The inspiration for Susan Choi’s latest book
Sometimes you find inspiration floating by in a plastic bag. And sometimes, as in the case of novelist Susan Choi, your father went to graduate school with the Unabomber.
Choi’s third novel, A Person of Interest, describes the rapidly unraveling life of Professor Lee, a prickly, divorced mathematics professor at a small Midwestern university who suddenly finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation into the bombing death of his hotshot colleague. And the author freely cops to borrowing from the life story of her father, Chang Choi, a mathematics professor at Indiana University South Bend.
Like her main character, an endearing tangle of a man haunted by his outsider status and the loss of his first wife, Choi’s father lives alone in a small college town. (He and Choi’s mother divorced when the author was 9.) While the fictional Lee emigrated from China, Choi’s father moved to America from Korea to attend grad school at the University of Michigan. And, of course, there’s his connection to that notorious Luddite terrorist, Ted Kaczynski. Choi remembers her father’s keen interest in the Unabomber case, and then his gobsmacked shock that the culprit turned out to be the antisocial genius from his Michigan doctoral program with whom he had exchanged notes and shared desk space.
Because Professor Lee hews so closely to her dad, Choi anxiously hopped on a plane for Indiana last August to gauge his response to the novel firsthand. ”I was so worried and I’m sure a lot went unsaid, but he told me he loved the book and said it’s the best I’ve written,” says the author, whose last novel, the 2004 Pulitzer finalist American Woman, was also inspired by a real-life story — the Patty Hearst case.
It turns out that Choi needn’t have worried. ”I would have made the same praise to any writer who can write that well,” Prof. Choi says via e-mail. ”I maintained a posture of a bystander looking into the story from outside, unrelated and unaffected.”
Choi, 39, lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Wells, the dining editor of The New York Times, and their two young sons. She’s grateful that early reviews have expressed affection for Professor Lee. When the novel was first being shopped to publishers last year, Choi says, some editors voiced concern about her protagonist’s likability. ”Well, yes, he’s difficult,” she says, ”but I love him.”