Nam Le was born in Vietnam and grew up in Melbourne. He spent several years studying in the United States and is currently living in the Unitd Kingdom. Nam appeared to leap onto the literary scene fully formed, with his extraordinarily impressive collection of stories, The Boat, which was published in Australia (by Penguin Books), and around the world, in the middle of last year. In November, he won the Dylan Thomas Prize. As a writer, he’s deeply committed to challenging himself: to never taking the easy way out.
Sophie Cunningham: In the first story of The Boat, ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, you raise issues around ethnicity. Questions such as how much should an author’s ethnicity inform what they write about. Given that, how deliberate was the decision then to go on and write about characters with whom you didn’t share culture, gender or nationality? Were you trying to make a statement?
Nam Le: I wasn’t, no. That first story came quite late in the game. It’s interesting because one of the folks who read this book in California came to it thinking that it was a novel, so she actually read the first story then read the second story, thinking: okay, so this is a bit of a jump and I wonder how it’s going to tie back in. And apparently—she might be exaggerating—she got to the fifth story before she realised, ‘I don’t think we’re going to get back to the Nam of the first story.’ I decided to take it as a compliment, but when I tried to stretch my mind around what sort of logic of unity or coherence could conceivably tie those five stories together in a novel, I realised just how all over the shop they really were.
Were you trying to push yourself in different directions? You know, I’m going to climb this cliff and then I’m going to do long-distance swimming and now I’m going to . . .
There was an element of that. There was no inkling in my head that the stories would eventually find their way into a collection. I was meant to be working on a novel but I kept on returning to these stories. So I handballed them to my agent and said, ‘Don’t let me touch these things again.’ He read them and he said he thought that they worked and that they were ready.
In a way, the lack of coherence is the coherence, that’s why The Boat is such a great title—it gives that sense of journey.
I’m shocking with titles and names, but that seemed the most suggestive candidate. There wasn’t too much calculation. When I was writing the stories there was that sense of wanting to do different things but I think that can be attributed to the fact that I was reading so much at the time.
What were you reading?
Short stories, actually. Before that I was writing and reading poetry, and then when I moved into fiction I was mainly reading novels. When I started writing these stories I was inundated with short stories and short-story writers and was just blown away. There was a real sense of my wanting to re-create the breadth of experience that I’d had as a reader reading these stories. I didn’t just like the Chekhov and Maupassant stories, I didn’t just like the Eisenberg or Denis Johnston stories—I loved so many things about so many different stories. I felt conscious that I wanted every story that I was writing at the time to be completely self-standing and self-contained and different.
I think writing is quite similar to acting in some ways. You engross yourself in a particular role and personality, and try to convey that. You convey it on the page, whereas an actor does so on the stage. How did you go about entering such dramatically different worlds? Through research? Are you a method actor? I want to know about the process of engaging with such a variety of places and people.
That’s a good analogy to draw because in both acting and in the imagination that a writer brings to fiction there’s a sense that you require absolute, almost unconditional immersion in that consciousness and in that world, but at the same time the entire thing is performative, the entire thing is directed outwards to the fourth wall or to an audience. That tension is so suggestive and rich for me: that idea that here’s something which on one level you get at by going as deeply into the authenticity of that moment [as possible]. Yet the only way to do it, obviously, is through very calculated and sophisticated contrivance. As in acting, as in writing. And so that friction zone to me is where it happens: it happens through research and it happens through deep imagination, I guess, and it also happens in that weird complecting and marrying of the familiar incidents of your own life into . . .
Something totally different . . .
Precisely, yes. It’s that two-way street; that’s what the transaction of fiction is all about. Taking something unfamiliar and shoving someone into that place and making them see something they might recognise in that place, while at the same time doing justice to the fact that by too neatly overlaying your experience or the reader’s experience over that experience you’re doing an injustice . . . you’re overfamiliarising it. So you need to keep it strange and savage.
Did you take on any characters where you actually felt you’d taken on too much, where, as you entered their entirely other world, you thought: actually, I can’t do this?
There were certainly skeletons and blueprints of these stories that featured other characters as narrators or protagonists even where it just didn’t feel right. There’s that sort of strange alchemy when you find the right voice, when you find the right rhythm and inflection and cadence and diction [and] it almost clicks, right?
You have to get the voice right. In my second novel I really struggled with the characters based on the Beats because they’d say, ‘hey, cat’ or whatever. I’d just laugh—not in a good way—and lose the illusion.
I’m really glad you brought that up, because we don’t do this in isolation—we do this knowing that our readership out there has a certain framework of ideas and expectations as to what they see as being authentic or real. So something that might actually have been ‘real’ in ‘real life’ might still not ring true in so many people’s imaginations. We have to find that middle ground, and that’s not always easy.
I was particularly struck by the voice of the little girl in ‘Hiroshima’. It’s got a very particular rhythm and cadence. I felt she would have been hard to write.
That story kicked my arse in so many different ways, I can’t even tell you. When you’re doing all the research, obviously the more sensational, the more self-evidently emotive stuff is the stuff that happens immediately after the bomb drops. That’s the obvious stuff, but you also know that once you title a story ‘Hiroshima’ you import into the story all of the films, all of the docos and all of the words and the images that people will bring to that title. So at first I wrote it as a multiple-character, multiple-narrative story. There was going to be an American who was there as part of a mission . . . there were so many different characters I was rotating through at the time. There was going to be one of the parents, and then perhaps, the big sister, and perhaps her boyfriend as well.
He’s just a single line now.
Right. And the little girl was very incidental to these narratives, and yet all of [the other characters] felt really overly compelled in a certain way, and [then] I realised I didn’t want to write about the bomb, or have the bomb—as all-obliterating and unknowably, epically changing as it was—be a part of this girl’s life, unlike every other narrative of this time.
That was always the story everyone told me was absolutely unsaleable. The grammar is challenging, there’s no narrative drive to it. Just going back to what we were saying before, I’m always wary of creating a sense of complicity between the author and the reader over the top of the heads of the characters, because there’s a certain lack of dignity that’s afforded to the character and a certain condescension that comes through. But in this case that was one of the reservoirs from which a real different and deeper understanding of the pathos of the story was being drawn. So I was wary of that, and I remember thinking: how do I populate this kid’s consciousness, and how do I give body and shape to her voice in a way that does justice to [her experience] but at the same time doesn’t permeate that voice or that diction with any of the judgements that I or most readers would bring to it, and without condescending to the sloganised, brainwashed nature of her consciousness?
That’s why I think that she’s more successful than the big sister would have been as the central character. The big sister speaks in propaganda slogans, which is interesting, but would have made it harder for you to go somewhere with. The younger girl is so little that parts of her brain are free to observe and react in less culturally predictable ways.
Yes, the emotional heart of that story is how she deals with this degraded language. She doesn’t know that it’s degraded so there’s that gap between some sort of experience and whatever the articulation of the experience is. In this case that gulf is just enormous, and that was the difficult space to modulate.
Did you visit the places you wrote about in the stories?
I’d been to some of these places. I didn’t go to any of these places with a mind to research. And even the places that I had been . . . I’ve been to Colombia, for example but I haven’t been to Medellín where the story ‘Cartagena’ takes place. I have been to Cartagena and the final image in that story is taken from something that I saw, but when I saw it I never imagined that it would have been something that I would stick into my fiction. And in fact most of the experiences that I’ve had, and places that I’ve been, haven’t ended up in my fiction at all. I tend to quarantine them from one another for some reason.
Is the landscape in ‘Halflead Bay’ a landscape that you knew well? It is the most nuanced landscape.
I think part of that is because I wrote the first incarnation of that story after I first left Australia, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some sort of idealised homesickness was the engine for that. I wrote [a much revised version] three years later in Provincetown and barely ten words made it from the first version to the second version, but I was very conscious then as well of being in this really desolate and stark landscape, which was beautiful in its own way, but needing to occupy myself with the smell and the heat of that other place.
I love the mother in ‘Halflead Bay’. ‘Stoic’ is not the right word because she’s more than stoic, she’s just really tough.
I liked her as well. It’s always fun to write virtuous characters, in a certain way.
Yes, she was virtuous but not in a way that was sentimental. I found that relationship between the two brothers moving also.
Do you have a brother?
See, it’s interesting because of the people who have commented positively on that relationship, every single one of them has had a brother.
The younger brother, Michael, looks out for Jamie even though he’s going to get walloped or pushed over or . . .
Yes, it’s incredibly resonant for me.
Are you younger or older?
I’m both, I’m the middle. Again, that was really tough from a technical point of view because I knew that it was loaded and charged territory.
For you personally or in terms of wanting to avoid sentiment?
Both. For me personally, but also I knew that I could have amped that up quite a bit, and it was quite a conscious choice not to . . .
Does the length of your stories—which vary from very short to novella length—reflect a desire to focus your writing, or is your next book going to be a more conventional novel length?
The facetious answer is that even were I to try to write something more constrained word-wise, it would end up just spinning out to a longer form than I originally intended. Part of that speaks to natural propensities in my work and natural inclinations to push [it] that extra little step—whether that’s on the level of plot or on the level of needing to create a new sequence of scenes or to develop a certain character to a different point. Every story has its own exigencies and its own logic, every story has its own operating principle. But the one abstract idea I find myself returning to is that of trying to avoid the path of least resistance. At many of the points in writing these stories there was an easy resolution that offered itself up, or there was an easy character dynamic or an easy dénouement which might [have been] more predictable or in some ways more satisfying.
You seem to have a policy of leaving people hungry.
Yes, and part of that is if you do lay down certain tracks or threads then it’s absolutely untrue to form to think that all of these tracks are going to come to some sort of conclusion at the same time. That’s just not the way art works, let alone the way life works. So it seems it might be overly contrived to do it that way. I think another part of it is (probably perversely) that often I find that the exact moment to leave a story is right at that moment where the balance becomes more comfortable—where I could easily keep on going.
You want to leave the story in that ripe and fertile zone—not of ambiguity and certainly not of purposeful obfuscation—but in a place where it does justice to the complexity and the richness of the character, the situation and the place. [That’s why] some of my endings are more open-ended than others.
‘Tehran Calling’ is the most open-ended of the stories in The Boat. We really have no idea what’s going to happen next.
Yes, that was a tough story to plan, particularly to plan the end of, because there were so many points [where] I felt the temptation on so many levels to wrap it up, or to leave it somewhere, but [ultimately] I felt that I needed to keep on going.
It would have been less satisfactory as a story if Parvin had died because it would just drag you into a particular space . . .
To a more familiar space, right?
. . . rather than allowing the characters to stay alive for you.
I think that’s true. It’s not just the characters but the assumptions and expectations we bring to our depictions and characterisations of these people, the places they’re in, and what they’re doing. I don’t like to subscribe to the imitative fallacy but it seemed really crucial that that uncertainty and that sense of being held in suspense was felt not only in the bones of Sarah’s situation but in the bones of the text and narrative itself. There were heaps of permutations . . . thinking through whether Sarah was going to be abducted, or whether Parvin was going to be where something would actually happen that we knew about or would find out about. I was also paranoid about the familiar implications of Sarah then going off and doing opium, for example, because finishing the story with a drug scene is one of those crucial no-nos.
The erotics of the way you finish that are quite interesting too because it’s a sexual scenario in a literal sense, but in a way it’s . . .
. . . beside the point. Part of the heuristic process of that story is to absolutely undermine and recalibrate everything that Sarah, the main character, takes for granted. Her needs for security and stability and certainty in how she comes at the world and how the world is configured in her head.
I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to draw fiction back to autobiography, but as you talk you remind me of the boy in ‘Halflead Bay’—the way he just keeps on pushing, the way he always goes one step further rather than backing off when he should. You talk as if the writer is like that boy, the way he keeps throwing himself at situations because he has to see them through.
You could call it courage or stupidity. That’s something I continually try to come to terms with: to try not to let myself off the hook when it comes to a sentence or a character or a subject matter that I might not know anything about.
Have editors or publishers tried to let you off the hook? By which I mean, because these stories are of such a high standard, I can well imagine that when they were two-thirds there, a lot of publishers would have said, ‘They’re great, we’re going to press.’ The writer will often push themselves harder than the editor, unless you’ve got a great editor.
I have been incredibly fortunate with the editors I’ve been able to work with.
Have you had different editors for different stories mainly or one person overall? What territory did you sell to first?
To North America [the United States and Canada]. There were editors who worked on the journal and the magazine level. Some of them were more hands-on and much more incursive than others. And then there was Robin Desser, who was my editor at Knopf in the United States.
It’s so physical when you copyedit. My experience was you get the big stack of papers back, full of annotations, so I started bitching and moaning to my friends about how much stuff I was expected to do, and they couldn’t believe me because—and I didn’t realise this at the time—it was quite a rarity to find an editor who invested in getting something to a good place.
The shorter the work, the more it has to be pitch-perfect.
Yes, the more scope you have for error as well. I worked with Robin for a long time. Actually it was around about this time last year, and I was here and she’s in New York and so I was up until six in the morning every morning fighting over words and punctuation and sentences and all sorts of stuff. Then I also had the fortune of working with Meredith Rose [at Penguin]. She was great. The only unfortunate thing in this whole process was that it was staggered; the book came out in the United States first and here afterwards. And so just when I was supposed to be tying the bow on one of the many ‘final versions’ in the Knopf edition, Meredith came back to me with more edits, and they’d be so good that I’d want to incorporate them into the US version. So there was a bit of a merry-go-round going on.
What are you working on next?
A novel about Thai pirates.
I’m going to be boring now and ask about creative writing courses. How useful did you find studying creative writing?
I did my honours at Melbourne Uni in English and Philosophy, and in English I did my thesis under Chris Wallace-Crabbe. It wasn’t [meant to be] a creative thesis at all but he let me do it in creative form, so there was a bit of a fudging of lines there. The only creative course I took at Melbourne Uni was a poetry class with Lisa Jacobson.
So the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa was the only course you’ve done that’s a creative writing course? I have an agenda to this question by the way—I’m ambivalent about them.
I’m ambivalent about them, too. My take on MFA and creative writing programs varies with the attitude with which the question is asked, and so if someone is being quite aggressive about them I find myself defending them, and vice versa.
You were at one of the best courses in the world.
I was at a good course. Most of these people had left careers and loved ones and family and homes behind to take this enormous gamble to write for two years, so there was nothing at all small or petty about that. There was also that sense of giving yourself permission to think of yourself as a writer and to think of what you’re doing as a writer as being worthy. And that’s got nothing to do with the actual words on the page. I’m aware of all the criticisms, the idea of overly polished or homogenised writing coming out of these programs. [But] ‘polish’ is a euphemistic way of saying something’s not really alive in another way.
Now I’m reading for the Harvard Review, so I get a lot of exposure to the stuff that’s being produced at the emerging level. I read a lot of incoming manuscripts for Iowa and for the fellowship in Provincetown as well. When you’re actually looking to find something that moves or inspires you, it’s not the run-of-the-mill stuff you care about: it’s the stuff that situates itself on the outskirts—against that convention and that polish and that sheen. There’s always someone who says, ‘Well, Milton didn’t require an MFA program’, which is slightly beside the point. If you run your finger down the gamut of so-called experimental writers who are working nowadays (and, again, I’m more familiar with the States because that’s where the MFA pro- grams are), you’ve got people like David Foster Wallace, who died in September 2008, like Lorrie Moore, like Denis Johnson, like Katzuo Ishiguro, who are on the cutting edge of a lot of what the novel can do formally—these folks came out of these programs. So it’s not only wrong-headed, it’s laughable to say that if you go to one of these programs you’re necessarily going to produce something homogenised. That said, I don’t think you can teach someone whatever it is that really gives their work real life or voice.
As you’ve mentioned you’re currently the fiction editor of Harvard Review. How do you judge others’ work?
I do believe that the question all writers ask of themselves and of others—is it any good?—but are loath to talk about in public for various reasons, is one of the primary principles by which I judge something. And of course that’s overlaid with how you define ‘good’ and obviously there’s an element of subjectivity. For me something has got to keep me wanting to turn the pages, not necessarily in a cheaply charged way but just in a sense that I feel as though there’s an authority or a confidence or a strangeness that’s at work in the pages that makes me want to submit myself or relinquish some part of myself. Beyond that, I define it in negative relief, honestly. I define it by stuff that doesn’t jolt me out, stuff that doesn’t make amateur mistakes, by stuff that obviously takes care and doesn’t take easy outs.
Like your approach to your own work?
It’s so easy to hedge and to worry about sentimentality or melodramatic prose, but if you haven’t got the guts to risk sentimentality then you risk losing sentiment altogether. [As an editor, I’d] always go for the raw and the strange over the polished and competent.