Tony Tulathimutte’s widely acclaimed debut novel, Private Citizens, is set in the hyper-connected landscape of 2007 San Francisco, its characters awash in tech start-up money and the nascent anxieties of the social media persona. Meanwhile, the characters in his short story, “After the Dyerses,” can’t even get one another on the phone. In either mode, Tulathimutte (that’s TOO-la-tim-OO-tee, if you can’t pronounce Thai) is on a path to become one of our generation’s key writers on themes of identity and alienation, especially when it comes to how those forces shape love and sex in the age of the internet connection.
Here, we talk about writing, fucked-up families, gaming, his love for Stoya and more.
You mentioned on Twitter that After the Dyerses is the first story you ever finished. Could you say a little about the genesis of the piece and how it reached completion?
I say “finished” because before that I’d written some deep groaners. It was either heavy-handed dystopian satire (a pill that cures sleep…so that everyone works all the time!) or show-offy formal stuff (a two-page story in 64 nested parentheses—hadn’t heard of John Barth), which I knew even then weren’t worth dick. So when I started this story, I’d written it first out of sheer contempt, to prove I could pull off the kind of apple-shining domestic realist fiction that won undergrad fiction prizes.
But usually when I spend too much time on a spiteful gag I end up accidentally getting serious, and I ended up liking the conceit of a family connected by missed phone calls. I took a year to keep working it over until I had something that didn’t make me want to commit suicide. I also updated it for Playboy, since when I originally finished it people were still using landline phones.
Well, you’ve still got one landline in there. There’s that beautiful little hairpin turn early in the story, when Suzanne calls her ex-husband Richard and hears her own voice on his answering machine announcing the absence of a family that doesn’t even exist anymore, that hasn’t existed in a full two years. Why were you compelled to write about the Dyerses this far after their disintegration?
To be honest, I was a young writer who couldn’t manage scenes with more than two people in them at once. But writers’ coping strategies often end up constituting something like style, and I found that their alienation allowed me to compartmentalize their perspectives, so I could write about the same family dynamic refracted three ways. And in any case, a family is still a family even after it’s broken, and no matter how much these characters wish to be rid of each other in different ways, they’re still present in each other’s heads. Which makes it easy for each of them to vilify and idealize one other.
Writers’ coping strategies often end up constituting something like style.
Man, I know exactly what you mean about your limitations as a writer dictating shape of the story, for better or worse. Did the choice to make Tim Dyers adopted follow from that distance too? Or was that a family dynamic you just wanted to explore?
Yeah, I wanted to maximize the estrangement between each character, beyond the simple partisanship of divorce. If Tim is physically distant from his father who’s lost custody, he’s emotionally and genetically distant from his mother.
What about the choice to make his a transracial adoption, at least on Suzanne’s side?
Same idea. I liked the idea of exaggerating the physical difference between them, an Asian mother and a white teenage son; it also sort of plays with the trope of a white family adopting an Asian baby who becomes subtly alienated by their different treatment—here it’s the mother who’s alienated. It’s the result of a long power struggle between Suzanne and Richard—his choice to persuade her into adopting a white boy over an Asian girl is one of the many hairline faults that split them up.
The whole story is just packed with these nudges toward the idea of inheritance or nurture or family custom—or the polar opposite of all those, the ways in which life can just totally wreck us, no matter who we came from. Those moments made me think back on your novel, Private Citizens; I ran across a few reviewers who said that book was about personal branding, this idea that we can act as our own marketing team and proclaim ourselves into being in a deliberate, public way, especially on the internet. That idea seems so different from the way you’re talking about how identity forms in After the Dyerses, and the voice in each couldn’t be more different.
In part it just reflects the different subject matter. In this story we’re dealing with two pre-Internet adults and a teenager with a Luddite girlfriend; they’re all sort of isolated losers, and none of them has an interest in representing themselves in that meretricious Instagram way. Plus it’s the kind of family story that no family would want told. Private Citizens deals with four post-college millennials in San Francisco, and they all showcase themselves for work, status hunger, ego validation, the usual. I guess you could say I had to address those social considerations once I set out to write a social novel.
Let’s talk more about Tim—he’s such a great example of sheer teenage id, and his description of sex is almost too real. (“He definitely wasn’t expecting her pussy…to feel that way, like different parts of the inside of his own mouth.”) Where did he come from?
Teenagers don’t often have a keen sense of their own power. Sometimes, with good reason, they see themselves as powerless underdogs, and they act out with intentional disrespect, aiming to shock. They don’t necessarily know the weight of slurs, beyond that they get a reaction out of people, so they often end up sounding fucking satanic. I don’t know anyone who’s proud of the way they spoke as a teenager, and I wanted to get across some of that nastiness, which is actually a form of innocence.
Sexual innocence is a part of that whole bargain—when you experience anything for the first time, it’s hard to describe it on its own terms, and you often end up making lateral comparisons that someone who has tons of nasty sex all the time, like me for example, would never think to make.
If you stuck a tire gauge in my ear, that thing would fucking explode.
So, nasty sex: You’ve said in other interviews that you’re a huge porn consumer. How does it feel to have your work in Playboy, albeit non-nude and nipple-free?
Well I don’t know about “huge,” relative to your average straight atheist with an internet connection. But it’s an honor to be in Playboy alongside the almighty Stoya, and I’ve been bragging to people that I can finally literally jack off to my own writing. Nipples or otherwise.
How did you get into writing in the first place? Did you win any of those undergrad fiction prizes you mentioned earlier?
The summer before college, I tried writing a novel, with the understanding that it would be published before graduation and I’d have a nice Nobel Prize to cushion my entry into the job market. I mean, if you stuck a tire gauge in my ear, that thing would fucking explode. In college I took fiction workshops with Adam Johnson, ZZ Packer, Katherine Noel and Elizabeth Tallent, who gave me just the right amount of ego squishing and reinflating. For all that people shit about workshops, it’s important early on to have people taking your stuff seriously. I did win the undergrad prize, and that story, which was my first published one, ended up winning an O. Henry Award, which fucked up my ego all over again.
You majored in something called symbolic systems—how did you move from that to all those great writing workshops? Also, polite question: What the fuck is a symbolic system?
I did them both at once. From the department website: “The Symbolic Systems Program at Stanford University focuses on computers and minds: artificial and natural systems that use symbols to communicate, and to represent information.” So linguistics, logic, neurobiology and computer languages are all symbolic systems, and I got my bachelor’s and master’s in that, wrote two theses on video game interaction design. I picked it because it was notoriously difficult, and my parents approved because it was on average the highest-paid major at Stanford. The winner of the “race war” season of Survivor was a SymSys major (Asian).
So then you went to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and published a novel, and now you’re writing full time?
Yeah, supplemented with a lot of teaching and freelancing side gigs and a nice chubby cigar-lighting windfall from Playboy magazine.
It seems like you’re pretty into gaming—how does that hobby interact with your writing?
Mostly they just enable procrastination, but I was a gamer long before I started writing, and I’m sure it had something to do with my desire to bend or break formal conventions in fiction. I do believe that soon enough a novelist who’s unfamiliar with video games will be as ill-qualified to write certain kinds of social realism as one who doesn’t watch TV or use social media, and that we’re already seeing games and game mechanics encroach on reality in all kinds of ways (FitBit, Pokémon Go, etc.). I plan on doing a lot more writing about games in the future, though I wish the discourse wasn’t as toxic and partisan as it is now.
What are you working on now?
Four books, a feature for Wired, my Dota 2 ranking and not saying the word obviously as much.
Kea Wilson is the author of We Eat Our Own. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she teaches writing and works as a bookseller. © Kea Wilson, 2016