Authors in Conversation
Charles Yu: I’m re-reading Idiopathy and I’m dumbstruck by how good it is—sentence by sentence you illustrate these characters with prose that is economical and precise and delicate and acidic, and you have this impeccable sense of rhythm and pacing and sound. This is your first novel, and so my first question is this: I hate you. Okay that’s not a question. How about: I hate you? Okay just kidding. How about instead of envy-hating you I give an example of why I loved this book so much. Relatively early on, Katherine and Nathan have an exchange which ends with the line:
“We’re all miserable. Trick is to find a way of doing it without it being such a bloody cliché.”
This was one of those moments where the book crystallized for me, and I went “A-ha!” I have a theory that this was one of the first lines of the book you wrote.
Sam Byers: It’s interesting that you mention rhythm, as that’s something I really get from your work. My suspicion is that, like me, you’ll trim or extend a sentence as much for a sense of timing as for a sense of meaning. Rhythm is something I look for in other people’s prose—and I want my own work to have a kind of “beat” or propulsive drive—but it’s not mentioned much in criticism, despite the fact that reading someone like DeLillo or Saunders, the first thing that hits you is the rhythm.
And about that line you mention; you’re close! The first thing I wrote was Daniel and Katherine having coffee. For a long time it was all I had, and I thought it would be the beginning of the book. There are similar statements in that conversation that made it clear that the whole happiness/unhappiness balance was going to be integral to the novel. But there was another “A-ha” moment in relation to that line, to do with the extent to which people were going to talk about their feelings in the book. There is a stereotypical kind of English novel where no-one ever expresses themselves, leading to endless scenes of people staring out of windows and saying things like “the tea has gone cold,” from which the reader is supposed to extrapolate all sorts of existential torment. These novels are still being written, but it struck me that people aren’t like that any more. Everyone I know talks about their feelings until they’re blue in the face. You can’t stop them! That’s not to say they’re talking about their feelings honestly, but they’re definitely talking. Katherine’s a character who takes a certain delight in saying the unsayable. Her honesty is a kind of weapon. When I wrote that line I realized that (a) Katherine could say anything, and (b) this was going to be a book where people said a lot in an overt way.
Charles Yu: While we’re talking about people talking about their feelings, my inclination is to bring up the “G-word,” as in “generation,” despite the fact that anytime I see that word in a piece of cultural criticism I want to rip out the page (I’m 37 and still read physical objects like magazines) and fold it up into a paper-spear and stab my eyes out. Having said that, do you think it’s a generational thing? Do people born after, say, 1983, really tend to be more expressive, to use honesty as a stratagem for shaping their lives into some kind of story? Or has that has always been true: that young humans go through a coming-of-age, only now people get to do it online?
Sam Byers: The generational thing is interesting. I’ve found myself being asked about it a lot, and I have to say I feel torn about how to answer. On one level, I’m totally with you: I think the notion of a “generation” is usually cooked up as a marketing tool for some kind of product.
But we might be able to think in terms of “moments,” and I think we do find ourselves occupying a distinct and important historical instant. From the sixties onwards we have all been encouraged to think not only about our feelings, but about how we feel about our feelings, and what we think about how we feel about how we feel, and to express those thoughts and feelings to others so that they can “know” how we’re thinking and feeling and “deal” with that accordingly.
For my parents’ generation, this was something that happened against the grain of existing social discourse, but for me and most people I know this constant, unchecked torrent of “this is how I feel” is now a social norm all to itself. On top of this, the internet has pushed us even further into a new era of expression. But is this expression honest? And is it entirely helpful? I think we’re at a tipping point. Yes: we have said goodbye to what were, in many ways, more repressed times; but we need to start taking stock of what we’ve gained and lost in the process, because I have a suspicion that in encouraging expression (a good thing, I’m all for it) we have also opened the floodgates to narcissism. And, in some ways, this is what Idiopathy is about.
I heard Sherry Turkle on the radio the other day, and she asked, “If we no longer have privacy, how can we have intimacy?” As soon as she said it, I realized that the question spreads far beyond our use of technology and out into our use of language, our relationships, everything. Given how wonderfully the novel is able to deal with our private thoughts and experiences, it may well be novelists who are best placed to explore this in the coming years.
Charles Yu: In Idiopathy you explore with wit and insight the thoughts and feelings of a generation, and yet you don’t reduce that generation to a catchphrase or a demographic explanation—you give us full, dark, dense, rich, chewy characters; not a generation which defines its people, but the other way around.
Which leads me to related questions: how long did it take you to write the book? And was the Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement idea—the fearful cattle epidemic playing itself out in the background—the connective tissue that came first, or was it something that came later?
Sam Byers: The book had a gestation period of about a year, during which I was trying lots of things out. It took over three years to write. Ultimately, the breakthrough was to return to the sentence as my basic building block, and work outwards from there. So a lot of what’s in the book emerged directly out of the language and the sentence structures I’d adopted, rather than the other way round.
The cattle epidemic came about halfway through. I was keen to have something national or international taking place that would be oddly in the background of the characters’ lives. To me, the joke is the way this unfolding catastrophe never really pierces the bubble of introspection these characters live in. I was thinking of that Morrissey song, “The Lazy Sunbathers,” where a world war is announced and everyone just keeps sunbathing.
Charles Yu: What you said about the sentence as the basic building block is evident in your novel. Your work has a property I like to think of as self-similarity—it exhibits complexity on a large scale that is, when you zoom in, made up of complexity on the small scale, like a fractal. And I don’t think that’s something engineered from a big idea, with the details filled in. It’s more like an emergent property, one that grows up out of the constituent unit, the sentence.
Sam Byers: I love the idea of self-similarity. I don’t understand how people can talk about novelistic structure without talking about sentence structure in the same breath, because, very often, what people think of as the overarching structure of the book will emerge organically from what you do with your sentences. David Foster Wallace is a master of this, don’t you think? There’s all that stuff about how he wanted Infinite Jest to be structured like a Sierpinski triangle, and I always feel with that book that the closer you zoom in, the more complexity and expanse you become aware of.
I often start with music as a way to help me think about what I want to do, and with this book I was obsessed with Steve Reich and a lot of electronica and dance music. I liked the way Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians doesn’t have a verse-chorus structure, but instead has these repeated patterns which move in and out of moments of intensity. I also thought about those massive ten-minute breakdowns that used to be the crux of epic house tracks. I wanted these passages where the book became denser, more intense, and I knew I couldn’t do that through some external management of ‘events’ or ‘stuff happening,’ so it had to happen in the language itself.
Also, I was very aware that when I was about eighteen, people used to jokingly refer to people around my age as the “repetitive beat generation,” which I always loved.
Charles Yu: It’s neat to hear you talk about “repeated patterns which move in and out of what I think of as moments of intensity.” When I was reading Idiopathy, I made an attempt to draw a map of the overall structure of the book—at least in terms of how the narration moves, zooming in and out, sometimes up towards something approaching omniscience, but mostly staying close to one particular character or another. How deliberately did you think about this, about where your “camera” was placed?
Sam Byers: Well, I want a narrative voice that can do what it likes, that can be anywhere, that can comment on anything, but which can also, when the moment dictates, get out of the way and let the characters do some talking. I think there’s a widespread myth of consistency that leads to people believing that however the narrative voice behaves on page one is how it must then behave, without deviation or surprise, for the remaining however-many-hundred pages. But to me the narrative voice is also a character—it can change, it can adapt. It is, in hands more skilled than mine, completely fluid; responsive to the demands of its subject.
Charles Yu: Do you think about things from a “top-down” conceptual perspective? Did you have any kind of overarching scheme to the chapters and their order?
Sam Byers: I do have vague “top-down” ideas, and some sense of a novel from what corporate people call “60,000 feet up” is important. But overly rigid ideas quickly become a straitjacket, so I always go back to the voice, and trust in that, and if it wants to zoom off somewhere and take in a different view then I let that happen.
Charles Yu: That flexible, adaptive, wide-ranging and versatile voice is a big part of what makes Idiopathy so good. I’m looking forward to reading more of that voice in your future work—which leads me to the question: what are you working on now?
Sam Byers: There’s the small issue of a PhD I need to complete by September, which I hope will somehow write itself. There have also been several little non-fiction pieces that have come about as a result of the book being published, which are a new thing for me which I have really enjoyed experimenting with. And then, looming over everything and demanding some attention, there is a new novel, in the very earliest stages. At the moment—we’ll see how long that lasts—I’m thinking of it as a novel of nebulous celebrity and nefarious Englishness that may or may not be called Perfidious Albion.
Sam Byers is a graduate of the master’s program in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. His fiction has been published in Granta and he regularly reviews books for The Times Literary Supplement. He was born in 1979. Idiopathy is his first novel.
Charles Yu is the author of Sorry Please Thank You and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award for his story collection Third Class Superhero, and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His work has been published in The New York Times, Playboy, and Slate, among other periodicals. Yu lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Michelle, and their two children.