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, over weight 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.
Tell us something about yourself.
I was brought up in Ireland and Hong Kong, where I also lived most of my adult life. I lived on a small island – one square mile in area – where there were no cars. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience of Chinese village life and culture. This led me to write my first book – an introduction to Chinese folk religion – Chinese Gods, which now has the status of a classic and is still in print.
It was also here on this island that I met the Chinese playboy, associate of triads and wartime collaborator with the Japanese whose story I tell in my book King Hui: The man who owned all the opium in Hong Kong . A truly remarkable story and I was glad that I was able to rescue it from oblivion. This book is a work of biographical and cultural archaeology.
When my daughter, Stevie, was born with Down Syndrome and then suffered further damage when a heart operation went wrong, I responded by founding two charities for families with children with developmental disabilities. One is now a major Hong Kong charity and the other helped establish a parent resource centre and annual 3-day conference in Guangzhou, China. I have written about my experience of living with Stevie in my book Wordjazz for Stevie. Then when my wife was diagnosed with cancer I started on a new journey that resulted in me writing two cancer books (Cancer: The Complete Recovery Guide and Cancer Recovery Guide: 15 Alternative and Complementary Strategies for Restoring Health – see my website www.fightingcancer.com for details. But just because you’ve written the best repository of cancer information available in print doesn’t mean you stop learning new facts so I also archive cancer-related information at www.cancerfighter.wordpress.com.
So, you can see I have had a busy life. I now live in Brighton, England and am writing novels of which the Alphabet of Vietnam is one of the first to be published.
What inspired you to write this book?
Although I was living in Europe most of the time the Vietnam war was being fought, I did have some experience of the red light district of Hong Kong where US soldiers and sailors on R&R (rest and recuperation) let their hair down in the bars of Wanchai. But the key moment of anger for me was seeing the Deer Hunter and realising that Americans thought Vietnam was solely an issue for Americans (and not for the Vietnamese for example). But it took many years before the novel bubbled into existence – and not really until I had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam and experience the country as the wonderful place it is. Also, I discovered the work of Ho Xuan Hu’ong, an 18th century Vietnamese feminist poet and I was fortunate enough to meet students and teachers in Vietnam who were happy to help me translate her poems. This visit forms the backbone of the novel.
How did you choose the title?
Titles are always a problem. In this case I knew I wanted to have the name of the country, Vietnam, in the title. Also, as I wrote up my notes on Vietnam alphabetically, and I couldn’t see any other way of sensibly transcribing my experience, this seemed also to make sense. The combination of ‘alphabet’ and ‘Vietnam’ has, I hope, sufficient friction to cause people to pause as they peruse titles in bookstores. Attention is everything, Next comes the requirement to be memorable.
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
The first obstacle was writing the novel. I wrote one section of the novel ten years before the other. I needed to be two different people with two different levels of energy, emotion and maturity in order to inhabit the two main characters. Luckily I didn’t realise this when I started.
Secondly, I had narrative threads going all over the place and I just didn’t know how to contain it all. Then two years ago, waking up very early one morning while on holiday on an island off the coast of Bali, I suddenly had the thought that if I just chopped everything in half it would work. I came back home and within a month I had my novel. I was looking around for a publisher when my own Hong Kong publisher, Pete Spurrier at Blacksmith Books, told me he had got distribution in the USA. So I told him I had the perfect book for him to launch on that continent. He agreed and the rest is history.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?I was sixteen when I decided I wanted to be a writer. In fact I had already shown some promise by winning the very first story competition that I entered (as it happens, this was also the last time I have ever won a fiction prize!). I was then aged 10. But it was not until my mid-teens that the idea came to me that writing was something I could do and would enjoy doing. I remember it was shortly after reading Ernest Hemingway and it seemed to me that writing was easy. Hah! But it was not until I was 30 years old that I attempted my first book (Chinese Gods). At the age of 16 I calculated that I could knock out a novel a year. But, when I got to the age of 29 I realised that these novels were not going to write themselves. They required me to sit down and do something about it. Fortunately, not long afterwards, word processors came on the market and made writing and editing so much easier. Just in time for me.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I open the file. I read everything I have written to date, editing as I go along (the whole book is one file). Then I come to the place where I want to start writing and pause. Then I play a game of backgammon with some anonymous person who acts like a demented teenager. Then I go back to where I need to start and then I decide to check my websites and Amazon rankings. Then back to the text. Then I go and have another coffee. Then another game of backgammon. Did I mention email? And then, maybe two hours later, I either start to write or give up and go to the supermarkerket to buy food for dinner.
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
In the Alphabet of Vietnam I wanted my characters to have archetypal names. The soldier/killer had to be Joe (as in “Hey Joe!”). Most names just popped into my head. I do believe in the power of the unconscious – that writers are just channelling their narratives. The unconscious already knows what the story is. You just have to trust it. Just wait long enough and it will tell you what to write, and it will give you the voice.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?
I needed to do a lot of research and that took me to driving around North Carolina, in which a lot of the novel takes place. That was an amazing trip and I would love to go back and do another great road trip. America is such an amazing place. So this book took me to Vietnam and America and introduced me to the feminist poet Ho Xuan Hu’ong. It also helped me see that I could write an American type novel with characters who had deep, expansive psyches – not the British type of fictional character who is almost always a shallow stereotype.
I also learnt that it is possible to meld fiction and non-fiction together creatively and richly. The fact gives authenticity to the fiction. Why? There is more grainy detail in fact.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
Sometimes you have to go with the flow – even if the flow is seemingly taking you in the wrong direction. Even though I had to cut out huge amounts of narrative – some of the stuff that was kept could not have been written except as part of the superfluous sections. If the process had been different, so too would the result. So the way I see it, you have to live with the imperfections of the process.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
The books I like tend to have a distinctive narrative voice, perhaps a certain quirkiness, precision and authenticity. Ryszard Kapuscinski. For example, the Polish journalist who travelled widely in Africa; Truman Capote ( In Cold Blood and Music for Chameleons); Joseph Heller (Catch 22 and God Knows), Italo Calvino (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Invisible Cities); Borges, Malcolm Lowry (an early hero of mine) – and, of course, there is Kafka and Tennessee Williams and Saki and…
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
Actually, because of the length of time it takes to get a book to market – and because of the vagaries of life – I have two books that I want to tell you about. The first is my memoir, Wordjazz for Stevie. This is the story of my life with my daughter and the lessons I learnt from her. I warn you, it is very powerfully written and people who read it are deeply moved. I will never write anything better. It has already been published.
I have also just completed a novel which currently has the working title Angel’s Bubbles about a girl who lives in two worlds – the world of an Irish community living in England in the 1970s seething with republicanism and the world underwater at her local, Victorian-era, swimming baths. It is a work of magical realism and has an allegorical element.
How did I come to write this story? This is the strangest thing but it is a story that was dictated to me by my unconscious – all I knew when I sat down to write the story was that I wanted to write about a girl who wanted to swim to Ireland. Over the next two years my unconscious gradually fed me the narrative details. I am very pleased with the result – now I have to find a publisher for it.
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.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
My books are like conversations with the reader. There are times when I expect the reader to understand something that is not directly stated. So my perfect reader is a thoughtful, empathetic person with a sense of humour – someone I would enjoy having a drink in the pub with. Oh yes – and her eyes would glitter like diamonds.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
Four of my books have been published by Blacksmith Books (www.blacksmithbooks.com) and Pete Spurrier, the amazing publisher, has done a wonderful job linking all the books he publishes with their reviews.
Cancer Recovery Guide is published by Clairview Books (www.clairviewbooks.com)
Cancer: The Complete Recovery Guide is published by my own company Long Island Publishers – see www.fightingcancer.com for details.