How a Pulitzer-Prize Winning Novelist Thinks About Coffee, Screenplays and Facebook

Viet Thanh Nguyen.

This past week, Viet Thanh Nguyen was announced as one of the winners of this year’s MacArthur “Genius” Grants. It is the latest honor in a career that has taken Nguyen from writing screenplay drafts to winning the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer. We wanted to find out how this prize-winner does his work. His answers were both illuminating and encouraging: like most of us, Nguyen struggles with staying focused amid digital distractions, has had to resolve the coffee-versus-tea debate, and works against the sleep deprivation all parents know too well. His thoughts on writing were unsentimental—and refreshingly so:

Observer: Let’s start at the beginning: What time of day do you start writing? What does a typical writing day for you look like?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It used to be when I wrote The Sympathizer I didn’t have a kid yet so my day would start around 9:00 or 9:30, and I’d write until around lunch time. I had two years off to write The Sympathizer so I had time in the afternoon to go running on a treadmill at the gym. That was also part of the writing process as well because I really had a lot of ideas while I was running.

My life has changed (fortunately) post-Pulitzer and post-child. Now I’m lucky if I get two or three hours in the morning, but I typically want to write in the morning. Then I still try to make it to the gym in the afternoon. I believe that having a healthy body helps me to write as well.

Did you shift your writing schedule to a little bit earlier after you had your child?

Ideally, if I could go to bed at the same time as my son around 9 PM and then get up at 4 in the morning to write, I’d do that. But it hasn’t worked out that way because I’m a night owl so it’s been a huge struggle to try to go to sleep earlier. So typically, no. I have to take care of him and take him to school, and I’m not back until 9:30 or 10:00. That’s really my time to write.

Before I had my son, I could have tea or even just spend 30 minutes on Facebook so my mind would be clear in the morning. Now, of course, it all depends on him—if he had a screaming fit or anything different, then I have to adjust. Last night, I slept with him and he kept me awake through a good portion of the night. It’s part of life. I know other writers have had to deal with that before, and it will be part of the challenge of writing in the future.

Do you have a preferred tool for writing? Do you use Microsoft Word? Google Docs? A pen and paper?

Almost exclusively Microsoft Word to write in. I really don’t like my handwriting. I will take notes by hand if I find myself stranded without recourse to Microsoft Word. My other tools which are usually email and Evernote, which I take notes in. If I’m running on the treadmill in the gym and an idea comes to me I’ll email myself while I’m running and grab all those notes later. I also use this program called Freedom to try to turn off my internet when I’m writing as well.

The internet is really addictive. It’s even worse than the temptation to clean your house before you writing. Or reading the newspaper. I tell myself, “Don’t. Go. On. Facebook.” I tell myself that first thing in the morning because it’s not like I’m not going to spend five minutes on it. I’ll end up spending an hour on it! So the incentive to use Freedom was to force myself to turn off all those connections for an hour or two hours or whatever I set the time for.

I first started using it when I was writing The Sympathizer. I knew I really needed to concentrate and to focus. The problem with Freedom is you still have to have the discipline and focus to turn that thing on and not to start surfing the internet first.

I don’t know that there is any writer out there who has somehow achieved some kind of plane where he or she is not tempted by all the other mundane temptations in existence and is not dealing with the same kinds of challenges. I have more opportunities now and maybe I have achieved a different level of technical accomplishment than I had twenty years ago, but the challenges go up at the same time. I don’t think a writer’s life ever gets easy when it comes to the actual act of writing.

Do you listen to music or have something else on in the background when you write? Do you prefer silence?

I’m very careful about what I listen to. I preferred silence before I wrote The Sympathizer, but on The Sympathizer I thought: Okay, let’s try this with some music, but not anything too distracting. I’m usually not listening to anything with lyrics for the most part. I actually listen repetitively to Philip Glass. With The Sympathizer, especially The Hours. I wanted to have some of the feel of his music in the rhythm of the prose.

One exception I made to that, for whatever reason I started listening to an album called Lady’s Bridge by a guy named Richard Hawley who is a British rock musician. That album sort of obsessed me and I listened to a lot of that as I was writing The Sympathizer. Many of those songs felt like they were contributing to the mood of the novel.

So now I try to curate a playing list that might affect the mood of the novel or somehow part of the scenery of the novel.

So let’s say you sit down to start writing, and you can even take us back to when you were doing The Sympathizer, did you have any pre-writing rituals or habits? Anything you did to get yourself in the zone?

I just needed my caffeine. By the time I got to The Sympathizer I had cut out coffee. I was down to tea, but I still needed tea. There was also (admittedly) some ritual time-wasting. Back in the day, it would be reading a newspaper, and today, I would read Facebook for a while until I’d tear myself away. All that was procrastination. And then finally that very special kind of writing in The Sympathizer…I was reading a novel called The Land at the End of the World by the Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes and it came to me at a very fortuitous time because it had been reissued in a new translation right when I was starting The Sympathizer and struggling to find a beginning and when I read that book it really blew the doors open for me. I fell in love with the rhythm and the voice and I wanted some of that for my own book. So what I did was I would read two or three pages of that novel every morning until I was so affected, so seized by Lobo Antunes’s prose, that I just had to write myself.

I’m trying to do that again with the novel I’m currently writing. It’s not working quite as well. I’ve changed as a person and a writer and the novel is different so I might have to find another totem to use.

I know that some writers don’t like to read other writers because they don’t want to be influenced by their work. But in my case, with that book, I just wanted to imitate Lobo Antunes’s prose. And of course, I think I failed, personally. He and I are not the same writers, but nevertheless it was a circumstance when I did want to be influenced by somebody whose writing I admired so much.

You mentioned switching from coffee to tea. Why the switch?

I got addicted to coffee in college, and I can’t remember exactly when I quit, but it was in my 30s or early 40s. By that point, I had been doing it for 15 to 20 years. I quit because I had been doing a lot of international travel, and it was such a hassle sometimes because you can’t start your day until you’ve had a good cup of coffee. In a lot of places, it can be hard to find that good cup of coffee, and if I don’t get that coffee, I felt terrible. If I don’t get my tea in the morning, for whatever reason, I don’t feel terrible. I can still write. And tea is a lot easier to be portable with.

When you sat down to write did you have a set number of words you were trying to produce? Did you have a clear goal in mind for that day’s work?

I had this incredible fellowship called The Fine Arts Work Center Fiction Fellowship in Provincetown, Massachusetts. That was really my first sustained opportunity to devote myself purely to writing. I thought: I’m going to write eight hours a day. And it was a disaster because I would exhaust myself. One of the best writing tips I ever heard—and multiple writers have said this so I can’t remember who I heard it from—is to stop at a high point in your writing. Stop when you’re still feeling energetic, when you’re still feeling good. Even stop in the middle of a paragraph or sentence so that you can pick up where you left off the next day.

I learned that through bitter experience at the Fine Arts Work Center, so when it came time to write The Sympathizer I knew I couldn’t do eight hours a day, even though I had that amount of time available to me. So I aimed for four hours a day and that was the right time limit. If I was writing original words, I would aim for 1,000-2,000 words within that time period. That would change if I was revising—in that case I wouldn’t set a word limit, but I’d still abide by the time limit.

When you were producing those words were you editing while you were writing? Would you edit in batches? What was your process for editing that work?

What I like to do is edit a chapter before I move onto the next one. So for The Sympathizer I would write 20-25 pages of a chapter in draft form, and the goal would just be to write the pages knowing that they were terrible. Some writers just keep on going, and they write the whole novel that way. But I stopped because I wanted to pay so much attention to the prose so I needed to make the prose as perfect as I could before I moved forward. I would just write the chapter to get the plot down and go back and revise a couple of times before I moved onto the next chapter. By the time I finished The Sympathizer, even though it was technically the first draft, it had already been revised along the way, so I only needed to revise that draft one more time before I turned it over to my agent. Then when my editor got his hands on it we revised it one more time after that.

Have you struggled at all with writer’s block in your career?

Thankfully I’ve never had writer’s block. I think one reason why is because I always had multiple projects on hand. Whether it was two books or a book and articles or a book and stories, whenever some project was done I could just immediately turn to something else. I was always working on something and because I was writing something I was, in the back of my mind, thinking up another project—taking down notes and ideas and all that. Once a writing assignment was done I could just immediately jump into something else.

I think that’s really important because, until winning the Pulitzer Prize, there was no down time for me. If I got an award or a prize or something, I would celebrate and enjoy it that night, but the next day I’d be back writing. The Pulitzer was a special thing, though, and it derailed me for a whole year, but the principle remains the same: never celebrate too much and get immediately back to the writing.

Do you have any favorite books or books that have influenced you about writing or the creative process?

I like books that are not manuals or handbooks. The idea of teaching writing as a craft always made me feel kind of weird because it always seemed to reduce writing from something that was sort of intuitive in some ways into something that could literally be taught as a mechanical process as the term craft implies. I don’t read craft books. I like to read books that are more about the notion of writing as art.

It’s surprising which writers are interesting in that regard. I actually thought Stephen King’s book on Writing was really good. I learned a lot from that book. And also the writing books-slash-memoirs of other writers such as Amy Tan or Walter Mosley—I like their books as well.

I read somewhere in your coverage that you did 50 drafts of one of your short stories. I believe it was a story in The Refugees. Can you talk about that process a little? That seems like a pretty high number of drafts.

It’s Black-Eyed Women, which is the opening story of The Refugees. You know, you read something likeBest American Short Stories, and you read the author’s notes on the back and you realize that it’s not that unusual of an experience sometimes for writers to have to spend decades and dozens of drafts on a story. Of course, when you read an account like that, you’re horrified. It’s very hard to wrap your mind around that, but it happened to me. And 50 drafts is an approximation—the truth is, I really have no idea. It was a lot. That was a story that took me 14 years to write—from the first word to the last—before it got published.

I learned how to write fiction through writing short stories, and in particular, I think I learned how to write fiction from writing that story. Important questions about what to include and what not to include, how to balance history and politics with the demand of literature, and very particularly just how to write a short story which is very different from writing a novel.

I was taught by someone who did an MFA, I did a few writing workshops—but on the whole,  I was essentially self-taught. I taught myself through trial and error and that story was the most trial and error prone of all of them. It was enormously frustrating. There was never really a moment of inspiration until I got to the 50th draft, and I finished it. Mostly it was just a feeling of relief.

All writers, I think, go through something like that. It’s how we test our character as writers. It’s how we test that we won’t give up either because the art is too daunting or the market is too daunting. I would imagine most writers have to confront these kinds of obstacles, unfortunately.

When you think about your writing life, you’ve cut across genres. You’ve done short stories, the novel, cultural criticism. Do you have different routines or habits for different formats? Or does it all flow from the same place?

It has changed over time. When I started off writing academic criticism, I would use note cards, and I would be very methodical about it. When I wrote my short stories, I would just jump into each story without a plan—just a line or a character or something and proceed completely intuitively. With the exception that I did use Microsoft Excel to map my stories. I wanted to make sure because I was writing many different stories about refugees and that the stories themselves would be diverse—a story about a man and then a women, or about somebody who is straight and then somebody who is gay. I wouldn’t plot the stories in Excel, but the stories would be demographically broken down in Excel so that I knew I would have coverage. You can’t just trust your intuition—that if I just wrote stories based on whatever I felt like, that I would do a good job covering the diversity of refugee experiences.

For The Sympathizer, I had a two-page outline for the novel. I just trusted that, chapter to chapter, I would figure out what I was doing. Whereas with the novel that I’m writing now I had so much time to think about it. I didn’t have a chance to write fiction for two or three years after The Sympathizer, so I took down all these notes. I ended up with like 60 pages of notes on this novel, so it’s a very different place to be starting from.

So the writing just changes and evolves over time based on what I’ve learned and my different circumstances in life.

When you look back at that two page outline for The Sympathizer can you talk a little bit about that outlining process and how different the final book was or how closely it may have hewed to the outline?

At one point in my past, I’d written a screenplay. It was a very bad screenplay, but I’m living in LA, so everybody does this, right? But I’d read a screenplay writing manual, and it was very helpful because it talked about plot. Plot is not something that people talk a lot about in MFA programs. Plot is something that Hollywood obsesses over maybe too much, but what Hollywood also talked about that proved important to me was writing two-page treatments of screenplays to get the plot down.

That outline for the novel was like a two-page treatment of a screenplay. That’s why the plot that it outlined was very cinematic, including very methodical attention to what screenwriters call beats—where the story was supposed to turn at certain points. Even as I wrote it, I knew that this was more like a pitch: Something to give to my agent, to the editor, and that maybe the story itself wouldn’t turn out exactly like that. It was more like a map, and depending on what I found along the way, my road would take a different direction.

For example, I knew that the last quarter of the novel as outlined by the two page treatment was not what was going to happen. In the synopsis, my heroes or antiheroes were captured, sent to re-education camp, and then there was to be a big shootout. But I knew that was a Hollywood ending and not what the real ending was going to be like. I had to just trust that I would figure it out.

For me, there’s always been a balance between structure and intuition. Writing has always involved a gamble and a risk because there’s so much that you don’t know about what you’re doing when you set off to do it.

You’re also a professor. Sometimes, it’s hard to ask professional writers about their favorite books because there are so many and it changes year to year, but I’m curious if you have any books that would be of the ones you most recommend to students?

That’s a hard one actually because when you’re thinking about what to teach in the classroom, you’re also confronted with the limitations of people’s time and interests. For me, whenever I have a chance to teach Contemporary American Literature, I’ve always taught Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I wish I had more opportunities to teach Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I’ve never had the chance to teach Junot Diaz, but I would love to do that with any of his books. There are no shortage of writers who offer powerful inspiration and templates for young writers.

If you were thinking back to your younger literary self and give some advice, what would that be?

If I could go back to my younger writer self, I don’t know that I would say, “Hey, buckle up because it’s going to be 20 years of work before you get much recognition.” Is that encouragement or discouragement? I’m not sure. I think what I would say is what my partner, my wife, tells me: trust the process. It’s about the process, not the outcome. I would always reply to her, “Yes, of course, I understand that but nobody is publishing me!

There is a huge struggle between what makes writing idealistic and artistic—which is about the process, something very intuitive and spiritual in some ways—versus the outcome, things like getting a story published, getting a book published, getting the recognition that our very human egos crave and so on.

There’s no good way to advise anybody how to deal with these things because they are very basic human conundrums between doing what we believe in and desiring the material things that the world offers us—and feeling frustrated when we don’t get them. So I’ll just tell my younger self: Be patient. Get ready to suffer, and if you get lucky, maybe something will work out, but there’s no guarantee. You have to love what you do because if the material things don’t work out in the world of writing, you still have to love the writing process itself no matter how challenging and even miserable it might be.

Jimmy Soni is the co-author of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age and Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato.

Writing Routines is close look at the craft of writing, through the eyes of its very best practitioners. Visit writingroutines.com for more and follow Writing Routines on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter for updates.

How a Pulitzer-Prize Winning Novelist Thinks About Coffee, Screenplays and Facebook