By Geoff Schumacher
AMES, Iowa — In the summer of 2010, in a coffee shop across the street from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus, I interviewed the writer Vu Tran. The interview was prompted by the news that Tran had been hired to teach creative writing at the University of Chicago. Tran was an adjunct faculty member at UNLV at the time, and a hot literary prospect. He recently had won a coveted Whiting Writers’ Award, and a New York publishing house had committed to publish his unfinished novel. Although it was unlikely Las Vegas was going to keep Tran much longer, it was nonetheless a disheartening blow to the city’s burgeoning literary community.
Unfortunately, other commitments prevented me from transcribing the interview immediately. But more than nine months later, after I moved fifteen hundred miles from Las Vegas and started a new job, I found time to do so. I also contacted Tran to find out how things are going in Chicago. He revealed that it’s been a difficult transition for him, from the sunny, laid-back lifestyle of Las Vegas to a dramatically different place he summarized as “no parking, traffic, cramped spaces, the weather this year: the third worst blizzard on record, for fuck’s sake.”
“I miss Vegas tremendously,” Tran wrote. “Never thought I would miss it this much.”
Of course, any transition of this kind is going to be tough, as I’m discovering myself. On the positive side, Tran said he’s enjoying the academic life. “I love my classes here, and I love my students,” he said. “They’re all very talented and smart: Some are just fucking brilliant.”
Because he’s been so busy with “classwork and departmental duties,” Tran said he hasn’t done much work on his novel. But he plans to dive back into it this summer.
Tran, who is thirty-five, was born in Vietnam but moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, when he was five years old. His father had escaped from Vietnam in 1975, settling in Tulsa, and his family emigrated five years later.
Here are the best parts of the interview.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I remember very specifically that in first grade we had to write stories, and I wrote a story. All I remember about it is that it had one of those main-character-wakes-up-from-a-dream endings, one of those awful endings. But I remember reading it in front of the class and just enjoying that process, not only the performative process but writing something with the anticipation that someone will enjoy it. I was hooked from there on. I never really wanted to do anything else.
How did your family respond to that?
I come from a very pragmatic family and pragmatic culture. You do what you need to do to survive, you plan for the future, and stuff like that. My dad would have much preferred if I had gone into some sort of business. He’s a businessman. But there’s also this very significant respect in the Vietnamese culture for the writing profession, for artistic endeavor. You are very esteemed as a writer or an artist or what have you. Still, my dad would say, “Take some accounting classes in college just in case.” I did end up taking two accounting classes because of him — yeah, just in case. When I started winning some contests and getting some notice, they warmed up to the idea that this is all I wanted to do. And I think they became more comfortable when I was pursuing my Ph.D., because I would become a professor, which is a stable kind of profession and also a very respected profession.
What were some of the formative books for you?
To Kill a Mockingbird was a very formative book. The first serious literary novel I read was Jane Eyre, which I didn’t like. That was in seventh grade. In eighth grade I read To Kill a Mockingbird and the kind of narrative conventions that she uses, you know, the mysterious house in the neighborhood, those kinds of things interested me more than I thought. Just the child narrator, the retrospective narrator looking back on formative years, that really influenced me a lot.
The Narnia Chronicles were very, very influential. There was about a four-year span where almost all the stories I wrote were about characters going into alternate worlds. I think to a degree I still do that on a less fantastic level. I still kind of write that narrative.
When I got to college, I had a professor who became my mentor. His name was James Watson, and he was a Faulkner scholar from the University of Tulsa. He actually died this year, which was very sad for me. He made me appreciate Faulkner on various levels. But I think what he taught me the most was not just about Faulkner’s work, but about the whole idea of being a writer. Faulkner had the idea that, for example, he called The Sound and the Fury a “splendid failure.” The idea that you always try to pursue some idea of perfection, knowing full well you’ll never reach it. But it’s that pursuit that will make you a great writer. I think I learned a lot about ambition through Faulkner and through Dr. Watson. The idea, too, that you don’t walk into a room with a feather, you walk into a room with a brick. Not that you should be an asshole or a jerk, but that you should have that level of confidence in yourself, because that will translate in your writing. Whether you’re a shy person or a gregarious extrovert, that level of confidence, I believe, is very necessary if you want to be a good writer or a great writer, because people will feel that through your writing. I don’t read a lot of modernist writing anymore, but Faulkner was the guy who really made me think in that way.
Is there a particular Faulkner novel or story that’s your favorite?
My favorite of his novels would probably be Light in August and The Hamlet.
What do you like about Faulkner’s writing?
The thing about his writing is that, even at his most experimental, you always felt the beating heart there. In his Nobel speech, he said his aim was to write about the heart in conflict with itself. You really felt that through his writing. You knew you were reading something difficult and new and adventurous, but you also felt the beating heart behind that. That combination has always been very interesting to me. One without the other is not half as interesting.
Did you have a particular period when you wanted to write something that you wouldn’t do now?
In fifth grade, my first story collection was a sequel to a book called Mr. Pudgins, which was a male version of Mary Poppins. He’d go on these fantastic adventures with these kids he was taking care of. I wrote a sequel to that. Also, for a long time in my youth I wrote fairy tales. I think a lot of people do that. When I was in my teenage years, I wrote a lot of stories with fantastic elements, never really quite fantasy like The Lord of the Rings or science fiction but always some sort of realistic world with fantastic elements. When I got to college, I started writing in a much more realistic vein. And it often had an element of tragedy to it, because I think I was reading Faulkner too much. (Laughs.) A lot of kind of noirish violence. In a lot of ways, I’m returning to that now. In early college, I wrote a lot of stories with violent elements, very dark.
It wasn’t till my last year as an undergraduate that I started writing about Vietnam. I returned to Vietnam in 1996 for the first time since I actually escaped, and after that I wrote only stories concerned with Vietnam. That’s where it became less noirish and more of a naturalistic vein. More concerned with the real and historical world.
You got your undergraduate degree and your master’s at the University of Tulsa. Who were some of your contemporary influences during that time?
Tim O’Brien was a huge influence. I met him about three years ago and that was great to meet him and actually like him. Toni Morrison. For a long time I really liked Toni Morrison. She was probably my favorite writer for a long time. I started reading John Fowles, who is one of my favorite writers. It’s a shame that people forget him, because he was huge in the sixties. He was beloved by both fans and critics. He’s a very, very adventurous writer. Again, the same combination of innovation but also wonderful storytelling and human emotion. He was a huge influence on me. The African-American writers, for a long time I really, really loved them, because they had to write in a new mode to express their ideas of their American dilemma. By default, they were more adventurous writers.
Was there a connection with them for you?
For a couple of years, I would write stories with Vietnamese characters but the dilemma was obviously an African-American one, there was a racial element to it. I think I was conflating my own kind of outsider status with theirs. And of course they are very different identities and very different dilemmas. But I at least felt the superficial affinity.
So, then you went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
The two years in the program were the best two years of my life thus far. It was so exciting. First of all, I had lived in Tulsa all of my life, not really been around writers, and suddenly I’m in this community of very ambitious, very intelligent young writers, and I found a lot of great friends. A lot of people talk about how competitive Iowa is. It’s absolutely competitive, but I like that. It was just this very energetic period in my life where I was reading everything. I was very unfamiliar with contemporary fiction, so I started reading all these writers I was not familiar with at all. I learned so many things, not just in the program but outside of it, through my relationships with the other students. To finally be able to be in a situation where all I’m doing is reading and writing was what I’d wanted my entire life, just a chance to do what I love to do without any other distraction. It was just ideal. It was like a two-year summer camp.
Who were some of your teachers there?
Ethan Canin, Samantha Chang, Chris Offutt, Marilynn Robinson, and Frank Conroy. I guess I was in his third-to-last class.
Marilynn was the writer I admired the most but she was the one I learned the least from. Not that she was a bad teacher but I just didn’t learn much from her. Ethan Canin I learned a lot of practical things from. He was very supportive of me. I’ll always remember him for his support.
What kind of practical things?
Practical things like exploit your weaknesses. When you can learn to identify the flaws in your writing, one way of fixing them is to exploit them. If you have a character who’s a cliché, exploit the fact that he’s a cliché character, make a comment on it or turn the tables on the reader so he becomes the opposite of what he began as. Stuff like that.
I learned a lot about teaching from Chris Offutt. He was a good teacher, a good communicator. He talked to students as someone they could relate with. Frank Conroy, he gave me one good workshop and another workshop where he tore me a new asshole, where he just demolished me. And I learned a lot from that, because I was an over-writer. I was still trying to be Faulkner, you know. Very verbose, not enough control. And he taught me how to really write good prose.
After that episode with Conroy was over, did he have any comments, like, you’ve made a lot of progress or . . . ?
No, Frank was in many ways very standoffish. There were very few students he loved. He would be more nurturing with them. With me, I sometimes thought he didn’t even know my name. But he did and he remembered everything. He would surprise you.
People complained about him. Everyone was terrified of him. I didn’t take his workshop until my second year, because I was afraid. Everyone was afraid. And a lot of people still resent him for how brutal he was. But that brutality was necessary. If you want to be a great writer, you have to be able to take that kind of criticism. I think a lot of times when people talk about MFA programs, they bag on them because they think they can ruin young writers. That’s complete horseshit. Those writers who get ruined deserve to get ruined, I think. Because if you can’t handle that kind of pressure, you should not be writing. If you are going to let a writing program ruin you, then maybe you should find something else to do, because yeah, it’s personal, it’s very emotional. All writers are sensitive and you take everything personally, even if it’s not intended to be personal, but you need to learn from that. You need to either learn to accept that criticism or to reject it, not to be hurt or buried by it.
You also have to deal with the criticism of the other students in the class, right?
You can learn more from the big fat idiot in the class than from the guy who supports you, because the person whose criticism is stupid, you end up learning what you don’t want in your writing. And that’s just as important as learning what you do want. People forget that. The benefit of bad criticism is really good. You just have to know how to absorb it. Bad criticism is just as helpful as good criticism. Frank believed that. He was brutally honest because he cared a lot. He didn’t want you to waste your time.
One criticism of MFA programs that I hear is they kind of steer all these writers into the same kind of writing. What do you think about that?
There is such thing as a “workshop story.” But if you think about it, at any time in literary history, you have groups of people who start writing like each other. And the great ones always rise to the top. It depends on who you are talking about. Are you talking about great writers or are you talking about mediocre writers? If you are talking about great writers, you have nothing to worry about, because those men and women will always distinguish themselves. They will not write like everyone else. And a writing program is not going to change that. I think people overestimate the power of an MFA program. What it does is it teaches people how to write in a standard, clear, strong way. And yeah, that does all seem the same, but if you look at any era in history, most of the writing is the same. And that is the writing that is forgotten. The writers who rise to the top will always be a little different.
Who were some of your writing colleagues at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Curtis Sittenfeld, who wrote Prep. Reza Aslan, who’s the go-to guy for Middle Eastern issues. He’s on CNN a lot. Danielle Trussoni, who broke out with a book called Angelology. I overlapped with Anthony Swofford, who wrote Jarhead. They weren’t my closest friends, but Reza and I partied a lot. My closest friends are not as well known.
How did you end up at UNLV?
My third year in Iowa I was selling suits at Dillard’s, and I decided I needed to go back to school. I applied for USC’s Ph.D. program and UNLV’s Schaeffer Ph.D. program, and I ended up coming here because it was less expensive to live here, and they gave me a really generous three-year fellowship. And also, they seemed willing to let us do what we wanted and needed to do. It was a young program, which was exciting, and it was Las Vegas, so I came here for that, and it turned out to be the best decision, because Doug [Unger] and Richard [Wiley] and everyone else there, they are very supportive, incredibly supportive. Hands on when you need hands-on help, but for the most part they leave you alone and let you develop as you should develop, and that’s the best way to do it.
You came here more or less fresh from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which many say is the best writing program in the country. Did you feel like, “I’m the big guy on campus”? If so, how did that evolve?
I’ve always had a big ego, but I think most people coming from the workshop feel a little inflated sense of self. But I don’t think it was ever over-inflated. I think I would have had that sense of self even I hadn’t gone to Iowa. The thing is, I think I’ve always kept myself in check, because I expect a lot out of myself, so whatever environment I’m in, you find yourself comparing yourself to the people around you, but ultimately my standard are the writers I really love, my favorite writers, whether they are dead or alive. That standard never goes away. And that’s very humbling. I ended up confronting a lot of rejection here in Las Vegas, and really four or five years of not getting a book published, not getting a story collection published, and feeling very in doubt of my own talent. It was the toughest part of my life, in the sense that I was finally confronted with the idea that I might not be as talented as I think I am.
What was going on, do you think?
Number one, I think there was a downturn in the economy that had a little bit to do with that. But also, story collections were not being bought at the pace that they used to be. Publishers were much more wary of story collections and less willing to take a risk. The publishing industry has changed a lot over the last few decades but especially in the last ten years or so. Especially now, with e-books and everything. But even before that became popular, publishers were very risk-averse. Editors don’t buy books anymore, publishers buy books by committee. There’s only a handful of editors who can actually buy a book without asking anybody anymore.
It could very well be that my stories were not strong enough. I thought they were. I hope to still publish them. My Vietnam stories were not directly about the Vietnam War, so there wasn’t that marketing thread to kind of connect them. That was really tough to take for a good four years.
In the meantime, you were teaching, getting stories published, and getting your Ph.D.
I won a few contests, I was still kind of establishing my publishing credentials, but the book contract was still missing, and that was kind of hard to take. But I was writing, trying to work on the novel and teaching.
What was the turning point?
I got into the Best American Mystery Stories. It kind of started from there. Because my first novel was not working out.
What was the first novel about?
The first novel was kind of a very cliché ethnic novel. He was an American character who goes back to Vietnam to find a missing person. His father used to be in the war. There’s a secret back story that he’s going to uncover when he goes back to Vietnam. It’s kind of amazing how you suddenly realize you are writing the most cliché novel in the world. When I realized that, I said okay, unless I can fix this, I need to scrap it.
How did you get the book contract?
Around that time, my agent got back in touch with me. I’d been working with Alane Mason from WW Norton the whole time. My agent went out with my story collection in 2006. Alane was interested from the very beginning, but she couldn’t get her colleagues to agree. She was always in the back picture while we were looking at other houses. Up to the very end she was still interested. And so when my agent got back in touch with me, I told her I had this new novel that I was working on. She sent it over to that editor, Elaine, and Elaine was able to buy it this time. I currently have a contract for the novel with Norton, with kind of an implicit agreement that if the novel works out, the short stories will follow.
When you won the Whiting Award, what happened?
After I got the Whiting, I had more people pay attention to me. You look better on paper. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I’d rather just look better because my writing is better.
I’ve heard it said that the Whiting Award is the kiss of death for a young writer, kind of like the curse for appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
I really hope not! The Whiting is a somewhat good indicator of talent. But it’s not the perfect indicator of talent. But what’s funny is that people suddenly think you’re a good writer just because you won that without having read your work. I’m not always comfortable with that. But that’s how things work, and I understand that. It’s opened a lot of doors for me, not just in terms of writing but in terms of getting a job. I think that was crucial in me getting interviews.
How has your time in Las Vegas influenced your writing?
When you’re young, the world is all possibilities, and you have a perspective that anything is possible and ambition is endless. Once you reach a certain age or a certain point in your so-called career, you are confronted with failure. When I was young I thought, okay, I’m not as talented as I want to be, but I can get there. I still have all this time to be this genius or whatever. And then you realize, at least I did in the last five or six years, that I might not have the kind of talent that I want. But what you end up doing is folding those expectations into real life. You don’t discard your ambitions, you don’t necessarily compromise, but you fold them into the life you are given. Most importantly, what I’ve learned is to accept my abilities and my limitations but to also leave myself plenty of room to surprise myself. So, I think I leave Las Vegas being more aware of the limitations and knowing what it means to feel like you’re failing.
“Anything is possible.” That’s sort of a mantra for Las Vegas, isn’t it? It’s like every time you step up to the roulette wheel, it’s going to land on your color.
This city is always making itself over. It’s always renewing itself. It’s a place of endless optimism. I think the problem sometimes is it can be blind optimism. Life is not fair. The literary world is not fair. I tried so hard to understand and read the market. I don’t understand the market any better than I used to. Just try to do what you think is good. Try to write what you like to read. And then you don’t make bad decisions. That’s the best you can do sometimes. Because a lot of it is luck, and a lot of it has nothing to do with who deserves what.
That’s the type of wisdom you pick up here.
I still have to figure out how Vegas figures into this. I don’t think I’ll really understand until I have two or three years separation from this city. I’ve always thought I’ll appreciate the city more after I’m gone. I think that will be the case.
I know you are going to write about Las Vegas in your novel. Will leaving make it easier to write about Las Vegas?
Oh, I hope so! My biggest fear right now is I’m going to be writing the novel in Chicago and say, oh my God, I wish I could go here or there and do research or whatever and I won’t be able to. But I also think that the distance will clarify things and put them into focus much better.
Las Vegas seems like a great town for stories. Do you find that to be true?
I think Las Vegas is a good town for stories because there’s always the promise of a good story. There’s not necessarily a good story there but there’s always the promise of a good story, because people have those expectations of a town like this. Regardless of what the actual reality is, I think your reader will always have those expectations. That’s a benefit for you. You can go in any direction and most readers will follow you, because they implicitly know this is the kind of city where you’re going to have an interesting story.
One of the best things about writing about Las Vegas is that you can exploit so many of the expectations that people have about reading a Las Vegas story. I think that’s more true of Las Vegas than any other city except perhaps New York. Because people have such an ingrained idea of what this town is like. And that’s so ripe for the writer to take advantage of and play around with.
Did you read about Las Vegas when you were here?
I’ve read a lot about Las Vegas but it was mostly related to poker, because I was obsessed with poker.
How did you get into poker?
I got into poker to distract myself from the pain of being rejected. I was not seeing the developments I wanted in writing, so I started playing poker. I’ve always liked the game but I really got into it here. I started reading not so much the poker manuals but like James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street, which is an amazing book about Las Vegas history and the Binions. I read this wonderful book by Anthony Holden. He’s an Englishman and he’s actually a Shakespeare scholar. The book is called Big Deal. He spends a year being a professional poker player. It’s great. He wrote two books on it. Really great writing. I love those books. I ended up learning a lot about Las Vegas through those books.
Have you written about poker?
I have written about poker in a short story that I wrote for an upcoming anthology, Dead Neon. Poker figures pretty heavily in that story. I wrote a little bit about poker in the chapter I wrote for you last year [the serial novel Restless City]. And there’ll be a pretty significant element of poker in my novel, because one of the main characters is a gambler, a poker player. I’m also interested in poker because it is a very Asian pastime. It’s very ingrained in Asian culture. A lot of the professional poker players are Asian, particularly Vietnamese. I’m still trying to explore why these people love playing poker so much.
Have you read any good Las Vegas fiction?
For me the best Vegas book is Positively Fifth Street. In terms of the novel, I read Fear and Loathing and I didn’t love it. This is just a theory on my part, and it’s something I’m trying to deal with in my novel, but I feel like perhaps one of the reasons there hasn’t been a universally held great Vegas novel is because writers try too hard to give people the lowdown on the real Las Vegas instead of dealing with it in a much more metaphoric way. People try too hard to give the down-and-dirty, grimy aspect of Vegas instead of actually coming up with a kind of metaphor that doesn’t quite mirror the real Las Vegas but actually ends up giving you a more real sense of what the city is like. My point is, I think if there’s going to be a great Las Vegas novel, I’d like to see it be complete fantasy. The city is just so different from other cities. You have to deal with so many clichés and stereotypes that realism might not be the way to do it.
What can you tell me about the novel you’re working on now?
I can tell you that it takes place mostly in Las Vegas. Parts of it take place in Vietnam and on a refugee island off of Malaysia. Those are more like memories that the characters have. I’m really bad at talking about stuff in progress. I don’t know what else to say about it, except that it has in some ways to do with American expectations of what a Vietnam story is. There is still this American obsession with Vietnam as an idea rather than a country, a historical and cultural legacy rather than an actual country. With that, Vietnamese people take on this sense that every Vietnamese person has to have this dramatic back story that they don’t necessarily have. I think in certain ways my novel tries to deal with that.
You’re going to the University of Chicago. What kind of teacher are you going to be? Are you going to be like Frank Conroy, or like someone else?
My strategy overall with teaching creative writing is to be kind and nice in a way where I can be brutally honest. I usually have a very good relationship with my students, and I try to have a kind of laid-back, casual, and very funny rapport with them. So that when I can be brutally honest, the impact is not as personal, it’s not as significant. I want to be Frank Conroy, but I’m not. I’m not mean like that. You can only teach your personality. My personality is that I’m a really nice guy who likes to be brutally honest. That’s worked for me so far. That’s the kind of balance I want. To be able to be mean when I need to be, but it’s always absorbed because they know I’m not an asshole. Most of the time they won’t listen unless they trust you. You can be one hundred percent correct, you can be brilliant in your criticism, but if they don’t trust you, if they don’t like you, they won’t listen to you, so what’s the use of giving that kind of criticism. Most of all, I want to have fun in my class. But to have fun, honest conversations.
My thing is I curse a lot in class. But I always curse in the context of humor. I never curse when I’m angry. I never curse in a context where it would be taken that seriously. And I think that kind of straightforwardness and informality gives a sense of levity but also sometimes things are just taken too seriously. You have to have a balance.
You took classes with Dave Hickey. What did he bring to your education?
He pointed me in very interesting directions, not just having to do with literature but with cinema, with art, with nonfiction. He just threw me in a lot of very interesting directions. But also I think he just has a way of talking about art that is very uncompromising. He has his view of what a great artist is, and he doesn’t give a shit what anyone says. He always has a very unique perspective on things, which I really appreciated. It’s not always a perspective that I agree with, but at least it wasn’t the same perspective that everyone else is regurgitating. And he reads people really well. He could read a person within five minutes of meeting him.
One thing I learned from him is that when it comes to art, you should not be thinking about offending people. I’m not saying you should just go out and offend people but I feel sometimes people bring in the idea of sensitivity and apply it to art, and that has no place in art. And Hickey understands that.