Q: How did you go from working as a lawyer in Australia to attending the Iowa Writers Workshop? Did you always know you wanted to write?
A: Most of my life I’ve wanted to write poetry. I guess that goes for a lot of fiction writers. Through high school and university that’s basically all I concentrated on — I even persuaded my honours advisor to accept my (non-creative) thesis in verse — in rhyming couplets. We figured out a formula where a line of iambic tetrameter equalled something like 20 prose words; the poem ended up a thousand-line long critical treatise on W.H. Auden. After university I joined a law firm, then took a year off to go travelling, living off a bank loan facilitated by the firm’s letter of guarantee — which seemed, at the time, simultaneously carte blanche and soul-sucking contract. I had a year before having to return and pay off my debt. Of course, as soon as I set aside my suit and tie, I realised I never wanted to put such things on again. The solution was to write a novel. I sat down one afternoon in a café in Quito and planned out a novel. Then, over the next couple of years, I wrote it. It was 700 pages and a spectacular, multi-dimensional failure. By then I’d started at the Iowa program and, in between trying to salvage the novel, I wrote the first versions of most of the stories in The Boat.
Q: The settings of the seven stories in this collection are incredibly varied, from Iowa City to Colombia; New York City to Hiroshima; Tehran to Australia. Did you intentionally set out to write a collection in which each story was set in a different part of the world? If so why?
A: At first, I didn’t set out to write a collection at all. And when I had enough stories to entertain the idea, it seemed to me what publishers wanted — when they published stories at all — were linked stories, or thematically congruous stories, or novels-in-stories — not this sort of hodge podge. My approach was always to conceive each of these stories as completely self-contained entities. I wanted each story to contain all of the aesthetic and rhetorical evidence for its own acquittal. And because I felt — and continue to feel — that there was so much I had to learn about writing short stories — I wanted to build each story from a different blueprint, and from the ground up. So the setting might change from story to story, but so too — maybe less conspicuously — does the approach to storytelling, the deployment of structure, voice, character, plot, style, and theme.
In the end, of course, the geographical scope of these stories probably does speak to some innate wanderlust in my nature. I’ve done a fair bit of travelling myself. I was born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, currently live in the US, and have mucked around through chunks of Europe, South America and Asia. It’s not a stretch to say that the reasons why I travel and why I write/read are similar: to see other things, other places, situations and people, through other eyes. If the ultimate good in fiction lies, as I believe, in its ability to transport readers, I hope the hopscotch itinerary of these stories constitutes only part (though a not unimportant part) of the journey.
Q: How did you choose the locations that you did? Does the story usually dictate the setting or did you have certain places you knew you wanted to explore as the settings?
A: The story behind each story was different. A lot of it was accident, happenstance, what I was reading, thinking about, talking about, movies I was watching, memories I was dredging up. Generally speaking, it’s hard to say at what point the setting or ‘place’ of a story is thrown up on the drawing board, because part of the game is to try to orchestrate every element (setting, plot, character, style) so that they all seem intrinsic and inevitable to the story, organic to its aspirations.
Looking back now, I will say that by switching from place to place (as well as time to time) I was in some way formalising the idea that there’s no place that’s not strange to us. Fiction makes strange even the places we think we know. Subjectively, no two neighbours live on the same street, let alone in the same city. However, fiction can also evoke our familiarity with strange things. It’s this tension I’m interested in — the artifice and agenda behind making familiar things strange, strange things familiar — and starting in a completely new place with each story allows me to play with that.
Q: Could you give some specific examples of how these stories — and their settings — came about?
A: The first story takes place in Iowa City as was required by its metafictional conceit (a main character with my name and circumstances). ‘Meeting Elise’ began as an image and an abstract idea, whereas ‘Cartagena’ began as a situation seeking a voice. Both were pretty wedded to their settings. As, obviously, was ‘Hiroshima,’ which developed almost entirely in negative relief; that is, I wanted to capture something real, relatable, human, behind a historic tragedy that’s absolutely saturated in previous expression and assumption. ‘The Boat’ took the opposite tack, seeking to flesh out an experience that’s been lacking on the historical literary record. ‘Tehran Calling’ felt, at first, like a fact-finding mission — into character as much as culture and geography — so it was natural that this heuristic sense worked itself into the bones of the story. ‘Halflead Bay’ started out as almost an ethical exercise — to explore adolescent energy and urgency without condescension, to give adolescent consciousness the same breadth and complexity as that of an adult – then evolved into a portrait of a family and town that was broader than I’d originally envisaged. Writing that story made me homesick. One thing’s for sure: all of these stories ended up some distance from their original conceptions.
Q: In each of these locations, you so capture the essence of the place — from the landscapes to the language. What was most challenging about that? Do you do any research on your settings? Have you been to most of these places?
A: I wanted to capture not the essence but an essence of these places that felt authentic. Part of this, of course, was just trying to get the details right. I think Marilynne Robinson once said that plausibility was purely a matter of aesthetics; in a much narrower sense, authenticity can be seen as just a matter of accumulating the right details. So yes, I did a fair bit of research to find the right details (and to try to weed out the wrong ones). That said, no, I haven’t been to most of the places in the stories, and even if I had, they wouldn’t have been the same places (or same historical moments) into which I inserted my characters.
In stories, of course, human environment is almost entirely linguistic. When you parse it, so-called ‘identity’ often comes down to how we articulate to each other what we think of ourselves. It’s a method both of inclusion and exclusion. And it’s incredibly sophisticated — just look at the significances encoded in slight variations in accent. To a writer, nothing taps into that vein of identity — be it corporate, cultural or individual — as deeply as language — its vocabulary, rhythms, inflections, tempo, grammar. If you can break this code, you’re in. And in fiction, the fix you get from code-breaking — the high of unstepped on access — is so much stronger, because you get to exploit the language of thought as well as speech.
Q: You were born in Vietnam but raised in Australia, and now you live in the U.S. and Australia — where do you consider home to be? Does the question of what is home feature in THE BOAT, and if so, how?
A: That’s a good question and I don’t really have a consistent answer for it. For now, at least, I’d like to subscribe to the view that home doesn’t have to be a singular place. Part of me would like to say it’s the people — but of course it’s more than that. Here’s a case where cliché hasn’t yet snuffed out the truth for me — home is where the heart is. But the heart’s a wild, capricious, fickle organ!
As for whether the idea of ‘home’ features in the book – yes, insofar as each of the characters feels themselves displaced, some of them physically, all of them emotionally, existentially. Any character (or person in real life?) who believes they completely belong where they are is of little interest to me. Fortunately, those characters (and people) are pretty rare.
Q: Your range of central characters is as ambitious as the book's geography. From a teenage hit man in Columbia, to an aging artist in Manhattan about to meet his estranged daughter, to mothers facing harrowing decisions, where do you find these voices?
A: As usual, I find myself subscribing to two opposing, maybe contradictory ideas: first, that we can never truly know ourselves, let alone the person next to us, let alone the person halfway across the world; and second, that only fiction enables — or fiction best enables — true empathy, that deep, clear, close inhabitation by the reader of another consciousness in another context.
It’s this idea of empathy that draws these stories to fix on different places, and situations, as well as characters — as sites of exploration for the question of what it means to be human. Also, I’m intrigued by the idea of complete immersion. In acting, in art — I’m intrigued by the paradox that inward immersion is a state configured entirely outward — that is, it’s rigged toward conveying itself to an external audience. Where do I find the voices in these stories? Somewhere in the friction zone between the two ideas delineated above. Voice, diction, idiom — all are functions of authenticity. You audition one after another and then when something sounds right — when a voice is properly absorptive, is symbiotic with the story being told — you try to hold onto it as hard as you can.
Q: So we have to ask about the first story in this collection which has as its protagonist a young writer named Nam Le who is struggling with writer’s block while attending the Iowa Writers Workshop. What's going on here?
A: A bunch of things, hopefully! I guess at rock bottom I was exploring this idea of ‘authenticity’ in fiction. What is it? Who determines it? How can you know it when you see it? I guess part of the provocation of this story is to ask whether — and how — we read a story differently if we think it’s based in autobiography. And whether it makes a difference if this knowledge is explicit or tacit.
All of us, I think, even writers, who are hyper-aware of the imperatives of narrative when trying to mould autobiography into fiction — the complex argy-bargy, the push and pull, the cut and paste, the bias and craft and contingency — will so easily attribute autobiographical aspects to fiction on the scantest evidence. And will then often correlate autobiography with authenticity. It’s as though we’re programmed to connect ‘text’ and ‘life’. By naming the lead character ‘Nam,’ by putting him in the Iowa program, I wanted to haul these assumptions into the open, to invite the reader to question them. What if the story were entirely fabricated? Or if parts of it were exaggerated, or untrue (i.e. inconsistent with the author’s autobiography)? Would that make any difference to a reader? Would it make any difference to how they read it, or responded to it? If so, why? By making some nods toward autobiography in something clearly marked as fiction (both inside and outside the story), I wanted to show up the inherent impurity of story, to disassociate authority from presumed authenticity.
Q: You seem to be turning the idea of "ethnic literature" (i.e. that because you are Vietnamese you are somehow obligated to write about the Vietnamese experience) on its head while also playing with the idea of fiction vs. autobiography. Can you talk a little about that?
A: What is ethnic literature? Is it determined by the author or the text? Does autobiography matter? If so, why? How much? Does the intended audience matter? Is it at all defined by marketing, or positioning? How does it exist in relation to commercial fiction? To literary fiction? Does it exist as a subset or superset of these categories? Or as something entirely separate?
These are questions many writers and readers — of all ethnicities — are asking. Of course it’s tough to draw lines. It’s barely clear what the lines would be separating, especially when you consider how fiction necessarily invokes contradictory impulses: what’s most ‘authentic’ is rooted in the most contrived artifice, truth and verisimilitude are often poles apart, biography is essential yet irrelevant, sometimes you can tell a story only by not telling it (as is the case with stories like this one — that deal with atrocities, and our ideas of how to write about them).
I’m not exactly sure how to go at these questions — I struggle with them on both sides of the sharpened stick — but I do know that there’s a reticence in general discourse about ‘ethnic literature’ and I wanted in this story to go some way towards starting a conversation.
Q: And along those lines, the first story of THE BOAT opens the collection with a young man being visited by his Vietnamese father; the final, title story takes place on a fishing boat adrift in the South China Sea, full of refugees escaping from Vietnam. What is your
relationship to Vietnam as a writer? How and when did your family come to emigrate from Vietnam to Australia, and why?
A: My relationship with Vietnam is complex. For a long time I vowed I wouldn’t fall into writing ethnic stories, immigrant stories, etc. Then I realised that not only was I working against these expectations (market, self, literary, cultural), I was working against my kneejerk resistance to such expectations. I’m a boatperson. I escaped from Vietnam with my family in 1979, when I was only three months old. In our first years in Australia, I remember my dad warning us kids that we’d be teased for being boatpeople, that we should try our best not to feel ashamed. Little did he know how enraptured I was with what I’d heard of our past: war, adventure on the high seas, pirates and tropical islands … how could you possibly be ashamed of a family story so cool?
Today, no matter what or where I write about, I feel a responsibility to the subject matter. Not so much to get it right as to do it justice. Having personal history with a subject only complicates this — but not always, nor necessarily, in bad ways. I don’t yet understand my relationship to Vietnam as a writer. This collection is a testament to the fact that I’m becoming more and more okay with that.
Q: Were any of the stories more difficult to write — and to get right — than others? Easier? Did you find yourself struggling more with the familiar — or the unfamiliar — places and people? Do you have a particular story in the collection or any single character that you feel especially close to?
A: These stories took shape over numerous drafts, over the last four years. This will sound cheesy, but every single one of these stories, as I was writing it, was the hardest story I’d ever written. Every single one felt like a failure, felt lifeless, felt fraudulent at advanced stages. And in typically perverse fashion, every single one also felt the truest. Was my favourite. I like to believe that each story yielded a breakthrough — but who knows whether those were self-manufactured!
I will say, however, that in one of the drafts of the first story, I explicitly killed off the father, which was bloody hard. I know it’s voodoo — I know about meta-fictional conceit, the presumption of fiction, the separation of author from character, etc — but try giving a character your name, many of your attributes and experiences, then killing off his dad!
Q: What is your writing process like? When do you write, where etc…
A: I can only work on one thing at a time. I’m terrible with routines. I work in spurts. I write with a combination of longhand and laptop, skewing toward the latter. Sometimes there’s a bathrobe involved. And sometimes not.
Q: Who do you read that inspires you?
A: My tastes in reading are pretty catholic and promiscuous; I’ll dally with one thing and think guiltily of another. I keep coming across those lists of books to read before I die and by now I’m too scared to do the maths.
Q: So what's next for you?
A: A novel with Thai pirates in it.