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Interview with Phuc Tran

Phuc Tran is eclectic, electric, cool, clever. A bit of a rebel, a bit of an old-soul, a bit of a nerd, the debut author of Sigh, Gone is a captivating and quirky storyteller and artist.

Phuc is a high school Latin teacher, a tattooer, a lover of punk rock, a book worm, and a fan of Star Wars. Oh yes, and he wrote a memoir about his experiences as a Vietnamese refugee in small-town America in the 70s and 80s. His memoir is an ode to reading, to music, to finding yourself, and to growing up in the face of adversity. It speaks of first kisses and comic books and Oscar Wilde and skateboarders and teachers who change students’ lives. It is approachable but brilliant, layered with nuance and mature reflection. In my opinion, it is the best nonfiction release of the season. To see my full review of this stunning debut, click here.

Without further ado, meet Phuc Tran.

Photo Credit: Jeff Roberts Imaging

If you had to describe yourself as an ice cream flavor what would it be and why?

So, I think I would be cookies and cream because you know it’s a little bit of both. It’s the ice cream flavor that can’t stay in its own lane. I feel like it’s like in some weird way a metaphor for my friends who are like ‘oh he’s a tattooer and teaches on the side’ and my friends who say ‘oh no, he’s a teacher who tattoos on the side.’ And now it’s like I wrote a book. Maybe I’m cookies and cream with sprinkles on top or something like that. Something extra confusing.

What are some books that you would add to The Lifetime Reading Plan?

If Clifton Fadiman’s estate approached me and said we want you to revamp it, it’s so complicated. I don’t know if I would personally revise it. I love it. I loved it, and I still love it because—at least when I read it in the 80s and 90s—it gave me a common touchstone for a lot of people. It was about connecting with people. I think in the last twenty years the traditional Western canon of dead white men has fallen out of favor and/or come under critique, which I think is totally valid. But what I think that means is that it’s less of a touchstone. I think about the rabid Jane Austen fans. I’m not a Janeite; I appreciate Jane Austen. I’m not obsessed with Jane Austen the way other Janeites are, but I love that sense of kinship, companionship, and connection that Austen readers have.

So, for me, having a foundation in the Western canon certainly gave me a lot of connections to a lot of people that I maybe wouldn’t have had. It gave me a starting place to geek out. I guess I just wonder what are the books now that do that for people.

I recently posted on social media that I never read Harry Potter and Holy Christ the amount of beef that I caught for saying I never read Harry Potter. I was living in New York at the time working and teaching and it was the late 90s. I didn’t have any kids, I wasn’t a kid, I wasn’t going to read Harry Potter. So, I guess Harry Potter is a thing people like to connect over, and I’m interested in having the conversation.

I would add whatever books seem to be common touchstones or can create avenues of connection or communication. Maybe that’s Harry Potter? I’m not a snob. I’m not the sort of person who’s going to shit on someone because they haven’t read Tolstoy. I’m not an elitist reader. I think whatever blows your hair back blows your hair back. I think about the people who have drawn powerful life lessons from lowbrow things like Harry Potter and Star Wars. I think for me it’s about creating community, and I don’t know what that is anymore. I think we live in a really fractured time, but I think at the end of the day we’re social beings, and we still crave that connection.

But if I had to add books, I think Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is amazing. It’s my favorite modern book that I’ve read. I think Vicktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is incredible. I think that’s a deeply philosophical book, and I look at it all the time when I’m sort of feeling stuck or want a reminder or how someone else navigated and survived an incredibly horrific time in their lives. There are other modern things too. I think one of the funny things about The Lifetime Reading Plan is that the books are so ancient that they feel anachronistic, so they end up feeling timeless in an odd way.

Have there been any authors that have inspired you as a reader or writer?

I’m actually really aware of how susceptible I am to what I call cross-contamination as a writer. Not that I’ve written a lot. But when I was in high school or college, any time that I would bring a song to band practice they would always say ‘that sounds like the Pixies’ because it was my favorite song in my brain. I’m really aware that, in a good way I guess, I’m very sensitive to the art and the music that I’m consuming, and it influences my output. So, when I was writing I really wanted to silo myself and not read a lot. I didn’t want to read something amazing and brilliant and then say that I’m going to do that. Because I felt like the most important thing for me was to write a book that was most authentic to my voice and who I am, and some part of that was artistic quarantine for lack of a better word. And so, part of that meant reading a lot less for two and a half years.

So, it took you two and a half years to write?

That process is kind of a fuzzy time frame. The proposal itself just to get the book sold took a year. The proposal was really an intense process. So that took a year. I wrote the manuscript in a year, and we edited for a year. And I fully view the editing process as part of the writing process. We ended up cutting a chapter. It was originally 12 chapters, but it was too long. And then my editor very smartly said let’s give this book a beach bod.

What did a typical writing day look like for you balancing teaching, tattooing, and having a family?

I wrote every other Sunday. I called it the python writing schedule. I would write 8-10 hours in one day. I was writing a chapter a month and writing 20ish pages in one day. I was taking notes all along. So, in the two weeks between each day of writing I had a notebook and would jot things down.

Nonfiction is sold on proposal. You write the outline of the whole book and then you submit one or two chapters fleshed out so that the publishing house can see what the book would look like. But otherwise the book’s not written. But the whole thing is mapped out. Once you actually start writing, it’s a blessing. It’s amazing to me to hear fiction writers don’t map things out and have a loose plan. At any given day, I knew exactly what I wanted to write and what stories I wanted to tell. It was literally sit down and here’s what you have to write. Then I would come home, and during the week my wife was my first reader and would give me notes and I’d make adjustments and then I’d move on. I submitted every three chapters. I would send a chunk of the book to my editor as opposed to sending her every time I wrote something new.

What inspired you to write this memoir in the first place?

In 2012 I gave a TEDx Talk. I was nominated by a friend to give a talk, and I thought this is the only chance I’m going to have to have this big of a platform. I might as well swing for the fences. The mantra the TEDx team used when you’re preparing for the talk is ‘this is the talk of your life.’ I think they wanted to impress on you the importance of the talk and to take the preparation seriously. I think I interpreted it a little bit more literally, and I thought I’d talk about my life and compress all the Venn circles of my life—my love of literature, my love of grammar, and my love of 80s culture, and growing up as a refugee—and I’m going to touch on all of those things in 12 minutes and we’ll see what happens. The response to the talk was just incredible. That was the first time I talked publicly in any real way about being a refugee and my experience growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania. Then I started doing live storytelling events in Maine. An agent contacted me in 2016 after she happened to see it on Youtube or something. She sent me an email saying I had an interesting story and an interesting way to tell it and asked if I was interested in writing a memoir.

After I started doing the storytelling, I thought it would be great when I was seventy-something and retired to sit down and write a memoir. Sometimes the opportunity presents itself when you don’t have the time, and you just have to do it and say yes. No adventure starts with no.

With online publishing and self-publishing and blogs, who knows how you get your story out there and who it resonates with. I think the internet has really changed the idea or the structure or the way people get published and find an audience.

I didn’t want to pull any punches. I wanted the book to be pretty raw and as emotionally vulnerable as possible. That makes for good reading, that makes for good writing. I just wanted to be honest.

My kids know I’m not super close with my parents and they’re curious why. They know I was born in another country and had a hard time growing up, but they’re so innocent. And maybe that speaks to the world they live in that they can’t imagine being bullied because you’re not from this country or that you have a weird name. I might as well have told them I ate rocks for breakfast. It’s beyond their scope of understanding, which I think is incredible. They have such a deep sense of belonging and who they are and support from their community and how teachers are much more aware of having kids feel seen and heard. I feel like something right is happening for them to grow up in a world where they don’t feel like they don’t belong.

What advice do you have for new and struggling writers?

I would love some advice myself. I think it’s really important to be able to answer the why of why you’re writing. If you can answer the why, then I think everything else really falls into place. It’s the gas in the tank. And then the “what” is the roadmap. Also asking yourself why you want to be published. It’s totally valid to want to be famous, but part of the question is why. It’s one thing to have a story to tell or thinking your story might help people or it’s always been your dream to be a published author. I think writing and publishing are not always the same thing. Emily Dickinson wrote a shit ton and was never published. I think having clarity about your objectives and yourself is really important. But otherwise, advice is so individualized.

Being published is not necessarily validation for your story. That’s really important for people to know. Your stories are important. Some of my favorite bands never ever made money off of any of their records and that feels like a small tragedy, but I recognize that my musical tastes don’t necessarily always align with the GRAMMYs or the Top 40 Hits. That’s the nature of being in an artistic or transactional career. You might not have a huge fan base, but you might have a small really dedicated one that’s really excited about what you do.

What got you interested in being a Classics major?

I always knew that I wanted to teach, and it was definitely very much because of the great teachers that I had. I thought I was going to be an English or an art teacher, and I got to college and just became disillusioned with both my English and my art classes. You can imagine I built up the college experience so much. It’s not college’s fault. How could it possibly have lived up to what I thought it was going to be? I was really disillusioned and decided not to major in art and English. One day at lunchtime at college my first year, I heard a kid say, ‘I’m taking Ancient Greek, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’ I don’t know if I’m naturally oppositional or something. I was so intrigued that someone was taking a class, and it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done. I signed up for Ancient Greek, and it was super hard. I always tell people, and it’s true, that I didn’t wear glasses until I started taking Greek. I was studying so much that one day I looked up and everything was blurry. Greek made me go blind. But I loved it. It was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I fell into the Classics hole. I did Greek, Sanskrit, and Latin, and then I minored in German. Then I went to grad school to get my Master’s to be a high school teacher.

What got you interested in being a tattooer?

I was always interested in tattooing because of the punk rock skateboarding thing. But I hadn’t gotten tattooed because I never had money, and tattoos are expensive. Then in college I finally got tattooed, and I became friends with the person who was tattooing me. In my last year of grad school, he told me they were looking for an apprentice for the tattoo shop, and he thought I should apply. I think again no adventure starts with no. I did some drawings and sent them to the owner, and two weeks later he called me and asked me to move to NY, and he’d start training me. I taught during the day and apprenticed at night and then just did that for years. So much of it is luck and being in the right place at the right time. There’s things I can’t take responsibility for. Like not getting on the bus escaping Vietnam. I think it’s dangerous for us to believe that the only thing that prevents us from being successful is our effort because there are so many things beyond our control. I feel incredibly lucky that someone just happened to see my TED Talk and she just happened to be the right agent looking for a certain kind of thing. She could have very well not seen it. It’s a roll of the dice and sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. I feel incredibly lucky for the lucky breaks that I’ve had.

What’s your favorite tattoo you’ve made for someone and your favorite that you’ve gotten?

On paper I should probably say it’s the portrait of my grandfather who passed away. I love that tattoo because I love my grandfather. But in terms of my favorite actual tattoo, I have a tattoo of Rocky Balboa on my foot, and above it there’s a little banner and it says, ‘ham and egger.’ It’s a line from the movie when they approach Rocky and they asked if he wants to fight Apollo Creed and he says he can’t because he’s the champ. He’s got such low self-esteem and says he’s just a ham and egger. I love that scene. Rocky is so humble and down on himself, but we know that he’ll rise to the challenge. And he loses but we’re still cheering for him.

I just love doing tattoos that people are excited about. I did a tattoo for a client that was a memorial for her sister and that was incredibly powerful. She cried through the whole thing and told me about her sister who passed away. It’s a small tattoo, it’s nothing grand, but it’s so powerful to sit there and be a witness to that relationship and people’s experiences.

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