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Susan Choi Takes Her Teenagers Seriously

The new novel Trust Exercise opens with teenagers attending an elite performing arts high school in the 1980s.

There, the theater kids form heartfelt friendships and relationships, and then sabotage them. Their semi-tyrannical drama teacher both inspires and manipulates them — with his "trust exercises."

Midway through, the book leaps forward in time and perspective. One of the students, Karen, is now an adult, re-thinking her past.

Trust Exercise is Susan Choi's fifth novel. She wanted to explore what happens when you look back on decisions that you made as an adolescent — when you felt like a grown-up, but may not have been as in control of your life as you had imagined.

Interview Highlights

On the teenage mind

It's so hard to just decode the world. And when we're teenagers, I think that we're wildly improvising. We're just sort of grabbing standards of judgment, we're grabbing values out of the air, and hoping that they fit. And we are really, really, I think, prone to make mistakes. I hate speaking for all teens, but I have to say: As a teen myself, I made loads and loads of real mistakes about the values that I held, the things that I thought were important versus dumb, the people that I thought were admirable versus silly. I really was basing my judgments on pretty limited experience. But it was so important to make those judgments. Remember? That's what it was all about. That's what growing up is all about. ... And we're supposed to! I mean again, that's what we're supposed to do ... because that's what growing up is.

On discovering the music of David Bowie

As a teen, it was very important for me to understand about music. And I remember being confronted by David Bowie. ... I remember David Bowie being this amazing conundrum, where I was like: Is this the kind of thing lots of people like? Is this a secret that I've discovered? Is this — I think I like it, I think that's OK, I think I'm brave enough to choose this as one of the things that I like. So that was what we were constantly trying to do. But with ... a very small toolbox.

On Karen's high-school experiences, in hindsight

Karen is a student who has an experience that I think could be recognized by some people who have struggled to know how to feel about a relationship they were involved in, in the past when they were young. Karen is really torn between — to put it most simply — blaming the adult in the room at the time, and blaming herself, because she felt so much like another adult in the room at that time. But now that she's really an adult, it's impossible for her not to understand that she was a child. ...

What Karen is really struggling with, that I really struggle with, is that she had an experience of agency, of choosing. ... And what do you do with that? Once you grow up, what do you do with that? And so that was something that I — I didn't want to give the reader a pat answer because I don't think there is one.

On how some women feel about other women coming forth with accusations of misbehavior later in life, in this passage:

The thing that's really complicated about this — and I would never want a reader to imagine that that sentiment of Karen's is in some way a sentiment being endorsed by the book — what I wanted to express is that I think that sentiment is really real. I think it's one of the reasons that people who experience abuse or misconduct at whatever level struggle so much with figuring out how to tell the story to themselves before they even try to tell the story to others.

I think a lot has changed for young women today, and I think a lot hasn't. I think a lot is exactly the same as it was when I was a young woman. I think that there's every reason for a young woman to feel very strongly that allying herself with a powerful man, regardless of how she has to do it, might be her path forward — might sometimes be her only path forward. And forming that alliance may be a decision she makes when she is less experienced, and a decision that she is able to recognize for how compromised it was later in life, but we still have to recognize that there's this whole baked-in social and cultural structure that's pointing her toward that decision. Just identifying all the "bad men" and putting them into a time-out isn't really going to address the ways in which sexism is baked into our society.

On if younger generations are more cognizant of structural sexism

Oh yeah, definitely. I don't think that I would have written this book without my students. And I think the experience of teaching younger people — my students [at Yale University] are all 17-20 years old, and I've been teaching for quite a while — their way of seeing and their way of thinking is totally different. And I'm so grateful from it. ...

There are a lot of things that I take for granted that I realize: I shouldn't take them for granted. I shouldn't just go, "Oh, well that's just the way it is." My students will go, "No. Uh-uh. We don't like it. We don't like this. It shouldn't be like this." And it's like having the wool pulled from my eyes, where I've most often end[ed] up going, "Wow, they're right. I don't know why I would've accepted that."

Justine Kenin and Dave Blanchard produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.