Q - Your career has been on a high professional level in diplomacy. What led you to decide to write a novel, and particularly a novel about wartime Vietnam?
A - My Foreign Service assignment during the last two years of the war was in the Indochina section of the State Department. In that position I was deeply aware of the way the war, and its ending, tore apart people’s lives, both American and Vietnamese. And there were many refugees, or émigrés really, in and around Washington, and I got intrigued by what their lives must be like here, after starting over. I started thinking, they would make an interesting story.
Q - Had you been to Vietnam when you started the book?
A - No, but as soon as travel bans imposed by our government were lifted, around 1988, about thirteen years after the war ended, I did go to Ho Chi Minh city and environs, wandering the streets, keeping a journal and describing places that I thought would be where scenes in the novel might have taken place.
Q - How did you manage to connect places in wartime Saigon with what was there a decade and more later?
A - Actually, it wasn’t as hard as one might think. Vietnam at that time had not begun to develop economically, so there hadn’t been much physical change, modernizing and so forth. Saigon was like a ghost city full of people, the remnants of American service stations with the American signs, rusted but still hanging; American-style signal lights at the intersections, most of which were no longer working. The highest buildings on the skyline were American-built, so that the place looked much like a mid-1960s Midwestern city, with the older French buildings and small Asian storefronts mixed in.
Q - How long did it take you to write the novel?
A - I wrote it in fits and starts, beginning back in the mid-1980s. Other things, such as family illness, kept getting in the way. When I finally did have something I thought was worth sending to agents, the response was very discouraging, and I would periodically get stymied. But gradually it took shape, and the final version – before the copy-editing and publishing process took place – was done about four years ago.
Q - Do you speak Vietnamese?
A - No. I did try to learn such things as names people give their children, forms of address –Miss, Mr., etc. And I do speak Chinese, so Asian-language tonalities and speech patterns weren’t completely unfamiliar to me.
Q - How did you go about writing the novel? Did you do a great deal of research?
A - I had some background to start with, from my academic studies, which focused on East and Southeast Asia, and from my Foreign Service experience, though I never actually served in Vietnam. When I began working on the book, I started with the story, then tried to be sure it was as historically and culturally accurate as I could make it. That isn’t the way all authors work, it’s just my way. Some writers do it the other way around, doing lots of research, then writing the book.
Q - Did you particularly identify with one or more of the characters, Trang Sen, for instance? Are there others that you dislike?
A - To a certain extent, particularly as the characters were being developed, I identified with each of them. I don’t think I could create a character that I disliked from the word go. Once the book was in editing stage, I liked some better than others – I’m not going to say which ones.
Q - How would you describe the focus of the book?
A - I originally intended it as a coming-of-age story about a young woman with conflicting desires and ambitions. And it is a coming-of-age novel, but I’ve been surprised that readers see it as a way of understanding certain things about the Vietnam war that they never understood before. So I’ve come to see that it really is both, and perhaps other things as well.
Q - How accurate is your description of the issues faced by Vietnamese immigrants when they arrived in the U.S.
A - In my own personal experience, which is reflected in more objective studies, it was terribly difficult for many of them. Refugees who were highly trained professionals found themselves in menial jobs as the only way to make a living – that’s very humiliating for an educated person. Some committed suicide. Teen-agers were also adrift, and some went terribly astray.
Q - Did you know any couples like the one you describe?
A - Working in the State Department – and because of the personal stories that went around at the end of the war – I was aware that there were many relationships, and many kinds of relationships, between American men and Vietnamese women. Some of them were quite good and ended in marriage, but many were little better than the kind of liaison between a G.I. and what I refer to in the book as Tea Girls.
Q - Will there be a sequel?
A - A lot of people have asked me that. I think everyone who reads the book ends up wondering what will happen to Trang Sen in her new life. But given that this book took so long to write, I don’t know that I’d want to undertake that commitment right now.