Vu Tran, '06 PhD English, spends nights writing fiction. But it's the reality of life in the desert that concerns him as he enters a coffee shop near campus. He is having car troubles. He wants shade and a drink. "Being a writer really is not as romantic as people try to make it," he says.
Minor troubles aside, Las Vegas has been good for Tran. He recently finished a three-year Schaeffer Fellowship in creative writing. In June came word that Tran had been awarded the O. Henry Prize, generally considered short fiction's highest honor.
Tran won for his short story "The Gift of Years," originally published in the literary magazine Fence. Tran's story will be anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007: Best Stories of the Year by Anchor Books. The annual collection has included many of the best American and Canadian fiction writers, among them John Updike, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and T. C. Boyle.
If the success has fed Tran's ego, he doesn't show it. "I'm a nobody right now, and this gives me national exposure," he says. "It's also nice because I'll be published alongside some of my favorite writers."
Dillard's by Day, Writer by Night
Tran's own story begins far from Las Vegas in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he was born in 1975, just after the city formerly known as Saigon fell at the close of the Vietnam War. Tran's father had fled Vietnam at the end of the war to Tulsa, Okla., where the rest of the Tran family reunited five years later.
In Tulsa, Tran developed a bit of a drawl and a desire to write, starting in grade school and continuing through a master's in English at the University of Tulsa. "I distinctly remember writing stories in my reading group in first grade -- it was the most exhilarating thing," Tran says. "I've always wanted to write."
Writing eventually drew Tran away from Tulsa and to the Iowa Writer's Workshop. The master of fine arts program there was "very much like a two-year summer camp," and he finished with a more distilled style. Thenlled style. Then came the difficulties of writing late at night while holding a day job at a local Dillard's.
"It was one of those awkward and confusing transitional times in life, especially in my case because I'd been in school all my life," Tran says. "I understand how difficult it is to try to be a writer and maintain a regular job."
Looking for a way to write more led to UNLV and its Schaeffer Fellowship program.
A Place to Write in the Desert
Schaeffer Fellowships cover tuition and provide recipients $75,000 over three years for living expenses. The fellows complete their doctoral degrees and teach courses; during one year they are free of teaching obligations so they may concentrate on writing. The fellowship was exactly what Tran had been searching for. "I wanted to find a place where I'd have time and money to write," he says. "I found that here." During his fellowship, Tran had stories published in places such as The Southern Review, Harvard Review, and Glimmer Train Stories. He won awards and found an agent. "I was -- and still am -- very na´ve about the publishing business."
Working from his one-bedroom apartment, Tran completed a short story collection and began work on a novel. "The last few years I've written more than during any other time in my life," Tran says. "Some writers I know in the program like to go to coffeehouses. I can't do that -- I've got a laptop computer that's never moved from the corner of my desk."
Richard Wiley, English professor and associate director of the Black Mountain Institute, served on Tran's dissertation committee. He said Tran's short-story collection is probably the best creative dissertation he's read. "It's just a beautiful collection. There's not a weak story in the bunch."
As the author of five novels, Wiley understands the difficulty in publishing fiction, particularly short stories. "The work has to be good, I mean really good, because there are a lot of people trying to publish books." He says Tran's award could not have come at a more auspicious time for his career. It has the added bonus of bringing attention to UNLV's relatively young fellowship program.
The program began in 2001 and is named after benefactor Glenn Schaeffer, a resort industry executive and himself a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. The fellowships are awarded through the UNLV English department and the International Institute of Modern Letters.
The support and guidance Tran found through his fellow writers and UNLV faculty helped spur his writing. He recalls something a professor said about the need to enjoy writing. "I had to make myself enjoy it, and I think I've found that place now," Tran says.
The Lens of Personality
He's also gained confidence as a writer in the last three years, and the O. Henry Prize adds to that. Tran's winning story centers on a Vietnamese man who, because of the war, saw his children only sporadically as they grew up. There is a murder, and the father worries about violent tendencies he recognizes in his daughter. Tran agrees that the story is one of his finest. He says it's also one he had the most difficulty getting published. The winning version is the product of more than 20 drafts and four major revisions. "I'm an obsessive reviser," Tran admits.
Many of Tran's stories relate to his family's Vietnamese experience and his travels to Vietnam, but his writing is more fiction that autobiography. "A lot of it is simply invented, made up. It becomes autobiographical because it's through the lens of my personality," he says.
He describes both himself and his writing as controlled and subtle. His stories are deeply layered with meaning through often dark plots. "I tend to write about wary characters who can't help romanticizing some part of their world, who are sentimental in a very reserved and detached way, which is me in a nutshell," Tran says. "The characters can often reflect amplified qualities of myself."
Tran is currently teaching part time at UNLV and finishing his first novel. "I don't want to sound too dramatic, but it really is the most terrifying thing I've done," he says of the long-form endeavor. He is in talks with a publisher for his novel and story collection. He is getting to where he wants to be as a writer.
And an O. Henry Prize helps.