Susan Choi Draws 'Interest' from Headlines

Susan Choi

A Person of Interest is Susan Choi's third novel. Her first book, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award for fiction. American Woman, a novel based loosely on the Patty Hearst case, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2004. Sigrid Estrada hide caption

itoggle caption Sigrid Estrada

Novelist Susan Choi says she reads the newspaper "voraciously," and often draws inspiration straight from the headlines. It's an approach that has served the author well: In 2004, Choi was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her historical novel, American Woman, based loosely on the Patty Hearst case.

In her newest novel, A Person of Interest, Choi again spins fiction from fact. The book, a psychological thriller that examines the way a reclusive math professor responds to the murder of a popular colleague, is reminiscent of both the Unabomber and Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist wrongly targeted by the U.S. government for spying.

"It's still funny for me to think of myself as someone who writes historical fiction because it seems like a really fusty, musty term," Choi says, "and yet it clearly applies."

But Choi adds that it's not just historical events that draw her in; she is also interested in stories that "seem to have another story hidden in them, that's not being told in the media."

To this end, A Person of Interest is about the way we alienate people who become objects of our suspicion, and about the way Lee, the protagonist, fails to "perform his innocence properly," Choi says.

"Innocence as we understand it in our culture is very theatrical," she says. "The flip side is if you're charming enough, you can get away with anything."

Choi is the critically acclaimed author of three novels. Her first book, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award for fiction. Choi was also the editor, with David Remnick, of an anthology of short fiction called Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker.

This reading of A Person of Interest took place in February 2008 at the Politics and Prose book store in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'A Person of Interest'

Susan Choi's 'A Person of Interest'

It was only after Hendley was bombed that Lee was forced to admit to himself just how much he'd disliked him: a raw, never-mined vein of thought in an instant laid bare by the force of explosion. Of course, it was typical in his profession for diminishing elders to harbor ill-will toward their junior colleagues. But Lee, who had been tenured in his department for more than twenty years, felt that he was exempt from the obsolescence that infected most other professors his age. He was still capable of the harsh princeliness he'd possessed in his youth, although now he was half through his sixties, and his hair was all white. That old aristocratic hauteur would return suddenly, and his loose, dowdy trousers, always belted too high, would seem to sit on a younger man's waist. The liver spots that had come to his face would be bleached by the glare pouring fourth from his eyes. His wasn't the kind of temperament spouse or child or friend had ever wanted to cleave to, but for his students it had the power to impress; like most of their peers, they found the notion of mentorship fusty. Unlike Lee in his own student days, they shunned the emeritus aura. They mostly wanted teachers who acted like pals—this was why they'd loved Hendley—but they didn't scorn Lee quite as much, he felt sure, as they did the other professors his age, the old men with their elbow-patched tweeds, and their stay-at-home wives who made cookies and tea for the very few students who still bothered to seek professorial counsel.

Then again, there were times he was forced to believe the exact opposite: that his students had neither respect nor affection for him. He sat idle during his twice-weekly office hours, as did most of his aged colleagues, a crisp yellow legal pad squared before him on his clean desk, a Montblanc fountain pen with black ink in his hand—he'd always worked in black ink, an affectation he'd suffered since youth. A sign of arrogance, his first wife might have said; of humility, he might have parried. Ink kept one's errors on record. But whatever his Montblanc denoted, there were fewer and fewer to give their opinions. His office hours were an empty detention, unvisited and unproductive for him, no matter how he pretended. Each afternoon he would carefully stand the door open twelve inches, or the width someone needed to duck in casually and say hi; not wide open, as if in eager anticipation, and not merely slightly ajar, as if he begrudged this time for his students. He didn't; he sat poised on the brink of the legal pad, seemingly lost in his putative thoughts, the Montblanc in his fingers. Each set of footsteps he heard in the hallway launched him on a theatrical scratching of pen upon notepad; he would feel his face stiffen with self-consciousness and will his eyes not to dart toward the door. The footsteps were almost never for him. The rare occasions they were, he was always the same, as if reluctantly drawn from the pool of deep thought: "Ah," he would say, tempering his forbidding absorption with a lift of the eyebrows. But most often, as he twitched with unsure expectation, the footsteps passed his office—his door too little open for him to see who it was—and instead stopped at Hendley's, next door. There would already be lively murmur of whispers, students sprawled on the floor of the all with their backpacks, awaiting their turns. And through the wall, the not-quite-comprehensible but very audible rumble of Hendley himself, holding forth, and a student's un-self-conscious laughter, punctuated by the robotic bleeps and the primitive honks Hendley's two huge computers gave off.

His dislike of Hendley was all the more painful to him for his having until now been ignorant of it. Had he known, he might have forgiven himself his eager awkwardness in the face of Hendley's camaraderie, the oh-yeses he would hear himself helplessly blurting whenever Hendley found him at their faculty coffee events. As Lee carefully blew on his thin paper cup, Hendley would clap him on the shoulder so the hot coffee jumped, as if Lee were the person he'd most hoped to see. Hendley would launch into a long anecdote as if Lee were the person he'd most wanted to hear it, as if theirs were the sort of friendship that required no work, in which all was assumed. And in response Lee would hear himself saying "Oh, yes," would feel his head bobbing in dumb agreement, as if the past fifty years hadn't happened and he was fresh off the boat with ten phrases of English etched painstakingly in his mind. His dislike of Hendley might have prepared him somewhat, if not for what happened, then at least for the dislike itself, the cold shock of his first, addled thought when he'd felt the vast fist of the detonation, like a bubble of force that had popped in his face. He'd felt his heart lurch, begin to flop in disorder and fear; he'd seen with his own eyes his wall of university-issue bookcases, the cheap metal kind with adjustable shelves, seem to ride the wall separating his office from Hendley's as if they were liquid, a wave. He had waited an endless instant, the eon between beats of his heart, for those bookcases so laden with waxy math texts to crash down in one motion and kill him, but they somehow had not. The explosion—he'd known right away it was a bomb; unlike almost all of his colleagues, he knew the feel of bombs intimately—had somehow not breached the thin wall through which, day after day, he'd heard Hendley's robust voice and his bleeping computer and the strange, gooselike yodel of Hendley's dial-up modem when it reached its objective. The explosion had not breached the wall, so that the work it had wrought on the far side was left for Lee to imagine, as he felt the force wash over him, felt his heart quail, and felt himself thinking, Oh, good.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from A Person of Interest by Susan Choi. Copyright © 2008 by Susan Choi.

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