Two and a half years ago (!!), I was thinking about inspiration and influence. I no longer remember what specifically had sparked the idea, but I was curious about not just general influence, like a writer or a story that meant a lot to you and so had some kind of vague impact, but more specific correlations and connections. Cover songs, maybe? I love hearing an artist interpret someone else's work, making it sound like their own, taking something familiar and making it feel new and unique. Maybe — because I'm self-involved and do this often — I was thinking about my own stories, how sometimes I've used this idea of a "cover story" either generatively, to spark work on a new story, or to solve a problem. There's a story ("Church Van") in my collection, Backswing, where I set out to write a cover version of Harry Crews' "Car" (only, I hadn't yet read the story; multiple people had recommended I read it though, and had given me the basic synopsis (a guy eats his car), and so I tried to write my version of that premise), and another story ("The Apartment") got its final draft figured out when I reread Cheever's "The Swimmer" and then tried to borrow and echo some of that story's tension (repurposing a couple of its sentences for full effect) in my own.
I started wondering about other stories that have may have done something similar, and so took to Twitter. The very first reply was from one of my favorite writers, and people to interact with on Twitter, Anthony Veasna So...
I specifically wrote a story that was trying to rewrite “Drown” by Junot Diaz but made the queer thread revelatory and celebratory instead of repressed.— tall and tan ocean vuong (aka anthony veasna so) (@fakemaddoxjolie) March 17, 2019
And then others kept replying with their own examples, and it felt like there was something interesting here. Interesting enough that I had the idea to turn it into an interview series. This is, more often than not, how my ideas for Hobart happen... I start thinking about something that's maybe dumb, maybe interesting, I tweet it, and then either it gets forgotten or becomes a full-fledged thing.
I followed up with Anthony's tweet reply and then... I got busy or lazy or procrastinated or any number of other variables of life getting in the way. Almost a year passed, and then I emailed him and we went back and forth via email, one question at a time, for a week or two, and then COVID hit... and then another five months passed and I DMed him that I was sorry I had dropped the ball on publishing this interview to which he replied "Oh honestly, the longer it takes the better it’ll be for me, cause it’ll be timed for my story collection hahahaah. How about we just table it until like closer to my pub date in August 2021?"... and then another four months passed and I got news that Anthony had passed away.
The news affected me as much as that of anyone I'd never met. His just released collection, Afterparties, is my favorite of the year, and has been the book I've most looked forward to for the last couple of years. But I also think of our handful of emails and DMs over the years — he always seemed smart, funny, thoughtful, and also ready to shit talk and like he didn't give a fuck, all in the best of ways. We emailed on and off over the years. I published five of his comics on Hobart in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, I accepted a short piece about Sons of Anarchy and thought it might be fun to pair it with some art instead of just a photo; I tweeted "would anyone wanna do some sons of anarchy fan art for an upcoming little thing on hobart???" Anthony was the first to reply. A year and a half later he'd have a (brilliant) story in The New Yorker, but I often think of him as good-naturedly volunteering to draw some goofy Jax Teller illustrations for me.
Here's the interview I did with him from back in February 2020. I'm heartbroken I can't tell him congrats on the book, can't send him the link to this and tell him it's FINALLY up.
To start, I wonder if you can talk some about the genesis of "The Monks." When I was curious about these kinds of stories and their inspirations, you said, "I specifically wrote a story that was trying to rewrite “Drown” by Junot Diaz but made the queer thread revelatory and celebratory instead of repressed." And so, working backwards a bit... I wonder if you knew you wanted to do something like that as soon as you read "Drown," or if that spark happened much later. That kind of initial spark?
I read "Drown" years before I even started thinking about being a fiction writer. For awhile, if you were a man of color in college (maybe not now), there would inevitably be someone who just handed you a copy of Drown and go, Bruh, this reminds me of you, or of the guys we know, etc...So I read it, and the narrator really did strike me as someone I knew, someone who just didn't know how to get out of his hometown, who didn't even know if he wanted to. The city I grew up in, Stockton, CA, is the type of city that everyone hates even as they still hardcore rep it, ride or die. It was declared the "Most Miserable City" in the U.S. one year by Forbes Magazine, and when it fell down in the rankings to number 3 the next year, people were pissed. Like, fuck Forbes for thinking less (or more) of us. Anyway, reading "Drown" allowed me to get into the psyche of these Cambodian-American guys I grew up with, that burning sense of passive, stunted agency they carry. I especially was drawn to that scene in "Drown" when the Army guy tries to recruit the narrator, as I've seen that happen so often, and I've seen guys get tricked into the whole scheme, just because they needed some sense of purpose, stability, prospects (not because of patriotism). And then I also understood the narrator's foil really well, Beto, who is gay but hates their hometown the most, and this hate, this feeling of complete difference, allows him to break free, move away, and go to college. At the time, that felt like my story, being a queer man myself who attended college, even though less than 20 per cent of Cambodian Americans have completed a four-year degree. However, I was disappointed by how the story unfolds, how the narrator and Beto's sexual interaction anticipates the ending, when the narrator's mother places her hand on his while falling asleep to the television, telling him to check the windows and make sure to close them. The narrator's final inching toward replacing his father in the household, becoming his mother's main guy, and locking himself even further into the masculine role that's holding him back—it just all deeply frustrated me. Not because of Diaz's writing, but because I saw this happen to Cambodian guys so often, this inability to break free from their own notions of masculinity. Years after reading the story, after teaching it to high schoolers (many of them POC), I set out to rewrite this queer of color narrative in my story, "The Monks." I wanted to show how a straight, masculine guy of color could brush up against queerness and feel empowered by it, not scared, even if in the slightest of ways, the slightest of spiritual progressions.
I remember when I first read both of these stories, months (almost a year!) ago, I didn't remember your tweet exactly, only the general idea of a connection to the Diaz story. Which means, in part, there was less specific connection than I expected (like, I guess I expected more of a "home" story, which is what "Drown" is, whereas your character is away, in this different place with the monks, rather than back at home with his childhood best friend). I like what you say here about it being about "someone who just didn't know how to get out of his hometown," and that theme is echoed in yours, whereas the scenario at first feels so different.
I find that whenever I do take inspiration from another piece of writing, I actively try to displace that initial kernel of inspiration, or idea, (in this case, the feeling of being stuck at home in "Drown") from its original context (the "home" story you're talking about) and see how a new set of circumstances might push this idea into surprising directions. I wanted to explore what it means for a guy who thought he'd be stuck at home forever to one, have already figured out a half-baked "out" in the form of the army, and two, be plopped into this environment that's both completely different (who "lives" at the temple other than monks?) and familiar to him (the temple is where they go to celebrate Cambodian New Year, among other things).
You kind of answer this, but I'm still curious about this idea of instigation, and genesis of stories. You said "I set out to rewrite this queer of color narrative in my story, "The Monks."" Was it that explicit, from the get-go? A specific, "I'm setting out to do THIS"? Or did you have any ideas for the story and then the Diaz response came a little later, as a kind of follow-up inspiration, or something that helped take a germ of an idea and push it over the hump into story, or...?
I really like the way you describe "follow-up inspiration" and how this can push a germ of an idea over the hump into a story. That's exactly what happened for me. I knew I wanted to write a scene where two mostly straight guys jack off together and find the experience comforting, transcendental, a sort of temporary lifting off. And I knew I wanted to write a story about a normal guy living with the monks after the death of a parent. But this premise didn't coalesce into a real story until I reread "Drown" for a high school class I was teaching. Up until then I couldn't see a shape for the narrative.
Kind of along those lines(ish)... my own germ of the idea for these interviews was thinking about stories that inspire us — either in idea itself, or in helping us solve a problem in something, or whatever else. I think there's something interesting here about it being a very real "inspiration," but also in that inspiration coming in the form of a kind of pushing back? Almost like a corrective? I don't know if there's a question here, other than I guess another dumb "can you talk about," specifically here w/r/t that idea of what it felt like, in the process of writing, to be doing this kind of leaning against rather than into (if that makes sense)?
Yeah, for a while, I felt like I was living in Diaz's shadow as a writer. I was trying to be this smart funny guy who writes about his deadbeat hometown and marginalized culture, and Diaz had done that in his books (I mean, in a certain light), but at the same time, I felt so different than him as person. I'm queer and grew up surrounded by women, played with Barbies as a kid, etc...Writing "The Monks" felt like my opportunity to really push back against Diaz, in productive way, to offer this, as you say, "corrective."
I wonder if there are any small moments throughout that you can point to as nods or easter eggs or something you stole or borrowed for whatever reason. Like... obviously this isn't specific to Diaz, this is how people talk, but early in your story you write "My boys would bust my balls..." and because I was reading it knowing you had mentioned "Drown," that felt really Diaz-y to me.
This might be a dumb answer, but once I find that I have inspiration from something, I try my best to put that thing away, so I'm not too affected by it. However, I did want to capture that same sort of casual language (the profanity mixed seamlessly into the narration, like that reference to Beto as a "pato" in the opening paragraph of "Drown"). I also liked the way Diaz's narrator speaks in the present tense but so easily slips back into past recollections and describing old habits, like he's really just stuck in his old ways. My editor at n+1 at one point asked me if I had ever thought to make the tenses more consistent throughout "The Monks." Then I tried to make it all in past tense and it just felt really off to me, tonally. So I guess the language and use of tense can be seen as a nod toward Diaz.
Thank you for these thoughtful questions and points of conversation.