Interview: John Chu

John Chu is a writer, translator, and narrator. His work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and several other places, and he won the Hugo Award in 2014 for his story, “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.” His stories have a tendency toward gentleness as they explore issues of identity, orientation, ambition, and delightful geekery, among other things. “Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me” is his second story in Uncanny Magazine.

Uncanny Magazine: A theme I see you exploring at various points in your work is the limitations of the body. In “Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me” you explicitly press on the boundaries of what is possible, and examine the potential costs and tradeoffs of pushing those boundaries. What made you explore that in this particular way?

John Chu: Some of this is a certain amount of unintentional research. I ran into some web pages about steroid abuse not just in bodybuilding and powerlifting (where we all recognize it exists) but also in cross-fit (which, according to those web pages, is still in denial about the problem). The evidence raised was circumstantial, but it’s not unreasonable to raise questions about how champions of the sport are able to survive the workouts they claim to put themselves through, much less improve from them.

Also, for a while, I’d see something on social media about some professional wrestler from the 90s and my first thought would be that they’ve died. I was right a lot. A surprising number of wrestlers from that era have lived rather short lives. There are many reasons for that, but what they had to do in order to get the sort of bodies in vogue for wrestlers at the time may have something to do with it.

It’s possible to point out that people use performance-enhancing drugs because they are effective without also condoning their use. Whether there actually is steroid abuse in cross-fit, it’s not hard to see cross-fit following in the footsteps of bodybuilding, powerlifting, and many other sports. They allow you to train harder than is humanly possible. You become literally super-human as long as you keep up the drugs and training, then you stand a good chance dying early from brain cancer or something.

Writing a story about that, though, would have been a bit too on the nose. It’s also been done excellently more than a few times. Here, the story is actually a bit coy about whether the drugs have any awful side-effects that can’t be mitigated. The cost is something more immediate and visceral.

Uncanny Magazine: Your main character Charlie uses his modified body to do things like transport super rich people from place to place without disrupting their conscious lives. If it were actually possible to be transported from place to place while sleeping and without jetlag, would you want to use that service?

John Chu: A surprising number of my beta-readers commented that they wished that the service was for real! As for me, the sheer number of laws the company has to break to provide the service as written makes me uneasy. That said, the real answer is that there is no way I could ever afford it even if I wanted to use it.

Uncanny Magazine: There’s a thread running through your work about accepting oneself. Do you ever set out to write about this deliberately, or does it come up unbidden?

John Chu: Like many threads that run through my work, it comes up unbidden. Mostly, I try to come up with interesting situations and interesting characters then see what happens.

Uncanny Magazine: You’re a self-proclaimed theatre geek, and you put a lot of that love into “Making the Magic Lightning Strike Me.” What made you choose to focus on the particular productions you mention in this story? Are they things you have had the chance to see?

John Chu: This is a combination of “John planned poorly” and “John steals shamelessly from the improv playbook.” The story was solicited as part of the Uncanny’s Kickstarter. Lynne, Michael, and I agreed on a due date, which I then promptly misremembered. The upshot is that for a while, I thought I had one month longer to write the story than I actually had. Fortunately, I discovered my mistake with enough time to still write the story. I just had one fewer month to do it with.

In times like that, it’s good to set up a structure around which you can drape the story. It turned out the next two shows I planned to see could work thematically with the story, so I used those. I.e., I was about to see a production of Intimate Exchanges in January and I will be seeing The Golden Apple in May. (As it turns out, I completely forgot that I was going to see Big River in February.) I actually started the story before the production of Intimate Exchanges opened and finished the story after I saw it. The Golden Apple is in May so I haven’t seen that production yet although I saw a concert production of it about a decade ago. (The idea that I will have seen two productions of the show is kind of mind-boggling. It really is rarely produced.)

Uncanny Magazine: What would your dream theatre experience be if you could choose anything, without limits of time or geography?

John Chu: I suppose I should say something like the original productions of Shakespeare or Sophocles. However, it’s pretty likely that I wouldn’t understand them. English pronunciation has changed a lot in the intervening centuries and I don’t speak Ancient Greek. If I could (and I could hand-wave away all the other difficulties), seeing those productions would be amazing.

Instead, there are a couple of moments of modern musical theater history that it would be an honor to witness. I’d love to see the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. It’s been revived twice on Broadway since and I’ve seen both revivals. However, for reasons of budget, if nothing else, there will never be a production like the original so I’d love to see what is likely the best expression of Sondheim’s greatest work to date.

Also, I wish I could have seen the record-breaking performance of A Chorus Line. That is, the performance where it became the (then) longest-running musical on Broadway. For that one performance, Michael Bennett reconceived the show to use not only the original cast and the (then) current cast, but many people from the intervening casts as a celebration of everyone who made breaking the record possible. It’s a masterpiece that ran for only night and can never be recreated.

Oh, it just occurred to me that the right answer is probably Hamilton. Any performance anywhere. I still haven’t been able to get a ticket. 🙂

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for taking the time to geek out about theatre with us, John!

Julia Rios

Julia Rios is the reprint fiction/poetry editor and an interviewer for Uncanny Magazine. She is a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in several places, including Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, and Goblin Fruit. She was a fiction editor for Strange Horizons from 2012 to 2015, and is co-editor with Alisa Krasnostein of Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction series. She is also a co-host of the Hugo-nominated podcast, The Skiffy and Fanty Show, and has narrated stories for Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Cast of Wonders, and poems for the Strange Horizons podcast. To find out more, visit www.juliarios.com.

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