The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Vu Tran

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Writer Vu Tran at City of Asylum.

Writer Vu Tran at City of Asylum.

Vu Tran is the author of Dragonfish, a risk-taking literary crime novel that concerns the disappearance of a Vietnamese woman, and her pursuit by her husband, an Oakland police officer. Dragonfish raises issues of identity, refuge, nostalgia, and history, with some parallels to his own past. Tran was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1975, after the city had been taken by the North Vietnamese. Vu Tran’s father, a captain in the South Vietnamese Air Force, had to flee the country. Five years later, Tran, his mother, and his seven-year-old sister escaped Vietnam by boat and ended up in a Malaysian refugee camp. Four months later, Tran’s father sponsored them and reunited with them in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Tran met his father for the first time.

After graduating with an MA from the University of Tulsa, Tran went on to earn his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and completing his Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

On February 12, Tran read from Dragonfish at a City of Asylum Salon Reading. Prior to the event, he spoke to Sampsonia Way about the book, his writing process and family history, and the complexities of United States immigration.

You have said that Suzy is the hero of this novel. Why, then, did you make Robert the protagonist at the beginning of the book? Were you concerned about giving the role of narrator to a white male authority?

I thought it would be interesting to cast the “typical” kind of hero — especially in a crime novel, the white male protagonist — and render him a bit powerless, a bit useless, and then take the femme fatale character and give her more agency than one would think. But even more than that, I wanted to give Suzy a more memorable voice. For a good part of the novel she is the central mystery and she doesn’t really get to speak. She speaks through the memories of the other characters. So when she does take over the narrative I wanted her to really take it over, both in terms of space but also in terms of her voice. I think that’s why I consider her the hero of the novel. Not in the sense that she is necessarily more heroic, but that she drives everything that happens and influences so many of the decisions that everyone ends up making.

You have said that you did not see this initially as a thriller or crime novel, but instead as a relationship story. What did you want to convey about relationships and love in portraying Suzy and Robert’s relationship?

Well, it started off very consciously as a crime novel. I was asked to contribute a story to a noir anthology about Las Vegas called Las Vegas Noir. That contribution became what is now the second chapter of the novel, in a slightly different form. But as I was expanding the story into a novel, I decided to dial back the noirish tone, the sarcasm, the hard-boiled nature of the story.

I’ve always been a literary writer in that I pay attention to detail and language and form. So when the novel was still just a slight expansion of the original short story, it didn’t feel quite enough. I needed something else. It wasn’t until I reached into Suzy’s backstory and started the letters that I felt I found the novel. That part of the story is much more literary.

But at the end of the day, Dragonfish is a relationship novel. To me, it’s about the consequences of having a destructive relationship with someone and how those consequences follow you around and evolve long after the fact. And it’s not just romantic relationships because the novel is as much about fathers and sons and mothers and daughters.

From the beginning of the novel we see how estranged Robert and Suzy are from each other, even when they were living together. Are Robert and Suzy truly in love?

I think so. I think most people are familiar with relationships where a good part of the relationship is hating the person, whether it’s most of the time or part of the time. And that, in many ways, can feed one’s love for the person. It’s a weird thing, and it’s not quite rational, as love hardly ever is. But I do think they were in love.

I’ve had some readers say they aren’t sure why Suzy and Robert love each other. And I don’t know if there are ever concrete reasons for why you love someone. You just do. There are certain reasons that we can articulate, of course, but mostly you just have this emotional connection to someone, or this emotional need for someone. I think that’s what Robert and Suzy share. They just need each other in a strange way, and I think that is love. Love is not always positive.

Although your novel deals with gangsters and police, there are no true good or bad characters; it’s a novel that takes place in the “grey zones of uncertainty.” Why was this uncertainty important for you?

Characters are more interesting when you can’t decide exactly how to feel about them, or how to view their behavior, or how to even interpret their behavior. I always like characters that I’m constantly changing my mind about throughout the course of a novel. Philosophically, that’s one of the reasons the noir genre has always intrigued me. In noir, you’re dealing in the ambiguities of life.

Generally people think there’s only good and bad in crime novels, cops and criminals, but in the best crime novels those moral lines are made murky, or they dissolve altogether. You end up sympathizing with criminals and understanding criminal behavior in a sympathetic way, and you question the behavior of the people who are supposed to be virtuous. That’s human nature, and I think that’s just genuinely more interesting to readers, and to me as a writer.

Some of your family’s story is similar to the immigrant story that is told in Dragonfish. Your father was in the United States ahead of you and your mother; he sponsored your arrival here. I found it interesting that you have said it took you a long time to not see your father as a stranger, but at the same time, you did not view him as an outsider: you were the outsider, and your mother. How did this experience of estrangement influence Dragonfish?

My father left four months before I was born because he served in the South Vietnamese army, with the Americans. He had to flee Vietnam as soon as Saigon fell. I didn’t meet him until I was five and I came to the United States.

I didn’t realize until recently that for my first few years in America I viewed myself — mostly myself but my sister and my mother too — as kind of intruding on my father’s space. I was afraid of him for a while because he’s a stern guy, but also because I was a five-year-old and he was a complete stranger to me. Even though I knew he was my father, I still felt that distance from him. He’s a loving father, but he’s not the most affectionate person, so I’m sure that didn’t help.

I did feel this strange sense of outsider-ship in what I thought of as his home, not our home. I don’t know what changed that for me. Eventually it did change, but for a good few years in America, that feeling was definitely there. I just didn’t recognize it at the time.

Did that sense of being an outsider tie into any part in Dragonfish when you were writing it?

The novel is suffused with it. I think another reason I used a white American police officer as the protagonist was that I wanted him to be the outsider–not only an outsider to the Vietnamese community and the Vietnamese characters but also an outsider to his wife, his ex-wife. He’s the person who wanted to gain access to her, and she refused it, or gave him very limited access. So he always felt like an intruder in the relationship, and that definitely is an echo of my own feelings.

I think that we all have some sense of outsider-ship, depending on the situation in our life, though obviously some people feel this more than others.

Dragonfish originally began as a short story and, if I understand correctly, part of the reason you expanded it into a novel was because the characters felt incomplete. How do your characters feel now that the novel is finished and has been out for several months?

People have asked me if I’m writing a sequel to the novel, and I don’t think I’d ever want to. I have had thoughts of writing a different kind of novel with Mai, the daughter, at the center of everything. I’d like to think that she’s an interesting character, and I feel like there’s so much more to her that I haven’t yet explored.

As for the other characters, I feel like I’ve told the part of their story that I need to tell. Hopefully readers will still be curious about them, and hopefully they are expansive in that sense. But the story I’ve told is the story I need to tell. Giving any more of it might dispel whatever was compelling about those characters. But it is very strange, I think all writers will tell you this: you live with these characters for four or five years or however long it takes you to write the book, and they do linger. But mine didn’t linger that long with me, because I’m already thinking about the next book. I’ll let them live in the book in which they first existed.

Did anything surprise you about the characters as you were writing them?

I think I ended up making Robert more pathetic than I had originally intended to make him. Pathetic might be the wrong word. I had always imagined him as a character who was much stronger on the outside than he was on the inside, and much more sensitive because of that. But as the story progressed I felt like I needed to magnify that sensitive part of him. I didn’t want to make him completely useless, but I wanted to make a point of the fact that he can’t be the hero he wants to be; that’s part of the narrative I had in mind, the antithesis of the Dances With Wolves narrative, or the John Smith and Pocahontas narrative. I didn’t want him to be the kind of hero who solved things and rescued people, especially as a man. That required him to be pathetic on some level and I think that kind of surprised me.

There was one unexpected thing that happened with my writing of Suzy. I think this is something that ends up happening when you’re a man writing from the perspective of a woman, especially in this deeply intimate way. There’s this weird impulse–you don’t even know you’re doing it–to make them heroic. You have an impulse to not give them flaws. If you do give them flaws, they’re kind of redeeming flaws. I ended up having to commit to the fact that she’s an unlikeable person who does a lot of stupid things, and that surprised me.

You mentioned writing a companion novel and you have named Marilynne Robinson as one of your influences. What’s the appeal of writing a companion novel?

The whole Marilyn Robinson influence actually has to do with the epistolary section of Dragonfish. Her novel Gilead is structured as a letter written by an old minister to his young son, because he knows that he’ll be gone by the time the son is older, so in this novel-length letter he’s essentially sifting back through time as he’s also looking forward to his son’s future, and there’s a lot of humanity and melancholy there. I would just open up Gilead and breathe in its voice and try to impose that voice on my own book. So that’s where that book was really inspirational for me, and of course her sentences are just gorgeously crafted.

One of the best pieces of advice that you have gotten as a writer was to write fast. What advice would you give to other writers?

I always tell young writers to be wary of all advice. Which is not to say that there’s not great advice out there. The problem I see, especially in the MFA world, is that to be a good teacher you have to come up with a system of thought, and you have to be confident in it and consistent with it. So you dispense wisdom according to this system of thought that you’ve developed over the years, and to students, certain things can sound earth-shatteringly true, and they end up thinking it applies to everything and everyone, and that’s not always an effective or healthy way to create art. As a writer, you should always be wary of advice that that sounds universally true. It can be true, but only to a certain point or for a certain period of time. As an artist, you inevitably need to question things, you need to question the stuff you believe in. In any case, I actually think there’s too much advice in the world of creative writing. Just sit down, and write, and read a lot. That’s about all you can really say.

Do you think MFA culture—a system with an accepted mode of thinking and structures–distills people’s creativity?

I think it can. But that’s true of any field or profession; it’s not exclusive to a creative writing class or a creative writing program. But the really good writers always resist this system. They transcend those structures and that prescriptive, homogeneous environment. The best writers always do something different.

At the end of the day, this conversation should really be about great writing, not just good writing. There’s always been an abundance of good writing, writing that merely perpetuates itself. In every period of literary history, there has been writing that perpetually apes itself, and that kind of writing never really lasts. I firmly believe that the great writers always find their own unique voice and impose it on the normal order, and something like a creative writing program isn’t going to stop them.

The “workshop story,” or the “workshop voice,” does exist, and we’re all susceptible to it. But if you really want to be a good writer you have to find ways of recognizing that generic voice in yourself and moving beyond it. And if you can’t, then you probably aren’t that good. I might be a victim of that, I don’t know. I’m not excluding myself. But it’s a conversation that I hear ad nauseum, about whether or not MFAs are good for American letters. Honestly, I’m not that concerned because I think, like I said, that the great artists always find ways of resisting.

When did you begin to identify as a writer, rather than as someone who writes?

I think a lot of writers will admit to not feeling legitimate, even after they’ve published a book. I still feel sometimes like I’m merely a really good imitator.

But there are times when I do feel like a legitimate writer. Maybe that happened when I started publishing more. That’s kind of an obvious license that is given to you, when you see your name in print.

I can, however, pinpoint the moment I felt like I’d become a much better writer. It was the second year of my MFA at Iowa. It was over Christmas and I was writing a novella, the longest piece of fiction I’d ever written. I felt like I was finally inhabiting my characters for the first time and not just gesturing at them. I think that my fiction was from then on, if not good yet, at least being approached the right way. I felt more like a writer then. I don’t know if that was actually true, but I did feel more like a writer then.

It was, in many ways, using myself as a lens for the world. Not in the sense of autobiography. I rarely write autobiographically, so it wasn’t about bringing my personal life to the writing. It was about literally using myself as a filter for the characters, and in that sense inhabiting them as much as possible. That sounds slightly contradictory but it made sense to me.

Did writing Dragonfish change you?

Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I won’t get into it too much, but I was going through a very tough relationship in my life and ended up bringing many of the emotions of that relationship into the novel. So writing the novel forced me to really think about everything in my life, even outside the relationship. I absolutely matured as a person because of that.

The novel was also incredibly difficult to write. I had never even gotten close to finishing a novel before. Until then I had gotten to page 90 of another novel and that was in 2008. So along with all the personal difficulties, I was also going through the difficulty of writing something I didn’t think I could finish, or finish in a way that made me happy. But getting through all of that changed me a great deal. Writing a novel can still be terrifying in various ways, but at least I know now that I’ve done it already, it’s possible.

What was so terrifying about writing a novel for you?

My age at the time was part of it. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was five, and so a great part of my identity has revolved around this idea of being a writer. I originally sold the book on 60 pages, so when I was writing it, I constantly felt like someone was waiting for me. I felt like if I didn’t get it done and didn’t get it done right, I would not only fail but also then have no way to define myself, A novel was also so much longer than anything else I’d ever written, and so the end always seemed beyond the horizon. It felt sometimes like I was in this dark room stumbling around. That’s very scary, to not know where you’re going. So, I would say it was definitely a terrifying experience. People might think, “Oh that’s just an exaggeration,” but it was no exaggeration in my head.

Do you talk about your writing projects while you’re working on them or is it something you prefer to keep private?

I don’t really talk about them. When I needed help with Dragonfish, I would talk out certain things with my ex-girlfriend, but I was very uncomfortable about showing the book to anyone. She was the only person I showed anything and that was only a couple chapters.

I’m sure there were various reasons for this. One is that I have a thing for self-reliance. It’s all about pride, I guess: it’s my book, I need to figure it out on my own. There’s also a fear that someone will intrude on that private and controlled space. That someone’s going to say the work is really bad and that I just need to throw it away. For the most part I kind of keep to myself until it’s done.

How did you know when Dragonfish was finished, especially after the murky writing process?

Well, I revise endlessly and obsessively as I write. The work has to feel exactly right before I can continue, which was why writing Dragonfish took so long and was so slow for me. But that also meant that what I did have I was confident in, and when I got to the end, it was the end. I didn’t even know the ending of the novel until the last week before my deadline. When I wrote that last scene, I knew that there would probably be more revision ahead, but it still felt finished to me.

But what’s really interesting is that in these past six months since the novel was published–now that I know certain reactions to the book, positive and negative–I’d love to go back and revise it again. There would be certain things I would change.

What would you change?

I’m almost afraid to say because then I’ll obsess over it. I think I would change the ending a bit. I think I would change certain things about Robert’s narrative too. I would adjust his characterization, flesh out certain things about him as a character. There are other things too. But now you’re going to make me obsess over it.

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