How To Write a Novel About Your Family

Vincent Lam, Publishers Weekly
August 10, 2012

incent Lam's debut novel The Headmaster's Wager(Hogarth) is suspense, humor, and tenderness set against the backdrop of 1960s Saigon. The story was inspired by the story of his grandparents and here, Lam explains the process of writing it as a novel.

Every family has a story – accounts of what the parents saw, of what the grandparents did. These tales are a creation myth told to children. They explain where the clan came from, and situate a family within history and imagination even as time passes, and the world changes.

I grew up in a quiet city, Ottawa, in a quiet country, Canada, but I was told the stories of my adventurous, fortune-seeking ancestors. They left Southern China, and found wealth in Vietnam. My parents were born into the prosperous and insular Chinese community that once existed in Vietnam, which collapsed after the communist victory there.

My grandfather featured prominently in many of the stories I was told. He owned a successful English school in Saigon, whose profits were boosted by the American war effort. He was a womanizer and a compulsive gambler. He was both the family ideal – a successful, educated entrepreneur, and the family pariah – a gambling man about town. From the time I first wanted to write, I wanted to write a novel set in the time of my grandfather’s adventures, or misadventures, and model a protagonist after him. 

Specificity of point of view was crucial in the writing of my novel. Other books I loved about that time, like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried depicted singular points of view. No piece of writing is ever the whole story. Since I grew up hearing what Chinese people from Vietnam thought about morality, money, luck, my grandfather’s behavior, and the Vietnam War, I wanted to write from that world-view. The war was not only those who were shooting the guns. The war was also mattresses propped up against house windows during gun battles. It was the fact that illumination flares appeared beautiful, but threatening, at night. It was the way people remembered parts of Cholon, the Chinese quarter, being taken over by go-go bars and brothels for American servicemen.

I decided that to render my chosen point of view properly, I needed to also understand the other ways this story could be told. If I wanted to give the counterpoint to the American account of the Vietnam War, I should know the American commentators. I turned to David Halberstam, Frances Fitzgerald, and Bernard Fall. The Americans both feared and respected the North Vietnamese footsoldier, so I read the work of their soldiers, such as Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. The North Vietnamese railed against the colonialists, so I read the French perspective, as found in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Gontran de Poncins's From a Chinese City.

My bookshelf filled because I felt it was necessary to learn ten thousand things in order to write a hundred. I read until I felt I possessed an expansive and detailed painting of Vietnam in the mid-20th century, which depicted the upheaval of Vietnamese society, the defeat of the French, the tragic American adventure, and the destruction of Vietnam’s Chinese community. Then, I began to trace the single pencil line of my book through this large canvas, picking up necessary colors and details as I went. If the strength in family perspective is that it is unique and distinctive, the weakness is that it is anecdotal, biased, and contains many misunderstandings of history. Of course, my characters’ views of the world might be similarly flawed or more so – but I, the writer, needed to know exactly how they were flawed in order to deploy them in my novel.

I spent a year or so writing what actually happened to my grandfather and those around him. Some of it worked. Some of it didn’t. Some of it meant a great deal to me. But, in being faithful to facts, I was unable to be true to narrative. My family creation myth, my point of view, and the sum of my research had coalesced into a certain feeling that I had about Vietnam. I decided that my commitment would be only to this feeling, and to nothing else. Characters, plot, dialogue, and hundreds of pages of writing that did not serve this feeling were jettisoned.

I still used family tales as springboards, as seeds. Did my grandfather actually have mistresses? Of course- he did. I wrote the trysts - explicitly, though no one in my family ever related intimate details to me. Was there a time that he both settled a grudge and won a young woman in a mah jong game? Regardless of whether he did or not, my description needed to allow readers to understand the protagonist’s desire for the woman. Did my grandfather, who was becoming rich thanks to Americans, habitually send money to Communist China? Perhaps that was a habit of another relation of mine, which suited my protagonist perfectly. My grandfather’s letters told me what he thought about the Buddhist immolations. I do not know if he actually witnessed one. This did not impair me from writing such a death into my novel.

In the end, I understood that the point of knowing where my family’s story came from, of having its specific point of view, and of painting the surrounding canvas, was to give me liberty with the actual details of my grandfather and my family’s story. Knowing very strongly how it felt, I was able to invent a novel in order to serve that feeling.  I gave my characters the freedom to live fictionally, so as to best represent the time, the place, and the sentiments that I wanted to portray in the most genuine possible fashion. I embraced the inventions of fiction to render what felt most true.