she says, almost immediately regretted it. She attended Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, and despite some agonies, stuck it out for three years. Acting was “excruciating” for her, but her time backstage was life-changing.
“I really loved the collective endeavor of art-making,” she says, that came with theater. In college at Yale she began studying writing in earnest, but she continued to be involved with technical theater as well. Now that her career is writing, “banging the keyboard” for hours in solitude, she prioritizes the moments at the end of the day when she gathers with friends over a beer. She also teaches writing at her alma mater.
“I find it interesting in fiction to take a premise that I know and follow it in a different direction — its worst possible conclusion,” she says. “Fiction is an intensification of reality.”
Much like adolescence. In Trust Exercise, Choi grapples with some of the most fraught moments of high school and amplifies them by positioning them onstage, in a darkened black box, in the rush of the costume shop, or at a cast party.
Her depictions in the book of growing up inside the world of Meisner, movement, and monologues have resonated with many. In cities around the world, Choi says she has encountered theater students who are delighted with her depiction and readers and fans who have been eager to share with her their own art school experiences.
It’s not a world that’s always full of delight. About halfway through the novel, Choi turns the initial narrative on its head, introducing a second section that calls the veracity of the first into question, asking readers to puzzle over the pitfalls of memory.
A beloved teacher, Mr. Kingsley, orchestrates trust exercises in his classroom and, after class, in privileged sessions in his office. “So much of what they do with Mr. Kingsley is restraint in the name of release,” Choi writes. Mr. Kingsley, it turns out, is the kind of master manipulator that lives in the underbelly of the performing arts. Choi presents visions and revisions of Mr. Kingsley, as seen through three narrators. Mr. Kingsley’s power and charisma set the stage for his abuse, but his victims lack the maturity to understand his machinations.
When Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation came to light in 2017, fueling the #MeToo movement, Choi’s book was almost finished. For years, she had been following the stories of students whose trust had been violated.
“I was struck by the number of these powerful stories that were unfolding,” she says. “But I wasn’t quite happy with the book.” The #MeToo movement didn’t present anything new — the abuse had been going on for years — but at last, there was an urgent reckoning. For Choi, all the “earthquakes of news” that #MeToo provided became her revelation.
“It kind of came into focus: the final jiggling of the lens,” Choi says. Trust Exercise employs a third and final narrative for its denouement that carries the entire weight of the book. “I had always known that this section needed to affirm to the reader what the book had been about.”
One character in the book, Sarah, marks the front of her own apartment with an “X” to identify it from her countless look-alike neighbors. Choi herself, on the night she arrived in Provincetown for her fellowship, fumbled in the dark to find her room. At times, Choi’s work seems to say, we all need to mark a spot, to find a horizon line, to recognize our people. Location matters, here on the edge where art matters, giving dignity to human stories.
A Matter of Trust
The event: Reading by visiting writer Susan Choi
The time: Sunday, March 1, 2 p.m.
The place: Fine Arts Work Center, 24 Pearl St., Provincetown
The cost: Free