What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.
My latest book is a novel called The Alphabet of Vietnam. Vietnam is a word that simultaneously conjures up a country and a war – and not just any war. It was a war that revealed to America a glimpse of the darkness of its own psyche. This novel is an exploration of this darkness and its continuing ability to infect the present. In short, when men come back from war, they bring the war back with them.
Jack Gauss is a middle aged, balding, overweight history teacher seemingly happy in his childless marriage to Norma. But then his brother, Joe, commits suicide. Jack soon discovers that his brother has led a hidden life as a serial kidnapper and killer of young women. He also discovers that Wash, Joe’s Vietnam buddy, is still hiding out in a cabin in the Appalachian mountains with a girl. In a final letter to Jack, Joe asks him to go and rescue the girl.
So starts a novel that sends Jack into the Appalachian hills, and later to Vietnam where he tries to understand the war and Joe’s experience of it. There, he discovers the work of a popular but officially disapproved of Vietnamese feminist poet whose work he translates. This narrative is also central to the novel.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
To my mind there are two things that make a worthy writer: life and commitment. Why do we think the next great novel is going to come from a young person? It is the middle aged and elderly who have lived life. Fiction that is not informed by a mind that has had some experience of life is not worth reading. So live life and explore yourself in that life – be aware, listen, feel.
The second thing is to write and keep writing. It doesn’t matter what. You have to believe that once you have mastered the tools of writing and made the writing of words seem like a natural extension of the brain that the narratives will come.