Most days, Beth Nguyen writes under the watchful eye of Keanu Reeves—specifically, a pillow with Keanu Reeves’s face on it. “He’s my companion for all my Zoom meetings,” Nguyen says, gesturing to the Keanu cushion, which sits on one of the many bookshelves lining the wall behind her. Speaking over Zoom from her light-filled home office in Madison, Wis., she admits that she is a “chaotic writer” and lacks a “good sense of discipline” when it comes to keeping a regular writing schedule. This is partly why her latest book, the memoir Owner of a Lonely Heart (Scribner, July), took nearly a decade to write.
“I didn’t know that it was going to be a book until maybe three years ago,” Nguyen says. For years, she had been writing essays about her upbringing and identity as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. She thought someday they might coalesce into a collection, even if she questioned whether anyone would ever read it.
“I need a lot of denial when I write,” she says. “Denial being that nobody’s gonna read this, and whatever I’m gonna say is not gonna matter. Otherwise, I’ll feel too self-conscious to get it on the page.”
Then, an epiphany. “Two or three years ago I realized that I had never spent that much time with my mother,” Nguyen says. “It occurred to me to count, how much time have I actually spent with her? And when I counted and figured it out, I realized it was a lot less than 24 hours, and that immediately became the narrative arc of the book.” With that, the project morphed into a memoir and found its brilliant opening lines: “Over the course of my life I have spent less than 24 hours with my mother. Here is how those hours came to be, and what happened in them.”
Owner of a Lonely Heart is Nguyen’s second memoir, after her hit 2008 debut, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, which was published by Viking and won the American Book Award and a PEN/Jerard Award. Both books center on her family, who fled Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975 and settled in Grand Rapids, Mich. But her origin story isn’t quite that simple, and in Owner of a Lonely Heart, Nguyen probes its many complications, including the mother-shaped hole at its center.
Nguyen came to the U.S. as an infant, along with her sister, father, uncles, and grandmother; her mother had stayed behind in Saigon. But when Nguyen was 10, she learned her mother had later settled in the U.S. as a refugee. She first met her mother when she was 19. They have since seen each other only a handful of times, usually during brief, terse visits at her mother’s Boston apartment.
Nguyen was raised in a blended, multigenerational household, comprising her sister, grandmother, father, stepmother, stepsister, and half brother. Many of them also appear in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, but the author’s approach to personal narrative has “grown and changed” immensely in the years since. “I would be worried if there were no changes,” she says. “My thinking about the permissions that we give ourselves and ask for has all shifted.”
She sees this evolution in her thinking as not just reflective of her personal growth but also of shifting cultural mores. “Fifteen years ago was a totally different time in memoir writing,” Nguyen says, “and one of the reasons why I wanted to write Owner of a Lonely Heart was because I wanted to look back in a different way.” Indeed, much of the book deals with the fallibility of memory and the difficulty of trying to pin down the past.
“The past actually is not static because the way we think about it keeps changing, and what I really wanted to explore in this book is that sense of perspective and how that is shaped by time and how intense that is to look back and realize that I’ve changed my mind about some things,” she says. “It’s very humbling, and it’s an important thing that writers have to give themselves: a sense of permission to change our minds.”
Nguyen often questions and revises her own recollections, or considers conflicting accounts of an event. In the book, she replaces scenes with summary and avoids using quotes, to remind readers that the narrative is refracted through her own memory and perspective. This tension between truth and interpretation, she says, is inherent to the genre: “I think that every memoir has to contend—in the writing of it and in the craft it—with its own uncertainty and its own unreliability,” she explains.
Nguyen is also the author of two novels, Short Girls and Pioneer Girl, published by Viking in 2009 and 2014, respectively. She studied fiction and poetry in college and grad school, receiving her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in 1998. “I love writing fiction as a counterpoint to nonfiction because nonfiction is so real that sometimes it’s frustrating,” she says. “So when I write fiction it feels like, Oh, I can just make shit up! However, as soon as I start thinking that, I think, Wait a minute, this is actually horrible—I have to make it all up!”
For her, good fiction and good nonfiction should achieve the same thing: conjure deeply felt, authentic emotion. She learns just as much about writing nonfiction from reading her favorite novelists—E.M. Forester, Julie Otsuka, Edith Wharton—as she does from reading master memoirists such as Copenhagen Trilogy author Tove Ditlevsen. Ultimately, good storytelling transcends genre: “Every writer in every genre has to ask, Why am I writing this? Why does this story need to be told? What are my goals, my motives? What am I actually trying to do here?”
These are the kind of tenets that Nguyen instills in her students as the Dorothy Draheim Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction. When she’s not writing or teaching, there’s lots to do at home. “One of the reasons it took me so long to write Owner of a Lonely Heart is because I have two children,” she says, “and everything was around their schedule, so I wrote whenever I wasn’t too exhausted.”
Being a self-described “chaotic writer,” then, seems more like an adaptation than a defect: like many writers with children, Nguyen has learned to squeeze writing into the rare, sporadic openings in her otherwise hectic days.
Motherhood sits at the center of Owner of a Lonely Heart, so Nguyen’s own children, along with her mother, factor significantly into the narrative. Writing about her family forces her time and again to confront the conflict between privacy and storytelling, which she calls “a central question to the whole endeavor of nonfiction.” She explicitly addresses these concerns in her work.
“I felt like this was a big question that I wanted to grapple with as directly as possible throughout the book,” she says. “I deliberately use phrases like, ‘I remember,’ ‘I recall,’ ‘I think,” and I wanted to signal that this is just my extremely subject perspective on the past, that necessarily involves other people, like my mother.”
A good memoir, Nguyen says, is “not a confessional”—and hers certainly isn’t. It’s too thoughtful, restrained, and well-crafted. “We don’t all need to know everything, even if we want to. The personal boundaries that people have are not always clear, but I think it’s important to try to understand them. And that sense of understanding is, to me, the core of what memoir writing is about: we’re trying to understand things—who we were and what made us who we are now.”