The Penmen Profile: Bich Minh Nguyen, author of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner”

by Gabbi Hall

Bich Minh Nguyen didn’t know she was writing a book until she was in the midst of writing. “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” a memoir written in essays, came to fruition after a partial manuscript won a PEN award, and she signed with Viking Press. Since then, she has published two more books, “Short Girls” and “Pioneer Girl.” She spoke with SNHU about her writing experience and influences.

Bich Minh Nguyen.Author Photo.Credit Porter ShreveHave you always written? 
I remember writing stories as early as third grade and making up fairy tales for my brother as we walked to school. In high school, I did a lot of writing on my own, in secret (we didn’t have any creative writing classes). Probably like most writers, I read constantly; “a writer is a reader moved to emulation,” as Saul Bellow said. In college, I took my first creative writing workshops and then went on to an MFA program.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
As much as I love keeping notes and doing research, there’s nothing like just sitting down and writing as much as possible, no matter how terrible it seems at the time. For me, ideas tend to happen as I’m typing, trying to look forward rather than backward. Later, of course, I’ll revise and revise. But the more pages and words I can generate at the start, the more the characters and storyline begin to take clear shape for me. Then they can inhabit my mind, and I can carry them around wherever I go.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
My biggest challenge is time, which is probably true for just about everyone. I teach at a university full-time and I have two young children, so finding sustained amounts of time for my own work isn’t easy. I’ve learned to write whenever I can. If I have to travel somewhere solo, I use transit time as writing time. I’ve never made better use out of long airplane rides.

What was the road to publishing your first book, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” like?
“Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” is a memoir in essays, which I had no idea I was going to write until I started writing it. That is, I feel like it came together almost accidentally—a separate essay here and a separate essay there about food culture, the 80s, the immigrant experience in the United States. At some point I realized I had a book-length project on my hands. A partial manuscript of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” won a PEN award and after that Viking picked it up for publication. I love working on deadline so that definitely ensured that I would finish writing the book.

9780670025091_large_Pioneer_GirlHow was the road to publication different with your latest novel, “Pioneer Girl?”
That was more straightforward as I had been working with Viking already with “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner and with “Short Girls,” my second book and first novel. “Pioneer Girl” was just the next step.

How do you market your work?
I wish I had a good answer for this. I’m not a person who is naturally good at marketing—I mean, I only recently joined Twitter and am still a bit mystified by it—so I tend to follow advice from people, like my publicist, who are good at it. I do get a lot of readers from book clubs, libraries, book store recommendations and school assignments, and that’s wonderful. I love hearing from readers over email and Twitter.

Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
I feel inspired every time I read a good book! So much of reading-as-a-writer is a process of gaining permission, admiring what others are doing with language, character, plot and so on. I’ve always been inspired by the classics, including Austen, Dickens, Wharton and Flaubert. Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility and Richard Yates’s “The Easter Parade were influences on “Short Girls.” A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” and Evan S. Connell’s “Mrs. Bridge” were influences on “Pioneer Girl.”

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received? What advice would you give new writers?
Ron Carlson’s 20-minute rule has been crucial for me, and it’s one I always pass along to my students. Carlson says, “All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room” (from “Ron Carlson Writes a Story”). So basically, if you can keep writing, without getting up, and without distractions—no checking email or internet—you will start writing something better. This has worked me for countless times. Another piece of advice would be to write the thing, or toward the thing, you don’t want to write.