Tue, Dec 22, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Time and memory are true artists

This week, we chat with an international writer and man of mystery, in a bathrobe

By Jules Quartly  /  Contributing reporter

Award-winning author Wesley Chu suspects his father would prefer him to be working at JPMorgan rather than on science fiction novels.

Photo courtesy of Wesley Chu

It’s 11pm in Taipei but 10am in Chicago, where the award-winning author Wesley Chu (朱恆昱) is as usual in his “cave,” looking a little frayed around the edges. It’s not just the bathrobe, which has been ripped at the elbow by his dog. Handsome enough to have modeled and been cast in minor Hollywood movie roles, Chu has bed hair, a full beard and that dazed look of someone who has just woken up — or worked all night.

Framed by groaning bookshelves and sitting in his comfy chair, it would appear that the life of a science fiction writer is about letting go, being free to imagine time-bending scenarios and characters that crisscross the universe in search of derring-do. But it’s not quite that simple.

We have been emailing back and forth for weeks and after text messaging on Google Hangouts we agree to a “face-to-face” interview. If it was the 20th century, this would not be happening. In fact, it would be thought of as science fiction.

Born in mid-1970s Taipei, Chu was initially brought up in Chiayi by his grandparents because his father was studying in the US. He recalls the convenience store his grandfather owned, a chicken coop, an out-house and “biting the nose of the principal’s son because he took my toy.” At the tender age of five he joined his parents in Nebraska, but still considers himself Taiwanese, and Taiwanese-American.

Fast forward to the tail end of the 1990s and Chu had graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in management information systems. He would go on to work as a consultant and software engineer before joining Bank of America and becoming an associate vice president.

Comfortable. Yes. Successful. Yes. But it wasn’t the life Chu wanted. In fact, he hated it. His original plan was to be a writer but his father dissuaded him, worried he would “suffer” financially as an artist. The filial son suspects that even now his father would prefer that he was working at JPMorgan rather than on fiction. Odd for an English professor to think this, you might say, but entirely in character for a “Tiger Dad.”

To get the ball rolling during our face-to-face, I point out the obvious and ask: “It really is true then that authors roll around in a bathrobe all day and essentially think great thoughts?”

“Yes, it’s fantastic. Going to work is a walk of 40 steps,” Chu says.

“Well, those 40 steps can be a challenge, I’m sure, but don’t you miss the cut and thrust of cubicle politics, the rustle of spreadsheets and the endless meetings?” I ask.

“Not one red second. It’s a different politics now, there’s publishing politics. If anything, it’s sometimes worse,” Chu says.

“You’re dealing with people who are very close to their work. In business and corporations, at least in business it’s just business. In publishing, especially for the writers, their books are like children,” he adds.

Chu is technically a SFF (science fiction and fantasy) author, and a “high concept” or “big idea” writer, meaning he comes up with plausible alternate realities, particularly those in which some kind of compelling innovation has taken place. His characters are strong and full of personality. They clash, strive and evolve according to how events play out in the novel.

His prose has a cinematic style, meaning while reading you can imagine how it would play in the movie theater. He is quite insistent that his writing style is natural rather than the result of having one eye on a big payday, saying, “It’s just the way my voice comes out.”

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