Angie Chau: Interview
by Rusty Barnes
Interrelated stories seem to be what publishers want, if they want a collection at all. Is this what led you to structure the book this way? Did it always have that structure?
The book always had this structure. I've always liked the idea that you can read each story in and of itself and have a complete experience with dramatic arc and a sense of satisfaction at the end. At the same time, the characters will reappear over a series of stories and as a result, this building of momentum adds a layer of complexity that I just love. With each narrative, you get to see the same character in a new light whether cruel or kind, wise or misguided, all depending on who's telling the story. Isn't this so true to life? In Quiet As They Come, because the stories revolve around an extended family, I wanted the reader to get this same experience of being immersed in a family and getting to know each member one by one.
What was the most difficult story to write? Why?
The Pussycats was the most difficult because I was so invested in it and I wanted to get it right. I rewrote it at least ten times, with different points of views, starting it and ending it in different places. The story had to function both as a stand-alone story with the thrust of Kim accidentally taking her daughter to an adult movie and then the ensuing desire that it stirs. At the same time, that story sets up the framework of the book. It introduces the three families living under that one roof. It brings in the war and the historical context because Kim's husband is a POW still imprisoned in the central highlands and hence her loneliness. And finally it attempts to look at love vs. loyalty vs. physical need. The story poured out with a lot of energy. The first draft is always a ride and a blast. But it's always the crafting and shaping of it that's the tough part. Sometimes, stories remind me of sculpture. My favorite ones have this shape to them and you know it can't be any other way. It was actually one of the first stories I wrote when I moved to Kauai to start this book back in 2000. It's only one of two stories from that era that actually made the cut into the book. (The other is the title story, Quiet As They Come).
How much biographical material made it into the book? Did you worry about that at all?
Not much really. Some biographical details made it into the book and serve as the skeleton of the larger story. Fact: My family immigrated to the U.S. when I was a child. Fact: We did escape by boat. Fact: I did live in a three bedroom house with my entire extended family when we first arrived to this country. But the rest, the meat and flesh of the stories are fictionalized. In truth, it was the real life stuff that inspired me to write because there are so many unanswered questions from life that was ripe for exploration. Our family is very tight-lipped. As a result, I had to write to fill in those gaps. After that, it was about creating drama, making sure there's a narrative arc, and of course, that the story is good as story. I didn't worry about wounds or hurt feelings because the characters aren't based on people from my life. They're a collage of encounters and moments and knowledge both expanded and condensed for the sake of narrative.
In the title story "Quiet as They Come," you render the details and lives of the boat people so acutely it's impossible not to be moved. I found myself admiring those details so much that I had to reread to make sure I got the story down pat. Do you feel fidelity to that kind of detail first, or to advancing the larger story?
Absolutely both hand in hand. Pure momentum without fidelity to detail and historical context feels too much like an action adventure movie or a thriller and I'm less interested in that. Details drawn out can be dry as paper. You might as well pick up a history book. I guess that's what I've learned along the way as a writer and a cook, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in.
"Taps" is another standout piece of this collection. Kim Le and Duc have the best intentions in regards their marriage, but his imprisonment and its after-effects prevent them from having even a relationship. Without spoiling the ending of the story, her find makes her less determined to try to save the relationship (she and Duc appear in other stories as well, seen from their daughter's perspective) but instead concentrates on her children. I wonder if you could comment on why Duc runs away.
Duc runs away in the second to last story, "In the Season of Milkfruit." We've got to remember however that this is a re-imagination of what took place through Sophia's perspective. And remember too that Sophia has never met her father. I don't know why he ran away. I'm working on a new novel that revisits Kim and Duc and their grand love affair. It spans from pre-War to post-War and from Vietnam to America. I am hoping that in the writing, I too will know why he runs away when finally they're reunited at last. For now, I think I'm siding with Sophia's take from the story. "It was yet another life where he would have to amputate a part of himself to survive. He was already a man with only nine fingers and nine toes. He was incapable of being retrained and retamed and he knew it. He didn't want to disappoint her anymore than he already had."
Did you have any models for the book, collections or novels you looked to for guidance in how to write the story you needed to write?
I'm an only child and both my parents worked full time so I read a lot as a kid. I continue to read everything I can get my hands on. Inevitably there's got to be osmosis somewhere in there, but I can't say I've had any direct models per se. I remember that the first short story collection I ever read was Amy Bloom's, Come to Me. It wasn't until I'd already graduated from college if you can believe that. My friends and I decided to form a book club to actually have a forum to discuss all those books we were supposed to have read in school and never did. In Come to Me, I felt as if I had entered a new wonderland. I could finish one story per train ride to work. Plus, the stories were interesting and provocative. I thought the form was elegant. And because they were short, I thought it must be simple and further, that perhaps it was something I could do. That's when I quit my first job out of college in San Francisco's financial district to move to the islands to write. Ten years later, I've learned that it takes tremendous discipline to work in this form. There is little room. Every sentence must count. It takes impossible discipline—almost.
In the final story, "Relief," we get another set of those completely honest details that make the work sing. It's a story, literally, about shit in its metaphorical and physical sense. The culture clash has never been so aptly described. What was the genesis of this story?
Oh gosh, my mom and I took an epic trip back to Saigon. It was our first trip back after being away for twenty years so in many ways it was this loaded trip and I had no idea what to expect. I had lived my whole life in America wondering how my life would have been different had we stayed. When we finally got to Vietnam, what I learned was that while I didn't exactly fit here, I didn't exactly fit there either. One of the things that most struck me about how Western I had become had to do with this most basic human function. I don't want to give too much of the story away. But I started collecting these vignettes from people about shit and shitting and the vast differences in attitude and experience. Also, I wanted to write something that obliterated all the swaying bamboo, jade mountains, sweet mangos and rice paper images, out there about Vietnam. Don't get me wrong, I love Vietnam, I think it's a rich and beautiful country but it's not the romanticized notions that have been popularized for so long. I wanted to capture a truer version of Saigon or at least my takeaway of this frenetic urban playful chaotic city.
For me, your book is most impressive when it comes to revealing how people navigate the sometimes-nasty waters of family relationships. The family's emotional closeness seems to cause more problems than their literal position (all of the extended family living in one apartment). Was this your aim for the book, or did you have something else in mind for them?
In thinking about this question, I was reminded of the story "Everything Forbidden." In this story as Huong lays in bed after beating down the devil, she thinks to herself, "She loved her children desperately, but now understanding the burden of such a love, no longer wanted it." It's interesting to me that you say their emotional closeness causes more problems than their literal position. I think it's insightful and so true for most of us. It's our emotional ties that make things messy. When you're indifferent, nothing matters right? It only matters when you love too much. I had a teacher in 9th grade named Mr. Steinberg. I used to say, "I hate you Steinberg," in this teasing way. He was a great teacher. In any case he said to me, "That means you used to love me Chau. You can't hate something unless you once loved it." I'm not saying everything is this black and white. But I do think there's something to be said about feeling something, anything, and about passion. The characters in this story, even when they're seemingly staid or mild mannered from the outside, in the inside, they're quite passionate about each other. They risked death to make it here together so that's perhaps what is at stake as the throughline.
Tell me the story of how your book got accepted by Ig Publishing.
My friend Lorraine Lopez asked me to read on a panel she was moderating at AWP in Chicago. It's funny in retrospect because at the time I was so on the fence about it. I had a lot of demands and was being pulled in so many different directions and just wasn't sure if I'd be able to manage it. In the end, Lorraine talked me into it by saying that for her, "it's a real life version of living your dream." She said, "You get to run into your favorite writers, talk books, go to readings, commiserate and celebrate with writer friends." Of course she was right in every way and then some. At the book fair, I met my publisher Elizabeth Clementson of Ig Publishing. Elizabeth and I clicked immediately. I liked her vision and sensibility. I liked that Ig remained an independent press at a time when the big houses were so topsy-turvy. I liked the sense of stability they represented and the fact that all their books stay in print. At the same time they were still willing to take risks. In fact on the table there was not only a story collection but one by a Cuban writer, Cecilia Rodrí guez Milané s. At the end of our conversation, Elizabeth asked me to send her the pdf of my book. I sent it in and heard back from her in two weeks. She said she liked it and had passed it on to her partner for his vote. A month later, we were hammering out the contract. Ig has been great. There is definitely an intimacy that I don't know you'd get with a bigger house.
What have you read lately that impresses you?
Oh, I always like these kinds of questions and then always feel so on the spot because there are too many books and so many talented writers and it's tough to pick just a few. But since you said lately, it at least helps give me focus. Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day— I was impressed by this study of pure composed restraint and the consistency of that narrative voice throughout. Louise Erdrich's Plague of Doves— I was amazed by the use of language and imagery. I was in the thick of the spell for the whole of the novel. I maintained a childlike curiosity about what would happen next. Nancy Doran's Loving Frank— I just couldn't put it down. It was so well written and researched and I still to this day can't believe that this was actually the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Nami Mun's Miles From Nowhere— The language was so raw and the voice so fresh and urgent. I also thought, finally some reality behind the myth of the Asian American model minority. Yesterday, I finished Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge and as a story collection it's artful. It holds up tightly and beautifully. The characters resonated with me and Strout's ability to create place was stunning. I was also very impressed by her play with time and chronology and her ability in a few sentences to smoothly move us through the years without a hiccup.
What's next for you? What are you working on?
I'm halfway into a new novel. You know Kim and Duc from this story collection. The novel expands on their relationship but gives you everything about them in Technicolor, heightened and deeper and more expansive. For people not acquainted with Kim and Duc from Quiet As They Come I would describe it as an epic love affair that spans continents and time from American War to the Fall of Saigon on to the shores of America. He's an officer for the South Vietnamese Army turned prisoner of war and she's a socialite turned single mom ravaged by the war.
Angie Chau was born in Vietnam and has since lived on three continents and two islands. She has a Master's degree in creative writing from UC-Davis where she also taught undergraduate fiction and was the fiction editor for The Green Belt Review. Her work has appeared in the Indiana Review, Night Train, Santa Clara Review, Slant, and the anthology, Cheers to Muses. Her short story collection won the 2009 Maurice Prize in fiction and is forthcoming from IG Publishing. Quiet As They Come is set to release in fall of 2010. Angie lives in Northern California. You can visit her site at www.angiechau.com.