It takes many minds to make an android. While Robert Ford and the mysterious Arnold are the fictional genius minds behind the mechanical creations of Westworld, Charles Yu is one of the real-life brilliant brains who crafted these intersecting tales of humans and automatons.
Yu is something of a critical darling in science fiction circles. His story collections Third Class Superhero and Sorry Please Thank You debuted to high praise, and you’ll see his novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe near the top of many “must-read” lists (An aside: If you love Westworld for its cerebral sci-fi, check out more of Charles Yu’s writing). With some film deals in the works and a new HBO drama in development, we’ll definitely be seeing Charles Yu’s name in credits more frequently.
He stepped out of the HBO writers room and took some time away from finishing his upcoming fourth novel (putting the rest of us NaNoWriMo participants to shame) to chat with us about Westworld, writing, and some of his favorite Fandoms.
R.W.V. Mitchell: How did you get involved with Westworld?
Charles Yu: Through my fiction writing, I got a couple of incredible agents — Howie Sanders and Jason Richman. Initially, our relationship was mostly focused on optioning my books or stories to TV/film people, but over time, I drifted under Howie’s and Jason’s guidance more toward the idea of developing something on my own, which meant meetings with people who work in television and film. Through one of those meetings, I met David Levine, who’s now co-head of drama at HBO, and one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met. Because I had met David when the Westworld writers’ room was being staffed, I had the opportunity to meet with the showrunners, and somehow found myself hired into a dream job. So, basically, I wrote some books and then got stupid lucky in meeting all these great, generous people.
Mitchell: “Story Editor” is a rather esoteric title. What does your role look like in the writers’ room?
Yu: It does sound esoteric, you’re right! In practice, it means I’m one of a group of writers in the room. As the new guy, I mostly stayed quiet unless I really felt like I had something to contribute. There were areas and stories where I felt my background as a fiction writer who’s into meta-sci-fi and philosophy and consciousness might be of use, and I tried to bring some of that stuff into the conversation. But largely I kept my mouth shut and learned from a bunch of really experienced TV writers.
Mitchell: The show has been excellent at subverting the audience’s expectations. In the pilot, for example, it was easy to assume that Teddy was a guest (we overhear other guests on the train talking about their previous visits to the park), and it was a big shock that he was, in fact, a Host. How do you plan for and execute moments like that one?
Yu: Thanks—it’s gratifying to see that people really catch the details and nuances. Regarding subversion: you can only subvert if there are expectations in the first place. And to give credit to the audience, and recappers and reviewers, and Redditors, those expectations are formed from the collective intelligence of people bringing their advanced narrative-reading/TV-viewing skills to the table, being a participant in the experience of the story being told.
To pull off moments like you describe, you have to be able to trust that all of the work going into it, all the attention to detail, and thinking through of how something is going to play on-screen, you have to have faith that it’s going to be worth it. That people will bring those expectations, have them subverted, and then totally get what was subverted, and appreciate all of that. The showrunners understood, I think, how a show like this could engage with people, and how it would be consumed, and they — and we as a writers’ room — poured time and energy and excruciating mental effort into trying to construct these kinds of moments.
Mitchell: What elements of Crichton’s original film have been the most valuable to you and to the other writers of Westworld?
Yu: For me, it’s the setup itself. Crichton’s premise and world were way ahead of their time. We might look now and say, oh, that’s Jurassic Park in a Western setting. But the first Westworld film was 20 years before Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park is actually Westworld with dinosaurs. The theme park setting, the iconic Man in Black, some of the world building that is either explicit or implied in the movie, it evokes and inspires, makes you want to keep building out that world, making it denser and richer.
Mitchell: Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have talked about NPC background conversations in BioShock Infinite that inspired elements of Westworld. What other influences are there in the series; what films, shows, video games and novels shaped the creation of the show?
Mitchell: I see a lot of elements of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe in Westworld, which is kind of a “minor universe” of its own. Many of the characters are trying to escape daily life by reliving a fictional past. How much do you think our fantasies shape our self-identity?
Yu: A lot. It’s everywhere. We construct our identities more now than ever. It can be terrifying, confusing, liberating, empowering, or maybe all of the above.
Mitchell: What can you tell me about your new project with (screenwriter) Alan Ball?
Yu: It’s a family drama for HBO, and Holly Hunter has signed on! It’s quite a different kind of story and storytelling from Westworld, as you’d probably guess, but every bit as challenging and rewarding. I’ve learned a great deal from Alan and the rest of the [writers] room in just a few weeks, and I’m really excited about the story that’s developing.
Mitchell: Everyone has a fandom or two. What are the fandoms that shaped your interests as a kid? Has your love for any of them carried on to this day?
Yu: Oh boy. I could go on, but I’ll just name two: Street Fighter II, and Robotech. They have both carried on to this day. In fact, now I have both my fandom, plus nostalgia, all mixing together. It’s a potent combination.
Yu: I’ve used Memory Alpha, just for fun, and for learning about world building. Some research for a story I wrote about redshirts, called “Yeoman.” I’ve been on Wookieepedia as well, in order to answer some questions for my kids.
Mitchell: Thank you again for making yourself available for an interview.
Yu: Thank you Robert! It was a pleasure.
Reveries and Violent Ends
Our first trip to the park is swiftly drawing to a close. It will be exciting to see how (or if) everything comes together in next week’s finale. If you’ve been sucked into the fantasy as thoroughly as we have, here are some other articles to hold you over until the season finale this week.