Interview with Elizabeth McLean

Interviewer Patricia Fleming

Vancouver resident, and winner of the Impress Prize for New Writers for 2011, Elizabeth McLean, was interviewed recently by Patricia Fleming, before she was informed that she won this prize. The Impress Prize is administered by the University of Exeter in the UK, and is open to writers of all nationalities who have yet to publish a full-length work. Those submitting in 2011 must have a manuscript advanced well enough to be published in 2012. The prize is in its fifth year and its aim is to find exciting new, unpublished writing talent. The winner receives a publishing contract from Impress Books and will be chosen from a shortlist by a panel of judges working in the book industry. The winner will be announced in December, 2011. The short list was announced two weeks ago as follows:

On Mathers Land by Jennifer Young
Kelpkiln by Liam Murray Bell
Kai Tak by Ming Liu
Ancestral Voices by Elaine Lambert
Eyes of a Boy by Megan Wynne
Dark Mermaids by Anne Lauppe-Dunbar
Seeking Aisha by Elizabeth Davidson
The Dreams of the Black Butterfly by Mark Barrett
The Apothecary’s Secret by John Yeoman
Imagining Vietnam by Elizabeth McLean

Q. Congratulations Elizabeth on being nominated for the Impress - you must have been over the moon when you heard you had made the short list.

A. Yes I was. Actually, I almost fainted when I read their email. But I have recovered.

Q. I did some research on the other nominated writers (from Ireland, Scotland, USA, England to name a few) and I believe you are the only Canadian in the group?

A. I am not sure if I am the only Canadian writer on the list because our nationalities were not announced.

Q. Let’s talk about how you arrived in Vietnam, Elizabeth. What drew you to Vietnam?

A. Curiosity and hankering for adventure took me to Vietnam. I went there from Ottawa in November 2005, to teach at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Hanoi. The Academy trains professionals for the Vietnamese diplomatic service and grants a B.A. degree. I taught a 4th year seminar on Contemporary International Issues. My Ph.D. is in Political Science, with a major in International Relations, from the University of Alberta (1978). I taught the course for 4 years. In late 2009, I stopped teaching and became a consultant for the Women's Publishing House in Hanoi, where I put together an Anthology of Short Stories by Canadian Women Writers, which was translated into Vietnamese and published in March 2011. Fifteen Canadian writers are included in the anthology, four of them from British Columbia: Caroline Adderson, Annabel Lyon, Madeleine Thien and Deborah Willis.

Q. And from there you went on to write “Imagining Vietnam?

A. Yes. My books is tentatively entitled Imagining Vietnam., It consists of 8 stories inspired by, and tracing the history of, Vietnam over the last thousand years and it interweaves both historical and fictional characters throughout. The stories dramatize the lives of Vietnamese women and their families against the backdrop of key historical events steered by men: the birth of the Kingdom of Dai Viet in the 11th century, and thereafter, over the centuries, the incursion of fearsome Mongol warriors, lustful Western traders, lame Christian missionaries, arrogant French colonists, pious Marxist ideologues, and modern promoters of globalization. All through that time women's destiny seemed to have been bound by the station they had been born into to or arrived at through marriage, but their souls were on fire. The stories celebrate their resilience and forbearance. The manuscript is approximately 300 pages and an excerpt from one of the stories was published in the 2010 Harvard Summer Review

Q. Are you writing anything else at the moment? Another volume perhaps on the same subject?

A. I am revising my eight stories to make them into a publisher-ready manuscript. But at the back of my head I am writing a novel about two brave Vietnamese queens who reigned for three years in the first century (AD 40 to 43) and eventually committed suicide, dreading execution at the hands of advancing Chinese invaders. Every time I get frustrated with my stories, I go to the queens and write five more sentences about them.I am happy to be in Vancouver for the time being, and away from Vietnam for a while because I need the distance to see my Vietnamese characters from the Western perspective. I was surprised to notice that when I revise my stories in Vancouver, they do read exactly the same way they read in Hanoi. But I am not finished with Vietnam yet.

Q. Best of luck Elizabeth and we will be keeping our fingers crossed – we hope to hear you are the 2011 winner.

A. Thank you very much.

.© 2011 Patricia Fleming