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  • Writer's pictureMichael Arnold

The Art of Biography

When my father passed away in 2010, he was about halfway through writing a memoir. I found the fragments on his old, failing PC hard drive, which miraculously survived just long enough for me to copy the files before it too blinked out of existence. Ironically, the documents concerned his attempts to deal with the death of his own father in the early 70s, and told the story of a trip he’d made to the Greek islands to claim a small plot of land that Granddad had left behind.

I decided to do him one last favor, so I cleaned up the text and sent what he’d written to a print-on-demand publishing service, intending to give a few copies away to family members. It wasn’t until I had the physical book in my hands that it really struck home – that memoir was all I really had left of my father. He didn’t leave behind many photos; his personal possessions didn’t say much about who he was or how he lived. When I thought back on what I knew about his life, I realized I wasn’t particularly clear about the details; I had a handful of anecdotes that I might be able to pass on to my own children, and that was it. Without a book, Dad’s life story would have eventually vanished. Now, at least, I have something to pass on down to future generations – and I even got it translated into Vietnamese.

It’s this sentiment that I find quite compelling when it comes to biography as a form of writing. If you consider the billions of lives that were lived before ours – the lives of our people, of our ancestors, each of them unique, each of them the story of one human soul set against the backdrop of a certain time and a certain place – each of those men and women once looked out at the world just as we do now; they breathed as we do, thought as we do, hoped as we do. They died, just as we will. The things they did with their lives still influence us today, but in most cases we simply don’t know who they were. Of all those hundreds of millions of stories, the vast majority were never written down, and so almost all of them are now completely gone.

Creating a legacy, of course, isn’t the only reason why people put their life story on paper. A biography can be a game-changer for someone trying to boost their credibility in a certain field – political candidates have them written before an election campaign, while entrepreneurs find them invaluable self-promotional tools to secure speaking engagements, fresh business, and media interviews. For celebrities, biographies are immediate best-sellers in almost every case, for the simple reason that the nature of fame itself is to have an admiring audience at the ready, eager to know more. In their case, the marketing work for a book as merchandise is largely already done.

These are some of the considerations why our team at Metro (we produce Oi Vietnam, among other media-related services) have been working for over a year now to establish our own writing bureau with a special focus on Life Writing in both Vietnamese and English. Our goal has been to work with people who (for whichever of the various reasons above) want to have their story written down – and connect them with people who have the ability to write. We’ve spoken with private individuals who want to be immortalized in text; with public figures who wish to reach out to their fans; and with others who simply believe that they have a story to tell and want to put it out there. We’ve been able to give opportunities to freelancers, translators, and passionate writers seeking both paid work and bylines on books; we’ve also been able to bring investment opportunities to individuals and advertising sponsors who anticipate that a particular book project will be successful.

Building a book production agency (as opposed to a publishing house – there’s an important difference) in Vietnam has been an interesting challenge, although not in the ways we originally expected. Publishing is strictly controlled in this country; abiding by the law, however, hasn’t proved particularly frustrating. What has been challenging are the differences between publishing cultures in Vietnam and in Western markets, which arise from polar-opposite approaches to the industry. For a start, the role and skills of a good writer are better-understood abroad than they are here – conservative costings and an underlying mistrust of writing as a craft among the general public are (perhaps) forces that tend to devalue writing work of the kind that biographies require. This means that writers tend to be poorly paid, and the amount of time it takes to produce a significant work of writing is consistently underestimated.

The most obvious difference is the relative absence of book marketing in this country. You don’t see bestsellers being plugged on the sides of buses here as you’d expect in the West; publishers rely on inexpensive local printing costs to produce conservative print runs, reprinting only if a title sells out. That’s a far cry from the huge number of book prints a publisher will invest in overseas in order to save on per-unit costs; warehouses of unsold volumes are routinely pulped if turnover isn’t fast enough. This is one of the forces that has seen the rise of ePublishing abroad – something that for many reasons hasn’t quite caught on in Vietnam.

One subtle result of the different marketing approaches is the effect this has on the concept of what a biography is for – few local persons-of-interest see a biography as a merchandising opportunity, and presume that life stories are only ever written at the denouement of a successful career, perhaps as a form of eulogy. A recent counterexample of this trend has been the idol book written for the Vietnamese boyband 365, as discussed in Oi Vietnam last month – even since that review, the book has gone on to make unprecedented sales and prove that the biography-as-bestseller format is just as viable in Vietnam as it is elsewhere.

Next month, Metro Writers will release two of our first volumes for general publication. The first is the biography of local celebrity chef and regular contributor to our magazine, Chef Jack Lee – whose life story traces a series of remarkable (and often comedic) twists in fortune that saw him become a television personality both here and in the USA. Jack’s story touches on themes of racial inequality and the disillusionment of Viet Kieu in America, as well as opening a window into Hollywood through the stories of the countless A-listers Jack cooked for in his career in celebrity catering. Chef to the Stars will be published in Vietnamese shortly as Đầu Bếp Của Những Ngôi Sao; the English version will be available online in following weeks.

The second book produced by our team is a translation of wartime correspondence between two journalists who became important national literary figures, Vu Tu Nam and Thanh Huong. Written between 1950 and 1968, Letters in Love and War is a quotidian account of life north of the 17th parallel in the form of love letters tracing the couple’s courtship and marriage, which served to sustain a love that was perpetually overshadowed by warfare. The book will be available in print in limited numbers, as well as online both here and internationally.

Metro Writers is still actively seeking authors interested in writing and editing biographies; new interviewees who wish for their story to be set to the printed page; and publishing speculators seeking to invest and work with local celebrity figures. For more details about our writing bureau, contact us.

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