The Millions Interview: Nam Le

August 11, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 2 6 min read

coverNam Le is the author of the debut short story collection, The Boat, which Junot Diaz calls, “an extraordinary performance.” Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote that Le’s “sympathy for his characters and his ability to write with both lyricism and emotional urgency lend his portraits enormous visceral power.” I agree. I went to graduate school with Nam, and in our first week, he called to me from across the bar: “I read your story… you animal!” It felt like a real creative writing buddy moment. It’s been great fun seeing him gain all of this much-deserved acclaim.

The Millions: Although you capture a wide range of voices and locales in these stories, the prose in this collection feels distinctly yours, from the well-placed sentence fragment to the descriptions of light. Can you talk a little bit about how you craft sentences, and how language creates the worlds you’re exploring?

Nam Le: There are so many ways to think and talk about this (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.

TM: How long did you work on the stories in this collection, and what was the revision process like, especially once you conceived of these stories as a book?

NL: I worked on this book about four years all up. It’s tough to divvy up the time because the whole process can be so lurching and spasmodic: basically the first versions of these stories were written over two years, then they were rewritten and revised pretty intensely for the next year (those that got placed in magazines in collaboration with the respective editors), then again, for another year – at times from the ground up – with my U.S. editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, and, to a lesser extent, my Australian editor at Penguin, Meredith Rose – both tough, sensitive and superb editors. As tough as they were, though, inevitably I was my own toughest critic. I wanted to discharge what I knew to be the insane privilege of getting published with the personal undertaking to myself that every word, every choice, would be weighed, tested, spoken for. I wanted to be able to stand behind each story (even if only, at the end, to boot them out of the room).

Revision’s hard, of course. There’s none of the typical pay-off of plowing new turf, it’s a constant challenge to fence with different sensibilities as well as to gauge the slippery sensibility of that hypothetical reader, and maybe worst of all, the whole thing’s potentially endless. Time and time again you have to convince yourself you’re completely done with something – then time shows you again and again you’re not. A case in point: “Halflead Bay” arose out of the germ of another story, “The Keeper,” the former clocking in at about 20,000 words, the latter 16,000. Not a single sentence made it from “The Keeper” into “Halflead Bay” – that despite the fact that I was at one time convinced (at the end of many drafts) that “The Keeper” was absolutely done. This sort of anticipatory second-guessing can make it hard to knock off a story, let alone a collection of stories (where by the time you’re done with one story, you’ve got all the others to re-contend with as well).

TM: In “Meeting Elise”, the narrator receives a painful colon exam. Have you ever received this kind of treatment, and if not, how did you go about writing about such a subject? How far will you go in the name of research?

NL: I know your game, Edan – you want me to deny this so that later, when I refuse to deny something else, you can infer it’s true! Did I undergo a painful colon exam? I’m certainly not going to answer this kind of question and the answer is certainly no.

That said, I’m not averse to going as deep as possible in the name of research. In this case, for example, I consulted doctor buddies, looked up medical sites and blogs and checked out photos and videos (which in themselves were plenty painful for me). Generally speaking, nothing’s off-limits when it comes to research – it’s just a case of from how far into the rough you like to putt.

TM: I know that you repeatedly watched the pilot to the television show “Friday Night Lights”, at one point charting the various plot points introduced. Why – was it more than mere curiosity? Do you look to other forms of storytelling (television being one example) to help you with your own work?

NL: Wow, it’s like we’re friends or something – like you actually know me! (Either that or you have a hidden recorder on my TV set, which is something I’d rather not think about…) Look, if there’s one thing we literateurs like to lament even more than the inferiority of TV to books, it’s the implied inferiority – aesthetic, intellectual – hell, political and cultural too – of TV-watchers vis-a-vis book-readers. There’s overlap between the groups, obviously, but it’s not exactly subversive to suggest that TV, more than literature, caters to society’s lowest common denominator. I don’t disagree with this, but I do think this lowest common denominator might be higher than we give it credit for. For me, TV (and yes, other forms of storytelling too) can provide instruction in a lot of particulars, but perhaps, especially, in the art of narrative manipulation. Watching the pilot of “Friday Night Lights” – a network, not cable, show, mind you – makes me newly sick with envy of the brutal economy of film. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, how to calculate the worth of a thousand pictures, stitched together to convey continuous real-time motion, and then underlaid with sound?) When it’s well done (and in “Friday Night Lights” I think it is) TV serves to remind us how sophisticated even the “commonest” audience is – how many narratives it’s capable of holding at any given time, how deftly it can unpack story and character ramifications based on the scantest of cues, how easily it can calibrate plots and sub-plots working at parallel- and cross-purposes. Of course there’s massive shorthand at work, and the recognitions evoked are typically shallower, more familiar, less textured, than arise out of literature – but in truth I find the narrative structures of “cheap” TV shows more adventurous and formally emboldened than those of “literary” fiction. Plus TV’s often more fun – and I’m sure a large chunk of my own fiction could probably use a primer there too.

TM: You were a fellow at Provincetown – a place that would certainly terrify me in the winter, especially if all I had to do was write. What did you do with your time there? Does your writing process change with any of these moves in locale?

NL: Provincetown during the winter is a magical place. The most beautiful thing about it is how it coheres with the mood of your work; that feeling you usually have to spend time and energy and luck chasing down before being granted access, that feeling that, in the real world, is constantly short-circuited – by the real world. In P-town, it’s as though your creative sensibility is never shut down, is left on permanent standby, and you’re always writing, even when you’re walking, or watching TV, or cooking, or clamming, or playing ping-pong. On top of that, P-town brings together three elements which make me feel more fully alive – the beach, big weather, and a community of artists not limited to just writers. There was only one downside. I lived in the A-framed top floor of a barn and the toilet was tucked into one of the vertices; I half-sprained my back every time I took a piss.

TM: What’s your impression of the American literary scene, now that you’ve had a book published and been on book tour?

NL: So far as I can tell: in terms of clout, cash, influence, reach, interconnectedness, and, to my mind, aesthetic ambition and distinction (in all senses of the word), it’s still the biggest game in town. I don’t mean that as provocative statement (I’m writing this from Australia) but as a surmise based on my limited personal observation. Big is both good and bad. Looked at from a mainstream vantage, the American literary scene can seem oligarchic, self-sustaining, incestuous – the same conglomerations publish the prohibitive majority of books sold and given serious attention – and, too, soulless and numbers-driven. Yes, it’s a machine. But now I’ve been chewed up and spat out by it, I can report that it’s a machine with many moving parts, many points of input, potential jams, and built-in redundancies. It’s a machine still largely fueled by aesthetic passion and enormously dependent on voodoo, timing, and serendipity. It’s a machine still tended by human beings working in something close to a state of faith (or, in another way of thinking, professional negative capability) – because, amazingly, no-one yet knows how exactly the machine works – or how exactly to work it.

From a more inside-baseball perspective, the literary scene can actually seem quite decentralised and diverse. This is particularly true on the emerging end, where MFAs teem and thrive alongside literary presses, magazines, journals, zines, blogs, etc, as well as – all the way up the spectrum – festivals, readings and reading series, book clubs and groups, independent stores, and various reviewing and lit crit forums. There’s a lot of news about literary culture currently being under siege – and a lot of truth to that – but having felt the community and energy out there I can’t help but wonder whether this might be, in fact, the ideal condition for literature.

TM: What was the last great book you read?

NL: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


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