Author Interview: Viet Dinh [in Bloom]
For the seriously literary, his name and work will be familiar. His short story, “Substitutes,” earned him an O. Henry Prize in 2009. Other short works have been published in Zoetrope: All-Story, Threepenny Review, Five Points, Fence, to name a few. He has a page of his own on the NEA site – because he’s been officially, generously grant-ed by the venerable institution, for literary research. His accolades have earned him a professorship in the English department at the University of Delaware where he helps guide creative young minds.
And now, Viet Dinh’s name is about to appear on the cover of his first novel, After Disasters, scheduled to hit shelves in September. Mark my words: you’ll be seeing more of both author and title when all those year-end lists and award nominations flood your newsfeeds. Born in Ðà Lat, Vietnam, raised in Aurora, Colorado, undergraduated from Johns Hopkins, MFAed at the University of Houston, and currently settled in Wilmington, Delaware, Dinh is poised to venture into new places with After Disasters.
Using the real-life January 2001 cataclysmic earthquake in Gujarat, India, as a backdrop, Dinh drops four fictional characters in the disaster’s aftermath. They travel from New York, London, and Delhi, in an attempt to save lives – including their own. Ted and Piotr are part of the same New York Disaster Assistance Response Team, but couldn’t be more different. Ted, a former pharmaceutical marketing rep, wants to be “a better person,” while Piotr’s decades as a professional savior have left him with permanent, unbearable scars. Andy, a member of the UK Fire Services Search and Rescue Team, fights his greatest battles with himself. Dev, a doctor from Delhi, has traveled the fewest miles but finds he can never run far enough from his own true calling.
Thrown into violence and lawless chaos, one character meets death, two almost fall in love, three leave, and all four are forever changed. With sharp, probing insight, Dinh explores the efficacy of international aid, the price of survival, and the cost of love in an ever-changing global world filled with conflict, catastrophes, and failed connections.
So when did the writing bug bite you? And what finally led you to getting your first novel published at 42?
It might be a cliché to say that the writing bug had bitten me as a child, but it’s true. It left ugly welts all over my body, and to this day, I haven’t found the right ointment to cure it. But, the novel itself was a process – eight years in the making. I suppose getting it published at 41 (I turn 42 in November) was just one of the lingering effects of the bug bite.
Your first published pieces were short stories – clearly a form you’ve mastered, having won an O. Henry Prize in 2009. Will we see a forthcoming story collection?
With any luck, yes, I hope so. I’ve got a collection almost ready to go. The stories in it center around a secret (or not-so-secret) love of mine: horror movies.
What’s the attraction with horror movies?
They’ve always been a longtime interest of mine. Partially because I think that horror/fear is a “pure” emotion… it’s one that comes without the interference of the frontal lobe. And movies are oftentimes more visceral than fiction in that regard. Plus, I think horror movies provide a fascinating insight into culture – not only to individual fears, but cultural/societal ones, as well.
Any chance of a film script in your future?
I don’t think so. Films require the writer to give up too much control. I prefer the sort of absolute ownership that fiction writing provides.
Well then . . . back to the controllable fiction: having successfully written both short and long forms, does your writing process change between the two?
Somewhat. I’ve always been more drawn to the shorter form, for some reason. I suppose I just like the idea of dipping a toe into a world and then pulling it back out before the piranhas start to nibble. But now having worked on a larger form, I can see more of its appeal. To be honest, when I conceived of the novel, I saw it as a “novel-in-stories.” But as I started stitching the stories together, the “in-stories” part seemed to fall away, and it simply became a novel.
Perhaps you might consider creating a different “novel-in-stories” someday?
Well, I won’t rule out the possibility! The fiction world is a big tent, and I enjoy roaming around into its various corners.
When you write, are you conscious of your audience? Might you have any comments on the idea of the “pandering to the presumed gatekeeper” – an upper-class, white woman in publishing – that recent Man Booker-winner Marlon James wrote about earlier this year?
I can’t say that considerations of audience are completely absent from my mind as I write. I mean, it’s part of the existential crisis of the writer, right? Who in the world will ever want to read this? But instead of the upper-class white woman that James mentions, I have in mind a more personal audience: friends, fellow writers, people I respect. And sure, some of those are upper-class white women (henceforth known as UCWW), but that’s not the totality of my audience. I think that if you’re too concerned with your audience, you end up limiting yourself too much. As in: Oh, I can’t put in that sex scene, it might turn off a UCWW. Or: I can’t have that guy’s head explode. Who will think of the UCWW? Won’t someone think of the UCWW?
Here’s a question a white author would probably never get asked: Why did you decide not to include any Vietnamese/Vietnamese American characters in After Disasters?
Maybe that’s part of my reaction of/against the UCWW. I think writers of color oftentimes have this burden of representation. And it’s not that I’m uninterested in the Vietnamese/-American life, but I don’t necessarily feel beholden to be its representative. One of the books that influenced me greatly in this regard was reading [Michael] Ondaatje’s The English Patient. It somehow gave me “permission” to write these other, vastly different, points of view.
So why India? And international aid workers? Besides the earthquake being “real,” what other research did you need to do?
Why India? Hmm… you know, people have been asking me about the genesis of the novel, and to be honest, it’s lost to the mists of time. But the novel actually started with the relationship between Dev and Ted, which comprises the middle section of the novel. And from there, I suppose the story kept spinning itself outward. I’ve never been an aid worker myself, so there was a bit of research I had to do – first-hand accounts/narratives, etc. – but the biggest piece of research that really kickstarted the novel was actually traveling to India in 2008 and interviewing survivors of the earthquake, as well as seeing some of the destruction that was still evident.
Of your main quartet, do you have a certain character with whom you most identify and/or is most like you?
Hmm, I would almost have to say the main character, Ted. I identify most with his narrative arc, I think… a person who can (and will) fuck up badly, and yet wants to redeem himself.
That describes so many of us! So in your novel, you don’t follow the (proverbially pushy) “write-what-you-know” trope. Since, as you mentioned, this novel’s origins are lost in the “mists of time,” in general, where do you search for/find/explore the inspiration for your stories?
Inspiration comes from so many places that I don’t find myself turning to any single source. Weirdly enough, I’ve been inspired from everything from an episode of Judge Judy to pieces of music I hear. Writers are – and have to be, I think – magpies, stealing a little bit from everything.
Since you brought it up, I must ask: how did Judge Judy appear in your fiction?
It was a case involving a dog. Someone had shot another person’s dog that was on their property, and the owner of the dog was suing to recoup the vet bills. I liked that idea – well, not of the shooting, but of how these people had intersected – and the story grew from that.
Horror films and Judge Judy—we’re getting quite the picture of your off-the-page life! Any other secret viewing vices you might want to share?
Let’s see: I’m also a big fan of wuxia [“martial hero”] films. And of The Criterion Collection.
The past few years have seen a surge of ethnic Vietnamese authors, especially in the U.S. How thrilling that Viet Thanh Nguyen won the latest Pulitzer for The Sympathizer, for example. (He was a BLOOMer, too, before his big win!) You mentioned above that you don’t want to be “representative” but any thoughts on being part of this welcome new wave?
Gosh, the more, the merrier! It’s interesting how, in the past, the publishing industry seemed to push out certain under-represented groups in waves: in the ‘90s, there was the wave of Chinese American authors led by Amy Tan, as well as of gay male authors. I wouldn’t call it a wave of Vietnamese authors – maybe a gentle splash – but it’s fascinating to see us (if I can use the collective pronoun) approach our material and subject matters so differently. Diversity within a subgroup.
Besides writing, you teach … how do you balance the two careers?
Ah, the work/life balance: it’s the see-saw everyone seems to fall off of. I don’t actually find a balance. I simply fall into whatever state of homeostasis that appears as I scrape through my day.
How do your students inspire/influence you?
The act of writing can be infectious. Even if most of my students don’t make writing their careers, I like the idea that I’m encouraging the love of reading in them.
Your first book tour is forthcoming, yes? Besides meeting your groupies, any specific expectations/concerns?
Well, first it would be to create more groupies! Also, roadies, if possible, because carrying books will ruin my back. But beyond that… simply meeting fellow readers and lovers of literature is always a joy. I’m forever peering at the spines of random people reading. It does my heart proud.
And once you finally recuperate from all that traveling and meet-and-greet, what’s next on the writing docket? Finishing that short story collection? Another novel? Something totally different?
So, yeah, I’ve got both of those pulling me in different directions. As I mentioned before, I’m pulling together a collection of horror movie-themed stories, but I’ve also started work on a new novel that takes place in an even more exotic location.
Hmm … no more details than that little teaser? You’re so … Asian!
It’s like MSG… keep them coming back for more!
Author interview: “Q&A with Viet Dinh,” Bloom, August 23, 2016
Author photo credit: Paul Pruitt