Interview with Andrew X. Pham: “Words Belong to Everyone”

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Andrew X. Pham has had an interesting career. An engineer by training, he left his job to bike along the West Coast, where he caught a plane to Japan and eventually landed himself in Vietnam, his birth country, where he explored his roots. The memoir won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize and the Oregon Literature Prize and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Since then, Pham has written a biography of his father, a cookbook, and a collection of essays. In addition to being a writer, he’s been a rice farmer, a food critic, and has now started Spoonwiz, an insightful and decisive dining resource that connects users with a trusted network of experts and savvy diners.

Pham is full of smiles as he is full of stories and wisdom. He was kind enough take time out of his busy schedule for a video interview about his career, his craft, and his current projects.

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You started as an aircraft engineer, then you left to become a writer—you went on a journey on the west coast and then you flew to Japan and then Vietnam. This resulted in Catfish and Mandala. What sparked that journey? How did you get started writing?

It took awhile. I went to undergrad, I did aerospace. At graduate school, I did both an MBA and an aerospace masters in orbital mechanics, but I quit in the middle of it as I wrote about in Catfish and Mandala. I really thought about my life after my sister passed away. I thought about what I wanted to do and I went about doing it, which was basically writing and traveling and trying a different life. Because it was hard and because I wasn’t qualified to do it and I had no talent whatsoever, I thought it was a good try.

Were you always interested in writing or was it something you just thought of doing?

I always wanted to write, but I think I was a better artist, a better painter. I always thought I was going to be an artist, but you know being an Asian guy with your parents and family and all that. And I’m really good at math and I’m really good at the technical stuff too, so it kind of just fell in my lap and I just went to school. Actually aerospace engineering—especially what I like, orbital mechanics—was very interesting, but I think my talent really lies in art and writing.

 

I enjoy writing because it’s, in some ways, the lowest form of art because everyone has access to this. You do not need a paintbrush or a canvas to write. It’s the largest common denominator: words belong to everyone. And certainly, English words didn’t belong to me being an immigrant. I certainly didn’t take any English classes in college. I thought that was the most challenging thing I could possibly do.

Did you learn anything from your engineering days that carried on to your writing?

Well, engineering and a lot of stuff, even writing, is about organizing and editing. In engineering, you basically have a blueprint of what you want to do and there’s a reason and logic of  how you walk through the steps to create something or to check on a process. Writing is a lot like that, I think.

What else did I learn from engineering? I didn’t like having a boss. That’s one thing I decided: I really didn’t like having a boss. When I went to work at United Airlines, I remember there was this big wall leading to the cafeteria and there were all these photographs on there of all the upper management, all the VP, all the directors, all the big wigs.  And then I saw there was one woman and one black guy. The rest of them were white. I was thinking, “Hmmm…The chances of me getting up there is pretty damn slim.” Corporate culture is—especially a company like United—is really old school. After a year or so, I certainly did see the challenge. I felt like I would just be a tiny cog in a big machine. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything important and if I didn’t come to work, no one was going to miss me. If I quit, they’d find some other guy. I thought life should be a little bit more than that.

So you went to writing.

Yeah. And even if I didn’t publish, I certainly would have enjoyed myself. And I did. It was good fun. It was good fun.

You’ve written that when you first gave your manuscript of Catfish and Mandala to an agent. The agent accepted it but he or she said they wanted to move it towards what was happening in Asian American literature at the time and you said you didn’t want to go with that agent because you didn’t want to change your manuscript so much. Do you think there’s a lot of pressure for Asian American writers to conform to particular narratives?

It used to be a lot more, but now I think Asian American writers have more choices. You should read Chang-Rae Lee. He wrote a couple of books and you can see the progression of his characters. His first protagonist was Korean American. I’m not sure about the last one, but he took on a lot more mainstream characters. I do think writers in general—regardless of race—you do have more choice now than you did before about what you write.

I simply didn’t want to go that way because I thought this was a really personal journey. To change it that way, to make it more marketable, make it more publishable, I wouldn’t have been true to the work. It took me a couple of years to write. The trip itself took me a year and it took me a long time to work up the courage to do it too. The book isn’t just a book, it’s about a whole chunk of life and it’s about all the people in it. It’s about some really deep themes not just for me but for others, for Asian Americans. I didn’t really feel like going the other route. It was a hard choice, but it didn’t take me long to decide. It was a very gut reaction of “No.”

In addition to being a writer, you’ve also self-published two e-books, A Culinary Odyssey and A Theory of Flight. What led you to the path of self-publishing? Would you recommend it to other writers?

About two years ago, I finished a book and I kind of had a bad experience with a new editor at a publishing house. It really made me think about the inequities of the writer-publisher relation. It made me pause. It made me look at publishing and the rights of writers in regard to their work as well as what they can do with their art. I started reading my publishing contract and I read up on all the rights the publishers demanded. I found so many cases where the writers are basically screwed quite badly.

So I said, you know, just for the heck of it, I’ve been meaning to put this cookbook together. But cookbooks these days, they don’t really make money, only if you’re a celebrity chef or somehow you hit the bestseller. A lot of companies don’t publish cookbooks anymore. But I wanted to do this thing and I had put it aside simply because I knew publishers would not make money on it so they’re not going to want it. So, hey—what the heck—I’ve always written for me so this was a book for myself.

The other work, one of my publishers offered to publish it a while ago. They made changes to it, again, to make it more marketable. I promptly said no. But the thing about writing is that once you’ve written something, for me anyway, I’m done. The creative instinct is gone and I’m kind of satiated. It sat at my computer for seven years and I never thought about it again. Then about two years ago, I said, “Hey, this stuff is good stuff. It’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever written, to me anyway.” So I decided to self-publish it. Although if I changed it, they would have published it years ago, I didn’t want to do that. It’s not something I do.

In addition to those works, I know you’re also working on a novel called The Japanese Officer: A Love Story. It’s based on your grandmother’s life. Can you tell me more about that work? Also, how does writing nonfiction compare to writing fiction?

I think fiction and nonfiction are very similar technique-wise.  It’s just about good writing. I actually wrote a fantasy novel, that was my very first book. That took about four and a half years. No one published it. I still have some version of it lying around.

My first instinct was to write fiction. I think Catfish and Mandala came out because there was something in me that had to be dealt with. I wrote The Eaves of Heaven because I knew people of my father’s generation were moving on, passing on, so it was important to preserve what they knew, what they remembered, their traditions, and their voices. No one really captured that generation. You see a lot of stuff before and then a lot of stuff after by younger people like myself and eventually your generation, but you don’t really see much about his generation—the every man, the Vietnamese American that went through all the wars. I felt like it was something I had to do.

I feel the same about The Japanese Officer. My grandma’s story is quite powerful.  She was captured and raped by some French officer and she had a son as a result of that. My uncle is half-French, half-Vietnamese. He’s still alive today in Vietnam. So it’s about that.

It’s more challenging because I’m trying to do it in her voice, in her mind. She passed away when I was forty years old.  I know a lot about her life. It wasn’t like I didn’t know her at all. I do have a lot of material.

Furthermore, I think writers have a fixed number of books in them. Some people know, some people don’t. But I’ve known from a long time ago how many books I’m going to write and I’m getting to the end. I have one more and I’m done! In a way, I’m taking my time. I like to savor it. I never really made much money from writing, but it did give me a chance to have a lot of fun. It gave me a chance to live on a shoestring budget and do pretty much whatever I want to do. For that, I’m appreciative of the craft. So yeah, the book is about my grandmother’s life. It’ll take a while, but that’s what they do.

I’m looking forward to it. I’m a big fan of your work and I’m interested in reading your fiction.

Well, it’s not really fiction, but it is fictional. They call it an “autobiographical novel.” So it’s kind of based on real events and real people, but it’s fiction in that you have to come up with dialogue and description and you have to crawl into their heads. But it’s pretty much based on true life events.

What advice do you have for writers who are starting today? Why should they be writing? What’s your bigger philosophy on the role of writing in society, and art in general?

Don’t do it! Go out and have some fun. This sucks, don’t do this stuff!

They all say, “Oh yeah, I’m writing for the better good of mankind blah blah blah…” But you just have to do it for yourself because that’s basically what you do.  If you’re a runner, you’re going to run. Even if there’s not a race, you’re going to run. That’s what you’re built to do, that’s what you’re god-given talent is. You’re just going to do it. That’s what writing is.

I just don’t know how publishing is going to go. It changes so much within the time that I’ve been in it. I think it’s unfair to tell writers that you’re going to make a lot of money and you’re going to have fame and all this stuff. Just do it and really enjoy the journey. If you’re not enjoying the journey, if it doesn’t make you excited, if you don’t wake up in the morning looking forward to sitting down to write, then don’t do it because life is way too short. I think a lot of people like the idea of being a writer, but they don’t actually like the work. It’s just nasty work: you’re sitting there, bleeding all over the computer and you’re hating yourself. Sometimes you feel brilliant, sometimes you feel worthless, and there’s years and years of work that you then throw out. If you don’t like that part, there are a lot of better ways to spend your time.

I think that’s really good advice and I like that you live by it too. On your website, you said you’re not only a writer, but a food critic, instructor, traveler, rice farmer. I love the life that you live! It’s so varied. It’s good advice.

You know, it’s a weird world that we’re moving into right now. You don’t know if you’ll make any money or which way publishing is going to go. Some self-published writers make a lot of money, and other really good writers are struggling. I’m actually launching a little start up right now. It’s for writers. You’ve probably seen it on my site. It’s called Spoonwiz.

spoonwiz

Can you tell me a little bit more about Spoonwiz?

It’s a food site. I came up with this idea when I was going through self-publishing. I did a lot of study on the market and the publishing model. If you really look at e-publishing and online content, the writers make no money in the food space. I remember I used to write as a food critic at a newspaper. We used to get paid $500 for a review. They pay about $50 now, which is to say, they don’t pay anymore, so most people don’t write anymore. Food critics, restaurant critics— they don’t write anymore. They quit, or they move on to different businesses, different professions. Also, all the reviews on Yelp—you generate all this content and Yelp makes money, but you don’t make money.

Our platform is to give the author ownership of their materials, we don’t restrict them like Yelp or newspapers because if you write for a newspaper or magazine or even an online blog—they own your material. They can republish it, reuse it a hundred times and pay you nothing. That’s not us, you own your stuff. We’re a venue for writers to write about food and to keep the ownership of their articles and we give them shares in the company, at least initially anyway. It’s more of a cooperative for writers. According to our market study, there’s a market for what we offer.

What’s next for you?

Just this Spoonwiz. We’re looking for a copyeditor and a managing editor. That’s our big project right now. But other than that, launching this thing and see how it goes. So far, I’m getting a lot of attraction from professional writers and bloggers in the food arena. It’s exciting. I’ve never done this before. I’ve never owned a rice farm before, never lived on a sailboat before. Life is pretty short so you ought to do stuff you’ve never done or stuff that you’re curious about. I think having a start up is a once in a lifetime thing.

So your advice for people in general would be just do what you want?

Just be passionate about what you want.  If you’re not passionate, if you’re not willing to make sacrifices for it, then don’t bother. Because starting Spoonwiz, I also realize there’s a lot of people who say stuff—like “Yeah , I want to be involved,” but then the time comes and they don’t do it. For me, when I say something, I see it to the end. I just don’t give up. It’s very hard for me to give up. I don’t think it’s possible for me to give up.

After twenty years of speaking to writers and wannabe writers and aspiring writers—I used to tell them “Yeah, be a writer, follow your dream” and so on. These days, I just leave them alone. I mean, if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it. You don’t need to ask me. Like I said, a runner’s going to run. They don’t go around asking people, “Should I run? Should I buy a pair of running shoes?” They just run. Even if you don’t have shoes, you’re going to run in your bare feet. And I think that’s the way it is with writers. You don’t need to ask for permission. Words belong to everyone.

 

Andrew X. Pham is an independent writer, instructor, culinary professional, and engineer. He holds a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles. His first book, Catfish and Mandala (1999), won the Kiriyama Prize, the Whiting Writers’ Award, Quality Paperback Book Prize, and the Oregon Literature Prize. It was also named a Guardian Prize Shortlist Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His second book, The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars (2008)—an innovative biography written as a memoir—was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Los Angeles Times Favorite Books of 2008, a Washington Post Top Ten Books of the Year, a Oregonian Top Ten National Books of the Year, and a Bookmarks Magazine Best Books of 2008. Andrew also translated Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram (2008) with his father. His poem “A Vision 9/11”—an architectural design rendered in prose (NPR, 17 Oct. 2001)—inspired multiple winning WTC designs. Andrew has also self-published two books, A Culinary Odyssey: A Southeast Asian Cookbook Diary of Travels, Flavors, and Memories and A Theory of Flight: Recollections, a collection of essays on life, love, loss, flight, and travel. He is working on the last book in his Vietnam trilogy, The Japanese Officer: A Love Story, an autobiographical novel based on his grandmother’s life (Knopf). He divides his time between California and the wooden bungalow he built on the Mekong River (on the Thai-Laos border) with his partner and two dogs.

Eric Nguyen has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.

  

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I read and loved both of Andrew’s memoirs, and look him up from time to time, intrigued by the complexity and relentless authenticity of his writing vision. Thanks for this fascinating, passionate interview, Eric, that draws the author out and shares some of the mysterious compulsions of a passionate human being who goes from country to country, career to career, searching for the “right” way. Don’t worry Andrew. No pedestals here. Unless perhaps the pedestal elevates someone searching for authenticity. But nah. Who would ever want to go on that journey? Or as they say in Steppenwolf, For Madmen Only. Price of Admission Your Mind.

    Best wishes
    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  2. Great interview Eric. Andrew X. Pham is one of my favourite writers. I liked how your brought out the whole person and not just the author in this conversation.

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