Sooner or later, a guy writing short stories in English is going to have to come up against Richard Ford, whose work from Rock Springs to A Multitude of Sins has proven him to be a master of the form, earning him the 2001 PEN/Malamud award for excellence in short fiction. (Ford’s novel Independence Day won the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner; his novel The Lay of the Land was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award.). For Nam Le, who was born in Vietnam, raised in Australia and completed Iowa’s notorious MFA program, that moment came Sunday afternoon at the PEN World Voices Festival in a conversation cosponsored by Bomb magazine.
Ford was an elegant and wry interlocutor, characterized most by generosity. He launched the conversation by holding The Boat aloft and pronouncing his approval: “This is a splendid book of stories. A once in a lifetime book ..He has great range…and intelligence. And there are those wonderful sentences. Enviable sentences.”
Some moments from their conversation:
Ford noted that Le had trained as a lawyer. Any effect on his writing?
Le: “A certain precision of language. ‘Precise obfuscation’—leaving things in a state of vagueness that doesn’t seem vague. And looking fo the most economical way to express something. Every piece of prose you write has to make the argument for its own existence.”
When asked about Vietnam, Le indicated that he encounters a lot of silence and reticence from his family and community about their experiences there. It was only after the publication of this first story collection, for instance, that his mother told him the dramatic story of his birth 30 years ago. He was a ten-month baby, coming late, there was a monsoon, he came out feet first…
Ford: “When your parents don’t tell you things, the things you write down can be compensating….you fill it in.”
Le: “If something is missing you fill it in. If there is a wound or a hurt, you dig into it, to figure it out.”
“What are the hardest things for him?” Ford asked.
“I’m not naturally inclined toward structural things. Why put this after that? Why start here rather than there?”
Ford: “What are you best at?”
Le: “I’m a bloody good thumb wrestler.”
Ford: “Do you write reviews?”
Ford: “A guy after my own heart….Giving a colleague a bad review is like driving down the road, seeing a hitchhiker and rather than picking the hitchhiker up, you run over him.”