This interview originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.
Persistence. It’s the theme that runs throughout Viet Thanh Nguyen’s writing career, and it has paid off. Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, an Edgar Award, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, among many others. Although it was his debut, it wasn’t the first book he wrote. Nguyen worked on a short story collection, The Refugees, for 20 years before it found a home. “Twenty years of rejection and misery and isolation was a terrible experience,” he said. “But on the positive side of that, I came out focused on the writing, thinking that the writing was what mattered.”
With that focus in mind, Nguyen writes books that he would like to read, without worrying what others will think of them, saying, “Write this book for yourself, not for anybody else …” Because of that approach, these novels from a literature professor and avid reader are multi-layered, genre-breaking works of art that do as much to critique culture as they do to entertain readers.
The Sympathizer follows an unnamed narrator on his escape to the U.S. during the Fall of Saigon, to a movie set, and ultimately to a Vietnamese reeducation camp where he writes his confession—the very book we’re reading. In the 2021 sequel, The Committed (set to be released in early March), the narrator finds himself in Paris, still reeling from his experiences at the camp and the fallout from his time as a double-agent. Just as absurd and comical and sharp as The Sympathizer, The Committed is a modernist experiment disguised as a thriller.
Between writing the novels, the publication of the first delayed to better time with the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the second delayed due to COVID-19, Nguyen found a home for the short stories he’d worked on, edited a collection of essays by refugee writers called The Displaced, and co-wrote a picture book, Chicken of the Sea, with his son, Ellison. He also wrote the nonfiction book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which considers the many ways history is remembered, misremembered, and erased. We began our conversation by considering how the idea of memories influenced the form of his novels.
Both of the novels are written as confessions or memoirs of the narrator repressing troubling or disturbing memories and then coming to remember that event by way of the writing. Were the books always written that way, or did it take you a draft or two to figure out that was the right mechanism for telling his story?
The Sympathizer I knew was going to be a narrative in which the Sympathizer was speaking to someone else. That made it a kind of confession already, but I didn’t know that it would be a formal kind of confession someone writes down until much later in the book. I had an outline for the book. I knew the narrative would end up in a reeducation camp, but actually I didn’t make the connection that he would be writing his confession in the reeducation camp until about two-thirds of the way into the book. As I was approaching the reeducation camp, I understood exactly what the ending of the novel was going to be.
I wanted to set up within The Sympathizer a structure whereby it would be a Vietnamese person speaking to a Vietnamese person because if I did that, then what that would be is that the narrator, the Sympathizer, would not have to explain a lot of things. If you’re speaking to someone of the same background, you don’t have to explain the things you share in common. This was important for me because very typically the way that so-called “ethnic” or “minority” literature operates in the United States is that the so-called “ethnic” or “minority” writer is expected to speak, to write, as if they were addressing someone who needs things explained to them. That is, the reader, who is assumed to be of a different background, but it’s a majority background.
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And that is wrong. Because if you’re a writer of the majority background, you don’t have to translate. You just assume that your readers have the same background, and you’re probably right. But myself being this so-called “minority,” I’m not of the majority background but I always approach the literature of someone like Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen, whoever, as someone who’s both an insider and outsider.
I didn’t plan to write a sequel to The Sympathizer, but at the end of the novel, I thought, Oh, I’m not finished with this character yet. I’m not finished with these issues the novel raises. Since The Sympathizer is a spy novel and a thriller novel and those genres are perfectly fine with sequels and series, I thought it was perfectly legitimate to continue in this vein and write another book about the Sympathizer. In the second book, the challenge was, how do I write this in a way that both continues the action narrative of the spy-thriller story, but also continues the formal aspect of the book and the confession? I thought in the very beginning, Well, he’ll be writing again to himself probably. But where will he be writing this? I thought, Well, the first book he was in a reeducation camp, and then in the second book, it’ll probably be a task given to him in an asylum. Because he’s not going to be quite right in his mind. I’ve got to figure out how to get to the asylum.
In the case of The Committed, the process was different than The Sympathizer. In The Sympathizer, I had a two-page outline. In The Committed, I had something like 50 single-spaced pages of notes and outline. So that’s much more detailed.
So it’s a sequel; it has to function as its own novel and this is a kind of a tricky thing to do. The Committed is written so that you can read it without having read The Sympathizer, which means certain explanatory things that have happened to explain the background and the plot and all of that. The justification for that is that there are these readers who need things explained to them.
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This is also very important to me because as a writer, I just felt like I had to have a justification for why things appear in the book. You know, when you read a series and you read the second, or the third book in the series or trilogy, you can see exactly when the writer is explaining things to the reader, like what happened in volume one and there’s no justification for it. It’s simply that a reader has to be brought up to speed in the book. But as a writer, it always bothers me to see that because I know it’s necessary, but at the same time, it doesn’t work in the function of the narrative. So in The Committed, there’s a justification for the explanation of the plot that happens because of who he’s writing to.
I really like that explanation of how the format of it helps get some of that backstory into the second book. How else was writing the sequel different from the first?
Well, one main difference is I had much more material in advance prepared for the book. The process of writing the book was initially very easy. What had happened was that I finished all the edits for The Sympathizer in early 2014, we decided—the publisher and I—not to publish the book until April 2015, which was well more than a year off. The reason why we did that was my suggestion, that April 2015 was the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and therefore there would be a lot more attention paid to the book. But that meant that I had a lot of time before The Sympathizer came out. In that interim, I wrote Nothing Ever Dies. I had spent over a decade working on [The Sympathizer] and writing articles. So what I did there was I wrote the book from scratch based on the ideas in the articles, but the narrative of the book was something new.
I finished that in about a year and then I had a few more months. I wrote 50 pages of The Committed before I had to go on book tour for The Sympathizer and writing those first 50 pages was pretty easy. I wrote them fairly quickly, I had the outline, things were going great. Then I went on the book tour and that was something that was disruptive. Then the novel won the Pulitzer Prize and everything just basically went to hell, in a good way! But for like a year, I wrote nothing because I was so overwhelmed by all of the publicity.
It was also more challenging because my thought process kept continually getting interrupted. That’s dangerous for a writer. The Sympathizer felt like one smooth flow and hopefully felt that way for the reader. For The Committed, I thought I might lose that flow. I had to spend a lot of time just going back over the narrative over and over again, which I didn’t have to do with The Sympathizer, to try to make sure I had this continuity of plot and voice and emotion.
When you talk about being interrupted and not having enough continuous time to stay in the frame of mind to write, was any of that piled on by trying to stay out of your own mind? The Sympathizer won so many awards and got so much critical acclaim. How did you not put irrational pressure on yourself to compete with yourself?
I think that’s always there and it’s something I am thinking every now and again: Will the book be as good as the first book? Will it get as much attention? You just have to stop thinking about that and the way that I stopped thinking about that was to write. Not to get into my own mind, but to get into the mind of the Sympathizer because he and I are sort of alter egos. We share some similar ideas and issues and personalities, but beyond that, he’s obviously a very different person. I had to get into his mind. That was the only way to solve a problem and inhabit it. So it was not actually hard for me not to think about all the other worldly things that might concern a writer.
I think this is a situation and maybe it wasn’t as much of a big deal for me because I—basically in order to write The Sympathizer, what happened to me is that it was like 20 years of struggling with my writing. Most of it devoted to my short story collection. When I set off writing The Refugees, I was in my 20s and a very different person than I am now, in a sense that back then, I cared about my writing, but I also cared about all the things you were talking about. Will it be successful? Will I be famous? Will I get awards? I mean, these are things that preoccupy a lot of writers, but they’re utterly unimportant. They have nothing to do with the writing. Unfortunately, if I’d been successful at 25 or 30 with that book, I probably would be exactly in the position you described—worried about whether I could succeed again.
In writing The Committed, I wouldn’t say it’s been like, Well, I got all these things. They’re great, I don’t need any more of that. How many prizes do you want as a writer? How much is going to be enough? To me, I felt like I’d gotten enough with The Sympathizer. I got enough awards to last anybody for a lifetime. So with The Committed, I was free from having to worry about that. I mean, it’d be nice to get more, obviously [laughs], but what was crucial for me was to think, I don’t need any more of these things. I can still write this novel for myself.
In reading the two novels, it occurred to me that you are a fantastic example of a writer who knows the “rules” and knows how to break them well. There was one choice in particular that I wanted to ask you about—it was to do with pacing and dialogue. Your books don’t use quotation marks for dialogue or italics for internal thoughts, which forced me to slow down and read carefully. But at the same time, the books are incredibly fast paced in plotting. It was a constant feeling of wanting to read fast because I couldn’t wait to see what happened, but then needing to read slow to really see what happens.
My other life is that I’m a professor of literature. I have a PhD in English and I read a lot and I’m very broadminded in my reading. So I’ll read very serious modernist literature. I’ll read sort of lower brow literary fiction and I’ll read so-called low brow genre fiction.
From all of that, what I can tell is that what’s considered contemporary, legitimate literary fiction in this country tends to lean toward the middle brow. By that I mean, it’s dominated by realism. It’s dominated by not being very intellectually challenging and not very formally challenging either as if modernism never happened. In modernism people were doing very serious, complicated stuff in the 1920s and 1930s and it’s as if for most American fiction writers of the contemporary period, it never happened. It’s weird.
And to me, anything that happens in all of these genres—and I consider contemporary literary fiction a genre, too—it’s important. They’re all interesting in their own ways. My desire in writing these novels was to write novels that were very serious, that would be very challenging formally, and could be very entertaining at the same time. I have trust in readers, not all readers, but I have trust that there’s a large number of readers out there that can handle this kind of combination. That want to be entertained and that want to be challenged and elevated at the same time. So what that means is that writing a novel with a plot was very important to me and if you read a lot of contemporary American literary fiction, especially what’s produced out of MFA programs, they’re terrible at plotting. Yes, there’s a plot loosely speaking in there, but it’s people dwelling on their alienation of one kind or another.
But I read a manual on how to write movies, screenplays, and all they care about is plot. That’s bad too, but I just distilled that. If you go underneath the hood of these two novels, you’ll discover it’s a very conventional plot structure—three act structure—all the expected turns are happening, all the expected beats. That was what the outlines for the novels were designed to do, was to make sure that I knew where to put plot events to keep the reader reading.
Now, given that, I read a lot of genre fiction. I love to read detective novels. The problem is, I cannot remember which ones I’ve read. I will be behind a year or two and I’ll want to go back and I’ll start thinking, What was the last book that I read? I cannot remember! Because they’re very entertaining and they’re instantly, for me, forgettable. That’s a serious problem. One of the reasons why those genre novels are forgettable is because they’re all about the plot. Some of the time the character’s important too. But the characters sort of remain the same over the trilogies and tens and tens of novels.
I needed to break down that element as well. The question of being deeply immersed in this narrator’s point of view and being subjected to his character and everything that he undergoes is really crucial because he is designed to be unforgettable. Whether you like or don’t like the books, I don’t think you can forget who this person is. That’s why the book draws heavily from modernism, immersing the reader deeply into one character’s very seriously warped perspective out of the belief that all of us are deeply warped people. Whatever we present to other people within our own psyche, we’re deeply warped people most of us, not all of us. [Laughs]
The other issue was that when you read a lot of contemporary literary fiction, I can see the rules, as you said, that are in operation. The rules include things like quotation marks, explaining things to the reader, and lots of description. I know that none of these things actually have to happen. They’re just conventions. I learned those conventions for The Refugees, and I’ve learned them by reading a lot. In The Sympathizer and The Committed though, the challenge was in contemporary literary fiction, when you deploy these rules, it’s not that you can’t get into the personalities of your characters. Obviously, these contemporary literary novels can be very immersive. I feel like they serve in a certain way to separate the reader from the character and experience that’s unfolding. If I strip the novel of these elements, number one, would it be possible to get the reader closer to the Sympathizer? And number two, simply by stripping away these features, which readers of contemporary literature have been trained to expect, what will that do to the reader? Will it awaken the reader?
Do you have any final advice for the readers of Writer’s Digest?
Persist. I think that’s all it takes to be a writer. It’s not about how-to books or writing seminars or degrees. All those things can help obviously, but no one can substitute, for you, the will to persist because for almost all writers, except the very few whom we all love to hate, writing will be a difficult experience. The only thing that will see you through is the conviction that you have something worthwhile to say and an interesting way of saying it. That’s the only way for you to realize that goal is to persist.
That persistence doesn’t mean you have to sit there and write every day. I don’t write every day. I can’t write every day because I have so many other obligations, but I write a lot over a certain amount of time. So the Malcolm Gladwell idea, that you have to do something for 10,000 hours to get really good at it, I think it’s, for me at least, true. But I didn’t write 10,000 hours by writing every day. I wrote 10,000 hours over 20 years. And I did it simply through sheer persistence. And that is what turns people into writers. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be a great writer at the end. You should at least be a competent writer at the end. It doesn’t mean you’ll be a published writer at the end of that, but you can write something that you yourself will respect. And in the end, that’s what it boils down to. I mean, it’s important obviously for a lot of people, and for me too, to be published and have our works read. But it’s also important to me to respect myself as a writer and what I’ve written and to know that I’ve written something that I want to read. And that is what made those 10,000 hours of persistence through all the difficulties absolutely worth it. WD