Q&A with Abbigail N. Rosewood, author of If I Had Two Lives
In celebration of the novel If I Had Two Lives, bookseller and writer Nicola Maye Goldberg interviewed author Abbigail N. Rosewood about the challenges and inspirations behind her debut novel, and her current and favorite reads. Read the Q&A below!
This luminous debut novel follows a young woman from her childhood in Vietnam to her life as an immigrant in the United States - and her necessary return to her homeland.
As a child, isolated from the world in a secretive military encampment with her distant mother, she turns for affection to a sympathetic soldier and to the only other girl in the camp, forming two friendships that will shape the rest of her life.
As a young adult in New York, cut off from her native country and haunted by the scars of her youth, she is still in search of a home. She falls in love with a married woman who is the image of her childhood friend, and follows strangers because they remind her of her soldier. When tragedy arises, she must return to Vietnam to confront the memories of her youth - and recover her identity.
An inspiring meditation on love, loss, and the presence of a past that never dies, the novel explores the ancient question: do we value the people in our lives because of who they are, or because of what we need them to be?
The entire first half of the book is written in a child’s perspective, which makes it both eerie and touching. How did you decide to use this perspective? What are its limits, challenges, and benefits?
I’ve attempted to write this story many times over the years. I have first pages written in the third person point of view⎯a boy who also lives at the camp and who witnesses everything that happens to the protagonist. I’ve also tried the first person-plural point-of-view, which includes both the protagonist and her friend. With both I encountered unsolvable technical difficulties. Even though it seems that the first-person child perspective has its challenges, as you say, it was the most natural option. Once I discovered her voice, everything opened up. Most people assume that a child perspective limits how much you can do with the narrative⎯mode of noticing, emotional complexity, intricacy of language, but I find that there isn’t much you can’t accomplish writing from a child’s view. The child’s imagination is fertile ground for even more perils, deeper feelings, tensions, and despairs. Children have always been experts at symbolism, a great asset for novels.
Many of the key characters in the book - the little girl and the soldier, for instance - are not given names. Why did you choose to do this? What effect did you hope it might have on the reader?
As soon as something is named it loses ambiguity, which to me is a great loss. It feels honest that my central characters should not be easily pinned down or defined, especially the protagonist because she suffers profoundly from the psychic ruptures of being in-between. We also name things as a way to externalize them, separate them from ourselves. In the world of the camp, the characters, in a sense, have internalized each other, making them interchangeable. Interchangeability is a major theme in the novel, which I hope, deepens the reading experience.
Something I loved about your book was how unapologetic it was about taking place in an environment that is wildly unfamiliar for most readers. While writing the novel, did you receive any push-back about the way you introduce the book’s setting?
Thank you! It was important to me to show the universal experience, humanity’s awareness of its suffering, which might be the only thing that differentiates us from other species. No matter where we are from and where we carry out our suffering, one human being always recognizes the anguish in another. Vietnamese experiences are universal, so are immigrant experiences. If you see a person who is crying, you might try to comfort her. You don’t think, “Those are Vietnamese tears.”
To that end, I wasn’t interested in geographical groundedness. Emotional precisions took precedence. There were push-backs⎯I even received the dangerous advice of setting the novel in a different country due to the many assumptions American readers have about Vietnam. It was difficult to subvert those expectations that have ingrained so deeply in the American consciousness, which made it even more urgent to do so.
The second half the book, in contrast to the first, takes place in a world your readers are much more likely to be familiar with - i.e., New York City. Is that something you were conscious of while writing? Did it shape your process at all?
I think the New York in If I Had Two Lives is also not a familiar New York. Just like in the Vietnam section, I prioritized emotional landscape over accurate descriptions of place. But because New York has become such an iconic city, featured in many books and films, I trusted the reader to incorporate into the book her own experience of the city. I think most people would agree that New York is a lonely place.
Certain scenes in the book are almost shocking in their intensity. Without spoiling it for readers, I will say there were a couple scenes to step away from the book for a few moments in order to catch my breath. Can you talk a little about the experience of writing such scenes?
Thank you so much! I take that as a great compliment. Intensity is absorbing⎯it forces you to surrender. It knows no morality and passes no judgment. So few things in life can paralyze us in this way. For me it’s love and art. Writing those scenes was difficult because they demanded my absolute attention and also easy because it is pleasurable to surrender. I write and write, endless pages, pages that get torched to arrive at those scenes. They make my artistic labor worth its delirium and tears.
You attended the Columbia MFA Program (so did I, by the way!) Can you speak a little about your experience there, and what influence it had on the book?
My liver underwent some abuse during my years at Columbia. I drank a lot, wrote very little, but I read constantly. From finely curated lists of books. In the company of many talented people, I felt fraudulent. It taught me to parse criticisms, those that served my work and those that didn’t. In order to publish, you need to develop thick skin and kill your self-doubt. I was confronted with so much doubt from other people, I had no choice but to believe in myself.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a third novel. It looks to be about punishment.
What was the first book you loved?
The Doraemon books.
What was the most recent book you loved?
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell.
What is a book you think everyone should read?
The War of Art
Abbigail N. Rosewood holds a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Columbia University. In 2012, she was the recipient of the Michael Baughman Fiction Award and the Outstanding Graduating Student in Creative Writing Award from Southern Oregon University. Her works have been published in literary journals online and in print, including The Adirondack Review, Columbia Journal, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and The Missing Slate. An excerpt from her first novel If I Had Two Lives was awarded First Place in the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville Literary Fiction contest. Abbigail was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve. She currently lives in New York.
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