An Interview with Vu Tran – Author of the “top notch mystery,” Dragonfish by Phuong Nguyen

Vu TranVu Tran is the Assistant Professor of Practice in the Arts, Department of English, University of Chicago. He is the author of the “top notch mystery” Dragonfish, his debut novel based on one of his short stories published in The Best American Mystery Stories, 2009. This is a novel about an Oakland cop, Robert, and his ex-Vietnamese wife, Suzy, who is found missing in the underworld of Las Vegas. She tries to flee from her new Vietnamese husband, Sonny Nguyen, a violent smuggler and gambler, after she discovers terrible things that Sonny did to her and also horrible things she committed without any memory of it. Pursuing Suzy, Robert finds himself chasing the past that haunts Suzy—her refugee life after the fall of Saigon and her denial of being a mother. Everyone related to her is caught up in a life and death situation. Charles Bock, New York Times bestselling author, put this about Dragonfish, “Note-perfect. Heartbreaking. Profound. Dragonfish is a polished dagger of a novel that will cut out your heart.”

Dragonfish really proves Vu Tran is a rare storytelling talent that can gracefully combine a thrilling detective noir with a poignant Vietnamese immigrant story into a haunting crime fiction. In this interview, Vu Tran reveals many interesting stories behind the 5-year process of giving birth to Dragonfish.

Q: So, what is the specific idea that sparked you to write this novel? Was it a combination of a suspense crime, the characters carrying their baggage about Vietnam War and the connection hurdles between Vietnamese and Americans?

dragonfishA: When you write, you don’t think about these things at first. They only come later; you know, they come while you are writing it. I first started this novel because I was asked to write a crime story, a noir story, for an anthology, a noir story based on Las Vegas, where I was living. The editor asked me whether I could write a story about Chinatown. I said, “Ok, sure.” Then, I just came up with an idea for a story set in Las Vegas, Chinatown. I thought it would be interesting to have an American cop who divorces his Vietnamese wife, who then remarries a Vietnamese man. I thought that would be an interesting plot. That’s how it was started. When you write, these ideas come out, and I realized that I had a story about immigrants, the kind of the story that immigrants carry their own stories around. If you are an immigrant, you are from another country; you have all these stories that you don’t always tell. You have baggage; you have secrets and the idea of secrets, the idea of shadow, what you hide in your life, what you hide from others, are very conducive to the crime fiction, to the noir.

Q: Why did you choose the title “dragonfish?” You wrote in the book that dragonfish “brings good luck, brings the evil away and keeps family together” when those are actually the total opposite of what’s happening in the book. Can you share the story behind the title?

A: Honestly, the original title of the novel was “This or any desert.” That was the original title of the short story for a long time. But in the end, my editor said that we needed to change it for that very reason. When I tell people that title, people were confused [about the title].” They couldn’t understand it. That was actually her idea to call it Dragonfish. I edited those lines about the dragonfish later on. First of all, I just found that it was a nice title. But it’s not terribly important outside of the fact that dragonfish tend to live deep in the ocean, in the shadow. People never see them. I feel like that’s true to many characters in the story. They disappear; people can’t find them. But that line: “the dragonfish brings good luck, keeps evils away and brings family together.” I put that in because it’s actually right and I like the irony that none of those happen.

Q: It seems to me that you used the novel-within-novel technique to tell one story using the letter that Suzy wrote to her daughter telling her own life from her perspectives, and the other connected story from Robert, her ex-husband. That was really smart. How did you come up with that idea? And how is it important to tell the story that way?

A: I think it’s important because there are several reasons. In a detective novel, a crime novel, or a classic detective noir, the narrative often has a hero, a villain, and a very beautiful woman, who’s usually mysterious. I thought about that idea a lot and I thought how it would be interesting to actually have part of the novel be a detective novel, a complete detective noir novel; but then have another novel, within the novel, that’s not a detective novel at all. Therefore, I am giving the woman the voice that she usually doesn’t have in a novel. In the detective novel, the hero is usually the detective who falls in love or they tend to fetishize women and I like the idea of keeping the woman mysterious in the detective novel but giving her her own narrative so that she has her own voice. I thought it would be interesting. And again, the novel is a lot about someone who does not have access to someone else’s world and I didn’t want to give Robert access because that’s how it is in life. You love people but sometimes you can’t connect to them. And even though you want access to them, you don’t get it. But the readers get the access to Suzy. Robert doesn’t. He never knows any of that stuff.

Q: Did you write the novel with that idea in mind right from the beginning or did you edit it later in the middle of the novel? 

“I like the idea of keeping the woman mysterious in the detective novel but giving her own narrative so that she has her own voice. I thought it would be interesting. And again, the novel is a lot about someone who does not have access to someone else’s world and I didn’t want to give Robert access because that’s how it is in life.”

A: I had that idea pretty much at the beginning because I’ve always liked that idea. When I just had the short story, I didn’t have the idea of her writing a letter. Then when I was expanding the short story to a novel, I realized that it needed another narrative; it needed Suzy’s story, but Robert didn’t know the Suzy’s story. That was very important that he didn’t know Suzy’s story. Originally, it was Suzy writing to her sister but that didn’t work. I really felt like I finally understood the novel when I made the decision to have Suzy write to her daughter. I think that was when the novel came together.

Q: The way you give the female character her own voice is very feministic and I felt connected.

A: I think that it’s very much a feminist novel. I think it is very important to me that people read it as a feminist novel because a lot of the book is about Suzy. She is a Vietnamese woman and you know in Vietnam, everyone has obligations; everyone has a role to play, in your family and in your society. This is the novel about a woman who was uncomfortable with a role that was forced on her. So much of her life was trying to kind of deny that role. She doesn’t want to be a mother and that’s okay; it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Vietnamese tend to think it’s a bad thing but it’s not.

Q: What do you think is the climax of the story and what is your purpose of building that climax?

A: I think the most important scene of the book is in the bar, when Victor is telling Suzy’s story to Robert and Mai. I felt it’s dramatically important because it reveals the reason why Suzy did what she did. It’s also the point when Suzy was trying to wake us up.

Q: It was a very sad ending. People are apart; we don’t know what happens to them after that and people get killed. Why did you choose that ending?

A: I felt I had to be true to the characters. I knew at the beginning that I didn’t want Robert to get the information he wanted. The familiar narrative in America is a white foreign man coming to a foreign world and ultimately he wins, he takes over, or he triumphs in what he wants. I didn’t want Robert to be in that narrative because the most important thing that makes the whole story flow the way it is is that Robert can’t get access to Suzy’s world. He comes that way; he leaves that way. It’s important that people don’t get what they want all the time.

Q: Whom did you write this book for?

A: Honestly, I don’t have specific target readers in mind.  I wrote this book just to please myself because as a writer, if you can’t please yourself, you can’t please anyone. As soon as you start writing for a specific audience, I think your writing becomes weaker.

Q: If you have one thing to say about Dragonfish to the reader, what do you want to say?

A: I just hope that people can enjoy the novel on different levels. I hope that people not only can enjoy it for just an entertaining, exciting crime novel, but also can read it as a story about love between family members and about marriage. If it can be better, I would like people to take it as a postcolonial narrative, a story about how immigrants survived in another world when they are forced to lose their own world.

Call for Submissions

Philadelphia Stories (PS Books) and the students from Rosemont College’s Publishing Program are collaborating to create an anthology celebrating women writers 50-years old and above. If you are a woman 50+, we invite you to submit your short story, flash fiction, novel excerpt, poetry, or creative nonfiction for consideration in this anthology.

The students in the Operating a Small Press course will select the works, edit them, consult with the authors, choose the layout and design, and do take the project from start to finish. Furthermore, they will create a marketing plan. The anticipated launch date will be in the Spring of 2016.

Submission Guidelines:

Submit to

Submissions will be accepted between June 29th and August 31, 2015

Multiple submissions will be accepted as follows:

  • 3-4 pieces of flash fiction
  • 3-5 poems (limited to 30 lines per poem)
  • Up to 2 short stories or works of creative nonfiction (stories limited to 4,000 words)
  • Only 1 novel excerpt – please (limited to 5,000 words)

Please attach each piece (as a word document) to your email.

We are looking for previously published work (please note initial publishing credits), but will consider unpublished work as well.

In the body of your email, please include a 125-word bio (submissions without a bio, will not be considered).

Thank you for considering submitting your work for this great project! Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact either of us:

How to Get Ahead Over Summer Vacation

I realize it snowed just a few weeks ago, but for grad students, the spring semester is nearly finished. I have a stack of theses more than 18 inches high on my desk. For those of you who are halfway through your studies, it’s time to think about summer vacation. While most of us want lazy days at the beach or to sip lemonade under a wispy willow tree, grad students should be thinking about how they can better position themselves for their careers.

Grad students (and undergraduates, too) should be planning and securing internships for the months between the spring and fall semesters. Whether or not it is paid or unpaid, an internship will provide you with marketable skills and experience to add to your resume. Building your resume over the summer is crucial to securing a job come next spring.

Keep in mind employers in the publishing industry are looking for well-rounded individuals. Jack Farrell, Managing Director of Jack Farrell & Associates, recruiters for educational, professional, and trade publishing, visited the Acquisitions Editing class last week. He told students to get multiple internships, because it makes them more attractive to potential employers. He also said, “get digital” experience as soon as possible.

What exactly does well-rounded mean? It means that students who concentrate on editorial need to get experience in marketing and visa-versa. We are no longer in a world or industry where jobs are so narrowly focused. An editor needs to understand how a marketer thinks. The cover designer needs to understand what is trending. Marketing personnel need to know what constitutes a “good story.”

Well-rounded also means embracing technology. The summer is a great time for you to “get digital,” if you aren’t already. I would recommend that you start a blog (WordPress is free) and create profiles on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram. You don’t have to post everyday, but you should keep up an active presence online.

This summer, go out into the world of publishing and secure an internship, work as hard as you can, learn as much as you can, build your resume, and enhance your digital footprint. Come back in the fall ready to discuss your experiences in the classroom with your professors and your peers.

Have a fun, productive summer!

Anne Converse Willkomm, MFA,
Director, Graduate Publishing Program

What I’m Looking Forward to at AWP…

The AWP Conference & Bookfair is upon us! This year, the event will be held in Minneapolis from April 8 – 11th. I’m excited since this will be my first time in the Star of the North state and my first time attending the conference. Past editor and author attendees have written that AWP is overwhelming and advise everyone to have specific goals in mind when they attend. Consequently, I wanted to take a minute to share what I’m looking forward to and what I hope to accomplish while I’m there.

Let’s get the fun stuff out of the way first:

  • Author signings: Three of my favorite fabulist writers will be there for book signings. I can’t wait to meet Kate Bernheimer, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell and get books signed.
  • The bookfair: I’ve heard incredible things about the bookfair and have to check out other literary magazines and small presses, talk shop with editors, and discover new authors.
  • Panels: While not all panels will live up to their promise, I’m excited to hear what authors have to say about creating literary magazines, writing “unlikable” characters, conducting research for fiction, creating dark fiction, and finding their voices. I’m especially eager to hear Roxane Gay, Kate Bernheimer, and Karen Russell discuss their writing processes.
  • Camaraderie: I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I’m pumped to spend time outside of Rosemont with my peers and the program directors. After two years, I’m still settling into Philadelphia (by way of Brooklyn) and feel as if I’m finally starting to make friends…thanks to Rosemont. This event will give me a chance to connect with this lovely like-minded group outside of the classroom.

Now lets get serious. I’m kidding, because my goals for AWP aren’t insufferable (unlike doing my taxes, which I should get done before I board the plane!):

  • Represent Rosemont: Naturally, I’ll be “womanning” the booth for part of the time. I’m happy to talk to AWP attendees, authors, editors, and potential students about Rosemont’s Master’s in Creative Writing and Master’s in Publishing, not to mention the Rathalla Review.
  • Recon: Next year, I’ll be the managing editor of the Rathalla Review, which means I should explore what other literary magazines are publishing and what design elements they have that make them stand out. I want to observe the mind blowing and the not so amazing so I have clear ideas what the lit mag staff should strive for and what we should avoid.
  • Networking: Since I run my own writing, editorial, and creative services company, I figured I would introduce myself to publishers of all sizes to offer my services in the future. I can’t wait to connect with those who are making good books and literary magazines happen.
  • Observe: Like any conference, I’m sure I will learn what works at a conference of this size and what doesn’t. I’m also sure I will learn a lot about my peers, the industry, and how to plan for next year’s conference. Of course, I hope to have some fun as I pay attention to what’s happening.

That’s all for now. If you are attending AWP, visit us at Booth #1600.

Event: Publishing Career Symposium on March 21, 2015

The Graduate Publishing Program and the Office of Post Graduate Success are hosting a Career Symposium on March 21, 2015. See below for details:

What is the Publishing Career Symposium? This one-day event will prepare Rosemont graduate and undergraduate students to enter the job force, interview for positions, and put their best foot forward when corresponding with current and potential employers. It will also help attendees craft the perfect LinkedIn profile.

When and where? The event will take place on Saturday, March 21, 2015, from 9am-5pm at Lawrence Hall.

Why should I attend? The Publishing Career Symposium will open with a panel discussion about the current state of employment in the publishing industry, general “dos and don’ts” of interviewing, how and where to search for jobs, how to can get jobs, and how to put your best foot forward. Two other morning sessions will follow the panel: How to Interview and Crafting Resumes. After lunch, we’ll hold two additional sessions: Cover Letters and Other Business Correspondence and the Benefits and Necessities of LinkedIn.

This event is free and lunch will be provided!

Who will attend? You, of course. And top professionals in the field, including Tom Hartmann, Cynthia Laufenberg, Adam Louie, Joe Taylor, and Rosemont College’s very own Anne Willkomm, Meghan Mellinger, and Rudy Wise.

The event is open to graduate students (primarily in the publishing and creative writing programs), undergraduate seniors, and juniors by invitation.

Specifically for the undergraduate attendees: There will be two discussions: 1) To Grad School or Not; and 2) Career Advice for College Majors. Mock interviews will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

How do I sign up? You can register here.

An Interview with Trish Shea, the Creator of Sole Magazine

Trish Shea is the Director of Marketing and Communications at the Academy of Notre Dame and a graduate of the Rosemont Publishing program. She has more than thirty years experience in her field and deep expertise in writing, editing, graphic design, communications, and brand development. I got a chance to catch up with Trish to discuss her thesis project Sole, a magazine dedicated to shoes. Here’s what she had to say.

What inspired Sole?

Sole was a culmination of everything that I learned at school and throughout my career and a way for me to develop a magazine that focused on something I am passionate about. What woman doesn’t love shoes? Sole helped me put into practical application, from concept to completion, a feasible magazine.

What were your first steps when developing Sole?

I started with research. I had to ensure that Sole would be unique. Luckily, there wasn’t another publication dedicated to shoes, except for trades published by industry associations that weren’t geared toward consumers. I also conducted five focus groups in person and an online survey with women between the ages of 24 and 60, my core demographic. I interviewed people in professional positions related to magazines and shoes, such as an executive at Condé Nast, a cobbler, a shoe designer, and a podiatrist. It was a fun process.

What was your mission and what did you want readers to walk away with?

The mission was to deliver interesting facts to people who love shoes. I wanted Sole to be similar to Real Simple in that it would be a quick read. I didn’t want long narratives or feature stories, but rather factual tidbits about buying and caring for shoes.

Where did you get your article ideas?

When conducting the focus groups, I asked people what they wanted to read. I took this information to heart and combined it with my own instincts. I curated a range of facts that included but wasn’t limited to the history of shoes, manufacturing, shoe care, fashion, and style.

What inspired the layout of the magazine?

I wanted the graphic appeal of bold colors and images, so I chose black highlighted with lime green and hot pink. I used lots of white space so that the images and text would stand out.

How did this experience advance your career?

The education I received at Rosemont, including the creation of Sole, has benefited me. While in school, I applied what I learned in the classroom to my duties at work. Plus, I had the chance to study under professors with expertise in magazine publishing, which shaped my instincts so that I could develop Sole from proven methods. The degree also helped me refine the way I approach creating materials at work. Rosemont’s Masters in Publishing program taught me so much more than what I would have been able to learn on my own.

What advice would you give to women that want to start a magazine?

I would say that they should figure out a specific industry niche and live it. They should get involved with professional groups and attend events. To be truly successful, they will have to cultivate a natural instinct for what people who read their publication and web site will think is newsworthy, interesting, and relevant.

Read Sole here.



And the Winner Is…

Last Friday night, the graduate students of Rosemont’s publishing and creative writing programs gathered to celebrate the American Library Association’s (ALA) slate book awards for children’s literature, children’s illustrated books, and young adult novels, including the Caldecott, Printz, and Newbery awards. We also announced the winners of Rosemont’s mock awards.

For the mock awards, we nominated, read, evaluated, and chose winners in each of the same categories, and compared our results to the ALA’s winner list, announced earlier in the week. Nancy Kotkin, a degree candidate seeking a MFA in creative writing and a MA in publishing, led the awards process. She worked with Cathy Fennell, Executive Director of Library Services at Rosemont, and formed three committees. Each committee spent the winter break reading dozens of books. They also met and debated over which books should win the prizes in each category.

Our winners were:


Winner: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat *


Julia’s House for Lost Creatures by Ben Hatke

Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato

Remy and Lulu by Kevin Hawkes & Hannah Harrison


Winner: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laura Halse Anderson


Threatened by Eliot Schrefer

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson ^

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley


Winner: Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julia Lamana


Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos & David Teague

* Winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal

^ Winner of the 2015 Printz Award

Before the announcements were made, the library displayed many of the nominated books so that the faculty and students could flip through them.

According to the participating committee members, the award selection process was challenging and involved much more than just flipping through a pile of books. Nancy Kotkin said, “I came to appreciate how difficult it was to look at the whole pool of books, narrow it down, and make objective decisions. Books are art, and it was difficult not to project our own aesthetic preferences into the evaluation process. Ultimately, I came to fully appreciate how supportive librarians are of books and their patrons.”

Students and faculty, including those not focused on children’s and young adult literature, were stunned to learn that there were no cash prizes associated with the awards. While it might not be difficult to imagine that an award would increase sales, I don’t believe that the students present last Friday night understood the significance of winning a Caldecott, Printz, or Newbery award. Anita Silvey, the editor of Children’s Books and Their Creators, an overview of twentieth century children’s books, former publisher of children’s books at Houghton Mifflin, and former editor-in-chief of The Horn Book Magazine said, “As a publisher, I knew how important the awards were. You could have a book that eked out sales of 2,000 copies when it was published sell 100,000-200,000 in a year after winning the award.”

In a 2012, The Record published an article on its web site, Books: Newbery and Caldecott Prizes for U.S. Children’s Literature Awarded, which stated, “Within hours of the prizes announcement, Dead End in Norvelt and A Ball for Daisy were both in the top 50 on and both out of stock.” The increased sales don’t just peak for a brief period of time, but rather the books earn a longer self-life. They often become part of secondary school curriculum. Of the books awarded the Newbery Medal from 1922 through 2015, all but three are available on Amazon today. Of the three titles not readily available—Tales of Silver Lands (1925), Daniel Boone (1940), and Rabbit Hill (1945)—two of them are available as used books or through a third-party vendor. More than ninety-seven percent of the titles are still in print. Think about the sales of these books over the years!

The Caldecott, Printz, and Newbery Awards, unlike the National Book Awards, are open to every book that fits the specified criteria. Per the requirements of the National Book Awards, publishers are required to pay a $135 entry fee per title nominated, plus agree to pay all of the travel costs for the author to attend the finalist ceremony. Publishers must also agree to “contribute $3,000 toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a finalist ($750 for presses with income of under $10 million).” This makes it difficult for small presses to nominate any of their titles, let alone multiple ones. In contrast, because the nominations are wholly objective and open to any book that meets the basic requirements (publishing date, citizenship of the author/illustrator, etc.) the Caldecott, Printz, and Newbery are truly unbiased awards.

Students and faculty alike walked away with a deeper appreciation for the awards, how books were nominated, and how the winners were selected. They learned about the inherent value of the awards, not only for an author’s or illustrator’s reputation, but also for the publisher’s sales. Thank you to all who participated!

Pick up an award-winning book today!