It was a rainy Friday night, a week after the LiterASIAN Festival of 2019. One of the guests was Philip Huynh, a long-time short story author whose first collection is making waves as it is nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Award. His workshop was memorable, it had the building blocks for emerging writers trying to find their footing in this dark and intimidating world of publishing. There were many ways to make it, but Philip assured the readers that there was no right way to get to the top. Speaking from experience, Phil’s journey publishing The Forbidden Purple City took at least ten years. Out of the nine short stories in his collection, eight of them have been published in literary journals. Two of them were long listed for the Journey Prize. It was a real feat, especially for someone who humbly admitted that he didn’t have an MFA.
He entered the coffee shop, almost in the exact same attire that he appeared in LiterASIAN a week ago. It was almost as if he came dressed exactly for the part. In the hour of our conversation, we discussed at length what many emerging and first-time writers are curious about: Work-Life Balance, Inspirations, Salient Themes in his collection, but first, we got the elephant in the room out of the way…
Vincent Ternida (VT): Let’s talk about your anti-MFA Manifesto.
Philip Huynh (PH): I am not anti-MFA! (laughs) Obviously, I didn’t do an MFA. I actually give props to people who did an MFA because it takes so much guts. It shows commitment – they know what they want and are putting down time and money. I respect that. I was the son of immigrants, so I had to be practical, I became a lawyer.
VT: Do you have MFA envy? I have mad MFA envy.
PH: That’s interesting. It’s only been more recently that I had gone through that process. Honestly, I never had the envy. I just didn’t know better. But after I got published I suddenly had to do all the things that authors do: book launches, getting blurbs, selling your book. It would have been so much easier if I had done an MFA and had that network. There’s a real value to just knowing people in that world.
VT: I really wish that I would get past that. I like how you’re not vilifying people with MFAs.
PH: Far from it. As writers, we’re all outsiders. We’re all hustling, scrambling to get our voices heard. We’re trying to find that inspiration. We’re all doing this on the side while trying to make ends meet. Having an MFA is just one of the tools to make it all work.
VT: You talk about being the son of immigrants, being an outsider. I find that theme resonates with your writing.
PH: Here’s the question – what’s the significance “unbelonging”? Does feeling “unbelonging” provide you with motivation to fit in? Or is it a life sentence that you just have to resign yourself to?
VT: What’s your take on it?
PH: My characters do have a desire to belong. Everybody does. I started thinking about my stories again: the kid in Mayfly wants to belong to a group, even though he’s a complete outsider to these Vietnamese gangsters. In Gulliver’s Wife the characters desire to belong to a family. In Turkey Day these Canadian expats want to belong in New York. I’m not sure where their particular impulses to belong comes from. Maybe because my characters are not part of the majority.
I was born here, while my parents were immigrants. So I think that my sense of unbelonging is an exercise of the imagination, and rooted in this desire to understand my parents’ perspective. I imagine how my parents must have felt, coming here. How they struggled to fit in this country.
Much of it is perspective, this sense of “unbelonging”. For instance, I write a lot about East Vancouver, where I spent my childhood. But the East Vancouver that you, Vincent, write about is a completely different place than mine. Yours is a hipper version since I didn’t spend my young adult life there. Your East Vancouver is foreign to me. Whether you’re an outsider vis-à-vis the group you’re with, or whether the place you’re at right now is home or exotic, it’s all about perspective sometimes.
VT: You talk about your family life a lot. You don’t talk about your lawyer life a lot. You talk a little bit about your author-life, mainly the book tours and the sweet stuff. The important question is: When do you write?
PH: First of all, the author-life doesn’t happen that often. I don’t know what your experience is, but I’ve only recently done readings and “book tours” or literary festivals, after decades of writing. It only started getting really busy in the Fall this year.
So it’s really about managing a family life, a day job, and writing. We’re very lucky as writers in the sense that you don’t need a lot of equipment and you can get a huge amount done in an hour, or even in half-an-hour of writing. You mentioned that Haruki Murakami wrote 5 am to 9 am in his [kitchen table].
VT: He still does!
PH: It’s amazing. Four hours is an incredible amount of time, you could probably write a chapter in that time. I heard that if you manage just 500 words a day, you’re basically like…
VT: 365-page novel in a year.
PH: Exactly! Unlike other art forms, like sculpting, painting, or dance — where you might have to devote all these crazy hours every day. I think you can have a full writing life without spending four hours or more a day. How do you find it?
VT: I’m a lazy writer. I should stop this habit of writing because I’m inspired. When I’m not inspired, I don’t like anything I write. I also do way too much social media. That’s why when you said that you need an editor in your workshop – you need an editor.
PH: That’s the thing, I guess my point was, you don’t really need an MFA or an agent to get published. However, you do need some sort of community. Part of the value of a community is making sure that what you’re writing has the effect that you intended. That’s part of what an editor does. An ideal editor signs on to what the writer is trying to do. They don’t impose their vision, but understand what the writer is trying to do and help the writer get to that point. I think everybody I know needs somebody to help them get to that stage.
VT: You work with writers’ groups?
PH: Not really. I took a night course at UBC, Continuing Education, over a decade ago. That’s how I met Lee Henderson. When I lived in Toronto, I took a weekend course at the University of Toronto.
My personal inclination is not to put my work out to a group. I prefer individuals — one or two people that I can trust. You don’t want to write to a group consensus. In a group, some people will like it or hate it, and you might be tempted to find a middle ground, which is not necessarily your job as an artist.
The Author’s Life
VT: How does it feel being nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Award after publishing your first book?
PH: It’s surreal, being nominated for a prize that someone like Madeleine Thien won. Every stage of publishing has been surreal – to see your name in print, to see your face on a bus stop, really anytime you get any recognition, whether it’s a prize or someone telling you that they liked your book. I’d say for me, the most surreal thing this year was being invited to be on the other side of the screen with amazing writers. To meet all these writers who were a figment of my imagination, whom I only knew them from their book jacket.
VT: If you can be on a book tour with two other authors living at the moment from anywhere around the world, who would they be?
PH: Going on a book tour with Ernest Hemmingway could’ve been…
VT: I don’t know, I think I can have a beer with the guy, but I don’t think I can talk seriously with him.
PH: I can see where you’re coming from. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald.
VT: He’s pretty weird. Him and Joyce.
PH: That’s a different question from whom my favorite authors are. You mean, who I would actually go on a book tour and travel with? Have in a car with as we’re going through Edmonton or Manitoba? Present company included?
VT: Sure, why not, the parameters are alive.
As we finished our talk and discussed other topics like Haruki Murakami, future writing projects, and writerly ambitions – I realized, maybe I don’t have MFA envy anymore. I think I have Philip Huynh envy. At my age, it would be too late to get a law degree…
Will Philip Huynh win the City of Vancouver Book Award? Find out October 19, 2019 at the Vancouver Public Library at 3:00pm. Catch more of him at the Vancouver Writers Fest at Granville Island on October 21-27 where he will read more from The Forbidden Purple City.
Vincent Ternida‘s pieces have appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, Dark Helix Press, and was longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize in 2019. Ternida’s first novella, The Seven Muses of Harry Salcedo, was published by Asian Canadian Writer’s Workshop. He currently has a collection of short stories in development, adapting his novella into a screenplay, and interviews other authors for fun and profit. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.