Susan Choi wants you to know that CAPA, the performing arts high school at the center of her National Book Award-winning novel Trust Exercise, is not supposed to be Houston’s Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
She understands why you might think it is. Choi attended Kinder (then known as HSPVA) from 1983 to 1986—but she liked it. “I didn’t know until I got there that there were places like that where kids who are interested in creativity could all be together,” she says by phone from her home in New York. “It was extremely nonconformist and supportive. It really did feel like a beacon for kids from all over the city who loved the arts, and that was kind of amazing. That was definitely not something that I had been exposed to before that, a place where you could go and people would play music in the halls.”
They play music in the halls at CAPA, too, of course. And they play head games at this fictional performing arts high school, most of them initiated by the charismatic but creepy drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley. His class theater exercises, allegedly designed to break boundaries and create trust, in reality involve a great deal of groping, squeezing, and rubbing. David and Sarah end up extending this activity into the summer between their freshman and sophomore years. Then they end up hurting each other, Mr. Kingsley gets involved, and things take a turn for the weird.
Trust Exercise began as a short story with a simple enough premise: “Teenage lovers who don’t have driver’s licenses, struggling to get together in a city in which it’s very difficult to get around if you don’t drive.” This sounds like it could be Houston, especially when you look at an extended passage that finds David sweating buckets as he tries to find Sarah’s apartment; or when the narrator speculates that one of their classmates will end up managing a Whataburger.
That’s no accident. Choi knows the Bayou City. She moved to Houston from Indiana with her mother when she was almost ten after her parents divorced, and over the course of her childhood they hopscotched across the sprawling metroplex, living in houses and apartments in Meyerland, Willow Meadows, Chimney Rock, Braeswood Place, and near Rice University, where her mother worked as an administrative secretary, just like Sarah’s mother in the novel. She lived in Houston until she left for college at Yale (where she now teaches creative writing), followed by grad school at Cornell and a stint as a New Yorker fact checker before publishing her first novel in 1998. But Trust Exercise isn’t set in Houston.
Or is it? Although this is the first work that really seems to hark back to the concrete landscape of this town, Choi has been denying the connection since the book came out in 2019. Now, though, she explains that the question—and thus her answer—is a little more complicated than that.
“There are certain things about Houston that I found were very formative for me,” she says. “And those were things that I really wanted to get at, and they are true of so many other places. That’s why I was both not willing to make the setting Houston, period, but also trying to be really attentive to those aspects of Houston that are just so different from a place like New York, where I live now, but again, that Houston holds in common with so much of the country.”
That might seem like a mouthful, and it might seem like Choi is going out of her way to say the novel is not set in Houston. But this is how fiction often works. It can help a writer to lean on the details of a place, especially when the writer knows that place well. But it can be limiting to restrict the action of a fictional location to the confines of reality. In other words, you use the specifics without letting them hem you in.
Much of Choi’s fiction comes from a similar place. She starts with something familiar, and instead of playing it straight she asks an age-old question: What if? For instance, her third novel, A Person of Interest, sprang from an encounter Choi’s father, a mathematics professor, once had with the Unabomber. What if a professor gets to know a serial bomber and things go … badly?
“My father has got to be one of the most ridiculously likable people, with a long history of being a charming and gentle man,” Choi says. Except in her novel, where he isn’t. “I would say the birth of CAPA is kind of similar, taking a place that I knew well, Performing Arts, and thinking, ‘Well, what if?’ What if everything went wrong in a place like this?”
Much of what goes wrong revolves around sex. There’s a fair amount of it in Trust Exercise; it’s pretty graphic, and it leads to emotional chaos and misunderstanding. Choi has found herself on the defensive from readers aghast at the idea of teenagers having sex, as if she had somehow invented the phenomenon.
“The first time I actually had a reader ask me what made me think that teenagers could possibly have sexual lives like this, I was really shocked,” Choi says. “I guess my thought was, what makes you think that they wouldn’t? It’s not all teens, but you’re fooling yourself if you think no teens are sexually active and having extremely complicated sexual lives. And so I knew that was what was going on with those characters. I mean, not all of the characters in the book are sexually experienced, but a lot of them are. And that’s just, dare I say, kind of the way it is. Some teenagers are very sexually experienced and some are not.”
Next up, Choi returns to her father’s past. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, was rooted in his experience as a Korean immigrant who came to the U.S. in the ’50s. Then there was the Unabomber encounter in A Person of Interest. And now? “I feel like there’s more to learn,” she says. She has been digging deep into Korean history, pre-Korean War and more recent.
And the what if? We’ll have to wait and see.