Q and A with Phong Nguyen, THE ADVENTURES OF JOE HARPER
1. Tell us a little about your new book.
The Adventures of Joe Harper is a spin-off of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it concerns Tom Sawyer's best friend and first-mate Joe Harper. It was inspired by this quote from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: "As the two boys walked sorrowing along, they made a new compact to stand by each other and be brothers and never separate till death relieved them of their troubles. Then they began to lay their plans. Joe was for being a hermit, and living on crusts in a remote cave, and dying, some time, of cold and want and grief; but after listening to Tom, he conceded that there were some conspicuous advantages about a life of crime, and so he consented to be a pirate." The Adventures of Joe Harper imagines that Joe Harper has returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Missouri after a failed life of piracy, and, finding it full of strangers, decides to fulfill his lifelong dream to become a hermit and find a cave to die in. Instead, he meets a cast of characters on the hobo road who give him reasons to live: Lee, a Chinese-American railroad worker; Ruth, an Amish woman fleeing a forced marriage; and eventually Tom Sawyer himself.
2. As I read The Adventures of Joe Harper, I was struck by how funny it is - did you find that the comic tone was with you from the beginning?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my favorite American novel. I still find it incomparably funny, poignant, and thought-provoking even after the 20th time I've read it (and taught it). I live and breathe that book, so when it came to writing The Adventures of Joe Harper, I did my best to channel Twain, knowing that if I were able to access a fraction of what that Huck Finn accomplishes, that I would be proud of the result. In fact, the dedication is written to "Mark Twain, who, though I stand knee-high to his genius, would not, I believe, try to shake me off of his leg." So if the book is funny, it's because I succeeded in tapping into that vast reservoir of humor that is the mind of Twain.
3. Besides Twain, what were some of the books (or other art forms) that inspired you?
This project was driven by a lot of research, especially into the 19th century hobo experience, so there are many obscure books on the itinerant life that influenced it. One of the more prominent books I used for research was Jack London's The Road, which chronicles the author's life as a road-kid. Much of the vernacular, character types, and atmosphere of the hobo jungle is taken from these books.
An unexpected source of inspiration for The Adventures of Joe Harper was Dante's Inferno, which I re-read at the age of 35--Dante's age when he wrote Inferno, and Joe Harper's age in the book. I was already 50 pages into writing The Adventures of Joe Harper when I noticed numerous parallels that already existed between the book I was writing and Inferno, so it was easy at that point to embrace those references and integrate the allusions more deliberately into the narrative.
Those are really the three strands of influence that I try to pull together in The Adventures of Joe Harper: Mark Twain, Jack London, and Dante.
4. You've published two story collections and now this accomplished novel - did you set out to write The Adventures as a novel or did it begin as a short story?
It actually started out as a short-short story! I expected the story to be all of two pages, and somehow the voice took over and I gradually realized that the scope of the project I was working on was far greater than I initially suspected. It happened in just that way-- Joe Harper took the reins and wouldn't let go for three years, until his story was written.
5. Along with being a novelist and short story writer, you're an editor at Pleiades and have been for a while. How on earth do you balance your own writing with editorial tasks (not to mention teaching and parenting?)
I find that the roles of writer, editor, and teacher are mutually informing. By producing work as a writer, I feel greater legitimacy as a teacher of writing and an editor of others' work. By editing others' work, I gain a greater sense of what is already out there, and what moves writers are making that are truly ground-breaking and innovative, and which ones are merely repeating what others have done over and over again, which benefits me as a writer. By teaching, I am forced to theorize about how I accomplish certain effects in my stories, in order to impart that information to others, and that theorizing in turn benefits my writing.
As far as parenting goes, I've been a parent for longer than I've been a published writer-- I would go as far as to say that, in my case, it was becoming a parent that made me a writer, because suddenly all the time I spent typing away at my computer was more valuable. I couldn't waste time daydreaming about being a writer, or merely experimenting; I had to deliver a story, otherwise I couldn't justify to myself the time I was spending away from the joys and responsibilities of being a father. I've heard a lot from other writers about the impossibility of serving two masters (writing and parenting, usually), but in my case both are so fundamental to who I am that it isn't a matter of choice.
6. What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on multiple projects that are wildly different from each other. It's impossible to say at this point which one is going to grow up to become my next book. One is a hybrid, experimental novel in which the protagonist awakens to the fact of his being a character in a book and tries to escape the watchfulness of his Author; another is a series of stories written in the voice of high school student essays, inspired by the piece "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan" by Eric Puchner; and the last is a book about the Trung Sisters, who were military generals in the first century AD who fought off the Chinese and established a precedent for a future independent Vietnam. So I'm all over the place, but it is an exciting time because every morning I sit down to write I can choose which project to develop based on the mood I am in.
Phong Nguyen is the author of The Adventures of Joe Harper (Outpost19, 2016), Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen's Ferry Press, 2014), and Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press, 2011). He coedited the volume Nancy Hale: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master (Pleiades Press/LSU, 2012) with Dan Chaon. He teaches fiction writing at the University of Central Missouri, where he also serves as editor of Pleiades. His own stories have appeared in more than 40 national literary journals, including Agni, Boulevard, Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, and North American Review. He lives in Warrensburg, Missouri, with his wife-- the artist Sarah Nguyen-- and their three children.