On Writing... [#1]
Updated: May 2
To write a book is to embark on a solo voyage, an epic endeavor to unknown destinations with a vague notion of a conclusion somewhere in the distant future.
Every time I finish a manuscript, I wonder how I would ever find the courage and stamina to begin another.
Human time is finite.
My completed works seem like mileposts in the rearview mirror, evoking a little nostalgia from time to time, nothing more. Like snapshots and journal entries of a trip taken. The lessons, the skills gained from creating a book are intangible and, often, ephemeral.
Life goes on.
Knowledge fades, little by little.
Skills atrophy like dormant muscles.
Yet, the desire, the itch to paint on the cave walls, to leave something behind, to make an impact during one’s lifetime, to connect with others, even if only through the written words, is real and compelling. It is very human, as innate as the sense of right and wrong.
Once in a long while, when the stars align and the muse appears, one obeys.
The Sapphire Throne (lost, unpublished)
writing time: 3.5 years
background: High adventure fantasy with magic, monsters, elves, and swordplay, ala J.R.R. Tolkien and Raymond E. Feist. My truck was stolen in Portland, Oregon. In the cab was my laptop, which had the last and best version of this manuscript. I considered this effort my literary “education.”
Catfish and Mandala (FSG/Picador, 1999)
genre: travel memoir
writing time: 3.5 years
background: One year to live the experience, one year to find a way to frame it, one year to write it.
Theory of Flight (self published, 2010)
genre: essays, nonfiction
writing time: 2 years
background: Writing about ambitions, dreams, lost love, and escape. Working through a young man’s heartbreak and existential angst.
The Eaves of Heaven (Harmony/Crown, 2007)
writing time: 3 years
background: It started as a short story about childhood games in the Viet countryside in my father’s time. Conversations with my father sparked my curiosity about old Vietnam and my ancestors. The collaboration with my father on this project proved to be a cathartic experience for us. We agreed beforehand that every sentence I wrote had to be approved by him. It was not an easy book to write as I was severely limited by his excessive modesty and desire not offend anyone. Also, naturally, by the things he did not wished to share.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, the Diaries of Dr. Tram Thuy (Harmony/Crown, 2007)
genre: translation from Vietnamese
writing time: 5 months
background: At the request of the doctor’s surviving family, my father and I translated the diary with the assistance of her younger sister. It was a very challenging project, ethically, technically, and artistically. I translated the book while undergoing intense physical therapy after multiple knee reconstruction surgeries.
A Culinary Odyssey (self-published, 2012)
genre: essays & cookbook
writing time: 1 year
background: After years of working as a food writer and restaurant critic, I had the opportunity to write a cookbook with my wife. It was a very enjoyable project, powered by a crowdfunding campaign.
Twilight Territory (Knopf, TBA)
genre: fiction, biographical novel
writing time: 10+ years (5 years in limbo)
background: The most difficult project so far. I wrote three different versions of this book. I stopped and restarted too many times to count. No one believed it would ever be completed, including my wife. Sometimes, not even me.
A Bungalow on the Mekong (TBD)
writing time: in progress
background: Two decades living and traveling in Southeast Asia.
I have worked as a journalist, a mathematic textbook editor, a technical writer, a freelance writer, a food writer, and a restaurant critic. I have written a fantasy novel, a memoir, a biography, a cookbook, a collection of creative nonfiction essays, a diary translation, and a biographical novel. I am at work on another memoir.