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Ex-corporate lawyer a newcomer to watch

FROM the tale of a Columbian child assassin, to one about an aging, lonely New York artist struggling with fatherhood, Nam Le's debut collection of seven short stories covers an ambitiously eclectic range of settings and characters. It was a risk that paid off as the book published in 2008 won a stream of accolades and put Le on the literary stage as a newcomer to watch.

The range of the stories defies the confines of self-obsessed, autobiographical writing. But the collection is framed by two stories that explore the author's ethnic roots and struggles as a writer.

Australian-Vietnamese Le was a corporate lawyer in Australia until 2004, but his future changed when he was admitted into an Iowa writer's workshop in the United States.

The opening story playfully features a budding writer named Nam who is advised to exploit "the Vietnamese thing" at a writing workshop. The closing story completes the circle with a group of boat people escaping from Vietnam to a Malaysian camp.

Nam will speak during the Shanghai International Literary Festival at M on the Bund next Tuesday.

Q: You came to writing via a rather circuitous route. What finally gave you the courage to pursue your dreams?

A: I think it was a sense of now or never. I could feel myself progressing past points of harder and harder return in my legal career, and knew that I had to take the plunge before my feet froze. Also, I had written an (unpublished) novel, so was in a position to fully appreciate the time and mental space one needed to write. By that time it was, I think, more necessity than courage.

Q: Writers are typically advised, "Write what you know." Why then did you decide on such eclectic settings and characters?

A: I find the dictum to "write what you know" very interesting, since it presupposes that we really know what we think, we know. Isn't one of the charges of fiction to explore this presumption? To interrogate our knowledge and find the contradictions, biases and complexities within it? For me, the moment I think a character is completely "known" (whether by author, reader or even other characters) is the moment that character becomes false or flat to me.

Ideas of "self" or "place," similarly °?- if true to their own nature and advertent to the subjectivity through which, invariably, they're seen in fiction - are in constant flux, open to suasion, never fully set. Taking this "write what you know" advice too seriously, too narrowly, will likely lead to insularity, solipsism, narcissism, complacency, insipidity. To me, to write what you know is to continually try and necessarily fail to come to terms with all the things you don't know.

Q: Is there any thread tying the stories together?

A: Invariably the answer's yes °?- a writer's aesthetics can't exist independently of the elements that give it body. One of the pleasures of having other people read and review your work is that they often connect the dots when you can't. Evidently I like storms. (I do.) And food. And violence. Mix 'em up, stir 'em around and we got ourselves a date. The concept of blindness. Borders, border zones. (My editor, on first read, felt that I'd overused the word "armpit;" it turned out the armpits were all in one story, which is apparently okay). There are turns of phrase too, and technical devices. Best was when someone noted that each of the characters labors under their own Swords of Damocles, which seems about right. Everyone's dealing, unremittingly, with some kind of coming-to-terms. It seems about right.?

Q: What is your favorite story?

A: This will sound cheesy, but every single one of these stories, as I was writing it, was the hardest story I'd ever written. Every single one felt like a failure, felt lifeless, felt fraudulent at advanced stages. And in typically perverse fashion, every single one also felt the truest. My favorite? I like to believe that each story yielded a breakthrough °?- but who knows whether those were self-manufactured!

Q: The different settings and characters required a lot of research to give the story authenticity. How do you strike the balance between authenticity and fiction?

A: I wanted to capture not the essence but an essence of these settings and characters that felt authentic. Part of this, of course, was just trying to get the details right. I think Marilynne Robinson once said that plausibility was purely a matter of aesthetics; in a much narrower sense, authenticity can be seen as just a matter of accumulating the right details.

So yes, I did a fair bit of research to find the right details (and to try to weed out the wrong ones). You try not to get anything wrong. You do as much as you can, but then you hit a point at which you have to push the research aside. I try to give myself the license to do that, to steep myself in the research material and cast around for the best information I can get, and then, when it comes down to it, if a sentence requires that the thing be yellow instead of green °?- even though the thing is green in my research - then I'll go with yellow. If that's what the story needs.

Q: What book has influenced you the most?

A: The question of gauging one's own influences is inherently tricky, and I know writers can be cagey about this, but honestly I have no idea how to go about answering this question.

Different books have affected me at different times, in different circumstances, in different ways. My investigative mind is too unreliable, and ultimately incapable, of making the connections.

Q: Can you see yourself ever returning to corporate law?

A: I try to never say never, but no. I'd hate to have to leave it again, and I would leave it again.


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