Who: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Claim to fame: His novel The Sympathizer was a NYT bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, and the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. On the day of this interview, he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.
Why’d we pick him, in ten words: Viet’s wide-ranging work is widely read, recognized, and praised.
When I was writing The Sympathizer I didn’t have a kid yet so my day would start around 9:00 or 9:30, and I’d write until around lunch time. I had two years off to write The Sympathizer so I had time in the afternoon to go running on a treadmill at the gym. That was also part of the writing process as well because I really had a lot of ideas while I was running.
My life has changed (fortunately) post-Pulitzer and post-child. Now I’m lucky if I get two or three hours in the morning, but I typically want to write in the morning. Then I still try to make it to the gym in the afternoon. I believe that having a healthy body helps me to write.
Ideally, if I could go to bed at the same time as my son around 9 PM and then get up at 4 in the morning to write, I’d do that. But it hasn’t worked out that way because I’m a night owl, so it’s been a huge struggle to try to go to sleep earlier. So typically, no. I have to take care of him and take him to school, and I’m not back until 9:30 or 10:00. That’s really my time to write.
Before I had my son, I could have tea or even just spend 30 minutes on Facebook so my mind would be clear in the morning. Now, of course, it all depends on him—if he had a screaming fit or anything different, then I have to adjust. Last night, I slept with him and he kept me awake through a good portion of the night. It’s part of life. I know other writers have had to deal with that before, and it will be part of the challenge of writing in the future.
Almost exclusively Microsoft Word to write in. I really don’t like my handwriting. I will take notes by hand if I find myself stranded without recourse to Microsoft Word. My other tools which are usually email and Evernote, which I take notes in. If I’m running on the treadmill in the gym and an idea comes to me I’ll email myself while I’m running and grab all those notes later. I also use this program called Freedom to try to turn off my internet when I’m writing as well.
The internet is really addictive. It’s even worse than the temptation to clean your house before you write. Or to read the newspaper. I tell myself, “Don’t. Go. On. Facebook.” I tell myself that first thing in the morning because it’s not like I’m not going to spend five minutes on it. I’ll end up spending an hour on it! So the incentive to use Freedom was to force myself to turn off all those connections for an hour or two hours or whatever I set the time for.
I first started using it when I was writing The Sympathizer. I knew I really needed to concentrate and to focus. The problem with Freedom is you still have to have the discipline and focus to turn that thing on and not to start surfing the internet first.
I don’t know that there is any writer out there who has somehow achieved some kind of plane where he or she is not tempted by all the other mundane temptations in existence and is not dealing with the same kinds of challenges. I have more opportunities now and maybe I have achieved a different level of technical accomplishment than I had twenty years ago, but the challenges go up at the same time. I don’t think a writer’s life ever gets easy when it comes to the actual act of writing.
I’m very careful about what I listen to. I preferred silence before I wrote The Sympathizer, but while writing The Sympathizer I thought: Okay, let’s try this with some music, but not anything too distracting. I’m usually not listening to anything with lyrics for the most part. I actually listen repetitively to Philip Glass. With The Sympathizer, especially The Hours. I wanted to have some of the feel of his music in the rhythm of the prose.
One exception I made to that, for whatever reason I started listening to an album called Lady’s Bridge by a guy named Richard Hawley who is a British rock musician. That album sort of obsessed me and I listened to a lot of that as I was writing The Sympathizer. Many of those songs felt like they were contributing to the mood of the novel.
So now I try to curate a playing list that might affect the mood of the novel or somehow become part of the scenery.
I just needed my caffeine. By the time I got to The Sympathizer I had cut out coffee. I was down to tea, but I still needed tea. There was also (admittedly) some ritual time-wasting. Back in the day, it would be reading a newspaper, and today, I would read Facebook for a while until I’d tear myself away. All that was procrastination. And then finally that very special kind of writing in The Sympathizer…I was reading a novel called The Land at the End of the World by the Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes. It came to me at a very fortuitous time because it had been reissued in a new translation right when I was starting The Sympathizer and struggling to find a beginning. When I read that book it really blew the doors open for me. I fell in love with the rhythm and the voice and I wanted some of that for my own book. So I would read two or three pages of that novel every morning until I was so affected, so seized by Lobo Antunes’s prose, that I just had to write myself.
I’m trying to do that again with the novel I’m currently writing. It’s not working quite as well. I’ve changed as a person and a writer and the novel is different so I might have to find another totem to use.
I got addicted to coffee in college, and I can’t remember exactly when I quit, but it was in my 30s or early 40s. By that point, I had been drinking it for 15 to 20 years. I quit because I had been doing a lot of international travel, and it was such a hassle sometimes because you can’t start your day until you’ve had a good cup of coffee. In a lot of places, it can be hard to find that good cup of coffee, and if I didn’t get that coffee, I felt terrible. If I don’t get my tea in the morning, for whatever reason, I don’t feel terrible. I can still write. And tea is a lot easier to be portable with.
I had this incredible fellowship called The Fine Arts Work Center Fiction Fellowship in Provincetown, Massachusetts. That was really my first sustained opportunity to devote myself purely to writing. I thought: I’m going to write eight hours a day. And it was a disaster because I would exhaust myself. One of the best writing tips I ever heard—and multiple writers have said this so I can’t remember who I heard it from—is to stop at a high point in your writing. Stop when you’re still feeling energetic, when you’re still feeling good. Even stop in the middle of a paragraph or sentence so that you can pick up where you left off the next day.
I learned that through the bitter experience at the Fine Arts Work Center, so when it came time to write The Sympathizer I knew I couldn’t do eight hours a day, even though I had that amount of time available to me. So I aimed for four hours a day and that was the right time limit. If I were writing original words, I would aim for 1,000-2,000 words within that time period. That would change if I were revising—in that case I wouldn’t set a word limit, but I’d still abide by the time limit.
What I like to do is edit a chapter before I move onto the next one. So for The Sympathizer I would write 20-25 pages of a chapter in draft form, and the goal would just be to write the pages knowing that they were terrible. Some writers just keep on going, and they write the whole novel that way. But I stopped because I wanted to pay a lot of attention to the prose so I needed to make the prose as perfect as I could before I moved forward. I would just write the chapter to get the plot down and go back and revise a couple of times before I moved onto the next chapter. By the time I finished The Sympathizer, even though it was technically the first draft, it had already been revised along the way, so I only needed to revise that draft one more time before I turned it over to my agent. Then when my editor got his hands on it we revised it one more time after that.
Thankfully I’ve never had writer’s block. I think one reason why is that I’ve always had multiple projects on hand. Whether it was two books or a book and articles or a book and stories, whenever some project was done I could just immediately turn to something else. I was always working on something. When I was writing something I was, in the back of my mind, always thinking up another project—taking down notes and ideas and all that. Once a writing assignment was done I could just immediately jump into something else.
I think that’s really important because, until winning the Pulitzer Prize, there was no down time for me. If I got an award or a prize or something, I would celebrate and enjoy it that night, but the next day I’d be back writing. The Pulitzer was a special thing, though, and it derailed me for a whole year, but the principle remains the same: never celebrate too much and get immediately back to the writing.
I like books that are not manuals or handbooks. The idea of teaching writing as a craft always made me feel kind of weird because it always seemed to reduce writing from something that was sort of intuitive in some ways into something that could literally be taught as a mechanical process as the term craft implies. I don’t read craft books. I like to read books that are more about the notion of writing as art.
It’s surprising which writers are interesting in that regard. I actually thought Stephen King’s book On Writing was really good. I learned a lot from that book. And also the writing books-slash-memoirs of other writers such as Amy Tan or Walter Mosley—I like their books as well.
It’s Black-Eyed Women, which is the opening story of The Refugees. You know, you read something like Best American Short Stories, and you read the author’s notes on the back and you realize that it’s not that unusual of an experience sometimes for writers to have to spend decades and dozens of drafts on a story. Of course, when you read an account like that, you’re horrified. It’s very hard to wrap your mind around that, but it happened to me. And 50 drafts is an approximation—the truth is, I really have no idea. It was a lot. That was a story that took me 14 years to write—from the first word to the last—before it got published.
I learned how to write fiction through writing short stories, and in particular, I think I learned how to write fiction from writing that story. I learned to ask important questions about what to include and what not to include, how to balance history and politics with the demand of literature, and very particularly just how to write a short story which is very different from writing a novel.
I never did an MFA although I did a few writing workshops—but on the whole, I was essentially self-taught. I taught myself through trial and error and that story was the most trial and error prone of all of them. It was enormously frustrating. There was never really a moment of inspiration until I got to the 50th draft, and I finished it. Mostly it was just a feeling of relief.
All writers, I think, go through something like that. It’s how we test our character as writers. It’s how we test that we won’t give up either because the art is too daunting or the market is too daunting. I would imagine most writers have to confront these kinds of obstacles, unfortunately.
It has changed over time. When I started off writing academic criticism, I would use note cards, and I would be very methodical about it. When I wrote my short stories, I would just jump into each story without a plan—just a line or a character or something and proceed completely intuitively. With the exception that I did use Microsoft Excel to map my stories. I wanted to make sure because I was writing many different stories about refugees and that the stories themselves would be diverse—a story about a man and then a women, or about somebody who is straight and then somebody who is gay. I wouldn’t plot the stories in Excel, but the stories would be demographically broken down in Excel so that I knew I would have coverage. I couldn’t just trust my intuition to guarantee that if I wrote stories based on whatever I felt like, I would do a good job covering the diversity of refugee experiences.
For The Sympathizer, I had a two-page outline for the novel. I just trusted that, chapter to chapter, I would figure out what I was doing. Whereas with the novel that I’m writing now I had so much time to think about it. I didn’t have a chance to write fiction for two or three years after The Sympathizer, so I took down all these notes. I ended up with like 60 pages of notes on this novel, so it’s a very different place to be starting from.
The writing just changes and evolves over time based on what I’ve learned and my different circumstances in life.
At one point in my past, I’d written a screenplay. It was a very bad screenplay. But I live in LA, so everybody does this, right? I’d read a screenplay writing manual, and it was very helpful because it talked about plot. Plot is not something that people talk a lot about in MFA programs. Plot is something that Hollywood obsesses over maybe too much, but what proved important to me was writing two-page treatments of screenplays to get the plot down.
That outline for the novel was like a two-page treatment of a screenplay. That’s why the plot that it outlined was very cinematic, including very methodical attention to what screenwriters call “beats”—where the story was supposed to turn at certain points. Even as I wrote it, I knew that this was more like a pitch: Something to give to my agent, to the editor, although maybe the story itself wouldn’t turn out exactly like that. It was more like a map. Depending on what I found along the way, my road would take a different direction.
For example, I knew that the last quarter of the novel as outlined by the two page treatment was not what was going to happen. In the synopsis, my heroes or antiheroes were captured, sent to re-education camp, and then there was to be a big shootout. But I knew that was a Hollywood ending and not what the real ending was going to be like. I had to just trust that I would figure it out.
For me, there’s always been a balance between structure and intuition. Writing has always involved a gamble and a risk. There’s so much that you don’t know about what you’re doing when you set off to do it.
That’s a hard one actually because when you’re thinking about what to teach in the classroom, you’re also confronted with the limitations of people’s time and interests. For me, whenever I have a chance to teach Contemporary American Literature, I’ve always taught Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I wish I had more opportunities to teach Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I’ve never had the chance to teach Junot Diaz, but I would love to do that with any of his books. There is no shortage of writers who offer powerful inspiration and templates for young writers.
If I could go back to my younger writer self, I don’t know that I would say, “Hey, buckle up because it’s going to be 20 years of work before you get much recognition.” Is that encouragement or discouragement? I’m not sure. I think what I would say is what my partner, my wife, tells me: trust the process. It’s about the process, not the outcome. I would always reply to her, “Yes, of course, I understand that but nobody is publishing me!”
There is a huge struggle between what makes writing idealistic and artistic—which is about the process, something very intuitive and spiritual in some ways—versus the outcome, things like getting a story published, getting a book published, getting the recognition that our very human egos crave and so on.
There’s no good way to advise anybody how to deal with these things because they are very basic human conundrums between doing what we believe in and desiring the material things that the world offers us—and feeling frustrated when we don’t get them. So I would tell my younger self: Be patient. Get ready to suffer, and if you get lucky, maybe something will work out. But there’s no guarantee. You have to love what you do because if the material things don’t work out in the world of writing, you still have to love the writing process itself, no matter how challenging and even miserable it might be.