I’m so excited to announce my first author interview! A couple weeks back I read and reviewed The Boat by Nam Le, and was very impressed with his writing and the stories. Shortly after reading the first story, Love and Honour, I asked Le if he would be willing to do a Q & A interview with me, and he was gracious enough to agree.
First off, I want to say that Nam Le is very personable, friendly, and down to earth. The emails back and forth was just like receiving email from a friend, even remembering my daughter’s name. His answers show he took time to consider his answers, and I was impressed that he treated the questions of a blogger with as much respect as an interviewer from a major newspaper.
And now, In the Shadow of Mt. TBR’s first author interview
Q: I know you’ve been asked this several times in interviews, but this is the question that made me want to do my first Q & A with you. The narrator in the first story shares so much with you, same name, work history and Iowa Writer’s Workshop, how much of the first story is autobiographical?
A: It depends on your definition. Certainly the protagonist shares my name, and many of my circumstances, but of course it’s arguable that all fictional characters are, through their elements, frankensteined from ‘real life’. (I don’t mean that flippantly!) A lot of people assume that it’s easier cribbing from ‘life’ than from ‘imagination’ (a distinction that’s false on many fronts, not the least of which is because both are unavoidably mediated – and complicated – by consciousness (not to mention the vagaries of memory)), but in fact I reckon it’s much more difficult. Why? Because me being me – that is, me being supported by my own entire subjective infrastructure – I’ll almost always find my accounting of my own experience more compelling, more resonant, than readers who can only go by my words on the page. Writing from autobiography can tend to be a selfish enterprise that way. And as a writer, I feel it’s my responsibility to make the words on the page as charged and suggestive as possible – for a set of readers bigger than just myself!
Here’s another proof that the first story isn’t straight reportage from my life: ‘real life’ is hopelessly messy whereas my story is pretty ruthlessly determined. It deals, to an almost painful extent, with cliché, with hackneyed conventions: the blocked, alcoholic writer, the close-mouthed father, the story spewed out overnight in an inspired rush, its single (typewritten!) copy then burned (in a gasoline drum!), etc, etc. I contrived this story in this way to show up the contrivance – the artifice – of such stories – as well as the body of assumptions we readers bring to such stories – whilst attempting to nevertheless get some truth or feeling across. Art, after all, is – at its best – a lie that tells us the truth, and here I needed some of the truth from my own life to improve the lie.
Q: The Boat as a book and you as a writer are receiving a lot of attention from critics and the media. How surprised are you by this, and how are you dealing with it?
A: I’m very surprised, and I’m dealing with it as best I can! That is, with gratefulness, as well as guilt – and some grog thrown in – for the chances my book’s received that other books haven’t. It’s got to be said, of course, that expectations are so low for short story collections in general – let alone debut collections – that any attention at all is gravy. I’ll be first to admit how lucky I’ve been – most of all for the incomparable team of folks that have supported me and the book. When it comes down to it, you write to put your hand up for a conversation – with other readers, writers, and books that have inspired you – so it’s a thrill to think that this book’s getting called on.
Q: Some of the stories in The Boat seem to not have an official ending, the reader just seems to exit the scene before the end. Did you write these so as to leave it open-ended for the reader to interpret, or are they endings more of a resolution of the characters’ emotions?
A: I like that you used the word ‘official’ – part of my personality balks at anything official, and so I guess it goes with these stories. That’s the easy answer. The tough question highlights the fact that each of these stories has its own type of ending. When you say some of them ‘exit the scene before the end’ I think that’s telling: it posits an assumed or expected end (though of course it’s not the end – the end before the end is the end … are we clear yet?) There’s a tired (though not entirely legless) workshop axiom that endings should be ‘surprising but inevitable.’ Here’s how I see it. First, my stories are longer than the average so having laid down all the narrative threads it would stretch credulity to have them tied up at the same time. Second, there’s nothing like having a clear end in sight to make the intervening stuff feel like filler; I ideally strive to command the reader’s full attention at every moment in the story. Third – a clear endpoint enhances the power of a bait and switch. And isn’t it all bait and switch? I largely adhere to the idea that there are few clean resolutions in life; that even epiphanic moments come broken and bruised and bent out of shape. Why should fiction be any different?
Of course, as we’ve discussed, a story is a contraption, and as such its parts have to answer, to some degree, to each other. For me, an ideal ending sheds light on what’s come before; it speaks to its own concerns and it justifies the occasion of the story – while at the same time it gives its elements (character, place, situation) life outside its own body. Paradoxically, I know to leave a story just when I feel it coming alive in that more sustained sense.
Q: Recently I had a conversation with my local bookstore manager about short story collections. She said that short stories don’t sell, except to people who buy books by particular authors. How do you feel about this statement, and why do you think readers don’t want short stories?
A: The conventional wisdom that short stories don’t sell is, like all conventional wisdom, pretty instructive until it’s not. There’s an element, of course, of self-fulfilling prophecy about it, as well as a somewhat institutionalised sense that short stories are merely training grounds for novels. Another strain of conventional wisdom proclaims itself baffled that short stories aren’t more popular in this age of sound bytes and fragmented attention spans; I don’t buy this at all – I reckon it’s fair to say that given half an hour, a complete short story usually requires more concerted, careful attention than a novel chapter – particularly if it’s not the first chapter. It’s people like you and your friend who are on the front lines of the effort to challenge this conventional way of thinking.
Q: Hari Kunzru of The New York Times suggested the subject matter of the stories in The Boat was “calculated to tug at the heartstrings – and wallets – of liberal American readers…” How do you respond to this?
A: As I understand it, Hari Kunzru was referring not to the subject matter of the stories in The Boat in general but to what he called ‘war porn’ of the first story. After the quote you reference he actually goes on to ask: “Could the writer, just possibly, be lying? For money?” It’s unclear whether he’s referring to the character “Nam” in the first story, or to me as the author. Either way, I thought it an odd question – for many reasons – but particularly given that that first story, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” makes no secret of its calling out of ‘ethnic’ narrative exploitation. In fact, that’s maybe the primary point of the story (and one that I’ve received flak for). For example: at one stage in the story, the protagonist, trying to justify the appropriation of his father’s ‘ethnic story,’ muses “If I write a true story … I’ll have a better chance of selling it” – that is, he’s asking the very question Hari Kunzru accuses him/me of ignoring. So I’m not sure I understand Kunzru’s point. Nor, come to speak of it, do I understand his premise: if indeed I wanted to pluck and pick-pocket those sucker Western liberal heartstrings and wallets, wouldn’t I (per his reasoning) then stick to Viet war porn? Why would I digress into the globe-trotting hodge-podge that’s the rest of the book?
Q: Finally, I’m a big fan of the shortlist. What books are on yours?
A: Okay, arbitrarily limiting myself to fiction (and with all the usual caveats): Melville’s Moby Dick, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Nabokov’s Lolita, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory and The Heart of the Matter, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, fiction by Kazuo Ishiguro, Robert Stone, Mary Gaitskill, Martin Amis, William Golding, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Peter Carey, short fiction by John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Andrew Dubus, Tim Winton, Charles D’Ambrosio, Isaac Babel, Leonard Michaels, and on and on.
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