Can you tell us about your inspiration for The Given World? What were the novel’s origins? How did you begin?
I wrote one chapter of the book (“Girl, Three Speeds, Pretty Good Brakes”) years ago as a standalone short story, about a girl in a gas station who was missing her brother and a good part of “whatever it is that centers us.” In 2010 I went back to school to get my MFA at Madison, and during the first semester, while working with Lorrie Moore, I wrote two more stories in which the girl of that first piece turned up again. Lorrie and I met, took a look at the three stories together, and decided it would be a novel. Well, she kind of decided—with my permission, of course—but I kind of went, “Oh, damn,” because the thought of writing a novel terrified me. I really had to fool myself into writing it by telling myself it was just a bunch of short stories about this particular character. Then, when it came time to align the thing as a “real” novel, the editing process was quite daunting, but it was work that felt really good and right, and I learned a massive amount about plot, structure, tension, arc, et cetera, from doing it. Plot had never been my strong suit, and still isn’t, but revising this book made me much more aware of the kinds of things you need in a narrative if you want people to keep reading.
What was interesting to you about the particular settings that you chose for the book? Why that particular time period, and those places?
I was a teenager in the 1970s, and Vietnam was very much on my radar. My parents were involved in the antiwar movement, and we lived in Washington, DC, at that time, so we went to the marches, we protested, we watched the war on TV. Years later, when I drove a newspaper truck for the San Francisco Chronicle, many of my carriers (aka paper boys) were Vietnamese, and I got to know them and their families, and some of their stories. That experience, along with having grown up during the war, led (in a not terribly direct fashion) to my moving to Saigon in the mid 1990s. Everyone thought I was crazy, but for whatever reason, I had to do it. It changed my life in a big way. Nothing I had imagined, good or bad, turned out to be true, and I spent enough time there for some things essential about the place to become ingrained in me. Which is not to say I really know Vietnam, or entirely understand its present or its history, but I got a much clearer picture of how much I did not know. Maybe writing The Given World was my way of trying to better understand something so totally ineffable. Aside from that, I have always been deeply affected, for whatever reason, by stories of the people damaged “collaterally” by war: soldiers on both sides, their families, their communities. I think if we ever had to admit to how many lives, generations even, are irrevocably damaged or destroyed by war, maybe we’d try harder to find a better way to settle our differences. Which, really, at the most human level, aren’t differences at all.(/em>
What made you decide to tell the story from Riley’s perspective—that is, from the point of view of a civilian and more particularly a young woman—rather than from anyone else’s?
Hers was just the first voice, the first life that came to me. In some ways she is very much like me in some of her experiences and outlook, and in other ways not at all. Without getting too much more specific, let’s just say I never stabbed anyone, or lived in my car for more than a few nights.
How did you conduct research for the novel? Were any historical texts particularly useful or enlightening, or did you rely more upon your own preexisting knowledge of the subject?
At my house in Montana I have an entire library of Vietnam books, both fiction and nonfiction. I have read them all, most of them more than once, and it is still so much to grasp: all the intricacies of the decisions, the mistakes that were made, how arrogant we were, how little we understood that the war we thought we were fighting was not the one the Vietnamese were fighting—and that’s why we pretty much got our asses handed to us and why all those people died or had their lives wrecked so unnecessarily. That being said, the book isn’t really about the war itself; but however much or little I do know about it informs everything Riley experiences, even as it stays so deeply in the background. I purposely kept it subtle, probably so subtle at times as to be completely undetectable.
Did you interview any veterans or other people who lived during the Vietnam War? If so, what struck you most about their accounts of postwar living?
The closest I came to interviewing anyone was talking with my uncle, who served two tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret and was based at Cu Chi, and who has not had the easiest time of it since coming home, but who is still, thankfully, here. Other than that, I have known quite a lot of people over the years who were either veterans of that war or relatives of the soldiers who fought it. In Vietnam I met and became friends with a lot of Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans during the war, including the mechanics who are now fixing bicycles on the sidewalks, and a photographer who worked with the AP and wound up in a reeducation camp afterward. What struck me most about all those people was how necessary it was for them to try to get on with their lives, despite how difficult it must have been. They seem to have turned that page, at least in regard to what they want to talk about, and they are busy living now and don’t have the luxury or the desire to revisit or revise history. As for being able to relate the stories of that generation and the impacts of the war and its aftermath, my oldest friends and I are that generation. That part is firsthand knowledge.
Are there any works of fiction about the Vietnam War and its aftermath—or about other wars—that you find particularly inspiring or important?
God, so many. The ones that immediately come to mind are Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien; Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places; Robert Olen Butler’s Good Scent From a Strange Mountain; Michael Herr’s Dispatches; Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake; Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War; Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, and Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. Way too many more to name, but there is no leaving out The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. Such a perfect book. I love that one so much— I’ve probably read it a dozen times. The rest, maybe five or six or seven, only.
Excerpts of your novel have appeared online prior to the novel’s publication. How do you feel about their having a life independent of the book?
Since I began as a short-story writer, and since those pieces were more or less written as short stories, I am quite comfortable, and in fact I really love having them out there. It took me a while to get used to writing chapters that would not also pass as standalone stories, but those chapters, I think, do okay on their own.
On David Abram’s blog, The Quivering Pen, you said: “A collection of clever lines is not enough . . . it is only a starting place. I think many writers mistake it for a destination.” Can you speak more about that? What would you say is required of a good or successful work of fiction?
Wow. That’s kind of a huge question. I guess I could begin by reiterating that thought: it’s not enough to be clever, in your sentences or in your ideas. And it’s not enough to get from Point A to Point B, that is, simply telling a story. Writing is hard. One of the hardest parts is creating believable, complex, forgivable characters, but the really hard part is being completely emotionally honest. Ripping the scabs off. Uncovering your own heart and showing it to other people.
To which of the characters in your novel do you most relate—and why?
I guess that depends on what “relate” means, but Riley, for sure, a lot, because so many of her experiences mirror mine, but also Grace, the girl on the train—but maybe that’s not so surprising, since she is sort of a reflection of a younger Riley, by the time they meet. Funny, it was not deliberate, and until I went back for, like, the seventh revision, I didn’t see their similarities. The other characters I relate to in different ways, but every one of them was (and is) important to me, because a lot of them are the kinds of people who brought me up, more or less, when I first got to San Francisco. I was incredibly clueless, then, about so many things, and the people I learned the most from were the ones who had the least access to equilibrium and were the most scarred, inside or out, or both.
How has The Given World influenced your current writing projects or changed the way you write? Do you think you will revisit any of the characters or themes from this novel?
I am working on a new novel, and am much more deliberative about keeping the narrative cohesive, making sure all the pieces fit. I go back to the beginning a lot, to make sure the alignment is tight, and to make sure anything new I add is not random but actually belongs there. Nothing drives me crazier, when I am reading a book or a story, than to come to a part which feels as though the author woke up one morning, sat down at his or her desk, and said, “Oh, here’s an interesting thought I was having,” or “Here’s something unique I overheard; I think I’ll just throw it in,” or “Here’s this paragraph I’ve been saving, and I don’t have much to say today, so let’s just try to squeeze this in and hope no one notices it doesn’t belong.” I believe it is an author’s obligation to build a story, in the same way physical structures are built: you have to have a solid base, and each level (or chapter) has to be supported by what has gone before. Writing The Given World the way I wrote it, and having to go back to make sure that the structure was there, has taught me to stay on top of it all the way through. Going back to the beginning over and over means it will take me a very long time to write the first draft, but it also means less time (maybe) spent revising, even though revision is my favorite part of writing. So maybe going back to the beginning is actually a way to keep doing the part I like, and avoiding the hard part, which is creating new material. Who knows? As far as revisiting characters goes, Lu, or someone who is much like Lu, makes an appearance in the new book. She just kind of showed up, and I liked her, so I kept her. Themes? Oh, yeah. War and the wounded. Bad behavior and what underlies it. Wondering where, or what, home is. Loving the wrong people, or loving the right people the wrong way. Those will always be my themes.
Who are some of the storytellers who have influenced your work?
Graham Greene, James Baldwin, Malcolm Lowry, Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy, James Welch, Lorrie Moore, Barry Hannah, Louise Erdrich, Thomas McGuane, Jim Crumley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. For memoir, Joan Didion, Mary Karr, Alexandra Fuller. For poetry, Richard Hugo, Terrance Hayes, Jane Hirschfield. A million others in all camps.
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