Working with Words: Monique Truong

Monique Truong is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her latest novel The Sweetest Fruits, follows three women as they tell the story of their life with Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a globetrotting Greek-Irish writer best known as the author of America’s first Creole cookbook and for his many volumes about the folklore and ghost stories of Meiji Era Japan. We spoke to her about the art of writing, and her enduring passion for Little Women. 

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

During my Freshman year at Yale, I had a short story—more like a ‘sliver’ story, as I doubt it had a real plot but was more of an idea accompanied by a set of emotions—in an undergraduate journal of feminist writings. It was about a little Asian girl who was given a doll with blond hair. The girl hated the doll and herself because she didn’t physically resemble the doll. The journal ran the piece with a large black and white illustration—mostly black—akin to a Rorschach test in its abstractness.

Honestly, I can’t remember the name of the journal or of my contribution now. I do remember dropping off my submission at the journal’s office and the tickle of hope that stayed with me until I heard back from the editors. That possibility, I can tell you, is even more addictive than seeing my name in print.

What’s the best part of your job? 

My day is my own. My time is my own.

When I was working as an attorney, I had to account for my workday in fifteen minute increments, which later changed to seven minute increments. I had to assign to each of them a client, which the firm would then bill my time to. Every week, the firm would tally these minutes and they became my ‘billable hours,’ and these hours were then compared with those of my fellow associates. My worth was quantified by these numbers.

What’s the worst part of your job? 

Publishing. Or rather working with large publishers. In the U.S., my three novels have each been published by a ‘Big 5’ publisher and a different one at that. These entities acquired my work under the mistaken impression that I write in order to make them profit. I write to keep a roof over my head, to pay for my health insurance and because there’s nothing else in the world that I would want to do. If I wanted to make a profit for these publishers, I would write very differently. Our purposes are therefore misaligned and at odds with each other.  

No one, of course, is requiring me to publish my books with these large publishers. Well, no one except for the mortgage on said roof and my insurers. So, when I can, I now choose to publish with smaller, passionate indies such as Upswell in Australia and New Zealand and Gaudy Boy in Singapore and Malaysia.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far? 

I probably should use this opportunity to name-drop one of the literary awards or fellowships that I’ve received, but here’s something that’s truly above and beyond all of them: A few years ago, returning from a trip abroad, I was recognized at the airport by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent. He had my passport in his hands, and he looked up and asked, ‘Monique Truong, the writer?’ For a split second, I thought that he had read one of my anti-Trump essays or recent social media postings and was going to haul me away or deny me entry back into my own country.

Like so many of us, I don’t really see the folks who work in this capacity, just hoping to quickly get past them and head to the baggage carousel or the toilet. This time I took the additional moment to look at this border agent—he still had my passport, after all—and he was a young Asian American man. I’ve to admit a bit of my fear went away, and I nodded yes to his question. He nodded his head back at me and gave me back my passport, and that would have been the end of that unlikely moment of recognition. My husband, however, was right behind me, and he asked the agent how he knew that I was a writer. The agent replied that he had read a novel of mine in college.

I still cannot get over the fact that my books were reaching not only the literature majors and academics, but—and I don’t mean this as a derogatory characterization—also reaching the every day man, the one who graduated college, join the CBP, and improbably still remembers my name.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing? 

Worst advice is any advice at all about writing. Why? Because writing fiction is an art and therefore unique and personal. What works for one writer is a miracle of coinciding factors that are rarely, if ever, applicable to another writer. In other words, there’s no right way and no wrong way to practice the art of writing. 

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself? 

A writer once told me that he had heard that my first novel The Book of Salt was written in three weeks. That novel took me five years to write. How or why this bit of fabulistic lore was in circulation is beyond me.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead? 

This question is premised on the idea that there’s an ‘instead.’ There isn’t. Otherwise, I would be doing it.

I tell my writing students that they need to ask themselves whether they could live and be fulfilled by doing anything else other than writing. If the answer is yes, then they shouldn’t be a writer. I don’t think this is true for writers of every genre but is certainly true for writers of literary fiction.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view? 

Based on my own experiences teaching creative writing on the undergraduate and on the MFA level, I think that precise writing can be taught. By that, I mean that I can teach my students to think through the precise contours of their stories and then to find the optimal, most impactful words to convey those stories to the readers.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both? 

I buy new books in my local, independently owned bookstores or, during the pandemic, on their websites. In walking distance of where I live in Brooklyn, I’m fortunate to have three great ones. There used to be more. Unfortunately, there are towns in the U.S. that don’t have a locally owned bookstore to call their own, so I also refer readers to Bookshop.org, an online seller that donates part of their proceeds to indie bookstore owners around the nation.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

Josephine 'Jo' March from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I was probably 11 or 12 years old when I first read Alcott’s novel, and Jo was the first depiction of a girl who wanted above all to be a writer. Reading about Jo made me recognize something inborn and yet to be named within myself.

You didn’t ask, but the one fictional character I would never go out to dinner with is Jo’s youngest sister Amy, the one who burned the only handwritten copy of Jo’s first novel out of sheer spite for not being able to attend a dance. The anger I hold in my heart toward Amy is REAL and only grew more intense when she went off to Europe with their rich aunt instead of dearest, most deserving Jo. Don’t even get me started about when Amy married Laurie, Jo’s childhood friend and would-be (on his part) sweetheart!

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

As should be evident from my response to the last question, I’m clearly still emotionally impacted by and overly invested in the narrative world of Little Women. I reread that novel almost every year. The novels that we read when we’re young often stay with us because they give us our first encounters with lifelong themes such as friendship, love, loss, and death. Little Women had all of that and more, and Jo is the 'more'. In the solitude of the attic, accompanied by crisp autumnal apples, she was happiest reading or writing. Jo is a kind roadmap for me, then and now.

Portrait of Monique Truong

Born in Saigon, South Vietnam (now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) in 1968, Monique Truong came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1975. She is based now in Brooklyn, New York. Her novels are the bestselling The Book of Salt (2003) and the award-winning Bitter in the Mouth (2010) and The Sweetest Fruits (Viking, 2019). Her essays have appeared in the New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, USA Today, O magazine, Real SimpleFood & Wine, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among others. Truong is also a lyricist and librettist, working in collaboration with composers Joan La Barbara and Shih-Hui Chen. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship, Hodder Fellowship, she has taught fiction wring at Columbia School of the Arts, Princeton, and Baruch College as the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence. She received her BA in Literature from Yale University and her JD from Columbia Law School.

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