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10/11/2020 - 08:46

Tran Thuy Mai: “One will meet the reader if one reaches the end of his passion.”

Tu Du Thai hau (Dowager Empress Tu Du)_ the first novel in Tran Thuy Mai’s writing career, which was freshly published by Women Publishing House in 2019 _ won the prize of Good Book of 2020 in late September.

Unable to return to Vietnam to receive the prize, she said from America: “This is the happiest and most touching moment for a writer.”

Tran Thuy Mai. Photo: by courtesy of the character

Thua Thien Hue Weekly has connected with Tran Thuy Mai to ask her about her “journey” of writing the book from beginning to winning the prize.

“Choosing to write historical novels, I want to cultivate in my field with seeds I have accumulated from my place of birth. My aim is to stay connected with my homeland,” said the writer.

“I was so surprised at the news of the prize. The book was nominated by readers and literal experts. The result was kept secret until some days before the announcement. When Nhat Chieu, a member of the judges called to inform me of the prize, I was confused for a while before I could feel the happiness and honor.”

The Good Book Award given by Institute of Education (IRED) has been for many years recognized as a prestigious prize which has many positive effects on writers, readers, translators, and book makers in Vietnam.

Your name is often mentioned with short stories. Dowager Empress Tu Du is your first novel, but it is a big success. The book must be cherished for a long time. Mustn’t it? 

Yes, quite a time ago. I started to collect materials and make an outline in 2011. After that I wrote the book in many stages and finished it in 2019. Many readers said my writing style has been changed, unlike when I write short stories. In fact, I didn’t change it, but it is due to the requirement of the genre. Each genre requires a different style.

“Dowager Empress Tu Du” is a historical novel. Characters are various and details are intertwined. I therefore chose to write in the most simple style in order not to make the story become complicated. I always think simplicity is the shortest way to the heart.

Why Tu Du, but not another, Madam?

Tu Du was a very beautiful symbol of the Nguyen Dynasty. Stories about her are recorded in historical documents, especially in Dai Nam Liet Truyen. However, the comments in the historical books only are not enough.

A matter of course is that any dowager empress is recorded as nice, kind, and noble. Who dares to write badly about a king’s mother or a king’s grandmother? But Tu Du was different. She was honored not only in historical documents, but through anecdotes and folk poetry with lots of respect from the poor. 

That happens only with this dowager empress. It is her life, characters and special role in the history that got my interest. 

Can you tell us something about how to write a successful book like the one that won the prize?

I don’t call it a secret. It is exaggeration. From my 30 years of writing, I have two things to share with you:

First, just write about things you like and in the way you like. I did not wrote to please others. I didn’t try to make the book look fanciful, existential, surreal or something. Writing is like love. Giving means receiving. Only when the writer reaches the end of his passion can he meet the reader. 

Tran Thuy Mai (standing) at a meeting with literature lovers on the occasion of publishing the novel. Photo: Phan Minh Nga

Secondly, I tried to employ the secret of arching, which the character Truong Dang Que passed down to Prince Mien Tong in chapter 30 of the novel. It was the secret of Nhiep tam, which means “letting the archer and the aim become one.” Once the theme penetrates one’s mind and soul, it lives by itself. The writer just follows it and writes.

You once said Hue culture, history, and people are the most precious thing you was lucky to contact in the first half of your life. How do they affect your writing?

Culture and history are inherent in each person. The thing is we usually don’t notice their presence. Therefore journeys to far-away areas are sometimes very necessary for those who write. Approaching other cultures, one comes to see what is Vietnamese and understand who one is.

Only when I left Hue did I realize what Hue has given me. It would be so lengthy if I go into detail. What I want to say is that when I embarked on writing the 64 chapters of the book, which is 900 pages long, my memories about Hue culture came back automatically. I didn’t have to make any effort at all.

I read this on your Facebook “I will try to write more for life and to express my gratitude to readers.” People are wondering that you are cherishing many new books. Aren’t they?

Yes, I’m working on another story about another character. The setting is Vietnam in the 19th century when the French started to attack until the event of That thu kinh do (The Loss of the Imperial Capital.) In this new story, Tu Du will be mentioned again because she was one of those who went through the confusion of the period which is today referred to as “three kings in four months.”

But the main character this time is a princess of the Nguyen Dynasty. In that period, 99 princesses of emperors Minh Mang and Thieu Tri lived. I’m writing about one of them. (But I want to keep her name to myself now so that the reader will have to “uncover” later.)

Will you continue with novels or go back to short stories?

I like short stories very much. They are short, but very concise. As of now, I still continue with novels, at least for one more year. My habit is focusing on just one thing at a time. I can’t do many things at the same time. 

However in October, Phanbook and Women Publishing House will print a compilation of short stories that I have written so far. I want to take advantage of this occasion to let you know about the book. 

Thank you, Madam.

By PhanThanh

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