The author recalls the dreamlike state in which he wrote his Pulitzer-winning novel The Sympathizer, and wishes for the private joy he felt while writing it. Originally published on The Guardian on July 26, 2016.
How I wrote my novel: in isolation, in a dream that lasted, on average, four hours a day at the laptop and an hour a day on the treadmill. This tempo led to a chapter every month over two years, a rhythm cushioned by leave from almost all my teaching obligations. I was unknown and I loved nearly every minute of it, except when I worried about whether anyone would publish the book – or read it or like it.
When I was not worried about others and wrote the book just for myself, as I did for almost all of those two years, I experienced, for the first time, the most extraordinary joy in writing. After having suffered for more than a decade writing a short-story collection where every sentence was either labour or punishment, now nearly every sentence was fun, even when the subject matter was bleak. This delight became even more precious when my wife became pregnant, compelling me to finish the first draft of the novel before our son was born. I beat the deadline by two days, and needed to, because his birth would signal the end of my independence, youth, and dreams. (Alright, none of that happened, but that’s how I felt).
Then the novel went into the world and did very well. It won prizes, including the Pulitzer. I learned about the award in a hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a promotional tour. I was writing emails when Facebook and Twitter began beeping and pinging, telling me that Something Very Important had happened. While I had known a degree of pleasure at winning prizes before, I had never been overtaken by this kind of physical sensation: trembling, accelerated heartbeat, disbelief – all due to a sense that my life was altered. I waited until my publicist called and confirmed the award before I really believed. Even so, I was numb, thinking about how lonely it was to sit in a hotel room without my loved ones, getting affirmation from my laptop. Later I went to the Harvard bookstore for my event, and the room was packed, and there was a photographer taking pictures of me, and people looking at me differently.
The value of my book and myself had changed, even if the book remained as invaluable to me as when I wrote it. I had a tremendous passion for this novel. It aimed to destroy the American perspective on the Vietnam war, which influences how most of the world sees the country. My book was to be the Vietnam war novel for everyone who thought they knew what this war was about, as well as for everyone who didn’t want to read a book about an exhausted subject.
It’s strange, that disconnect between the act of writing, which is pure in its optimal mode, and the existence of the writing in the world, where all our human foibles, desires, and prejudices transform it. It’s impossible to say that I have not been affected by the Midas touch of this prize, which has gotten more people to know my name and read the book. Still, feeling as I do the weight of that touch on my shoulder, the dream remains of returning to that anonymous space where I can find my next story and that story can find me. Anonymous, because when I wrote my novel, no one cared who I was, and I could say whatever I wanted. The only thing that mattered was the story. Even then it was apparent to me that long after I was gone, it would be the story that lived.
Beyond such wilful attuning to Invisible Man, this impressive debut contains a Whitman-like multiplicity. The Sympathizer can be read as a spy novel, a war novel, an immigrant novel, a novel of ideas, a political novel, a campus novel, a novel about the movies, and a novel, yes, about other novels. This overreaching mixture leads to occasional missteps that matter little set against the greater result: a bold, artful and globally minded reimagining of the Vietnam war and its interwoven private and public legacies. Indeed, this book reads like the absolute opposite of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the clipped, cool fragmentary narrative that has long served as the canonical US literary account of that divisive conflict and its ongoing aftermath. – Randy Boyagoda