The Secret to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Overnight Success
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.
Joe Fassler: Your public life as a novelist has really only been about two years long — but I’ve read in interviews that writing fiction was important to you for many years before that. Tell me about your private life as a fiction writer.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I started writing fiction semi-seriously when I was in college. But I felt I was a better scholar than a fiction writer, so I decided to pursue academia and graduate school. I thought that I would write fiction on the side and when I got tenure, I’d concentrate on the fiction more fully.
That’s not quite how things turned out. It took me 20 years to learn how to be a writer, and part of that was because I was also being an academic at the same time. It was very much a long-term act of trying to balance both of these sides of myself — dealing not only with the demands of the art, but also with the petty world of ego and human vanity. I simply wasn’t making as much progress as quickly as I wanted on the fiction, and that was hard.
JF: How did you actually make time for your creative work, given the demands of full-time teaching and academic work?
VTN: Well, I’m very fortunate that I’ve had a very tolerant partner for most of that time. The reality was that there was very little free time, because academia is obviously a full-time job, and then writing had to come on top of that. I wouldn’t say that writing was another full-time job, but it consumed a lot of hours.
During the summers, I’d have enough free time that I could writer. But during the semester, I would probably do some work on the weekend, and whenever I had free time — when I wasn’t grading midterms, for example. During the teaching periods, I never got to write every day. I would only get to write every once in a while. The luxury of writing every day was not something I had the discipline to do.
It really wasn’t until I had writing residencies that I could write full-time. The first time that ever happened to me was not until 2004, when I did a fellowship at the Fire Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Then I really got to know what it meant to be a full-time writer, and it was a really difficult experience.
JF: I imagine that kind of pure, unstructured time was the opportunity you’d always been waiting for. But you’re saying it was difficult?
VTN: Very difficult. Up until that time, I’d been writing in the margins of my life — longing, just longing for the moment when I could write full-time. As a result, I was also completely unrealistic about my abilities. Up until that moment, I’d been thinking: oh, I’m actually a pretty good writer. I just need that chance. If I could just be full-time for a while, I can finish this book of short stories that I’m writing.
So I got the chance. But Provincetown was a disaster. Finally, after all that time, I could write eight hours a day — and the outcome was completely bad. Number one, I was forced to confront the fact that I had a completed inflated sense of my own abilities. Number two, I was forced to confront the difficult reality that I had much more work to do before I could become even a competent writer.
That year was supposed to be the wonderful moment in my creative life up until that point, and it turned out to be the worst moment. And I realized that I faced a choice: I could give up on being a writer, or I could decide to persist. I decided to persist, and I think that was the moment that I really started becoming a writer. It was the process of overcoming those unrealistic expectations, of buckling down and spending another decade writing, that was really transformative.
JF: After that humbling experience at Provincetown, did you change anything about your schedule, your mindset, or your approach to writing?
VTN: Well, two things. One, I did change my approach to writing. I realized that I can’t write eight hours a day, which is what I was trying to do. The next time I had a long stretch of time to write, I only gave myself four hours a day. That was the right amount of time. There’s something about writing that, to me, is much more exhausting than office work, for example, or academic work, which I can do eight hours a day or more. For me, four hours seems to be the right amount.
I think it was Hemingway who said he’d stop writing when he reached a good moment — stop when you feel happy with the day’s work, and when you’re in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph while you still have an idea of what’s going to take place next. And resume the next day. That’s great advice, and I took it to heart.
The other thing I learned is that, for me, part of being a writer is about endurance. The ability to withstand rejection, and neglect, and obscurity, and all of that. I really began to learn that for real in Provincetown, because up until then I could imagine that I was an academic. There was a reason I wasn’t getting my creative work done, and I had all these excuses lined up for why I wasn’t writing more.
But after Provincetown, there was no excuse. That whole decade following that, right up until The Sympathizer was published, was about learning how to endure, just living with the art itself. Just trying to be faithful to the art, and believing that if I took as long as I needed to take, something good would come out of it. I learned I could not force myself to, let’s say, write the book within a year, simply because I wanted that success. It wasn’t going to happen.
JF: Still, it must have been hard at that point to have your career be so lopsided: your academic credentials greatly outweighed your creative accomplishments, even if your heart was really with your fiction. How difficult was that for you, emotionally, during the long period in which you wrote your novel?
VTN: It was hard, because I was successful in my academic career and I knew exactly what to do to maintain that. I could have just stayed with that, you know? But then, because I decided to devote much more time to writing fiction, it meant that both of my careers were developing at an equally slow pace. On the academic side, I could see other people moving far ahead of me, and that was distressing. On the fiction side, I thought that I was moving too slowly — I felt I would never have the time to get a book published.
It was difficult enough just to learn how to write. But also, because I’m a petty human being, I was concerned about whether or not my efforts would have any kind of material outcome. What if I spent 10 or 20 years doing this, and I could still not get a book published, and then both my careers would be a disaster? Just trying to live with that possibility, and trying to have faith that I could do this, was really very challenging.
JF: Considering how badly things went at Provincetown, and what an ongoing struggle the work was, what made you stick with it? What kept you from giving up?
VTN: Occasionally I would get some recognition. I did sell a story when I was in Provincetown; from there, every year or two, I’d sell a short story or something. So small rewards came in little bursts. They didn’t happen very often, and they didn’t bring very much money or renown, but it was enough to keep me going.
Besides that, I think it was just sheer stubbornness, and the willingness to just work. For me, writing is about just sitting in a room, looking at the computer screen — no music, no window, just a blank wall. It’s a grind, but there was something in me that could endure all of that. I don’t know where it comes from. I do think a lot of it comes from my parents. I grew up watching them work 12 to 14 hours a day without relief.
While what I do as a writer is nowhere near as physically taxing as what they endured, I think that I learned lessons from them about just persevering, just putting one foot in front of the other, and hoping that would take you somewhere far, eventually.
JF: I don’t know about your parents’ work — tell me more about that.
VTN: They ran a grocery store for a decade during the key years of my youth. It was a brutal experience, physically brutal, but also very violent because of crime that you have to endure as a small business owner in a working-class neighborhood. It was very tough for me to watch them do that. While I never wanted to do anything like that, I certainly looked to their model of sacrifice.
I think being a writer very much involves sacrifice. Let’s say you use Malcom Gladwell’s figure, the 10,000 hours he’s said you have to work before you can learn to do something well. (I recently I had to count all the hours I spent in that early period for a sake of my accountant — and 10,000 hours was about what it came out to, disbursed over 15 or 20 years.) That means you have to give up 10,000 hours of your life, which could be much more productively used for your career, or for just entertainment and pleasure. The challenging thing is that there’s no guarantee those 10,000 hours are going to lead to anything whatsoever, besides what is meaningful personally.
JF: We first spoke in 2015, shortly after The Sympathizer was published, but before the book was awarded the Pulitzer. You explained how you came upon the novel’s open sentence, a breakthrough moment in a long, arduous process, one that helped you finally understand the novel’s tone and terms. Where were you in the process when you at last wrote that all-important first line?
VTN: I knew when I set out to write the novel that the opening was really important — that it would set the tone for the entire novel. And so, immediately after I wrote the outline for the novel (which is only two pages), I set about trying to figure out the opening scene and what that opening line would be. It took me, I think, pretty much the entire summer of 2011, which is when I started writing The Sympathizer.
It took all summer, but when I finally got that opening sentence, I wrote to a friend — who, besides my partner, was the only person I was talking to about the novel. “I’ve got it,” I said. “I’ve got this opening line.” And I was right. The voice and rhythm of that line drove the entire book.
JF: We all know how this story ends: You finished the novel, and published it to great acclaim. But there’s no way you could have known that outcome then. Let’s just say it went the other way, as it does for so many writers — even deserving one. Let’s say The Sympathizer had sat, instead, in your drawer. Do you think you would have been content with the sacrifices you’d made anyway?
VTN: I’m not the right person to ask, in some ways — because I did get rewarded for my work. It’s hard for me to put myself in a hypothetical situation where these things didn’t happen to me. The last 18 months have been crazy, and mind-boggling, but they’ve obviously made the last 20 years totally worth it.
But if my reality had turned out differently, if I never got a book published, would it have been worthwhile? I like to think that it would have been. Writing is only partially about the external rewards of publishing a book — even only partially about the external manifestation of the book itself.
There’s a spiritual dimension to it, I think. If someone finds it necessary to write, then it’s worth the sacrifice. By the way, that’s why I tell people: If you don’t find it necessary to write, you shouldn’t do it. This is not something that you want to voluntarily embark on because you think it’s going to be fun, or cool, or anything like that. It has to come out of some deep need.
If it’s coming out of that deep need, then the sacrifice will be worth it — because, I think, through the act of writing, you learn something about yourself. The whole idea about spirituality being necessary as a way of disciplining yourself, and separating yourself from the world of tempting vanities that is so tempting: I think that applies to writing as well. Even writing that doesn’t lead to a material outcome.
JF: So what was it that made it worth it for you, then? Before the publication came, before the book’s success?
VTN: I think that if I hadn’t become a writer, I would’ve done something else that would’ve required that discipline. I would have been a fanatical gardener, or a fanatical cook, or something like that. For those of us who become writers, we have that trait within ourselves — this desire to master something. A desire to try to become an expert at something through the art — something somehow related to what we feel, and what we need spiritually.
It’s a lifelong endeavor. I think that, even if I hadn’t somehow gotten a book published in the last few years, I would’ve kept at it. You know, there are these stories of writers who don’t get published until they’re in their 50s, or 60s, or 70s. Sometimes, that’s the reality of things.
Of course, I hope my career isn’t finished. And if it isn’t, there will be future tests of my spirit, and my soul, and everything else still ahead — whole different set of tests than what I’ve already been through. I have to believe that I can face those as well.