Nothing Gets Solved: Talking with Kevin Nguyen

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In his debut novel, New Waves, Verge editor Kevin Nguyen tells a story of friendship, of grief amidst the backdrop of relentless growth, and of the limits of understanding that can exist between two people who care deeply for each other. New Waves begins with Lucas and Margo, best work friends who are committed to getting back at their soon-to-be-former employer together. However, things take a turn when Margo dies unexpectedly, and Lucas is left on his own to try to better understand his friend’s life, and what to do with the opportunity she has orchestrated for him at a new startup.

Nguyen’s book is less about solving a mystery and more about the frustrations of everyday racism and the strange dichotomies of working at a startup while in mourning. It’s also quite funny, full of interiority, and clips along at a fast pace. The prose is wry and the characters and ideas in the novel complex, though the social commentary is never heavy-handed. “Everything is both permanent and ephemeral—technology both preserves and buries culture, and the people who ghost you can also haunt you,” says Tony Tulathimutte about New Waves.

Kevin and I spoke recently about subverting popular narrative tropes, writing a book while riding the subway, and the hazards of reading your Goodreads reviews.

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The Rumpus: One idea in the book you write about in a subtle way is what I’ve heard described as “technical privilege.” Margo has it, and Lucas doesn’t, which results in significant inequity between them in terms of pay and how Margo is treated at the company where they work. This isn’t an idea that I hear people outside of tech talking about much—how that aspect of privilege can change people’s positionalities within that context pretty dramatically. Was that something you were doing intentionally with Margo as a character?

Kevin Nguyen: It was definitely deliberate. I mean, you’ve worked in tech, so you get it. At a lot of these places, if you’re an engineer, then you’re the talent. You’re being paid a lot. People often think, Oh, everyone in tech is rich. My first tech jobs paid so poorly, and it was fine. Even when I worked at Amazon, I think my starting salary was like $40,000, which actually at the time seemed like a ton of money and I was very happy to have it. But engineers are making somewhere between five and ten times that. It’s interesting—there are very few other industries where you work shoulder to shoulder with someone that makes ten times as much money as you.

I wanted a friendship between Lucas and Margo to be a very familiar work friendship. You work in places and you have kind of like an office best friend. And, what do you do with them? Well, you get drinks and you complain about work. That can be a really healthy release, but it can also be kind of toxic in other ways. I wanted that reflected in Lucas and Margot. On one hand they relate because they’re both ostracized people of color in a workplace. That’s pretty apparent. But their positions are actually quite different. Margo has the privilege of being an engineer, but she has the disadvantage of being in a workplace that is predominantly non-Black.

On the flip side, Lucas is Asian and there are lots of Asian people in tech. But he’s not an engineer, so he’s way lower on the rungs in some ways, but he still has certain privileges of being a man. And I don’t want to downplay racism towards Asians but there is a benefit to this kind of proximity to whiteness that some Asians have.

So, these friends are complaining about work, they’re complaining about their experience, they’re talking about it meaningfully, but they’re both kind of not understanding each other at the same time. And not realizing it. And they’re both kind of inconsiderate to each other. They can sympathize but they can’t quite empathize, because they’re in their early twenties.

Rumpus: Totally, though for different reasons. It seems like Lucas is lacking a lot of awareness around his interactions with women and his role as a man, especially when he gets a little bit of power. He’s completely unaware of what to do with that.

Nguyen: Yeah, they’re both selfish in their own ways. Lucas is someone who never had any kind of power in his life and then he gets small forms of it and just doesn’t notice that shift. I think some of his behavior is quite bad, but also kind of sympathetic at the same time. You can see how that thing would happen. And that’s sort of the larger story about when tech companies make these mistakes, right? They don’t really understand how their power is growing and they’re still making decisions the same way they did when they didn’t have the same kind of power.

Rumpus: Very accurate. I’m curious how the novel came about and what your process was, both for imagining it and then writing it?

Nguyen: The origin story is very haphazard. I get anxious on the subway, so I usually write on my phone. Which I also just like doing because I’m one of those people who writes a sentence and then needs to fix the sentence immediately. On my phone it’s too hard to go back. I was working in tech at the time and I would jot things in a note—dialogue, sci story ideas, things like that. At some point the note got so long that the app crashed on my phone.

So, just for shits, I copied it into a Google Doc. And then I realized I had written like twenty-thousand words of bullshit. I was like, What have I wasted all this time doing? What is this? Then I actually reread it and found a weird through-line with a lot of the ideas. I tried to connect them and it started to form the foundation of what would eventually become a novel.

Rumpus: I was wondering about the grief plot line. Lucas is kind of bewildered about what to do with his grief, even though he’s deeply in it.

Nguyen: Yeah, and there’s kind of nothing to do. The novel is largely about grief, but actually has very uncomplicated ideas about grief. It just takes time and space. That’s all. But everything we were taught to do under capitalism, probably, is to try and solve your problems by doing as much as you can. By putting in as much effort as possible. There are obvious parallels with startup culture, where people are just trying to do as much as they can all the time. But grief is not going to be solved by doing a bunch of things.

Rumpus: What kind of research did you do around the book?

Nguyen: I didn’t do an incredible amount of research, partly because I’ve worked in tech and seen many of these things from the inside. I just thought about problems and how we would approach problem-solving at the startups where I worked. I worked at Amazon, and at Google briefly. Everyone kind of thinks the same way, like: The solution must work at scale. I understand that thinking because everyone’s really constrained.

The idea of an algorithm is very funny to me because we think of them as predictive, right? But they’re actually, by definition, reactive. An algorithm is built on these huge swaths of information that it has been fed, information that already exists. And if you’re using existing data to make a decision, you’ve based that opinion on the past, philosophically. So an algorithm can never solve anything because it can never really be a step ahead. And yet, that is how everyone in tech culture feels, that we can use massive amounts of cloud computing to solve something at scale. And it’ll only solve an existing problem; it’ll never prevent a future one.

Rumpus: I’m curious about the theme of waves in the book. Where did the title come from?

Nguyen: I’ll be really honest—it took forever to come up with a title. The working title for a long time was Fantastic Planet, which is the name of the forum that Margo and Jill are on. My agent and I were like trying to come up with a title forever and we had this doc with really atrocious titles. I think one of them was Move to Trash.

The title actually came from a transcription error in an interview I did for GQ. The transcription came back with the sentence: “We are the new waves.” I thought about all the ways that could be applied to the book. At first, it could be the music that Margo and Lucas listen to: bossa nova, city pop. There’s a little section about Joan Didion’s waves of grief, from The Year of Magical Thinking. And then it just turns out that the new waves are very literally these .wav files that are new to Lucas. I find that so funny, that there’s all these deeper meanings and then it becomes literal.

Rumpus: When you were working on this book, at some points you were also editing and writing full-time. How did you balance working those jobs with writing this book?

Nguyen: I worked at a startup called Oyster that was acquired by Google. They didn’t really know what to do with me at Google. I just hung out and gained like ten pounds immediately from the pasta bar. I thought I’d spend all this free time I had at work, working on my novel, and then working more on it on weekends. It’s funny because I put in so much effort and nothing meaningful came out.

Then I quit Google and got the job at GQ, and it’s like my brain just started clicking. Even though it was the same kind of work and it would sort of exhaust me, that kind of creativity all day long was really helpful. There was one summer where the book cracked open for me and I wrote a couple hours before work every day. At GQ, everyone got to the office at like 10:30 a.m. So I wrote between the hours of 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. and then went to work, which is pretty reasonable. It was hard sometimes. I was so tired when I got home from work after writing in the morning and then writing and editing at GQ all day. But editing at a magazine really helped with figuring out the voice and the textures of the book. I knocked the majority of the book out over the course of this one summer.

Rumpus: What video games were you playing during that time?

Nguyen: I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that! There’s this one section where Jill, the third main character, plays her boyfriend Victor’s video game that he’s been working on. That is pretty heavily based on a game called P.T. It’s just this L-shape hallway and it’s dark and moody. Each time you start back over going through the game, something about the room is lightly changed. It’s the scariest. Pac-Man also makes an appearance in the book, and Candy Crush, without being directly referenced.

Rumpus: The book is quite varied in terms of the forms you write in, for instance interspersing Margo’s stories throughout. How did those come to be?

Nguyen: I really liked the idea of trying to give the reader a sense of the character through what they generated. The stories are obviously an expression of Margo’s feelings and politics. I wanted that to be the way that you would understand Margo. I think in some ways you understand her better through those stories than you do from how Lucas feels about her or from his interactions with her.

I’m very cognizant of the fact that there’s a mystery thriller trope, where there’s a dead woman and you discover her mysterious past. I wanted to invert that in a sense that you’d actually discover that she had this very different, very happy self online. But at the same time, I also am realizing that even if I’m inverting this trope, to a lot of readers, it’s still a story with a dead woman at the beginning. So I don’t know. I made lots of efforts to subvert that trope and not exploit it.

I do this terrible thing where I read my Goodreads reviews, which literally every human has told me not to do, but I can’t not look. Some of the jacket copy on the book makes it sound slightly more like a thriller or like a mystery. I think the novel dispels that within ten pages—it’s not going to be a thriller and the point of the book is not a mystery. But on Goodreads some people think it’s supposed to be a mystery novel with a solution.

There’s this other thing that happens, too, where a lot of white readers on Goodreads, they’re confused about the point of racism in the book. It actually made me realize that a lot of readers do want to read things by people of color, from that perspective, but they want racism to be a plot device, rather than something that just exists as a texture of life in a book. There are a lot of books like that, where racism is integral to the plot and not just something that characters deal with. I think it’s very frustrating to a kind of reader, and I find that kind of disappointing. It’s like they think there should be some takeaway about it. More than that it just exists, you know?

It’s actually funny when people are like, “The racism in the book is pretty on the nose.” I’m just like, I don’t really know what you mean by that. You know? Like that’s people of color, they just talk about it happening. They don’t talk about solving it; they talk about being frustrated by it. And then you just live with it.

Rumpus: I don’t see a lot of mainstream media that shows friendships across racial or gender lines, where the friends are talking about their different experiences but at the end of the day, they’re just also missing each other and unsure of the right things to say.

Nguyen: And that’s just how all friendships basically are, or all relationships. Like with my girlfriend, I don’t talk to anyone in the world more than her or more deeply than with her. And the same is true of her with me. But there are still parts of her experience that I just miss. She can tell them to me and I sometimes almost get it but there are limits. They aren’t limits to empathy necessarily, but there’s a level of experience that I’m never going to understand. The best thing you can do is listen. But it will still be frustrating to that person that you don’t get it. There’s no solving that. It’s just a thing we live with and deal with.

That’s another thing that actually came out of the book that was less deliberate, but the idea of solving problems is obviously a very business- and tech-oriented idea. Largely, you can alleviate problems but you can’t solve them, you know? And that’s very frustrating to people, including the characters in this book. But that’s how life is, and nothing gets solved when you make decisions as quickly as possible.

Rumpus: How were you careful in the writing process to make sure that you got these characters right when they don’t necessarily share your lived experiences?

Nguyen: I tried to make characters as specific as possible. They never speak for a broader experience. Obviously you have to be very careful when you represent a character that looks very different from you and has a life that’s very different than your own. But even with Lucas, I didn’t grow up in the Northwest and my parents didn’t run a B&B. I made all these things up. I made his experience really specific and I went down that rabbit hole. I did that with all three main characters, which made better characters, and I think it helped me skirt some of the trickier questions that happens when you write characters outside of your experience. I made every character outside of my experience, even the one that looks mostly like me.

I understand the argument about whether or not an Asian man should be allowed to write a Black woman. I don’t know if I agree with the argument that they shouldn’t be able to, but I definitely understand it. But then if you work that one or two steps forward, then you could never have a book where an Asian man is friends with a Black woman. That would be really sad to me, if no fiction had that. Because that’s a very real relationship.

It’s interesting with the American Dirt stuff because I think people are really good at sniffing out when the intentions are geared toward white people and making them feel good about themselves. That’s really, I think, at the heart of it. But it’s hard to talk about that. So instead, we say, “Well, this writer doesn’t know what they’re doing.” But oftentimes, we’re just smelling the pandering from the writing.

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Photograph of Kevin Nguyen by Matt Martin.


Janet Frishberg is an Assistant Interviews Editor at The Rumpus. Her writing has been published in Human Parts, Catapult, [PANK], Electric Literature, and Joyland Magazine. More from this author →