Nam Le’s first anthology of short stories “The Boat” has met with critical and commercial success internationally. He was awarded the Dublin Young Writer’s Award in 2008 and is currently on a fellowship in East Anglia working on a novel about South Chinese pirates. Peril was lucky enough to catch him on the run.
Peril: Your book’s success and in particular for a book of short stories is pretty amazing.When you craft a short story do you begin writing knowing where it is going to go with the structure and content in your mind? (What’s your process?)
Nam Le: I’ve had occasion to think about this and I hope you won’t mind if I crib off an answer I gave elsewhere. Basically, there are so many ways to think and talk about process (you’re basically asking for my ars poetica!) Here’s how I’ve been thinking about it of late: every sentence carries within it a certain set of charges, vibrations, shapes – and what I try to do is chase down a state that’s maximally charged, or shapely. Sometimes that state is more visually concerned – how a word looks – fits – into a sentence, and sometimes more aural; sometimes it treats more with images, other times abstractions. This is what I mean by a text’s organic imperatives: these ‘states’ can’t be pinned down on a pulled-back level; they’re not conformable, in isolation, to describable tendencies (long or short, cerebral or sensory, complex or simple). They have to be dealt with on their own terms, within their own contexts. Of course the effect this has on a technical level is pretty disheartening: it suggests that every sentence that is, on first go, serviceable, efficient – even competent – can almost always be improved, can be brought to a fuller communicability.
P: The Writers Workshop in Iowa you have described as “tough love” How have you handled negative feedback to your work?
NL: It’s never easy. But them’s the breaks: if you’re lucky enough to receive attention, you have no choice but to take it all – the good with the bad. I happen to believe strongly in criticism. Any review where the reviewer stands behind their name, I read. Frank Conroy, who was the teacher most famed and feared at Iowa for his ‘tough love’ approach, was my first choice. It’s never easy, but to me, as long as the criticism is thoughtful, as long as it considers the work on its own terms (as opposed to, say, deploring the work’s failure to be something it doesn’t try to be), and as long as it comes from that impossible-to-pin-down attitude of good faith – I reckon it’s worth listening to.
P: You have spoken a lot about dealing with the public expectations of being an ethnic writer and you seem to have defied being categorised with the broad range of protagonists and settings of your work. Do you think you have been successful in being known as Nam the writer rather than Nam the Vietnamese-Australian writer?
NL: As with many writers I know, I find myself pretty wary identifying myself as a writer at all. The designation seems impossibly abject and highfalutin at the same time. To me, you’re a writer if and when you write – a characterisation that verges almost immediately on self-collapse; the idea of further loading that instability with the weight of other appellations – ethnic or otherwise – seems ill-conceived, irresponsible. I’ve written a book of seven stories. I hope to write more books in future. My hope is that any project of categorisation – which, at its best, is a noble and intellectually rigorous project – will take account, first and foremost, of the stories I’ve written and the books I hope yet to write.
P: One of your more experimental outputs has been your honours thesis which you did in verse with Chris Wallace Crabbe. Nowadays are you planning to do much with your poetry?
NL: I’ll tell you what – at the time it seemed far from experimental; in fact, if anything, it seemed hopelessly old-fashioned. If you really want to appreciate the space that poetic ‘cutting edges’ of the last hundred years or so have opened up, there’s no better way than writing heroic couplets in iambic tetrameter! I’m sure Chris had a good chuckle to himself when he approved my proposal.
I definitely want to return to poetry at some point. I recently wandered through the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey and found the inside of my body quickening. The thing is (and I’m not happy about this), my writing brain is almost incapable of working on more than one piece at one time. And as I’m working on a novel at the moment – I don’t feel myself permitted much scope to dip out of it.
P: What advice would you give to aspiring short story writers (given that it is so hard to publish anthologies)
NL: It’s far from original or epiphanic, but honestly, I reckon the best advice is to keep writing, keep submitting, write want you would want to read rather than what you think other people – judges, editors, teachers – might want.
P: You are a pretty high achiever, being a lawyer and a successful writer. Is there anything that you feel you have failed at?
NL: In both my careers, I’ve been blessed with both great luck and the incredible support of incredible people. In writing: friends, teachers, students and colleagues, as well as all those working with me in professional relationships, have buoyed me and my work. You just can’t do this thing alone. That said, I don’t mean to be sophistic when I say that failure is the root condition of this enterprise. Every idea for a fiction carries within it the germs of its own failure, and indeed every short story or novel I’ve written – every character or scene – has fallen short, in various ways, of what the pre-linguistic part of me had hoped to capture.