Vu Tran is attending his first BEA this year, in advance of the publication of his first novel, Dragonfish (Norton, Aug.), which features four characters who are already old familiars. Tran introduced them to readers in his 2009 Best American Mystery short story pick (it appeared originally in Akashic Books' anthology Las Vegas Noir), and it was largely because of them that Tran felt the story was "complex enough to flesh out. With any fiction, you're writing the story the reader sees on the page, but also these satellite stories that inform what you're writing. I wanted to put those on paper, too."

It proved to be "by far the most difficult thing" he'd written, a five-year experience he likens to walking through an unfamiliar house in complete darkness. In fact, he admits, he didn't figure out the crime novel's ending until his deadline was only a week away. "It was incredibly scary," he says, laughing, but early on in the project, he says he realized, "The only way for me to write well was to write sentence by sentence and let each event spur on the next."

It's not a method he would necessarily recommend to his creative writing students at the University of Chicago. But he did take to heart some of the critical advice he offers them: find your own style, then trust in it.

Dragonfish is the first piece of writing about America for the Vietnam native, who at age five escaped to the U.S. with his mother and sister. "I do write a lot about Vietnam—I feel very connected to it," he says. With the novel, unexpectedly, "I discovered I'm quite good at writing dialogue in English."

With his debut novel under his belt, is he also looking forward to returning to the short story form? "Right now I feel like I have the momentum for another novel," says Tran. "I imagine it will create a new set of problems I don't know how to handle. That challenge is interesting to me."

Trans looks forward to meeting nascent Dragonfish readers—the title is taken from the nickname of the exotic and often smuggled Asian Arowana species—when he signs copies of the book at the Norton booth (1920) today at 3:30 p.m. "When I signed books at ALA," he says, "my publisher was pulling over random people. It was funny to me that they were willing to wait in line to meet an author they didn't know." As a winner of Vilcek and Whiting awards—both for short stories—it's possible he won't remain unknown for long.

This article appeared in the May 28, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.