I met Tony Tulathimutte over drinks one afternoon. We’d followed each other on Twitter and, on a rare social impulse, I thought I’d chance getting to know him better. Online, he was funny and incisive in his commentary. In person though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To my delight, we spent our time surprisingly in-step with a minimum of lit-scene gossip and a maximum of day-drinking.
Reading Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016), it’s hard not to see Tony in his work. The novel is thoughtful and sly, at turns eloquent and hilarious and caustic. It follows the post-collegiate years of four friends on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse. There’s Linda, the failed writer; the transient autodidact Henrik, the socially conscious Cory, and Will—the book’s one Asian character, whose racial neuroses borders on obsession. What astonishes me most about Private Citizens is the way these characters become so much more than their labels. Together and alone in the young urban landscape of San Francisco, they learn to create meaning in a world that keeps insisting they have none.
Tony and I met again to talk about Private Citizens last December at Black Forest Brooklyn Biergarten in Fort Greene, where we discussed—among other things—writing, race, and self-loathing.
Bill Cheng: Private Citizens is actually your second book. Can you talk about your first book?
Tony Tulathimutte: I wrote a story collection, which I didn’t bother trying to publish as a book. Except the novella, I drafted all the stories in undergrad and when I put them together I was unsatisfied with them. There was this unwashable stink of shame surrounding them because I suspected I was being a good boy. I’d never written an Asian character, except in one case where I retro-jected Asianness onto the character way after the fact. I know a lot of novice Asian writers who had this problem, they think, “Well, I grew up around mostly white people and so it makes perfect sense for me to write about them.” It’s a way to rationalize internalized racism and justify what you’re really doing, which is trying to dodge the burdensome label of an ethnic writer, an Asian writer.
BC: In some ways, you try to address that with the character Will. On the face of things, Will is a lot like you: he’s Thai, went to Stanford. But what makes Will different from Tony?
TT: The name. (Laughter.)
Once time I had my roommate send me a piece of my novel while I was at work. He said, “Sorry man, I just opened your computer and I saw a bunch of notes open. I just wanted to remark that I did see on top of this file, a huge bold text equation that says ‘WILL = ME – WRITING + GIRLFRIEND.’” That was sort of a joke to myself, but what I wanted was not to give myself any wiggle room, abstracting characters away from me because that’s what I thought good writing was.
BC: What did framing Will that way do for the writing?
TT: It removed the checks and balances from my psyche. When I have these sort of insecurities or desires ruthlessly indulged I imagine I would become a kind of a monster.
What I didn’t want was to write the kind of novel people write when they set out to make a big statement about a racial experience. In the attempt to give a voice to people of their race, they often end up over-generalizing. There’s this total overreach. What I did in this book is very specific. If people are going to identify with the experience of Asian-ness this character has, it’s going to be in this heavily qualified way, just because in spite of the many stereotypical traits I deliberately saddled him with—short, angry, tech savvy, girl-troubled—you find that he’s nothing like most people, Asian or otherwise. I’d be hard-pressed to compare anyone to Will, even myself, in spite of him sharing my biography. In fact he doesn’t resemble me any more than the other three characters.
BC: Let’s talk about them. Most of the action is set in those years after college, when they’re each deeply invested in their individual lives and those bonds aren’t as present.
TT: I don’t know about you, but in New York I barely see my closest friends. Everybody I know has a lot of banal obligations that take them away from regular day-in, day-out exposure to the people who’re closest to them.
If there’s one thing I am concerned with, it’s the experience of our fantasy life vs. our real life. That, when your friends are not there, you’re still thinking, “What would Jenny say about this? What would Alice say if she saw me doing this?” Even though they’re not actually there, nonetheless their influence is present.
In this book, the characters are deeply involved in each other’s mental lives, even more than their actual circumstances. Everything Henrik does is a response to breaking up with Linda. Everything Linda does is to move beyond Henrik. Linda has informed Will’s resentment of women. And Cory is constantly comparing herself to Linda. So there’s a skein of relationships that are operating even when one character is just sitting there alone.
BC: With four protagonists, how did you manage to capture the diversity of all these voices?
TT: I had to get at the book edgewise. I spent two years floundering and not being able to just sit down and write. What I had to do was tackle the alternate project of trying to write about everything that was happening in my life, everything I was thinking about, with no preconceptions about how they were interrelated or would cohere into a story.
BC: Like what?
TT: I was thinking about political obligations as somebody living comfortably in San Francisco. I was thinking about technology, as a tech consultant in Silicon Valley, and race, and writing—like almost everybody, I felt like I had the talent to write but a total inability to do it. And I was thinking about my inherited defects. Right in the middle of my 20s all these new allergies kicked in. I couldn’t eat fruits with thin skins; I was diagnosed with exercise-induced anaphylactic urticaria. Literally allergic to exercise. I had to have surgery to correct a deviated septum and enlarged nasal turbinates.
Having to descend into this crazy bureaucracy of health, just to feel like I was a normal functioning person. Operating under all these strictures and paranoias about new illnesses. And mental stuff as well. I had conquered four psychiatrists and was feeling like I was looking down a long corridor of unwellness, and not really seeing where I was going to come through the other side—that’s a lot of Henrik’s neuroses come from.
None of these things are obviously connected. Putting it together literally amounted to writing out random sentences or thoughts in a million different text files and seeing, “Oh these two kind of relate to each other, I’m going to move them closer.” Then I’d glom them together and they become kind of like a T-1000 pool of living metal. I stitched those together into a passage, which gets stitched together into a scene, which gets assigned to a character. This is the most ass-backwards way to write a novel, which is why it took seven years.
BC: What I enjoyed the most about the book is the strength in the voices of these characters.
TT: They tend to rant. Part of that is Philip Roth’s influence, part of it is my desire to write criticism inside the novel.
BC: I feel like a lot of writers— and I include myself in this— are often paralyzed by that kind of interiority.
TT: Really? I feel like that’s what everybody does when they want to self-indulge.
BC: Maybe I like movies too much. But for me, there’s no “brain voice” in my head. My brain doesn’t speak to me in English but rather this different, primal language. Putting that on the page, I find, is difficult.
TT: Nabokov once said that only illiterates think in language, that people generally think in images. To me it’s not possible to mimic your brain voice, but you can translate it to English. And oftentimes when we do it, we realize, “Oh shit, I’m a horrible person.” When writers talk in this vague grandiose way about wanting to get at the truth, usually they’re just trying to figure out what they’re thinking.
I think there’s an E.M. Forster line that goes, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” That’s the idea. If you’re not cornered into actually articulating what you’re after, then how can you endorse or deny it?
BC: In a lot of ways, Private Citizens is an examination of self-loathing. Do you think this is something particular to where we are now as a generation?
TT: My first workshop at Iowa hated my book. I had almost no defenders. A lot of what I was perceiving as self-loathing was read as contempt. They felt there was this authorial sensibility that was basically saying the equivalent of “ha ha look at these fucking Millennials, look how stupid and entitled and narcissistic they are”—and in a way that’s the critique I fear most, even if it’s positive. Where somebody says “Check out this scathing takedown of Millennials!” Because I think that’s bullshit.
Every generation, except the one that fought World War II, gets maligned as worse than its predecessor, and for the dumbest reasons. “Oh, Millennials, they boomerang, and live off their parents.” Well, you shouldn’t have dismantled America’s manufacturing base and rolled back financial regulations and cut every reliable job. We didn’t ask for the gig economy. That’s not on us.
BC: Do you identify as a writer, an Asian writer, or a Thai writer?
TT: Either way it’s a no-win. One way, you are either pigeonholed as a Thai writer, an Asian writer. The other way, you’re being dishonest, especially in my case where I am writing about race, among other things. If someone asks me, “Am I Thai and a writer?’” Well, that’s true. Some of my writing is bound up in the question of being Asian in America.
But to drill down to the next level of your question, there’s actually a distinction between calling yourself an Asian writer or a Thai writer, right? Because one actually presumes a healthy and nuanced enough discourse that makes significant distinctions between Thai writers, Chinese writers, Japanese writers, Korean writers. And I don’t think that’s the case. In spite of the staggering diversity of ethnicities within Asia, to most people what matters more than those differences is that you either look Asian or you don’t. The particularities are completely paved over, including the things they expect of you as a writer or read into your writing.
In real life my Thai-ness only comes into play when I’m talking to other Asian people and they’re feeling out whether or not we have any deeper cultural ground than the experience of being treated as an Asian. I didn’t know many Asian people my age until I went to Stanford, and even then, it wasn’t our Asianness we bonded over, it was writing. I didn’t join the Asian-American Students Association, which I thought was corny—they had a newsletter called Communicasians, for instance. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in terms of racial identity; there’s just also nothing to be proud of, except insofar as you know you’ve had to overcome shit because of it.
If there’s a basis for pride, it’s in spite. Which, funny enough, were working titles for my novel. Pride and Spite.
BC: Do you think your writing is in some way motivated by anger?
TT: Anger to me seems like the wrong word because it connotes a lack of control. That’s why spite seems more useful. It is this thing to stew over, to elaborate. It can be intellectualized and rationalized and at a certain point it becomes less a feeling than a value. A ton of my work had to do with that. To say anger, I don’t know, I tend to turn my anger inward in self-destructive ways that later become material.
BC: Self-destructive how?
TT: Look at how the characters act out in the book. Cory has an eating disorder, Will’s self-destruction becomes very literal, and Linda repeatedly nukes her situation and finds herself without a fixed address. You can see how somebody could justify her behavior as standing up for yourself, or autonomy, but it’s also self-sabotage and a desire to be confirmed in your dismal worldview.
It’s that cog-psych principle of depressive realism, where you’re disposed to see the world as a bad place so that when bad things happen you feel validated by being right. Every time people will take being right over being happy. Every time.
Tony Tulathimutte is the author of the novel Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016). A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has contributed to VICE, Salon, The New Yorker online, Threepenny Review, AGNI, The LA Review of Books, The American Reader, and other places. He has been selected for an O. Henry Award and a Macdowell Fellowship; his website is at tonytula.com.
Bill Cheng is the author of Southern Cross the Dog. He is a 2015 fellow in Fiction for the New York Foundation for the Arts and a 2016 recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship.