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A Few Words From Viet Thanh Nguyen

Hosting Viet Thanh Nguyen on a panel was one of Stuart’s highlights of the Tucson Festival of Books…for the decade. Viet is witty, humble, and brilliant–all qualities that shine through his most recent work, the memoir, A Man of Two Faces.

Stuart tried to take good notes on some of Viet’s best answers to the questions he patiently endured. We hope you enjoy his company half as much as we did.


SH: In your book, you trademark the American Dream™. You’ve also said that Hollywood is the unofficial Ministry of Propaganda for America™.  At what point in the writing process did you realize that this branding was going to be such a central organizing principle for your work?

VTN: As serious as the subject matter of the book is, I think it’s also really playful. I had a lot of fun writing the first two thirds of this book. Two things in my life really set the context for this, one is that I read a lot of contemporary poets of color. In writing about some of them, you read their work, you feel very serious things; however, they’re very playful at the level of language. They use the typography, they rearrange words on the page, to emphasize certain things they’re trying to discuss. Prose writers are not allowed to do that. I don’t know why. Poets can do whatever they want. So I wanted to capture in the writing of this book some of the playfulness I found in these poets. The playfulness is also serious at the same time because they’re using the playfulness to again emphasize certain kinds of aesthetic or political/personal issues. 

So I just let myself go, and it felt right in talking about America. Many people probably routinely say “America” without thinking twice. No matter your politics, we have probably internalized to one degree or another the power of American mythology. To even say the word “America” already implies so many things that many of us take for granted. I wanted to make sure that when people saw the word America, they stopped and had to think about what the very meaning of that word is. 


SH: You’ve discussed how being a model minority, you have to express your gratitude by successfully validating the American Dream™. Is that something that you’ve fought against, that you have to constantly guard against? Or did you never really think you were going to fall prey to it?

VTN:I’ve read a lot of Asian American literature, a lot of so-called “ethnic memoirs” and “ethnic autobiographies.” I think I have a pretty good idea about how it is that a minority or a person of color is supposed to tell their story in the United States. I can give you a five step program of how to write an ethnic bestseller, in case you’re interested. 

I’m not interested in telling that story. I’ve seen it 1,000 times and I know exactly how it’s going to be interpreted. Basically the situation is that Americans are perfectly willing to accept that the United States treats its immigrants kind of harshly, that we had a complicated history, we’ve had an imperfect union; however, the arc of history is inevitably going to make us perfect. “It’s too bad that your immigrant parents or grandparents had these travails, but look at you!” I wanted to make sure that even if I told my family’s story–because it is a meaningful story, a powerful story, an emotional story–that I wasn’t going to let the readers off the hook in terms of allowing readers to turn back to the standard American mythology within which so many of our stories are contained. 


SH: You’re talking about not letting the reader off the hook. Your book contains a pretty good skewering of what you call the “quiet American.” We’ve got the quiet American and the “ugly American.” The “quiet American” is the polite, sensitive person who’s appreciative of multiculturalism but still sort of endorses special ops blowing up innocents with drone strikes, or at least doesn’t do anything to oppose it. As my 18 year old daughter would say, “I feel attacked.” 

VTN: There are different ways in which writing can provoke and writing can entertain. We’re not supposed to educate in contemporary American prose. One of the standard cliches of writing is “show, don’t tell.” That’s perfectly fine; it works in a lot of contexts. But sometimes I’m also really interested in telling. 

When I’m writing memoir, I’m certainly aware of show, don’t tell. I’m aware of the compulsion to reveal the secret, to reveal the trauma. I mean, why would you read someone’s memoir unless there’s something traumatic? “I had a great life.” “Oh okay, good!” I’m more than aware of all the formulas I can choose to work with. But I am also turned on by provocation, by satire—all those things are art forms to me as well. I think you can, in fact, provoke, entertain, educate, satirize all within 10 or 15 pages. 


SH: This book represents a shift in genre for you. You have had great success with your novels, and a lot of times I think that success can potentially get you stuck. It can make you feel like: “I’m a hero and I’m going to stay here.” But you switched positions, to use a baseball analogy, and you started working in a different genre.

VTN: One of the themes of A Man of Two Faces is about coming to the point where I’m able to trust my own intuition and my own rhythm and my own internal voice. Because I grew up raised by very devout Catholic parents who are also Vietnamese which meant I was extremely repressed. Then I went to get my PhD in English which means by repression grew even deeper. Self-repressed is really good for being an academic. It’s not so good for being a writer. So for me to become a writer was about trying to identify where that repression was, where it was coming from, and how to lift it off in order to give access to this voice inside–which also has become increasingly a childlike voice. I if you read the book, there’s a lot of political critique and obscenities and things like that, but it’s all born from the spirit of getting close to that child who’s willing to speak the truth as they believe in it without worrying about what the adult or the authority or the culture at large is going to say. 


Audience member: I wonder if you would tell us, other than family members, who has been most influential in your life and why? 

VTN: It would have to be my partner, my wife. When I told her I was writing this memoir, what she said was, “Don’t write about me.” She reads everything I’ve written. So I finish the book and I give it to her and she reads it and she says to me, “Why am I not in the book?” So the penultimate chapter of the book is, in fact, something I wrote after that. She said, “I think you really need to write about your and my nuclear family.” Not because she wanted to be in the book per se, but she was right. Becoming a husband, becoming a father, was crucial to myself as a person and myself as a writer as well.

Out & About: There’s Room For Me (For You) Here


BA’s Madison Utley shares her thoughts after attending the 2023 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Seattle. 


There are two primary ways to experience a room full of people attempting to do some version of the same thing as you; I thought I might be intimidated and that my latent imposter syndrome could very well make an appearance. Instead, I was struck by a fully articulated sense of: there is room for everybody here, creatively. 

Something Stuart and I discuss often is the notion that your creativity is inexhaustible. As a writer, you don’t have a finite amount of worthwhile words inside of you. Trusting that in your gut allows the creative process to flow, uninhibited, creating space for the important work of revision to take place and ultimately leading to a stronger, more robust final result.

That concept felt like it had applicability as I looked around these cavernous rooms full of writers and editors who are making money or aspiring to make money doing this, who are published or want to be published, who are incredibly experienced or brand new in the space. There was such range in how people are engaging with the writing world and the ways in which they’re trying to make a home for themselves here. The realization was liberation.

Why the hell not throw myself into the fray? 

There is no right way to produce or engage with art. I left AWP with the clear sense that no one present had some concrete secret I needed to get my grubby little hands on and the confidence there isn’t some hidden curtain us newer writers need to peek behind for it all to make sense.

It’s really just about bringing a doing energy to your writing pursuits. You can draw inspiration from a room full of creatives, but not be constrained by what they’re saying about their own journey. You can look to the writing community for guidance and encouragement, but not for a list of rules to follow to find commercial or artistic success. This is about you, and owning that you’re meant to be in the writing world because you decided to be here.

That confidence powers creative thinking, powers creative living, powers art.


Knowing Your Why: 2022 Tucson Festival of Books

Book Architecture’s very own Stuart Horwitz had the opportunity to moderate two panels at the 2022 Tucson Festival of Books. The authors who participated in the sessions have published novels across a swath of genres but, in their own way, each linked the success they have found in their careers to having identified and articulated the why behind their writing. Without that clarity and conviction, it becomes much harder to get a work over the finish line and into readers’ hands. Below is a compilation of some of their key thoughts from the TFOB panels and beyond. 



Beasts of a Little Land, Juhea Kim

Juhea is a writer, artist, and advocate based in Portland, Oregon. Beasts of a Little Land is her debut novel, but she is also the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling, an online magazine at the intersection of sustainable lifestyle and ecological literature. 

Juhea says, “Why do [I] write? No one ever asks me this but I repeat this every morning while taking a walk in my neighborhood. I write to save nature and reduce animal suffering. That’s the throughline of my work across genres (essays, journalism, short stories, novel) even when the writing in question doesn’t look like it has anything to do with nature. 

Knowing the reason I write was what kept me from giving up whenever I was staring down yet another rejection. And it will continue to inspire me through the ups and downs of writing life.”


The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer

Melodie is a physician-scientist and associate professor of neurology at Columbia University. She has published over fifty academic articles and contributed to several anthologies. For her, fiction writing is an invaluable outlet that brings balance to her otherwise fact-bound life. 

“The way I do scientific research goes something like this: I come up with a question I don’t know the answer to. I try to look up the answer. If I don’t find an answer, I look harder, and in more sources. If I still don’t know the answer, I ask colleagues with expertise. If no one knows the answer, or even better, if there is disagreement, or even controversy about the answer, that’s when I know I’ve found my next research project… 

“But in fiction, uncertainty is a foundation for invention. That means I get to make things up. And that is intensely pleasurable.”


Our Woman in Moscow, Beatriz Williams

Beatriz got her MBA in finance from Columbia University and worked as a corporate strategy consultant in New York and London for many years. 

She said, “The business career was something I was doing to be successful at, until I had the nerve to try what I really wanted. I was always writing. I was literally writing books on company laptops and scrubbing the files before I turned the laptop in. It was always what I wanted to do.”

Once Beatriz stepped away from her career to have her children, she decided it was time to prioritize her decades-long urge to write with more commitment. 

“I thought, it almost doesn’t matter now if I crash and burn — at least my kids need me and love me. Now that writing was no longer the most important thing, I had the guts to go ahead and try it.”


A Ballad of Love and Glory, Reyna Grande

Reyna crossed the US–Mexico border to join her family in Los Angeles as a young girl, a harrowing journey chronicled in her memoir, The Distance Between Us. For Reyna, the why behind her dedication to her writing career had a real urgency to it. 

She said, “When I discovered books, I felt that I had been saved. My childhood was full of things that were beyond my control. Books gave me an escape. I was able to hide in the pages of those books and for a moment get away from all the chaos around me. 

“Once I discovered Latino Literature when I was in college, the books I read helped me to define myself. I was Mexican and American. I could celebrate my Mexican culture while at the same time also feel at ease in the American culture. They helped me not to feel torn between the two.”

Both of these things helped equip Reyna with the tools she needed to write her memoir. 

“A lot of books about immigration are from third parties who are researching the topic, and they’re interviewing immigrants to write their experiences down, but it’s very rare when that immigrant gets to tell that story herself without having somebody else tell it for her. That’s what I’m really grateful for—that I can use my own voice to tell my own story. I wish more immigrants had that opportunity,” she said.


Island Queen, Vanessa Riley

In addition to being a novelist, Vanessa has an astounding number of degrees (like we’re talking: a doctorate in mechanical engineering and a master’s in industrial engineering and engineering management from Stanford University, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Penn State University). While her published novels are rich and varied, they are united in putting women and people of color–groups that have largely gone voiceless in history books and historical fiction–in the spotlight, reminding readers that they too lived and loved fiercely, and had complex and rich lives and legacies. 

Vanessa said, “Female-centered historical novels are having a moment, particularly when uncovering little-known histories. Resistance to these narratives, which cast heroines with agency, hidden talents and extraordinary achievements, has declined, but only after a hard-fought battle. 

“Perhaps women have won the war and we can pen stories of our ancestors without the dreaded attack of the old guard — a patriarchy accustomed to controlling the narrative and wielding the term “historical accuracy” like a weapon.”


The Christie Affair, Nina de Gramont

Nina is a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She is the author of The Last September, several young adult novels, and The Christie Affair which was her first New York Times bestseller. 

Nina diligently worked at her writing career for years, motivated and sustained by the why that was entrenched deep within her. 

Upon the success of The Christie Affair she said, “If this had happened when I was 25, I’d think that it meant I was really brilliant. Happening at 55, I know it means I’m really lucky. So I’m appreciating it, for sure.”

Out & About: Two Trains Running

In September’s newsletter, I told you about a project I supported as a developmental editor: Aren’t We Lucky? Stories of Resilience from the InkHouse Community. What I didn’t share is that I was fortunate enough to be invited to contribute an essay of my own to the compilation.

Now it’s a daunting task to be asked to capture the essence of resilience in a 600-word essay, but I had a secret weapon. Because I was privileged to coach each writer featured in the book, what I wrote had the benefit of being inspired by all of them, and wouldn’t have been possible without them.

What I realized, in the end, is this: Resilience is already there inside you. It is more a matter of accessing it. You can believe in other people’s resilience as a reminder to them, maybe, or a placeholder, but you can’t inject it into them any more than you can motivate their blood to pump. It is something we must find our way to ourselves.

It’s not often in the Covid era that we get a chance to read to each other, so I’m excited to share my essay in this form here.

  1. Two Trains Running