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in our interview, Truong shared some fun facts about herself with us:
"I can't drive. I took the written test when I was 16 and passed (of course, I passed; I was a geek and studied). I took the driving test twice when I was in high school and failed miserably both times. I'm mobility-challenged in other ways as well. I can't ride a bike, roller skate, ice skate, or rollerblade. I can walk (short distances) and am very proficient at taking public transportations of all kinds."
"I learned how to cook by watching my mother (who is an amazing cook) and from reading cookbooks. When my family first came to the U.S. as refugees in 1975, we lived in a very small town in North Carolina. I had very few friends (OK, I had one), and I spent a great deal of time reading books of all kinds. I began to read cookbooks because I had this idea that if I ate American food I would become more American (and have more friends). I was six years old and this plan made sense to me. I needed to learn how to make chocolate chip cookies, devil's food cake, meatloaf, etc. During my elementary school years, I read The Betty Crocker Cookbook from cover to cover, even those pages about how to set a festive table (the Mexican theme intrigued me)."
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In the summer of 2004, Monique Truong took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The scenes of Jo March writing away in the attic, reaching now and then for a crisp apple to stave off her hunger, are unforgettable. They were for me the first glimpses of a writing life, a fantasy in which a young woman has all that she needs: privacy, paper, ink, and a bushel of fresh fruit.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you? Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez -- Actually, anything written by Márquez. I suspect that his grocery list would make my top ten list. This novel, though, offers one of the most desperate and hopeful endings to a love story that I have yet to read.
To Kill a Mockingnird by Harper Lee -- Atticus Finch. Need I say more? Certainly, for me, this is where the desire to become a lawyer first came from.
The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector -- This Brazilian novella in translation is a difficult, complicated, haunting look at hunger of the soul and of the body.
America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan -- Bulosan's novel captures an America that fueled (and still does) its capitalist engines with the labor of migrant workers. It is the longing (too exhausted to dream) of the Filipino men of Bulosan's generation that stays with me, that makes this book an American classic, a Great American Novel.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein and The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book by Alice B. Toklas -- I like to think of these two books as volumes one and two of a memoir. Volume one is chatty, gossipy, and often just plain daft. As for volume two, I first went through its pages to find a hash brownie recipe (turned out to be a "haschich fudge") and found instead the Indochinese cooks who became the inspiration for The Book of Salt. I love you, Alice B. Toklas!
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison -- Visceral and tragic, this is the novel that taught me the most significant lessons that I learned in college about writing.
Poet in New York by Federico García Lorca -- If I was granted fluency in Spanish for only one day (this is one of my recurring fantasies), I would spend the whole of it reading Lorca. I read this collection in the fall of 2000, when I was living in a small town in Andalusia for a month. There, I saw New York City through Lorca's words and Andalusia through Lorca's longing for it.
Serve It Forth by M.F.K. Fisher -- Fisher, who is arguably the best food writer that the U.S. has ever produced, writes in one of her essays, "Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat." I won't reveal what hers is, but it involves Paris, a citrus fruit, and a radiator.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson -- Reading this novel, a reimagining of a Greek myth, is like walking on the blade of a knife. Exquisite because it required so much skill to write, dangerous because it is drawing blood, beautiful because it is not a blade at all but words in the hands of a master.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston -- From its very first line ("You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you."), this book goes for the jugular. Asian America has never been the same.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? Lolita -- I like to think of this film as an immigrant story. For me, that makes it a doubly interesting and subversive narrative. Peter Sellers is also at the height of his comic powers here. He is sly, smart, and also weirdly sexy.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- This is the best horror flick ever made. The dialogue is perfect in its mercilessness.
The Scent of Green Papaya -- This is not so much a film but a series of remembered images captured on film. This is what my childhood memories of Vietnam look like, not so much the specific images but rather the micro attention to the details of an everyday world that is now lost.
Dazed and Confused -- An elegy to the state of Texas, high school years, newspaper geeks, and homoerotic/Sapphic rituals conceived of and implemented by jocks and cheerleaders. It is also has the best role that Mathew McConaughey has ever been in.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to a lot of alternative rock and its predecessors (Velvet Underground, T. Rex, Big Star, the Replacements, Luna, Teenage Fan Club, Wilco, the Boo Radleys, the Trash Can Sinatras, My Morning Jacket, Cake, Weezer, Radiohead, Doves, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, etc.).
I also tend to like music with smart or witty lyrics -- most songs written by Elvis Costello, for example. I listen to music all the time, actually. Only when I'm depressed is it silent in my house. When I write, I usually have to write to music without lyrics, though. For The Book of Salt, I wrote to early Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and recordings of compositions by Erik Satie and Virgil Thompson.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer. I haven't read Greer's latest novel yet and am intrigued to see how he handles the narrative's primary conceit: his main character, born an old man, ages in reverse, growing younger with each passing year.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like to give and get cookbooks. I think of them as wish books, as in "I wish someone (like the person I'm giving the book to) would make this dish for me."
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I always wear shoes when I write. When I first became a full-time writer I thought, Great -- now I don't have to get dressed in the morning! Well, that turned out to be only partially true. I may not have to put on a suit and a pair of pantyhose, etc., but I still need my shoes. Nothing fancy, just something that will allow me to run out of a burning house (that is my text, perhaps?).
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel that I think of as a reimagining of the American southern gothic novel. It is set in a small town in North Carolina in the mid-‘70s.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
After graduating from college in 1990, I worked for two years as a paralegal, first in San Francisco and then in New York City. In 1992 I went to law school and then worked full time as an attorney in New York City for three and a half years. I knew that the legal profession wasn't for me after the first week of law school, so believe me that it isn't an exaggeration when I say that I was miserable from that week on. If I had met you at a dinner party during those years, I would have told you that I was a writer. If you had asked me what I had published, I would have been able to cite a short story, an essay, and an academic paper, all written while I was in college and published during my first year out of college. Not much of a writing résumé, but enough for me not to sound too delusional.
I began writing again in the fall of 1997. I was coediting the anthology Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry & Prose and wanted to submit a piece to my coeditors for consideration. I gave them a piece that I had written in college, and they rejected it. I was mortified. I took a couple days off from work and wrote a short story entitled "Seeds," which eventually became the second chapter of my novel, The Book of Salt. I cannot thank my coeditors enough for being truthful to me, because that short story marked the demise of my legal career. I began to strategize about ways to extricate myself from the law (school loans, thousands and thousands of dollars worth of them, were my golden handcuffs). I began to apply to writers' colonies and was accepted at Yaddo, the Fundación Valparaiso, and Hedgebrook. I quit my job to go to Yaddo. In between colonies, I temped and worked part time as an attorney in order to pay my rent and loans. I still hated every moment of it, but at least now I knew that the hours I was putting in were buying me months' worth of writing time.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
I have heard Barbara Tran read her poetry aloud many times (we met at one of her readings and ended up coediting the anthology Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry & Prose together), and every time I cry. Every single poem in her debut collection, In the Mynah Bird's Own Words, has the narrative depth and weight of a novel. But the thing that sets these poems apart from a novel is that like all great poetry they recharge my faith in words. They remind me that when selected with care words can be startling and moving, and that a single word can break you and another can put you back together again.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
My advice to writers "discovered" is to write. Finding the time and the emotional energy to write is the biggest challenge for most writers, discovered or not. It requires a commitment to a writing life and a lot of creative juggling of everyday life to make it happen. I have met young writers and not-so-young writers who are very careerist in their approach. They think they need to find an agent right away. I always ask them how much they have written. An agent, no matter how good, cannot sell your hope, desire, drive, will, or ambition to be a writer. Only your written words.
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