Vu Tran Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Vu Tran
Photo by Chris Kirzeder

Vu Tran

An interview with Vu Tran

An interview with Vu Tran author of Dragonfish, a cinematic work of suspense set in motion by characters who can neither trust each other nor trust themselves.

Can you explain the title, Dragonfish?
Dragonfish was my editor's suggestion, and I initially balked at it because I didn't like the word "dragon." It sounded too familiar—too generically Asian, I guess. I was also very close to the original title, This or Any Desert, which I had used for all five years that I worked on the novel. But I've come to like the sound of the title and see some interesting symbolic value in it too. It's a direct reference to the illegal and expensive Asian Arowana fish that Junior points out to Robert early in the novel when they're in his father's underground aquarium lair. Junior explains that these fish are often called Dragonfish and are supposed "to bring good luck, keep evil away, and bring the family together," which is everything they end up not doing in the novel. I kinda like that irony. The title also refers to actual Dragonfish, these very monstrous-looking fish that live in extremely deep parts of the sea, at depths of up to 5,000 feet. They're quite small but are apparently ferocious predators that can stay hidden from their prey. Little more is known about them because of their dark and remote habitat. I think, to some degree, all these attributes can be used to describe the novel's main characters: Sonny, Junior, Robert, Suzy, even Mai. And finally, there are all these references in the novel to being hidden, underground, undersea, drowned. Anyway, this is all in retrospect and was not intended on my part, but I do like that I can see these fortuitous connections now.

Up until this novel, you've published only "literary fiction." What made you write a genre novel?
The easy first answer is that I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology of crime fiction, and I liked that story enough to turn it into a novel—to spend much more time with those characters and dig much deeper into their stories.

Writing genre fiction also proved to be incredibly enjoyable—even though I ultimately didn't approach it that differently than I would literary fiction. At the end of the day, it's still about writing great sentences and drawing convincing and compelling characters. People often point to the plot-driven narrative to distinguish genre from literary fiction, and that is in many cases true; but I think one of the great virtues of genre narratives like the detective novel is that, when it's written at its best, it offers a heightened version of reality that allows or forces its characters to reveal themselves in ways they normally would not. When a character is confronting an extreme moral or physical dilemma—that might involve death, deceit, transgression—they react in extreme ways, in ways they cannot control sometimes, and it's that lack of control that ends up exposing them. To me, there are similarities here to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. The characters in these kinds of heightened narratives—unlike those in more ordinary situations—inevitably reveal unexpected and sometimes unfathomable parts of themselves. That creates a space for some complex characters and some complex ideas on morality, sex, love, death—the same ideas we find in the great books of literature.

Why the crime/noir genre in particular?
Again, my first answer is simple: it's just fun to write. The dynamic plots and characters. The atmosphere of intrigue, suspense, and moral ambiguity. There's something inherently sexy about all this, and that's fun to indulge in as a storyteller.

But the framework that noir fiction provides also has a lot of metaphoric value. As the name suggests, noir is about shadows—about what is hidden both intentionally and unintentionally. What is not known. What is not understood. That lack of knowledge is an inherently powerful engine for plot and character development. It propels the characters forward even as they look backward into the past, and as readers we inevitably live vicariously through such characters. We know what it is like to desperately want knowledge and certainty. We know what it is like to be deprived of that. We know what it's like to be haunted by the past and daunted by the future. As a writer, this is also a very productive state of mind to be in when you're telling stories. It's what John Keats described as negative capability: "what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." When you immerse yourself in a narrative that is full doubt and uncertainty and mystery, you begin to see the value of questions—that they always point you in more interesting directions than answers, which in contrast would simply halt and narrow the world of the story. And as a writer, you're constantly doubting your own work, your talent, what you're capable of, so it's good to remind yourself that doubt is a crucial part of the process, because it forces you to dig deep into the shadows and hidden spaces of yourself for answers. That's where all the meaningful stuff is, the places you and other people rarely think of looking. The noir genre both enables and is a metaphor for that investigation.

Were there ways that writing about Las Vegas and immigrants overlapped with your writing in the crime genre?
I think so. Absolutely. Las Vegas is an ideal backdrop for noir fiction. And not merely because of all the nefarious and salacious stuff that everyone knows (or at least hears) about. In a place where most people hail from somewhere else and constantly come and go, or have no idea where they're headed next, where there's a constant dynamic between the surface and the substance of things, constant even once you go beyond the Strip—in a place like this, ambiguity suffuses everyone's story. This is what I mean by noir. Shadows and vagaries. And for the same reason, Las Vegas is also a great backdrop for the immigrant story. Who, after all, proceeds with more ambiguity than a stranger who arrives in a strange land and must make a life amongst other strangers? Who has—and withholds—more stories? I suppose that Robert's dilemma in Dragonfish is that the woman he believed he loved, believed was his, had always been an inaccessible stranger, and everything he does in the story is, in part, a way of denying that.

Why did you make the male Vietnamese characters "bad" and the lone white male character "good"?
On the surface, because they're criminals and are very violent and even sadistic, I think the Vietnamese males in the novel can easily be seen as morally questionable, if not reprehensible. But I also tried to show that they were motivated by a survival instinct that comes not only from their upbringing in Vietnam, but also from their experience escaping Vietnam. They are also motivated by an intense need to protect themselves and their family, and I think these are all reasons that most readers can sympathize with. Junior is also, I think, the wisest character in the novel, unlike Robert who makes foolish, selfish, and rash decisions and is himself prone to violence despite being a police officer—the supposed embodiment of virtue and justice in this world.

Anyway, I liked the irony of these characters not fitting the roles they play in this world. That makes them more complex and interesting to me, which is much more important than any need I might have to make any race of character more heroic or sympathetic than another race. In trying to portray any people, let alone the people of my own homeland, the last thing I want to do is make a decision based on whether I'm depicting them in too positive or too negative a light. For example, just because Vietnamese people are underrepresented in American literature doesn't mean I should feel a responsibility to make my own Vietnamese characters significant representations of the people and, therefore, more sympathetic or likable or heroic, etc.

I also have no interest in the likability of my characters. The only question I ever ask myself is whether they are convincing in the world and the situation I've created for them, and whether they are interesting. And to me, what makes a character truly interesting is when they're a convincing contradiction, which is what most people truly are I think, whether they show it or not.

What authors or books influenced you in the writing of Dragonfish?
I had a lot of books on my desk as I was writing the novel: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakmai, The Quiet American by Graham Greene, Galveston by Nic Pizzolato, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, Open Secrets by Alice Munro, Homicide by David Simon. All of these books are in the DNA of Dragonfish. I was constantly opening them and rereading certain sections, over and over, just to get in a certain frame of mind as I was writing different parts of the novel.

Describe your writing process?
I wrote most of the novel between 2010 and 2014, and during those four years I had a very specific ritual. Around midnight, I would boil a kettle of water and pour it into a big thermos, which I'd have at my desk with a cup of tea and a bowl of chewy ginger candy. I'd turned out all the lights except for my desk lamp, and I would write until four, sometimes five, in the morning, constantly replenishing my cup of tea, constantly chewing on the candy. I never wrote a word away from my desk, and only worked outside of this window of time towards the end when I was trying to meet the deadline. For a while, before I quit smoking, I would usually stop at 2:00 in the morning and step outside with my iPhone and listen to music as I smoked my one cigarette for the night. Because I had so much anxiety about finishing the book and getting it right, the constancy of this ritual was very calming for me. I also think it's why there's a lot of smoking and night scenes in the novel.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Dragonfish jacket
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Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Vu Tran but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    If you enjoyed:
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  • Violet Kupersmith

    Violet Kupersmith

    Violet Kupersmith was born in central Pennsylvania in 1989 and later moved with her family to the Philadelphia suburbs. Her father is a white American and her mother is from Da Nang, Vietnam.

    Her mother's family fled the ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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    Try:
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