Author Charles Yu won the National Book Award for Fiction for his novel, Interior Chinatown, in 2020. To kick off the new year, Yu is back with The Only Living Girl on Earth, our first Scribd Original of 2021 and his first work of fiction since winning the NBA. Yu has quickly become one of the most beloved contemporary science fiction authors, penning inventive works from How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe to episodes of Westworld, and in this interview, we probed his brain about his writing process and the future of humanity.
SCRIBD: What was the inspiration behind The Only Living Girl on Earth?
CHARLES YU: Years ago I was invited to contribute to Shadow Show, an anthology in celebration of Ray Bradbury. The prompt was to write a story inspired by one of Bradbury’s works, and I chose “There Will Come Soft Rains” about a highly-automated house that has survived a nuclear blast. My entry, titled “Earth (A Gift Shop)” imagined what survives after humanity has all left the planet — and it’s basically merchandise, the souvenirs that visitors to Earth might pick up in a pit stop / convenience store while gassing up their spaceships.
After the story was published, I found myself revisiting the idea, and started to expand it, piece by piece, wanting to build out the world.
Climate change is of obvious concern to us all. Is this the first time you’ve taken on the subject?
It is, but I have a feeling it won’t be the last. I’m not a scientist or engineer, nor a policy expert, but I do think fictional narratives about climate change (or in which climate change is the assumed future reality) are an important component in persuading people to reconsider and modify our behavior. Not that they replace data or reason — but a well-told story can reach people not just with information, but imagination, can cause us to see the world and its possibilities differently.
You’ve been working on this story for a number of years, but did the pandemic impact the story at all?
I was revising the story with my editor on this story, Amy Grace Loyd, throughout the first several months of the pandemic. Working on it this year, with everything going on, it was hard not to feel a new context and relevance to the idea of being forced to leave this planet eventually.
You have a remarkable talent for writing skillfully about both technology and the human condition. We all know that tech can both help and hurt us. What are your concerns about it as a father, a humanist, a citizen? Which new or developing technology brings you joy or fascinates you?
At the moment, I’m amazed and grateful at the scientists who developed the vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 in record time.
How far away do you think humans are from living someplace other than Earth? Would you try it?
I suppose it depends on how many humans and how far from Earth. Astronauts can live for six months on the International Space Station, so in some ways they’ve already crossed a psychological barrier of living away in a place other than Earth. In terms of a permanent or indefinite settlement on another planet (or moon), that seems at least hundreds if not thousands of years away. But I’m not qualified to guess at that. Another thing I’d say is that the progress doesn’t have to be linear. We might struggle for a long time to make any discernible advancement toward space colonization, and then in a few decades or centuries, some breakthrough could cause us to accelerate along the technological curve faster than seems possible now. There were no automobiles in 1869, let alone airplanes. If you’d told people then that there’d be a human on the moon in 100 years, would they have believed it?
It must be thrilling to write during this golden age of streaming content and premium television. And not too many television writers can boast a literary honor like a National Book Award. Does your literary writing impact your writing for screen (and vice versa)?
I think there are some things that I’ve learned in one medium that have some value in the other. At first when I started working in writer’s rooms, I’d pitch concepts, ideas, things that couldn’t necessarily be visualized or made tangible on screen. And while I definitely had to learn how to think differently in that context, I hope that some of those ideas and concepts did help those shows and my colleagues in some way, contributing to the conversation. And going the other way, I think TV writing often prioritizes economy, clarity, structure and momentum. Even if I’m not always seeking all of those qualities in my prose fiction, it’s still helpful to be more conscious of what I’m doing (or not doing) with my story.
How did you come to write the story as a Scribd Original?
I’ve known Amy Grace Loyd for over a decade, and have wanted to work with her again on something for a while. When she told me about Scribd and what they were looking for, I thought of this story and how, given its length, it might be hard for most magazines or other outlets to publish. Scribd seemed like the ideal venue for a longer, standalone short story like this one.
You recently won the National Book Award for Fiction, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world. What was it like to receive such an honor?
I feel humbled and grateful, to say the least. I don’t know that I’ll ever really believe it.
Fans of Westworld are eager for season four to drop. How might events of the last year — the pandemic, the election — impact next season’s storyline?
Ooh, I don’t know! I was part of that show for the first season, so since then have been watching as an outsider. I know there are millions of fans eager to find out.
What are you working on next?
I’ve been developing this story as a feature film, with a couple of producers — trying to figure out how to do it. Also, projects in television, including an adaptation of my latest novel, Interior Chinatown, for Hulu. And of course, trying to write another book.
What other writers are you fans of that you’d like to recommend?
I love the work of the anthropologist David Graeber, who wrote penetrating, insightful books about debt and work, among other things.
What do you wish the media would ask you but hasn’t?
My wife Michelle Jue — she’s the person that keeps me going! I wish someone would do a series of interviews with partners of writers. We must be terrible to live with.
National Book Award-winning author Charles Yu welcomes you to Earth: The Gift Shop, where the history of Earth: A Bunch of Civilizations has been commodified into knick knacks sold by the last living soul on this planet, Jane. A witty and absurd Scribd Original about the destruction of Earth, the survival of capitalism, and the strength of the human spirit from Yu, the author of Interior Chinatown and a writer for Westworld.