By David Canfield
May 13, 2020 at 07:02 PM EDT
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Heather Weston; Henry Holt and Company

We catch up with Susan Choi, the reigning National Book Award for Fiction champ, about the books and pop culture that have shaped her, just in time for the paperback release of Trust Exercise (available now).

My desert island read

Alice Munro’s Selected Stories. I’d never get tired of it.

My literary crush

[Jane Eyre's] Mr. Rochester, which is pretty disturbing. He's really not the best guy.

An illicit book I read in secret as a kid

So embarrassing, but there was a sexy scene in The Thorn Birds that I surreptitiously read on many occasions after stealing the book out of my aunt’s bookshelf. I can’t remember anything about that scene anymore, or really about that book — sheep? Australia? — but I remember the orange cover and feeling like such a little criminal about it.

My favorite high school story

I love Tom Perrotta's novel Election. The movie version is great too, but the book is just perfect.

My favorite literary twist (spoiler alert!)

That moment in Jennifer Egan's novel The Keep when you find out that everything you've read up to that point is actually a book-within-the-book being written by an incarcerated person in a creative-writing class. I just love that.

My all-time favorite movie

This is kind of embarrassing, but Warren Beatty's Reds holds a really singular place in my heart.

The last TV series I binged

Fleabag. Please bring more!

A classic that I'm embarrassed to say I've never read

I could give you a list longer than this feature. One is The Brothers Karamazov. I carried it around for a long time in college. There were boys I was trying to impress.

The last album I listened to

It's funny, we hardly ever listen to albums anymore, do we? I [just] played the entirety of Different Light, by the Bangles, for the first time since I was probably 14 years old. It was so good, track by track. Pure time-machine happiness.

The first album I bought myself

Voices, by Hall and Oates. More pure time-machine happiness.

The song that always makes me feel better

"Lovely Day," by Bill Withers. Hang on, I need to go listen to it right now!*

A book that people might be surprised to learn that I loved

Whatever that biography of John Travolta was that I found at the drugstore when I was about 10 years old and first allowed to ride my bike to the drugstore and spend my allowance. I read that book literally countless times. I was so moved by the story of John Travolta nursing his older lady love, Diana Hyland, when she had cancer. I am still really moved by that story. I just wrote all this from memory and then fact-checked it and I had all the facts right, even the spelling of her name! Clearly that book made an indelible impression on me.

The fictional place I wanted to live in

When I was a kid I always dreamed of moving to Narnia, but now that I'm an adult and see how depressingly racist those books are, that dream is sadly dead.

My ideal quarantine read

Charles Dickens' Bleak House. I might actually run out of it — this worries me.

*Choi completed this Q&A before news of Withers' death broke. She wrote the following: "After I finished [this interview] on Friday, April 3, I went to YouTube to play “Lovely Day” and learned that the news had just broken of Bill Withers’ death at the age of 81, this past Monday, March 30. I’m adding this postscript with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat (and "Lovely Day" on repeat in the background). I’m so grateful to every artist who has ever created work that brings joy and comfort to myself and others, especially now. RIP Bill Withers. Your ability to sustain that note in "Lovely Day" will always give me goosebumps.

A version of this story appears in the June issue of Entertainment Weekly, which you can order now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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