Dewey Decibel Podcast: Celebrating the Carnegie Medals

Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses with Phil Morhart for the Dewey Decibel podcast about receiving the Carnegie award, and about his debut novel, The Sympathizer.

American Libraries is back with the next installment of the Dewey Decibel podcast, and this time host Phil Morehart is taking on the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Episode Three features interviews with Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Carnegie Medal– and Pulitizer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, and Nancy Pearl, renowned librarian, literary critic, and Carnegie Medals committee chair. The awards, cosponsored by Booklist and the American Library Association’s (ALA) Reference and User Services Association, were announced in January. Carnegie Medal winners Nguyen and Sally Mann (for the nonfiction book Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographswill be honored at ALA’s 2016 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday, June 25.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose confessional thriller is set in the years following the Vietnam War, talks to Phil about why he chose to tell his story as a spy novel and how he conceived his main character (“I thought of him like a bad James Bond”). He shares how growing up as a refugee in San José, California, influenced the book, and why, in researching his novel, he wanted to learn as much as he could about the making of the film Apocalypse Now.

Nancy Pearl, chair of the Carnegie Medals nominating committee, explains who makes up the committee, how the nomination process works (“it’s not that formal”), and which lists are consulted for finalists. She talks about the difference between an enjoyable book and an important book—and what made The Sympathizer and Hold Still stand out.


Phil Morhart: Hi, welcome to the Dewey Decimal podcast. I’m your host, Phil Morhart, associate editor of American Libraries, the magazine of the American Library Association. And before we get started in episode three, I just wanted to give another big thanks to you, our listeners for the incredible reception that you’ve given us so far. You’re tuning in from all corners of the library world and beyond and really from all corners of the globe, so thank you. Thanks for listening folks. That really means a lot to us. The Andrew Carnegie metals for excellence and fiction and nonfiction are one of the top prizes in the literary world. Cosponsored by Booklist and Russa and funded in part by a grant from the Carnegie corporation of New York. The Carnegie metals were established in 2012 to recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the US during the previous year. The awards are presented an ALA annual during a ceremony that’s happening this year on Saturday, June 25th in Orlando, Florida.

Phil Morhart: So for those of you who are attending ALA annual this year right now as we speak, please head over to the award ceremony on Saturday night. It’s always really a good time. This year’s Carnegie metals were awarded to two fine books, The Sympathizer a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Hold Still a nonfiction memoir by Sally Mann. Today on Dewey decimal, we talk with Viet about The Sympathizer, his excellent dark spy thriller set in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. It was a really awesome conversation and we also speak with Nancy Pearl, the celebrated librarian, author, and literary critic. Nancy has sat on the selection committee for the Carnegie medal since its inception in 2012 and she gives us an exclusive behind the scenes look at how the winners are selected. You really do not want to miss this episode. But first, the curly company is unique, a blend of manufacturer, distributor and service Bureau that understands the complexities of archival preservation rep records management from every angle and they would like to congratulate Viet Thanh Nguyen and Sally Mann on their 2016 Andrew Carnegie metals for excellence.

Phil Morhart: An award winner in its own right with nearly 10 modern library awards for archival and patron library scanners currently applauds the effort it takes to be on top and a crowded field of worthy competitors. For more information about the scan systems and services that can help preserve your research and collections, visit Viet Thanh Nguyen is an associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at University of Southern California. His novel, The Sympathizer, was the winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie metal for excellence in fiction. It also won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. These are absolute incredible accolades for a debut novel. Viet’s book takes the form of a confessional told by half Vietnamese, half French communist agent in the years following the Vietnam war. Years that saw them flee Saigon for exile in Los Angeles. It’s really a powerful work, equally dark and funny and both damning and hopeful about man’s place in this world. Now, Viet spoke with us recently the book, how his life influenced his work, American media depictions of Vietnam war, and much, much more.

Phil Morhart: Congrats on winning the Carnegie metal and Pulitzer Prize. That’s awesome. For a debut novel.

Viet: Well yeah, it feels pretty good I have to say.

Phil Morhart: Yeah, now, the book itself, The Sympathizer, it’s a confessional. It’s written by a North Vietnamese undercover agent. He’s working in South Vietnam, but he comes to Los Angeles after the Vietnam war, the fall of Saigon. Now your family came to the US in much the same manner and at the same time in 1974 you were four, and I guess my question or questions are to start is, what was your inspiration for the book and from what part of your personal biography did you use in the story? And I guess how did you merge that into a spy thriller and why did you use the spy thriller genre to tell such a personal story?

Viet: Okay. Just one question. We came in 1975.

Phil Morhart: 75, oh I have 75 written right here, but I was looking at four

Viet: Okay. So, when my agent said that I had to write a novel, I mean the first thing that came to my mind was a spy novel and the inspiration for that was that I had done a lot of reading in the history of the Vietnam war and learned that they were actually really were communist spies who were really deeply embedded in the top the hierarchy up into the very highest levels. And the thing is that, using that as a source material would be great because I wanted to write a novel that would be entertaining in addition to doing other kinds of literary and political things. And I’d always been and remain a big fan of the spy novel and related genres and the thriller and, and hard-boiled detective fiction and the spy novel also, by nature really whats allowed me, besides telling the entertainment story, it also touches on questions of politics and history as well, which were always really essential concern for me.

Viet: And it’s not an autobiographical novel, but what I did take from my own life for this spy was that when I was growing up in San Jose, California as a refugee, I always felt a sense of duality of not belonging, no matter where I happen to be, whether that was in my parent’s house or whether it was outside. When I was at my parents house, I felt like I was an American spying on them and when I was outside in the rest of the world, I felt like I was the Vietnamese person spying on an American. So it was just a matter of taking this feeling and exaggerating it and making it into a much more interesting experienced to the figure, the spy, that led to the novel.

Phil Morhart: There is this duality throughout the book. I mean the, the main character, he’s half Vietnamese, half French, he’s working for the South, but he’s also working for the North. Even within a social group, the personal public life. He embraces this dichotomy, a lot of access to a lot of different realms, but it gives a little bit of anonymity. He has a unique perspective on all that. He’s a [inaudible] humor. I guess that’s where the name of the book comes from. He sympathizes for both sides. Now you mentioned you drew a little bit of him from you as a child, but where else did he come from? Like what’s… Well, he’s such a unique character. Where did he birth from?

Viet: Well, I thought of him as a bad James Bond. That he would do some of these spy like things and he’d be a womanizer and a drinker of various things besides martinis, but he would do them in a much a less debonair fashion than James Bond would. Even in his own mind had an image of himself as being much more handsome and capable than he probably actually is.

Viet: But I think he grows out of a tradition of his masculine anti-hero figure that I’d read in these genres of a spy novel, the detective novel of hard-boiled fiction and the stories of war weary veterans who I don’t want tell you their life story at the bar, so he was supposed to fit into a [inaudible] recognize the masculine set of genres and at the same time he would be… The key difference I think would be, that he was also going to be someone who was very politically conscious and someone who was a bastard. Someone of a mixed race background, but that would render him into not simply a bastard in that sense of mixed race identity, but someone who is boast upon by other people, but also it was going to be capable of some terrible behavior himself.

Phil Morhart: Cinema plays a large part of this film and I guess it plays into the larger theme of how the book itself is really the story of the Vietnamese postwar experience. You have a very specific depiction of the war itself. The evacuation of Saigon, the diaspora and the refugee experience here in the US and specifically how the war is viewed by Americans and Vietnamese, particularly in pop culture, like film. You almost never see the war from the Vietnamese perspective in cinema, in pop culture. You have Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket and the character in the book goes to work for this really arrogance filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola like character. Now, was that a goal from the outset as you wrote your book? It’s kind of give a voice to this perspectives that have been overlooked and exploited by the westernized mass media depiction of the war to write the wrongs?

Viet: I think that was definitely true. I mean, when I was growing up in San Jose, I was watching a lot of Hollywood Vietnam war movies, in addition to simply watching a lot of Hollywood movies and seeing a lot of American literature, and certainly what I felt was that whether you were speaking of the Vietnam war or whether we were speaking of the presence of Asians or Asian Americans in general, these populations that I identified with the Vietnamese and Asian Americans, we had been erased or silenced in American media, and I felt that obviously one way that I construe this novel is that it’s meant to tell the story of many people who had been silenced in American stories, like the Vietnam war. Another way to construe the novel is that, in addition to telling these stories, would itself be a revenge or critique about American ways of storytelling in cinema, but also in other ways as well.

Phil Morhart: Now, those films that you’re getting, I guess, revenge upon popups now, et cetera. What are your opinions of those though?

Viet: Well, I mean, I liked many of them. I mean the films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Coming Home, and then a number of others. I think that they range from being very good to great works of art and at the same time it’s possible to enjoy these films but also feel and [inaudible] about them.

Viet: Because my place in these films or in relationship to these films. It’s probably not their ideal viewer. There ideal viewer is probably an American or anybody who’s not Vietnamese because to be a Vietnamese person watching these movies is to be putting into an equivalent situation because we’re what movie is not about. The movie is about American soldiers or other Americans and their relationship to the war, but the Vietnamese are the silent backdrop or the people who are being killed or wounded or spoken over and so on. And so that was the tension that I could respect and enjoy these films as works of art, and yet I couldn’t get away from my worldly relationship to them as a Vietnamese person. I thought it would be possible to both invoke them but also be really critical of them at the same time.

Phil Morhart: Now, what was the research process like for this book? Did you return to Vietnam to… And have you returned to Vietnam often since, since you left in the research process for the book or in the writing of the book, did you return to Vietnam?

Viet: Well, most of the scholars… I was also working on a scholarly book about the Vietnam war and memory and that took me back to Vietnam five or six times over the course of a decade and spent about a year in Vietnam altogether. And although I wasn’t really thinking about the novel when I was doing that research, nevertheless, all those trips to Vietnam and encounters with Vietnamese people and all that stuff made its way, filtered its way, into the novel.

Viet: But there was specific kinds of research that I did carry out for the novel itself. I had to do a lot of research into the fall of Saigon in order to get the first 50 pages of the book progressed cause I was interested in trying to follow the fall of Saigon first by the month and by the week, then by the day and then literally minute by minute, by the end of that opening section on the fall of Saigon and then I also did a lot of research about Apocalypse Now because although that section in this book that deals with the making of this Hollywood war movie is in general about all Hollywood work, getting on more films.

Viet: It’s also obviously a satire of Apocalypse Now and I wanted to learn as much as I could about the making of that movie and one of the things I discovered along the way was there were things that happened or were rumored to have happened on that set that I could never have possibly imagined for myself. But in general, there wasn’t a lot of direct research that I did about them for this novel primarily because I spent 30 years as a young child and a young man reading and watching a lot of stuff about the Vietnam war. And so by the time I came around to writing this book, I felt like I’d already done most of that research that was needed.

Phil Morhart: Oh yeah. Now in your opinion, how has… Since the end of the books… Since the end of The Sympathizer in 1977 how has Vietnam changed?

Viet: Well, Vietnam has changed pretty radically. In 1977, it was a very poor country, war torn country. It was the victim of American policies, but also the communist parties own policies on economics and on the persecution of its enemies and [inaudible] in Chinese that really led to a debilitated countries in the 1980s. But with the reopening of Vietnam to the West in 1986 and then with the reestablishment of tied to the US in 1994 and 1995 what’s really happened is that Vietnam has become a capitalist country. It’s a communist country in name only. It’s ruled by the communist party, but it’s practice. Everything about the country is capitalist and that means that it looks like a very different place. It feels like a very different place. Everything is determined by profit and both the younger and the older generations are really driven by this orientation towards self interest and for making lives for themselves.

Viet: Which you really can’t blame them for giving a deprivation that was entailed by living under war conditions for decades. But it’s a fighting [inaudible] a lot of contradictions. Again, they want to make a lot of money, but they’re also interested in… still interested in questions of justice and equality, still interested in questions of independence from both from China at this point. So it’s a country that is in a lot of flux right now as it tries to figure out what its future is going to be.

Phil Morhart: You kind of addressed this in the book some about the regional differences between the North and the South. Then are these still very distinct now or has that changed as well over the course of the past few decades?

Viet: So the regional distinction that’s in the country between North centered South pre-existed the Vietnam war. There were already present in the country for a long time and they were exacerbated by French colonization that officially broke up the country into the three parts. And even today, even with the end of the Vietnam war, those divisions still exist, I mean they’re obviously not divisions that are quite societal as they had been, but there are divisions that the Vietnamese people are cognizant of when they say northerners have certain kinds of characteristics. And so do central people and southerners and feel when these people say that, the memory of the war still is a factor. Because in the South there’s a lot of anti-northern bias because after the war a lot of northerners came South to take advantage of the fact that they were victorious and a lot of southerners still have some resentment over those things. And then, regional stereotypes that people have at each other just as in the United States, we have regional stereotypes of each other. Those still exist as well.

Phil Morhart: Yeah, that’s something I think that’s very interesting from reading the book and I think it’s indicative probably of the westernized American depiction or understanding of the Vietnamese war is that as read in the book, it is more of a civil war as opposed to the Americans probably think of it as our role in it. Is that how you perceive it? It was a civil war and the Americans were kind of extras in it.

Viet: I think it was both a revolutionary war on the part of those people, the communists and the nationalists who wanted to unify and deliberate the country and simultaneously civil war because there was North against South and South, it was communist and anti-communist and so on. So it’s both those things at the same time. And I do think that the American have been considered by the Vietnamese as the outsiders in that war. That’s why in the years afterwards it’s been easier. For victorious Vietnamese people in government to reconcile with the United States and with Americans than it has been for those same victorious Vietnamese to reconcile with the defeated Vietnamese.

Viet: That’s why when Americans go to Vietnam or go back to Vietnam as the case might be, the common refrain is, well we were afraid of what the people would think of us but were so surprised that they seem to be very friendly and wants to make peace and that generally is true, but if you are a Vietnamese abroad who goes back to Vietnam, especially of the older generation, it’s a much more fraught return. Even for me, it was a challenging return simply because the political, emotional, financial impact of the war and the division and the conflicts and so on had left a deep legacy among getting these people and it’s harder for them to, forget those legacies when it comes to people they consider to be a part of the Vietnamese family.

Phil Morhart: I think that’s all we have time for today Viet. Thanks so much for speaking with me today and again, congrats on winning the Carnegie metal and the Pulitzer Prize.

Viet: Thanks. Look forward to meeting the ALA people in a couple weeks.

Phil Morhart: Yes. Well, I’ll be there in Orlando as well and I’ll be sure to find you.

Viet: Great. Looking forward to it.

Phil Morhart: Thanks once again to Viet Thanh Nguyen for speaking with us today. His Carnegie metal award-winning book, The Sympathizer, is published by Grove Atlantic. I really cannot recommend it enough. Looking for fun and inexpensive summer reading giveaways. Try Buttons. Yes, you heard me. Buttons. Based in Chicago, the Busy Beaver Button Company is your source for high quality custom buttons. Now trust me, people, Busy Beaver is the real deal. They crafted some really awesome buttons for the Dewey decimal podcast and they’re lovely. For those at ALA annual in Orlando right now you can find these buttons in the membership lounge. Grab one, where it proudly, tell your friends and colleagues about Busy Beaver. Do it. Check them out at or you can give them a call (773) 645-3359. Place an order. Use the library code LIBRARY, all caps at checkout for 10% off your order. That’s the deal. Do it.

Phil Morhart: Nancy Pearl is a library world superstar. A librarian, bestselling author, literary critic and former executive director of the Washington center for the book at Seattle public library. She’s also the host of Book Lust with Nancy Pearl on the Seattle channel and she’s a regular commentator about books on NPRs morning edition and for NPR affiliates, KUOW in Seattle and KWGS in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Nancy has served on the Carnegie metal nominating committee since the award’s inception in 2012 and this year she served as the chair of the committee. We chatted with Nancy recently about what goes on behind the scenes on the Carnegie front and she gave us a fascinating look at what goes into selecting the winners each year.

Phil Morhart: Thanks so much for speaking with us today Nancy. I guess the overarching question is how do you choose the winners each year? But I guess it’s kind of a question filled with so many different sub questions. So I guess the best place to start is to… Let’s talk a bit about the selection committee itself. Can you tell me and our listeners, I guess a bit more about the committee, how many people sit on it and cause you’ve been on the committee since its inception in 2012 so what keeps you coming back and just tell us a little bit more about it.

Nancy: Well, the committee is made up of librarians, both public library librarians and librarians who work in academia. And in recent years, I think we started… Three years ago, we added a book seller to the mix, which I think adds a different kind of voice to the committee. The reason I keep coming back is that it’s a chance for me not only to read books that I might or might not ordinarily pick up in the kind of normal course of my reading, but also to have a chance to talk about them with other devoted readers. That it’s always… Except when it turns out to be very frustrating when a book that you are really excited about, nobody else is excited about it. That’s not good. But it’s really always interesting to hear other people’s thoughts about the book and the discussions are really some of the best parts of being on the Carnegie committee. So I actually should modify that. Half the committee are librarians and the other half are booklist editors. So there’s, there’s that good mixture too.

Phil Morhart: Does each member contribute a set number of titles to consider each year?

Nancy: It’s not that formal. What we do is… Things changed last year because we had to… We changed the timing of the award to make it earlier and therefore more relevant. We wanted the the Carnegie medals to be announced about the same time that the national book award and the other big awards were announced. So really in the beginning we were relying on the finalists that the notable books, finalists, notable books, the other ALA committee, Russa committee and also the booklist, top books of the year. And then we put those two lists together and chose the finalists, the three finalists, and then the eventual winner from that list. Now it’s more that, if a committee member has a suggestion for a book that they would like to be considered for the award, we can, and we get those books and read them and they’re part of the mix.

Phil Morhart: Selecting the finalists and the eventual winners, is it a smooth process, I guess? Does it get contentious? Is there any heated debates, compromise, I guess what’s that process like of actually choosing. I’m sure there’s some strong advocates for every book.

Nancy: Right. Well, all the times that I’ve been… I think the six of the times that I’ve been involved and on the committee that the discussions have been heated but never rancorous. There’s always the sense that if you think a book is just terrific, you can’t understand why nobody else or why someone else doesn’t agree with you. And so we’ve always had voting that no one else saw. So it was, you voted and sent it to the chair of the committee and then the votes were tallied and whoever got the most votes was the winner. Last year, it was… A consensus certainly developed about who the committee was leaning toward. I do remember because I was the person who suggested The Sympathizer because I had read it and thought, wow, this is an award winner. This is a really important book.

Nancy: And when I talked about it in one of our phone calls with the rest of the committee, I remembered that Ike Pulver, who was on the committee said to me, said to the group, he said, oh Nancy likes any book about Vietnam. Which, looking back I think is probably true. You know the interesting thing is when you’re picking an award winner, there are a lot of books that you like that you really, in my experience has been, there a lot of books that I really like. There are a lot of books that I really enjoyed reading, but there’s something about that particular book or a particular book that rises above the, Oh this is a good book. This is a book I really enjoy too. A book. Oh this is an important book. This is a book that we really want to recognize for its literariness if you will.

Nancy: And you know that, I mean, you get a feeling right away. I remember reading Hold Still and just… And I had not even wanted to read that book particularly because I had my own feelings about the authors experience, what she talks about in the book of taking pictures of her children when they were young. And I had my own feelings about that and I wasn’t necessarily a fan, but I started reading that book and I just was blown away by how beautifully written it was. Just how interesting it was to read about this woman’s life told by the woman who [inaudible 00:26:20].

Phil Morhart: Now when does the work begin on selecting the shortlist and the finalist and how long does it take to narrow down that field?

Nancy: Last year what we did was choose the shortlist early in the fall, in September. Narrow it down. Well actually we chose what we called the long list in September. So those were I think 25 books each. I’m not sure about that number, but a good number. And then we voted on those books early in November to choose the three finalists and then the way it worked last year as we were choosing the three finalists, it became very clear who the winners would be. So we knew very early on, but the difficulty for the judges then is that by September we need to read all the important books that are coming out through December. So you’re really reading ahead a lot.

Phil Morhart: You touched on this a bit already but I wanted to talk a bit about The Sympathizer and Hold Still. What was it about, if you could just encapsulate it very briefly, what was it about each of these titles that really spoke to you and the committee that made them rise to the top?

Nancy: Well, I think that the thing about The Sympathizer is it… For both of them, it’s the quality of the writing for me. And I think for many of the judges that is the most important thing. How well written it is. And then maybe the second most important thing is the three dimensionality of the characters. And I know for me reading The Sympathizer and I have read many novels and nonfiction about Vietnam because I’m interested in that, in that period, I had never read a book like this before. It’s combined. It was humorous. It was tragic. It was page turning, it was difficult to read and it was just such an achievement of this author of whom none of us have heard. It was just pretty darn amazing. And for Hold Still, really it was the same qualities I think that brought that book to everyone’s attention, the humanity of the author, the way she put words together, the way she told stories, the way she brought incidents from her life alive for the reader and that we kind of felt we got to know her.

Phil Morhart: Now looking forward, will you be sitting on the committee for the next year? Is there any titles or any books that are jumping out at you already?

Nancy: Well, one is Chris Cleave’s book called Everyone Brave is Forgiven, which I thought was absolutely wonderful. I think that probably is my life favorite book so far. But then we talked on the committee a lot about whether it’s Carnegie worthy or not. And of course that’s such a subjective… It seems as though that would be very subjective, but in fact in my experience of being on the committee, we tend to agree that there is something that lifts itself above that. So I’m just kind of reading a lot. And thinking as I’m reading about the quality of those books.

Phil Morhart: Thank you so much Nancy for speaking with us today. I appreciate it greatly and as do our listeners.

Nancy: Good. Good. Well I enjoy talking to you.

Phil Morhart: Thanks once again to Nancy Pearl for speaking with us today. We look forward to seeing what she and the rest of the Carnegie nominating committee have in store for us next year. Need to know books. Then you need Booklist. The book review magazine of the American Library Association. Considered an essential collection development and readers advisory tool for more than 100 years. Booklist publishes nearly 700 reviews every month of new books and audio books across all subjects and genres. Check out and the Booklist reader for future articles and lists that make doing your job easier and more fun. That wraps another edition of the Dewey Decimal podcast. Thanks again to Viet Thanh Nguyen and Nancy Pearl for speaking with us today about the Carnegie metals. It was awesome conversations as always, and we’ll see you next month when we wrap up all the wonderful things that have happened at ALA annual conference in Orlando, Florida. We’ll see you then.

Nancy: There’s always the sense that if you think a book is just terrific, you can’t understand why nobody else or why someone else doesn’t agree with you.

Category: Interviews


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