I think of writing as an act of love. You’re trying to create something and all your senses are activated. You notice everything, because everything can be the spark that catalyzes the narrative forward. You feel everything because you’re alive. The world feels brand new, full of possibilities
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lan Cao & Harlan Margaret Van Cao.
Lan and Harlan co-authored Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter. Lan is also the author of two novels, Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm, and most recently of the scholarly work Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change. She is a professor of law at the Chapman University School of Law, and an internationally recognized expert specializing in international business and trade, international law, and development. Harlan graduated from high school in June 2020 and will be attending UCLA.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Lan: I am what you could call an accidental novelist. I didn’t know anything about writing, much less publishing, when I wrote my novel Monkey Bridge in the early 1990s. I was a busy lawyer at a Wall Street law firm. I was working on mergers and acquisitions and corporate bankruptcy. Then I took a short break from law firm work, got a scholarship from the Ford Foundation to study the rule of law in Vietnam, the country where I was born but left in 1975 after the loss of South Vietnam to the Communist North. I went to Vietnam to study Vietnam’s economic policies and came back to America energized to write about the country and the war that divided so many Americans. But this time, it was from the perspective of a South Vietnamese refugee. I wrote most of my first novel on a legal pad while I rode the NYC subway.
As far as having the novel published, that too was accidental. I was taking one of those rare weekends off and went to East Hampton. I was sitting on the beach and saw a woman nearby reading a magazine and the part I saw, the cover, had some funny and provocative sex survey about straight, gay, and lesbian sex. We struck up a conversation, mostly laughing about the survey results. I found out she was a literary agent, blurted out that I had just written a novel, and to my surprise, she asked what it was about. She was an anthropology major in college with a longstanding appreciation of culture, and she asked me to send her the draft. She’s been my literary agent since.
Harlan: I think I always had a lot to say, but especially at that classic cliche age where I didn’t feel anyone would understand any of it. I was never able to be honest enough with myself to write in a diary, so I took all of the important people I loved and the important people I hated and put them into stories of my own, keeping their dynamics and personalities the same but only changing the plot into something more bearable than reality for me. By the time I turned sixteen, I wasn’t doing it as much anymore because my passions had been diluted by the pressures of school and new plans to study business. My mother’s publishing house had a vision to get a teenage girl’s perspective on living as a high school student, being raised by an immigrant, and having war trauma passed down. I knew writing this book would be not only therapeutic, but important to me and the child I once was. I flew out to New York a little after that and met with the amazing editor and planned out the memoir. The reason why I was so sure I wanted to do it was because I knew I wanted to write movies in the future, and to me, scripts were novels without all the detail and with only the dialogue.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Lan: When Viking sent me on a book tour for Monkey Bridge in 1996, I got word that the incredible Isabel Allende had gotten her hand on a galley copy of my book and wanted to introduce me at my scheduled reading at Book Passage in Corte Madera. I thought that was incredible. Isabel too understands the lives of immigrants, being an immigrant herself from Chile. I was very excited and honored. After my reading, she and her husband and Elaine, the owner of Book Passage, took me out to dinner. We’ve remained friends since.
Harlan: I would hardly call it a career, since I wrote most of the chapters in between doing homework during my junior year. During that year, I think I had my first love, my first horrible loss, everything. Everything.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Lan: The biggest challenge is overcoming inertia. Even when you really want to write, it can feel like it’s easier not to write than to write because for me, writing is an effort. Then after the writing comes the publishing, which seems like a mysterious and daunting journey. When I started writing, I got the momentum from my trip back to Vietnam, a country I left more than a decade before. I had read a lot of novels but hadn’t taken any writing course, except for a one-week stint at Skidmore College, not really to learn how to write but simply to meet one of the featured teachers, Bharati Mukherjee, who was my favorite writer. She has since died. The only way to become an author is to take the plunge and just write. It helps a lot to read, although I do not read while I am writing. Don’t plan too much, don’t have everything figured out. Then it might be too daunting. I just write one sentence, then another sentence.
Harlan: The biggest challenge is myself and all of my procrastination and emotional ups and downs. Sometimes I really did feel that finishing the chapters would be impossible because I’d go through extreme stages of lack of motivation, and resent the writing process because as parts of my life dimmed and lit up and then dimmed and lit up again, so did my inspiration. I have always been a procrastinator, and I probably shouldn’t say this but I often would push creating a couple chapters at a time to the week before it was due. I can’t say if this is because a part of me wanted myself to feel anxiety or if it was because teenage hormones caused me to be so depressed that I couldn’t take such a huge opportunity seriously. When my personal life was in my control, or felt as if it was in my control, I improved. When my personal life was in total flux, I also improved. I noticed that, unfortunately, if I was in a monotonous point in my life, which wasn’t too often, I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything to say, even if what I was assigned to say was about my past. In the middle of the process, my mother and I found my dad dead in the room underneath ours. Although he had been sick for a while and I had been practically mourning him even when he was alive, it was the first thing for a long time that jolted me. After that, I knew it was time to return to myself and grow up and really pursue my writing career- for him.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Lan: I don’t know if it is funny, but it was a mistake. When I was at the writing workshop run by the writer Bharati Mukherjee, who was absolutely stunning and fabulous, just as I hoped, I also met another person who held herself out to be an experienced and published writer. And after the week was over, somehow I found that I had signed up to have this person help edit the draft I had. I signed something, I remembered. This is a lesson that all lawyers should have learned, which is to never represent yourself. I actually don’t even remember what I signed, in terms of the contract clauses and terms. But what happened was when my first novel Monkey Bridge was published by Viking (and agented by my wonderful agent Ellen Geiger), this person from the workshop years ago appeared out of the woodwork. And wanted money. I was flabbergasted. This person wrote me a letter and attached the contract I signed. I didn’t even have the contract in my possession any more. But upon reading it, I realized the document had a clause that said in addition to paying for editing services, I was also to pay the person 15% when this work is published, regardless of how it got published.
The lesson is: if you are a lawyer, do read your own contract. Better yet, have a real lawyer read it and negotiate it. I was a corporate lawyer and yet was oblivious to what I had signed. And be careful. Writers can be very vulnerable and sensitive and hence easy to exploit.
Harlan: I don’t think this is very funny but it was already daunting writing a memoir as my first book for such a huge publishing house, but on top of it I was working with my mother. So as we disagreed on major plot points, and those arguments would turn violently personal, she would be driving me to school or cooking me dinner, or sometimes we’d even be on our way to a social gathering. One minute we’d scream in each other’s faces about this book contract and the next minute I’d be standing behind her, dyeing her roots for her and asking to borrow her high heels.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Lan: For my legal scholarship, I am working on a groundbreaking project about the role of the US dollar as the world’s reserve top-dog currency and the threat the Chinese currency, the yuan, may pose to it. For my creative writing, I am merely reading reading and reading. A friend of mine who is a stupendous writer with many many novels to his name had sent me a draft of his forthcoming novel and I just finished reading it. I am also reading a draft memoir so I can blurb it. And I am mulling over how to restart a collection of short stories I had begun but set aside to work on the book with my daughter.
Harlan: I am actually now working on a novel about a young girl who is slightly on the sociopathic spectrum, telling a tale about how she navigates friendships and a minefield of a family dynamic. There is no major drama but rather simply a casual account of everyday life told in first person by this girl, and the goal for me is to get the reader to love her even though she is clearly troubled and problematically full of depth. I have not presented this to anyone, much less to a editor, yet although I have always hinted about wanting to use this book with my mother to launch something by myself. The most difficult thing about the book I just finished with my mother was that it was a memoir, and memoirs are normally done when one is older. And because it was clearly nonfiction, I would have no characters to hide behind to speak from personal experience without fear. This is why I so want to make up my own story with the comfort of this new character.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Lan: You will survive adolescence and high school! And you will grow strong from those experiences.
Harlan: If you hate yourself and you hate everyone around you, you have much more control than you think to change everything. Also, just love your mother even if you think about killing her sometimes.
Based on your experience, what are the 5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author? Please share a story or example for each.
- Read. Read anything at all. It doesn’t have to be “great works” or “classics.” My love of reading came from reading 1001 Arabian Nights. The idea that someone was telling stories night after night to save her own life was fascinating to me and made me want to tell stories myself.
- If there’s a story you want to read that you haven’t seen in any book, write it yourself. I wanted to read books about Vietnamese American refugees, the war in Vietnam where the main character was not an American or an American vet. In 1996, I had to write it myself.
- Don’t wait until you “have time.” Create time. There are bits and pieces of time, here and there that, when cobbled together, become real time. Enough time for you to write something.
- Get in the habit of writing regularly. If you can’t write something every day, don’t worry. Write the next day. If you average one page a day, within a year or so, you will have a full-length manuscript.
- I think of writing as an act of love. You’re trying to create something and all your senses are activated. You notice everything, because everything can be the spark that catalyzes the narrative forward. You feel everything because you’re alive. The world feels brand new, full of possibilities.
- You should probably be neither at a barren part of your life emotionally nor an incredibly extreme part. You don’t want to look back at what you wrote a year later and cringe at things you wrote when you were irrational.
- Be honest with yourself and understand there are no excuses to not at least try to write. It is true that you’re busy and the book business is competitive, but you have a lot to say. So say it.
- Look at people. Not in a creepy way, but in a realistic way. Think about what they really are and not just how you see them through your personal lense, unless your main character is based on you. Watch how people walk together and start guessing to yourself what the backstory is. Read their body language.
- There is totally such a thing as too much detail. I think it is better to leave readers confused and asking questions rather than leaving them bored, wishing you’d stop going on about a barn door.
- If you’ve written something, and you hate it or feel insecure about it, then keep it. If you love it, then also keep it. If you don’t know how to feel about it, that’s the part you can think about getting rid of, if you must.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Lan: There is no one startling epiphany. Rather, there is just this part of me that’s all about stamina. You need stamina to bring inspiration and creativity to life.
Harlan: Being a realist isn’t always a great life trait but it is a good writing trait. I think, or I like to think, I can see people as they are and I can see myself as I am and within every experience, I reach inside and find a thousand stories. I can acknowledge things at least to myself, if not out loud. And my lack of bravery to say it out loud leads to the bravery to say it quietly in writing.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Lan: I have a broad and eclectic range. I tend to gravitate to novels by writers who are sensitive to the lives and perspectives of outsiders.
Harlan: I like the Rabbit series by Updike and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. They explain the main character in a way that doesn’t suggest they want the reader to like them but still in a way that causes the readers to anyway. And the lives aren’t extraordinary but somehow so incredibly intense that everyone can see themselves within it, like the author creates a rainstorm for all of us to live inside.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Lan: I would start a movement that aims to change negative culture. I am trained as a lawyer, but laws can only accomplish so much. Legal change needs to be accompanied by culture change. For example, while the Paris Agreement ratified by many countries to deal with greenhouse emissions is important, we must also change our culture of convenience that makes us buy and throw away plastic bottles of water, plastic straws, single-use containers and utensils for our takeouts.
Harlan: I would also like to change negative culture- something that encourages moderation.
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