The secret to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s overnight success

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The novelist seemed to go from unknown to MacArthur genius in two years. In truth, it took decades.

This month, the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen was awarded one of the most prestigious honors a writer can receive: the MacArthur “genius” grant, given to artists, thinkers, and public intellectuals whose ideas have culture-altering potential. This, in itself, should surprise no one. Nguyen writes with arresting moral and intellectual force, often about people scarred and uprooted by conflict. As the MacArthur Foundation put it in its citation, Nguyen’s demonstrated a unique gift for exploring how depictions of the Vietnam War “often fail to capture the full humanity and inhumanity, the sacrifices and savagery, of participants on opposing sides.”

But the MacArthur is just the latest in an astonishing run of literary successes, one that makes it easy to forget a simple fact: A mere 18 months ago, Nguyen was still unknown as a fiction writer. His career began quickly, and seemingly out of nowhere, in April 2015 — when a rave on the cover of The New York Times Book Review made his debut novel, The Sympathizer, one of the year’s most-discussed books. Shortly after that, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, bringing Nguyen international fame. Since then, he’s stayed busy, publishing two celebrated books in short succession: a work of nonfiction cultural criticism, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and a short story collection, The Refugees.

But Nguyen is no overnight sensation — far from it. In this interview, he opens up about a period of his life that’s been mostly overlooked: the two decades he spent trying, and mostly failing, to write fiction, working in secret while he juggled a host of other responsibilities. We discussed the 20 years of work that preceded his debut, the challenges he faced along the way, and — when it seemed his literary ambitions would never quite materialize — the strategies he used to keep going.

Viet Thanh Nguyen and I first spoke in 2015, discussing how he stumbled on The Sympathizer’s first sentence, an opening that finally allowed him to complete the rest of the book. That conversation appears in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, published this fall by Penguin Books. He teaches at the University of Southern California, and spoke to me by phone.

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