RICHARD FORD: Henry James said that “the terrible whole of art is free selection.” And that’s one of the thrilling things about your work, for me, just seeing where you find a story, which is always where I don’t expect you to find it. You trained as a lawyer; I went to law school myself. Do you think legal training encourages habits of mind that writing fiction draws upon or exploits in any way?

NAM LE: I guess there’s a certain precision that law encourages—though that precision is not necessarily used for the articulation of anything specific. Quite often the law encourages precise obfuscation—leaving a subject open enough so that no one quite knows what you mean, or pretending you know what you mean when, in fact, you don’t, or leaving things in a state of vagueness that doesn’t appear vague. And that’s been quite interesting to import, at times.

FORD: When you first study the law, you think that you’re seeking an answer somehow in the material. When, in fact, there is no answer in the material, but the one that you actually confect, somehow.

LE: I think the way the law works is incredibly honest, because it’s up front about the fact that in order to advocate a position, you need to create the rhetorical and evidentiary argument for it. And I think that’s important to realize writing fiction as well. Every piece of prose you write not only has to make the argument for its own existence, it has to persuade the reader to go along with it.

FORD: It has to make a kind of sense.

LE: Yes, but there is no—

FORD: —preexisting sense.

LE: Exactly. When you look at common law, for example, it’s just full of overturned ratios, it’s full of overturned obiters. And what you realize is that personalities matter. The law is very temperamental in that sense, and a lot of people don’t realize that.

FORD: V.S. Pritchett, one of my favorites, said that writers are always trying to define what writers are. He also said that a writer is “a man living on the other side of a frontier.” He obviously meant that figuratively, but you’ve crossed a lot of frontiers—from Vietnam to Australia and Australia on to the rest of the world—and you write about people who have as well. Do you think crossing all these frontiers suits the vocation of a writer? Because one could argue that it didn’t—that it might leave you in an eternal nowhere.

LE: I think we’re all in an eternal nowhere all the time. And I feel strongly that nowadays, in particular, we all feel ourselves displaced in so many different ways. Whenever a person or a character purports to feel at ease with who and what they are, I tend to lose interest in them. That holds no charge for me. We’re always in flux and trying to figure out who and what we are, and why it is that we feel so connected to the things over which we had no control. You know, we had no control over where we were born, which family or ethnicity or socio-economic class we were born into, and yet we feel very strongly, and often unquestioningly, a tribal allegiance to these things. If writers are meant to be on the outside looking in, they’re in a better spot now, I think, because all of us have the feeling of being immigrants to ourselves. I can’t remember who it was, but some writer said that every day a writer has to create the ground he stands on. The idea of not having a ground, not having a base or bedrock—be it cerebral or physical—is actually quite liberating.

FORD: In your stories there are several moments when people feel a kind of insensitivity to their own interior lives. There’s a wonderful moment in the long story set in Australia. There’s a bully, and a young character named Jamie looks at him and basically sees nothing there. Something has walled off this young man from his interior life.

LE: I think one of the positive prejudices—though it’s still a prejudice—of writers and readers is that there is an equivalent richness to everyone’s interior lives, no matter what situation or circumstance or cultural background a person comes from. In fact, one’s apprehension and engagement with words corrupts but also enlarges one’s interior life. And it’s not a popular idea, but there are certain vocations and situations in which you might not have an interior life that’s as linguistically adaptable as someone else’s. Certainly you won’t have the vocabulary or the lexicon that a writer needs to employ in order to bring that interior life to the reader. And so what you’re doing as a writer is engaging in a big con, in a sense.

FORD: You fabricate that.

LE: You make it up. And you try to make it authoritative.

FORD: These lummoxes, are they then not susceptible to being characters in your stories?

LE: Absolutely not, no. It’s a great attraction, in fact. It’s a great challenge. And it’s not necessarily an advantage to have an exceptionally linguistic interior life. Because what that highlights is how readily and pervasively language fails us—fails to get any purchase on experience and thought and feeling at all.

FORD: And it’s optimistic to take somebody who you would guess, conventionally, doesn’t have much of an interior life, and give an interior life to that character.

LE: Sure, but is that an exercise of power? Is that an exercise that’s paternalistic or condescending?

FORD: Yes, all of those things.

LE: Right.

FORD: Let me ask you something—and this’ll be the only question I ask you about Vietnam. The complexity of your relations with Vietnam are probably best worked out in the body of work that you’re beginning to accumulate. Mavis Gallant said to me once, “If we knew what went on between women and men we wouldn’t need literature.” And if we knew what went on between you and Vietnam, we wouldn’t need these stories, perhaps. But are there any narrative forms from Vietnam that you seize upon or that contribute in some way to being a short story writer?

LE: The short answer to that is no. But my conversance with Vietnamese literature and narrative forms is pretty minimal. And I’ve continually come across silence, stonewalling, and cultural reticence, in talking about all sorts of things.

FORD: In your family?

LE: In my family, in my community.

FORD: Well, that’s not endemic to Vietnam.

LE: No. But my mom never told me the story of my birth, for example, until I published this book. It was a strange and somewhat disturbing story involving a monsoon, a rickshaw, and a ritual with a witch doctor—and she hadn’t told me this story in the thirty years of my life. Now the stories are beginning to come out. A lot of people in the Vietnamese community are coming up to me and saying, “Mate, do I have a story for you.” I’ve accrued some kind of license from writing a book. And I’m honored to be in that position and I look forward to talking to those people and getting their stories down.

FORD: Sometimes the things that you write turn out to be compensatory for the things that are holes in your experience, or holes in your memory. If you have a hole, you fill it in.

LE: I think there are two impulses: If something is missing then, like you said, you fill it in. But by the same token, if there’s a wound or a hurt, then the opposing impulse is to dig into it and to aggravate it, to try to figure out what it is about that wound that gives you the urge to turn it into song.

FORD: I have a friend who’s Bengali, a scientist at Oxford and also a novelist. She sent me a paper she wrote not long ago that said, “Science and literature are all about understanding.” My hackles go up immediately when I read a sentence like that. When you’re talking about that wound that you start picking at, are you trying to understand it? Is literature about “understanding”? Does that make sense to you?

LE: No, that doesn’t make sense to me.

FORD: Oh, good. I’m so happy.

LE: You shouldn’t take any comfort in that—a lot of things don’t make sense to me.

FORD: I take my comfort where I take my comfort.

LE: I’d love to know what you think about this. I read these articles that talk about advances in science—in neuroscience, for example, the science of the brain and consciousness—and it’s easy for me as a writer to be quite lazy, to think I operate in a different bailiwick to that, I interrogate consciousness in a different way, a lived way, a deeper way, a way more open to ambiguity. But then I think maybe I’m just in the wrong field. What if people do begin to understand more deeply how memory works, for example? Or how someone’s moral calculus works, and how the interaction between that calculus and our upbringing or our conditioning works? And what if they can understand this in a really profound and systematic way? That would render what we do an arbitrary sort of scrabbling around the edges.

FORD: But of all of those ways of apprehending things that are not now apprehensible, all of those things you enumerated that science could do so well—wouldn’t they still be operating metaphorically? Wouldn’t they still have to posit something where nothing is?

LE: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s one of the beauties of trying to formulate systems of understanding. I think of myself as an unashamed vitalist, a crackpot chemist of words. Biologists and chemists for years and years have posited some élan vital that animates us. No one quite knows what gives life to something. Everything can be in fabulous working order, and yet not work. And physicists constantly posit the existence of all sorts of things.

FORD: Things they can’t observe.

LE: Exactly. So that they can make their equations work. Dark matter, dark energy, a cosmological constant. Different dimensions. “This system of understanding is perfect if only we had a sixteenth dimension; then everything would be fine.” So if they can get away with it, I reckon so can we.

FORD: It doesn’t sound any different from what we ostensibly do. I’ve got another question. Do politics interest you much as a writer? You’ve written stories that are at least retinally political. One is set in Tehran in a highly charged revolutionary time. “The Boat,” another story, is politically charged. It’s not very popular in America to be a political novelist, unless you’re a comic novelist. Americans don’t generally come to literature for instruction about politics, even in the most spiritual sense. But I wonder if it interests you.

LE: Sure, absolutely. But in a way that’s subservient to all the other tough things that make a piece of writing work. Politics never provides an overarching imperative or theme for the writing, but politics deals with how we should best treat one another in the world, and of course that’s a meaty and juicy subject. Though sometimes I think we use the word “politics” the way we use the word “emotion.” We have a very limited and stupidly shallow idea of what “emotional” means, in our common vocabulary. “Aw, I got really emotional at that point,” we say, as though emotion is something that exists on the edge of experience; you’re pushed too far and you start tearing up. Sure—but we’re awash in an ocean of emotion all the time and we can’t escape it. Every single second of our lives is emotional. Instead of having some hierarchical structure between politics and the public and the private, we have to realize that every moment of our lives is political in that sense as well. Not in a programmatic or sloganized sense, but in a very real sense that everything we do is inflected and informed by other people, other systems, other structures—and also what we think, solipsistically, other people will think of what we’re doing and thinking.

FORD: Literature in that way is about consequences. It’s about the heretofore unknown consequence of how I feel and what that seems to cause, or of what I say or what I do and what that then seems to cause.

LE: Right. Yesterday I was thinking out loud and said that maybe the problem with fiction is human beings, characters. We funnel everything through characters. And when you’re dealing with something that involves mass influence and forces that have come about because humans have joined together in unpredictable—or predictable—ways, then it seems like the worst kind of bad faith to think you can allegorize that into a simple human story. But if you diffuse that into many human stories then you diffuse the narrative. Why is it that every single apprehension of some great historical incident or atrocity has to come through the story of this guy or that guy, or this woman who was there, and maybe fell in love with that other person?

FORD: As opposed to how then? Do we not need to apprehend it? The conceit is that we are better able to find our experience in others’ experience if we use the formal apparatus of a character.

LE: I don’t know. I think maybe we’re giving that type of fiction more credit than perhaps it’s due.

FORD: Character-based fiction?

LE: Character-based fiction.

FORD: And you write that kind of fiction.

LE: I’m a huge fan of character-based fiction. Don’t get me wrong. I think that if you’re looking for something which is continuously and inescapably mind-boggling and incalculable, then human consciousness is always going to get you there. But I think there are certain things which happen to people as communities, or as societies, perhaps—and this might not be stuff I’m interested in writing about right now—stuff that really can’t be transcribed into the story of one person without becoming forced or overly symbolic—

FORD: Or just dull. I think that’s wonderful, to take on the premise that there are such things as characters and say, “Well, maybe there aren’t,” at least for the purposes of many human experiences. Maybe the whole conceit that there are such things as characters is useless to us. And then you’ll come up with something better.

LE: Or maybe you won’t. But readers, if they realize that, will at least have that in the back of their minds, and not think that a story between this person and that person is the ambassadorial story for their time and place in history.

FORD: It is a premise that as you get older as a writer, which I have done—

LE: Hey, I’m doing it too!
FORD: No, you’re not. You do feel, in fact, that some of the formal features you have gone along with all your life do begin to seem a little threadbare.

LE: What sort of things?

FORD: Well, in essence, what you just said. The implementation of a character in a story begins to feel inadequate to what you might be called to want to write. I think to call that into question is a good thing. It takes a certain kind of intellectual vigor to do that, or innocence, or youth—or desperation.