From Dissertation to Debut Novel: An Interview with Thuy Da Lam

By Alice Mgrdichian

Thuy Da Lam featured interview

While Shelf Media Group loves to support all kinds of indie writers, debut authors bring us the most joy—they have their whole career ahead of them, and have just taken one of scariest first steps toward it. How exciting! One of these authors is Thuy Da Lam, whose debut novel was published by Red Hen Press on September 17, 2019. Fire Summer, Lam’s debut, is a literary tale of familial duty and the tragedies of war—with that in mind, I was very excited to read her book and interview her! Below you can find the novel’s blurb, followed by our conversation.

Fire Summer

Fire Summer novel

You can go home again.

When twenty-three-year-old Maia Trieu, a curator’s assistant at the Museum of Folklore & Rocks in Little Saigon, Orange County, is offered a research grant to Vietnam for the summer of 1991, she cannot refuse. The grant’s sponsor has one stipulation: Maia is to contact her great-aunt to pass on plans to overthrow the current government.

The expatriates did not anticipate that Maia would become involved with excursions in search of her mother or attract an entourage: an American traveler, a government agent, an Amerasian singer, and a cat. Maia carries out what she believes is her filial role to her late father, a former ARVN soldier, by returning to their homeland to continue the fight for an independent Vietnam. Along the way, however, she meets a cast of characters—historical and fictional, living and dead—who propel her on a journey of self-discovery through which she begins to understand what it means to love.

Could you tell me a bit about your background as a writer? What has your creative journey looked like over the years?

TDL: I grew up in a household in which reading was one of the few pastimes. My older brother was enthralled with Vietnamese translations of Chinese martial arts stories, so when we arrived in America, the first books I borrowed from a public library in South Philadelphia were the unabridged translated volumes of The Journey to the West. Around fifteen, I discovered romance novels by authors such as Janet Dailey, Jude Deveraux, Johanna Lindsey, and Nora Roberts. I was forever hooked on reading.

At Hamilton College in upstate New York, I had intended to major in biology until a professor noted my unremarkable grades in my science courses. Having read my creative writing portfolio, he encouraged a detour: drop the sciences, sign up for poetry with Agha Shahid Ali, and complete an independent study on Vietnam. I graduated with a BA in creative writing and went on to receive a PhD in English literature from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.

Congratulations on your debut novel! What was the process of writing this project like for you? I hear that it is a revision of your dissertation.

TDL: The seed for Fire Summer was planted in me the moment we left Vietnam without my mother. I wrote so that I could see her again. Many details were taken from my experience, yet those who know my life story have assured me that the novel is not autobiographical.

In this way, writing Fire Summer was an exhilarating journey of the mind and a soothing balm for the soul. I knew the beginning and ending. I had to figure out the why’s and how’s in-between. It took over a decade to get from the opening to the final scene in a way that made sense to me. I drew on everything around me to connect the dots—from readings in graduate school to America’s Got Talent to interactions with people, nature, and animals. The inspired moments were when I was able to make creative leaps to see beyond the separateness of our individual lives, observing the interconnectedness of our seemingly discreet experiences. These moments helped me move the story from the first to last page.

I was born in central Vietnam during the war, but I was too young to have personal memories of war. My knowledge of history is from the books and media I consumed. I researched issues that illuminated the historical and philosophical underpinnings of my narrative. My research was motivated by the need to understand the historical and cultural forces that influence my characters’ actions. I was interested in accounts of the Indochina wars, the American involvement, postwar Vietnam, and the Vietnamese diaspora. I explored Daoism and the Buddhist concept of interdependence to guide my thinking on life and death, war and peace. Zhuangzi’s view of death as transformation and Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of ‘interbeing’ inform my understanding of the interconnectedness of living and dying.

I also traveled to the places that I was writing about—the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, a bridge in central Vietnam, and a prison in the new economic zone in Song Be. The trip allowed me to experience the places that previously existed only in my reading, writing, and imagination. The experience still influences the way I present historical details in fiction. I see the past, present, and future as dialogic and layered—like a palimpsest of events and people, living and dead.

After writing your book, what was it like to revise and get it published?

TDL: I write slowly, so I revised and edited as I went along. The revision I made for my editor was mostly clarifying and making the subtle more explicit. I regret I couldn’t make the narrative more direct.

A satisfying aspect of publishing was requesting a blurb from Charles Johnson, who not only said yes but also—by chance—carried the manuscript with him on a trip to Indonesia. I’m deeply comforted by his action, as it happened that the South China Sea off the shore of Indonesia is the real life site of the opening passage to the novel. What’s wonderful is the fact that the novel is now available at libraries in places such as Chicoutimi, Mentone, Bormla, Doha, and Pretoria. How cool is that, especially for a homebody author who gets motion sickness and doesn’t travel much?

The cover of your book is gorgeous — what was the process of deciding on it?

TDL: Red Hen Press managing editor Kate Gale chose the cover! I’m absolutely in love with the cover as it captures the spirit of the book. It is a painting by the artist Duong Ngoc Son, from northern Vietnam. The fact that he’s from the North and I’m from the South is meaningful for me as I hope we work towards reconciliation.

What will your next project(s) be? What can fans of your work look forward to?

TDL: Fire Summer, a story about finding a home in a world of borders, is a novel I had to write. It’s about transcending illusory borders—geographical, temporal, and spiritual—to go home again. It is a work of re-imaging Vietnam in the grand and beautiful in order to make my essential gesture. My second project, Heaven in a Wildflower, is a novel I want to write to cultivate a sense of wonder about our world. It is a story about a night telescope operator seeking the universe’s origin, and a pentimento looking for her referent. It begins with an astronomer lovingly viewing a century-old painting the way she observes the night sky; her gaze brings a pentimento into being, a figure painted over by a 19th-century banished king of Annam, who wished to erase his homeland and first love from memory. The novel explores Einstein’s question: ‘How can individuals free themselves from the optical delusion of separateness in order to broaden the circles of connectivity to embrace the whole of nature, its living beings and beauty?’

Thuy Da Lam

About the Author

Thuy Da Lam was born in Qui Nhơn, grew up in Philadelphia, and now lives in Honolulu, where she works on her next book and teaches at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa Outreach College. Lam holds a BA in creative writing from Hamilton College and a PhD in English from UH Mānoa. She received the George A. Watrous Literary Prize for Fiction, a Myrle Clark Writing Award, and the John Young Scholarship in the Arts. Her debut novel, Fire Summer, is a revision of her dissertation, part of which appeared in Lost Lake Folk Opera in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.

Indie Debuts AugSept2022

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Article originally Published in the August / September 2022 Issue: Indie Debuts.

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