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.