Aimee Phan, class of Aught Two, will be reading Thursday at 8pm at Prairie Lights from her new collection of stories, We Should Never Meet, which Robert Olen Butler called "a thrillingly important book" and Chris Offutt says is "an important book by a splendid and passionate new writer." An interview was conducted via email.
EG: Can you describe a little bit of the process of getting your book published?
AP: I was in my third story of the collection when I met my agent Dorian Karchmar at the workshop. She read the stories and called me to say that she was interested in reading more. I wrote as much as I could while at Iowa and then after graduating, I moved to Portland where I finished the rest within six months. Once I sent it to Dorian, she submitted the collection and my novel proposal to several editors. That was quite agonizing. An editor at St. Martin’s Press offered a two-book deal, which Dorian and I happily accepted. I liked the editor—she was aggressive in securing the deal and seemed really passionate about my work. But she ended up leaving the house and I was assigned to another editor. I was lucky, this second editor was fantastic. She shared the same vision I had about the collection (the first editor wanted me to turn the linked collection into a novel, which I was against) and we meshed very well together. But after the editing process, she also left the house. I took the second loss harder than the first. I wondered how common it was for authors to be orphaned twice at the same house. So I’ve had three different editors for my first book, during the acquiring, editing and publishing stages. I don’t think it’s the ideal situation, but I was fortunate to have Dorian with me the entire time. It was a tremendous help having an agent who I knew was fighting for me and looking out for my best interests. So I’m not crazy about the publishing side of writing (who is?), but I realize it’s a necessary component. Of course I’d prefer to lock myself into a room alone with my characters rather than deal with a publicist. But I realize I’m very lucky to even have the opportunity to see my work published.
EG: Did any of the stories appear in journals before going in the book?
AP: Yes, the title story was published in Colorado Review, "Motherland" in Meridian, "Visitors" in Chelsea, "Miss Lien" in Prairie Schooner, "The Delta" in Michigan Quarterly Review, and "Gates of Saigon" in Virginia Quarterly Review. The last three were accepted after the collection had been sold, so I think that had a lot to do with it. And then of course I feel terrible for those two remaining stories that didn’t get published and I wonder what’s wrong with them.
EG: I remember at least one of the stories from Sam's workshop. How many were written at Iowa? Do you remember any feedback that might have helped, or negative criticism that you can now rub your hands together about in delicious triumph?
AP: I conceived of the collection during the summer between my two Iowa years. I’d spent the first year getting over the shock of being in Iowa, so not much writing was done. And then after writing the title story of the collection, it became this race because I knew that I would never have the free time that I had in Iowa ever again and I should write as much as I can. I’d never been so productive in my writing. I finished five in Iowa and three in Portland. When Sam came to the workshop my second year, it was a godsend. She became my thesis advisor and analyzed my work in a way that no other teacher had before. I’ve had my share of both good and bad workshops. And now looking back on it, I know some teachers had been gentle and others not so much.
EG: How did you come to tackle Operation Babylift? Have you been back to Vietnam since the normalization of relations?
AP: My mother was a social worker in Orange County who worked with Vietnamese foster children. I’d wanted to write about foster children for a long time. I went back to Vietnam two years ago with my family. It was great, emotionally and physically overwhelming, but a big plus was I got to factcheck my collection, since half of the stories take place in Vietnam.
EG: Were the stories linked to begin with, or did the linking happen afterwards?
AP: Initially I thought it would just be one story, but then I became interested in the supporting characters and wanted to give them their own stories. I love the possibilities of a linked collection from different perspectives—you can write about the same situation from all these different sides. You can have characters who lie and omit essential facts and that can be revealed later in other stories.
EG: You're teaching now at UNLV. How do you like it? Do you find it hard to juggle writing and teaching?
AP: I’m starting a tenure track position in creative writing at Washington State University in the fall, which I’m grateful for. No more adjuncting at UNLV—which is such a hard way to make money—you work a full teaching load for little money and minimal health benefits. Yes, juggling writing and teaching is hard because I’m terrible at multi-tasking. But I’m hoping it will get better soon because my teaching load will be reduced and I’ll have less distractions in Washington than Vegas.
EG: What are you working on now?
AP: A novel about a Vietnamese (surprise!) family split between America and France. It’s inspired by a novella and several short stories I wrote during my first year in Iowa. I liked the characters, but they weren’t working in their short story format, so I thought, hey, why not make them a large, extended family? So that’s what I’m doing.
EG: Any old workshop tales you'd like to share? Favorite teachers, moments, parties?
AP: We played so much while we were in Iowa! We were spoiled with free time. Going to the Iowa State Fair, the cornmazes, scavenger hunts in the cemetery, hikes and picnics at Kepler State Park, the farmer’s market. I loved where I lived. It’s the huge white house on Fairchild and Dubuque. I had this beautiful pink apartment with hexagonal rooms and huge bay windows. People could peek in on me if I left the curtains open. I also had Paul and Mika as neighbors, friends I loved. It was like living in a dorm. Our friends would come home with us after parties and we’d sit in one of our apartments, talk and hang out.
EG: Was it difficult being a minority student in the mostly white workshop? How could the workshop become more diverse, in your view?
AP: I had a workshop teacher who innocently asked me during one of our conferences if English was my second language. I don’t think this teacher meant to be insulting, but it devastated me (English is my first and currently only fluent language.) This teacher wouldn’t have asked me this if I was white. It made me seriously reassess my writing—was my prose that bad that it didn’t even sound like proper English? But I would be lying if I said this didn’t help my writing. I became much more focused on my language afterward, so that no one would ever ask me that again. I’m not the only student who experienced this. Others told me it happened to them too with different teachers, which I think is unfortunate. Other than these incidents, I very much enjoyed being at the workshop. As for diversifying the workshop, since Iowa does so little recruiting because it doesn’t have to, I don’t know how they can attract more writers of color. Perhaps encouraging minority writers to come to Iowa once they are accepted would help. Assure them that living in Iowa City can actually be quite nice and connecting them with other students of color.
EG: What advice would you have for MFA students and other writerly types looking to get published?
AP: Journals are so fun to submit to. You craft your cover letters and lovingly select the journals you dream of seeing them in. Finish the manuscript before you try to sell it. I’m so glad my collection was complete before it was sent out. That way, it’s yours completely. I envy my former classmates who are so patient with their writing—they want it to be the best it can be before they send it out. I want to be more patient with my writing, which is why I think this novel writing is so slow going.