(A recap of Vietcetera’s podcast, ‘Have a Sip’, with Dr. Dang Hoang Giang, hosted by Thùy Minh)
Dr. Dang Hoang Giang is considered a special case in Vietnam publishing. His first book Buc xuc khong lam ta vo can (Frustration doesn’t make us irrelevant) gained great success when released in 2015. After that, he has published a few more books on various topics and with different approaches.
Whether it’s about social media, death, the post-childhood world, or depression, his writing always tells stories with a fierce but also sympathetic spirit. The way he expresses those stories and puts them into writing makes his readers feel happy and ‘rescued’ and the author himself feels that way.
As he released his new book Đại dương đen, Vietcetera had the chance to sit down with Dr. Dang Hoang Giang and talked about his journey into writing.
A writer usually sticks to a drink of choice. Is that true to you?
I think that is just an excuse for consuming stimulants like alcohol, cigarettes, or coffee.
Such a fallacy. You could drink anything you want regardless of your career, whether you are an accountant or a cook. For me, there is no such superior reason for an author to choose a particular drink.
How many hours per day do you think should be spent on writing?
I try to create a daily work rhythm. I see writing as my major job and let it become a habit.
Writing is like an office job: you go to the office and start working at your desk day after day. Sometimes, the routine runs quite smoothly, but other times it gets boring. However, I don’t think you should wait for inspiration to come or be struck by an instant motivation that pushes us to sit and write down whatever is pouring inside your mind.
Writing is like playing tennis or practicing yoga, which requires consistent and daily practices as a habit.
Does your background in information technology affect your writing style, in a much clearer and more scientific way?
I believe the writing style you mentioned is more disciplinary than scientific. To my knowledge, those who write for a living have great self-discipline. To me, discipline has nothing to do with my previous working experience in the technical field.
Your first book, Buc xuc khong lam ta vo can, was a big success. How did you impose discipline while writing it?
I did not expect such a tremendous influence my first book would draw. I myself couldn’t imagine how popular the book gets or how my audiences perceive the work.
It all started from some news articles I had written before. It just came to me that maybe I could write more articles on different subjects in greater length, then resemble them into a book.
I planned to publish a new article every period of time, maybe a month. This gave me more discipline in writing.
Since then, has writing become your main job?
At that time, I had been working on some NGO projects and social activities. Writing to me is nothing more than a side hustle. But later on, it became a major part of my life.
How do you plan the concepts of your books?
For me, I do not write about what society or people love to read, but rather what interests me. What do I want to learn more about? Do I truly care about this issue?
Such topics like death, traumas in young generations, and generation gaps are not considered ‘trendy’ at all. It might be hard for some people to believe and imagine the stories and topics I want to unveil.
Thien, ac, va smartphone (The good, the bad, and smartphone) is a book that anyone using social media could relate to. However, what I expect in this book is not merely about the stories between the good and the bad, but also the questions of compassion, sympathy, and justice.
Writing is a journey into the unknown. I don’t wish to imprint any specific message and try to spread it widely as missionary work.
Do you think ‘Dai duong den’ (Black Ocean) is a great example for not chasing after a ‘trendy’ topic but still having a great influence on many people, especially in the time of pandemic?
I think it’s just a coincidence. The initial seeds of this book were planted 2-3 years ago, when I started working with young people for the project Tim minh trong the gioi hau tuoi tho (Find yourself in the post-childhood world). At that time, I realized that a lot of people are coping with depression and other types of mental illness but not receiving any proper help.
I made an attempt to dig deeper into this topic and observe the lives of characters in three years. The book just happened to be published in a time when the whole society is struggling with rising mental and material crises.
In fact, all of the issues I have been interested in so far would never become old-fashioned but last for eternity. From the generation gap between parents and their children to the matters of justice, death, and depression, these topics will always be there and will never get old. The question is whether we want to dive into these stories and how we would convey them.
In your recent works, why did you change your approach?
My very first two books are pure ‘pen and paper.’ I just need to sit in one place, do some research, contemplate, and write down my thoughts. The writing process is absolutely under my control, and I could do that for the rest of my life.
However, I want to dive into different stories with different techniques. I want to go out, meet someone, lose control over my work, or face some risks. My three recent books are written in the style of narrative nonfiction, which means telling a news report by using the fictional technique.
Which is the most difficult part when it comes to your approach, conversing with the characters, and writing the stories down?
The process I had been through with the three recent books is exhausting and stressful. I find each stage of this process extremely challenging.
Regarding the interview, I would first approach the character, encourage them to open up and share what they couldn’t confide in anyone. Then, I would ask myself how to react to their stories.
The writing process is not easier at all. I have to shorten a 100,000-word story told by the character to a 5,000-word work on paper. More importantly, these 5,000 words are mine but must reflect the character’s thoughts, styles, and the world they are living in.
There were moments that I thought I would fail when writing this book, and there were times when self-doubt made me think about giving up and getting back to using the old technique.
Now, despite knowing how to approach and converse with the characters, I still struggle with processing a huge pile of information. For some of the first stories in ‘Dai duong den’, I had written seven to eight different versions because I didn’t get the satisfaction.
Why do you think the characters willingly share their stories with you?
Talking to the characters is like taking a long bus trip. They would find a total stranger easier to confide in and share their stories. Moreover, putting yourself on the same level as them could be helpful to encourage them to open up. Doing this was much easier with my first books since they didn’t know who I am.
I think my interest in learning the characters is the same interest of an archeologist in studying old subjects. Paying attention to the smallest details could make the characters feel appreciated and desire to go back to their past lives.
In addition, the interviewer needs to display a non-judging and respectful attitude. Otherwise, the interviewees would not share their ultimate secrets with you. This is called “respectful curiosity.”
How do you feel while having conversations with the characters?
I went through many different emotions and feelings during the interview. I felt like I was living their life with all the painful, resentful, or hopeless experiences.
However, there must be some boundaries, a good distance that allows me to observe my inner thoughts and not to be sucked into the character’s world. At the end of the day, it is my job.
In the process of making this book, was there a character that left a big impression on you?
The most horrible thing that people with depression encounter is the feeling of being an outcast from the community or not being able to live up to their ideal selves. They struggle to live normal life.
Every character I have met is very interesting. Like most of us, they have their own weaknesses – sometimes they are evil and selfish – but they all have something in common, a desire to live and to be happy. They want to make a contribution to their family, community instead of being a burden.
I chose 12 out of 50 to 60 characters I had approached to be featured in my book. Some of them might be good storytellers or their stories are much stronger than others.
Even though many characters and their stories are not included in my book, I am genuinely grateful for their courage to share their hurtful experiences with a stranger.
Was there a time you showed your draft to the characters?
I always tell them the output of the book is my product. I do not write stories for them or on their behalf. What I do is collect their stories as data and reflect these data from my own perspective and with my interpretation. The characters accept that.
Do the characters have any idea when the book is going out?
In the current situation, many readers and the characters haven’t been able to lay their hands on the book yet. However, some stories in Dai duong den have been published on Vietcetera and received positive and interesting feedback.
Like the characters in Tim minh trong the gioi hau tuoi tho, some have read, cried, and discreetly felt happy and maybe proud when their stories are heard and spread.
In your opinion, what is happiness to an author?
Last week, I called Mr. Thach, a character in Dai duong den. I was happy and touched as he still remembered me. This call helped me understand that the unsettling experience we all have suffered during the pandemic is just a small part of our lives.
Through conversation and writing, I believe I was and am helping someone, offering them a unique experience of being heard.
There is nothing much I could do. I can neither grant them abundance nor give them money to buy medicine. The only thing I could assure to help within my capacity is listening, making them feel that their existence is meaningful in life.
What is your next book?
When jumping into a new project, I usually work 150% to 200% of my productivity for months and when the project is finished, I fall into a black hole, not knowing what to do next. I’ll face a mental crisis for a while, questioning whether I should keep writing and what I will write next.
I found myself in the same situation after I finished Dai duong den. This is a tortuous process of trial and error.
Adapted by Bich Tram