PW: Your novel, American Woman, is about the Patty Hearst kidnapping, which took place when you were a child. How did you become interested in the case?
Susan Choi: I was trying to develop a different idea, but it wasn't gelling at all. I was procrastinating, hoping I would stumble upon a better idea through research, and that's what happened. I was very open to research throwing something in my path, since things were not coming together, and the ploy worked.
PW: How did you research the kidnapping?
SC: Mostly I read nonfiction books. I did a lot of vague, historical research; I was trying to hone in on what the story would be. I did almost no research online until I knew what exactly I was looking for. In my case, less was more; I didn't really want to know everything the Internet could tell me about my characters.
PW: Did you interview Patty Hearst or Wendy Yoshimura, the real-life people your characters are based on?
SC: No. I have an interest in doing that, but I never thought it would be a good idea for the book. I knew that to write a novel, I had to leave those real people behind at some point pretty early on. I didn't want to ask them, "How did you feel?" or "Why did you do it?" I don't think those questions can be answered very easily. I wanted the novel to have an internal logic that would be mine.
PW: Why did you decide to make Jenny [the character based on Wendy Yoshimura] the protagonist, and not Pauline [the character based on Patty Hearst]?
SC: A large part of my interest in Wendy was her peripheral position. She's not someone who, willingly or not, became a cultural icon, like Patty Hearst did. She was marginal, both racially and economically. When the story broke, she was of little interest. This woman didn't quite fit the tabloid narrative that every publication had subscribed to. She was Asian-American, she was a little bit older than the other principals, she was far more judicious in her statements, and her political activity had been far more circumspect and grounded in intelligence. She was an odd footnote. As a novelist, I saw her as the key to telling the story; a step to one side of what seems like the middle of the story. Overheated characters are often hard to focus on.
PW: What do you think: was Patty Hearst's involvement with the SLA out of fear or sympathy?
SC: I don't believe she was brainwashed. I think it was much more complicated, psychologically. She must've been immediately terrified, and I think she ceased to see a way backwards, or even sideways. After a while, she probably thought, "I wish these people would like me." The kidnappers were her peers, and however flamboyantly they were behaving, they were deeply committed. These kids were barely out of college. I can't imagine that that didn't reach Patty at some point and that she didn't feel, at some stage, that she would like to be accepted by them, perhaps merely for her own safety.
PW: Who is the "American woman" of the book's title: Pauline or Jenny?
SC: I don't think there's a single answer. I guess the obvious "American woman" is Pauline, with her towering American pedigree, but I actually think of Jenny as being more truly that person. People seem to view her as such a weird, foreign element, yet she was a California native.
PW: What do you see as the biggest difference between the antiwar movements of the 1970s and today?
SC: The biggest difference is that now, idealism is a problematic position to hold. It seems naïve, uneducated. I feel (just from my reading about the period), that in the 1960s and early '70s, to be an idealist was a moral thing, and it didn't seem deluded or self-centered. I think that now people are so jaded. The complexity of the world is so overwhelming and so present to everyone. It's very hard to figure out what the good fight is these days, and that makes idealism almost impossible.