I am always looking for the unique writer, someone who intrigues the imagination, who either wins or is in the running for significant awards, and whose subject matter either inspires, or tugs at the heart. I’m sure you’ll agree this sort is not very common, so when a writer such as C. L. Hoang appears on my radar, I sit up and take notice. I hope you will too.
Male authors rarely write love stories. Engineers even less frequently. But when I learned this man’s debut novel was selected as the Fiction Grand Prize Winner of the 2014 annual book contest sponsored by LuckyCinda Publishing in Palm Desert, California, I decided to delve deeper. Here’s what he tells us about himself:
I was born and raised in South Vietnam during the war and came to America in the 1970s. Although an engineer by trade, I am a writer at heart and have dabbled in short stories and poetry. Once upon a Mulberry Field, a love story during the Vietnam War, is my first novel, a project from the heart that took six years to complete. So one could say that my “specialty” is a mix between historical fiction (20th Century) and multicultural fiction.
His book, published on Valentine’s Day—February 14 of this year, is classed as both Historical Fiction (20th Century) and Multicultural Fiction and its premise is as follows:
As Roger Connors, a widower with no children, ponders whether to pursue aggressive treatment for his cancer, a cryptic note arrives from a long-lost USAF buddy announcing the visit of an acquaintance from Vietnam. The startling news resurrects ghosts of fallen comrades and haunting memories of the great love he once knew.
Shocking revelations from his visitor uncover a missing part of Roger’s life he never dreamed possible. Peeling back one layer at a time, he delves into a decades-old secret in search of answers and traces of a passion unfulfilled.
From the jungles of Vietnam through the minefields of the heart, Once upon a Mulberry Field follows one man’s journey to self-discovery, fraught with disillusionment and despair but ultimately redeemed by the power of love.
Mr. Hoang, apart from its plot, is there another story behind the book?
It started out as a nostalgia project for my father, who was up in years and ailing, when I began to scour the Internet for old photographs and articles about our former hometown—Saigon in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. Before I knew it, a bygone world had reopened its door and pulled me in.
As my dad and I reminisced about that forgotten place and time we had once shared and the people, events, and stories that had defined it for us, it occurred to me that I should write down those recollections. First, as a legacy of family history for upcoming generations. And second, as my way of bearing witness to the period of upheaval that had seen our family transplanted to a new continent.
Subsequently, those initial writings went through more mutations to include some oral history and perspectives from American veterans who had served in Vietnam, material that I came across while doing my research to insure historical accuracy.
It is the marriage of those two distinct yet complementary accounts of the war—one from the native people, and the other from the participants from a distant land—that gave birth to the book we are talking about today.
That was a compelling and emotionally wrenching period for both our nations. As if that is not enough reason for someone to pick up your work, in your own words, tell us why you believe someone should buy it.
Because of that unique blend of insider’s view and American perspective, readers get a more complete picture of this most controversial war in U.S. history, as well as gain exposure to the historical and cultural background of Vietnam as a country.
But rather than being just another war or history book, Once upon a Mulberry Field is first and foremost a love story—an ode to the old and the new homelands, and a celebration of the human spirit and the redemptive power of love across the chasm of warring cultures.
Those are the things that set this book apart from all other Vietnam War novels.
Will you share with us your path to publication?
Early on, I opted for self-publishing because of the artistic freedom it would give me in every aspect concerning the book, from material contents to cover art to interior layout. I enlisted the professional help of editors, graphic designer, and page layout designer, taking all their inputs into consideration while striving to stay close to my own vision. For on-demand printing service, I chose CretateSpace because of the simplicity to set up, and also to benefit from the extensive experience of a vast and very helpful community of users there.
Aside from the Grand Prize I mentioned at the beginning of our talk, are there any other awards or honors you’d like to share?
In 2102, the first-draft manuscript of Once upon a Mulberry Field was selected as a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards in the Unpublished Novel category. It came as a wonderful surprise, and it gave me tremendous encouragement. Then in May this year, I received word that my published book had been designated a finalist in the 2014 National Indie Excellence Book Awards in the Historical Fiction category. It was a great honor for me.
All these honors indicate you may have a promising career unfolding. As you well know, these do not come about by accident, but rather by a serious marketing effort. Will you share your strategy with us?
It’s true that most writers would much rather write than do marketing. But for me, one big reason why I write is to share with other people, so I’m making every effort to introduce my book to readers out there via my own personal network (email and telephone campaigns), social media including a website and a blog, other writer friends’ platforms, and my book publicist’s professional network. Immediate results are really hard to estimate, but I believe it’s the cumulative effect over time that will make a difference.
Few, if any, successful writers work in a vacuum. Please tell us about your writing community.
I belong to a couple of local writers/publishers organizations that hold monthly meetings to exchange ideas and/or listen to invited guest speakers discuss the latest trends in the publishing industry. Through social media, I also made connections with other readers/writers, either individually or within various groups.
Do you have another job outside of writing?
I used to write while trying to hold on to my day job as an engineer. But I ended up doing poorly at both, so I finally decided to take a sabbatical from work to devote myself to writing full time.
Since you have managed to avoid workforce tedium, I then have to ask where would you live, if you could live anywhere?
Somewhere close to the ocean where I could fall asleep to the sound of the waves.
I already suspect I know the answer to this, but I still have to ask what is your dream job?
Writing full time without the pressure of a schedule or the burden of self-promotion.
As it is for all writers I know. What is your greatest life lesson?
Don’t keep putting off what you really want to do because you may never get another chance to do it.
That is the only way to begin a career writing. Setting the serious aside for a moment, what makes you laugh?
Little children .
Not what I expected, but you’re right. They make all of us laugh. A few quick questions now:
What are your favorite authors?
W. Somerset Maugham, John Cheever, James Michener
The one thing I cannot do without is:
A word processor
What is your defining trait?
Hard copy or ebook?
Hardcopy at home, and ebook on the road.
Hah! Now that made me laugh. Favorite book:
Of Mice and Men
Gone with the Wind
As always, I asked C. L. Hoang for an excerpt from his book. Here it is, for your enjoyment:
“We are close to the flower market,” Liên said, pointing ahead in the direction of the river. “It is on this same street—Nguyễn-Huệ, or Rue Charner in the old days—just on the other side of Lê-Lợi Street. It has been a Tết tradition for as long as I remember, and it only opens for a short time. From two weeks before Tết until New Year’s Eve. Come. Let us walk.”
We had barely crossed Lê-Lợi Street behind the giant Marines Statues when I beheld, out in the center of Nguyễn-Huệ Boulevard, on the sunny median island, a mirage of explosive colors—a tropical garden floating serenely amid swirling traffic. The visual effect was startling.
“Wait until we get inside the market,” Liên giggled, reading my reaction. “You will forget everything else except New Year’s celebration. When I was a kid, every year we children would get so excited when the flower market opened. It was the sign that Tết was near, which meant no school for two whole weeks, and lots of candies and lì-xì money from the grownups.” She smiled at the memory. “We knew nothing about our parents’ financial worries. It was all innocent fun to us.”
We gingerly picked our path through oncoming traffic, half running, half dodging, and laughing all the way to the oasis in the middle of the boulevard. Greeting us was a kaleidoscope of colors and motion, sounds and smells, all enhanced by the intense afternoon heat. I recognized but a few of the flowers that proliferated along the narrow walkway, some in decorative pots, the rest in fresh bouquets: mums, daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, lilies, orchids, and many exotic unknowns, in countless varieties and shades. Competing with the flowers were miniature kumquat and tangerine trees loaded with luscious fruits the size of golf balls, ornamental plants sculpted in the shapes of mythical birds or rare animals, skeletal branches of spring buds stuck in antique vases, not to mention a vast selection of bonsai in porcelain planters.
I whistled. “I’d buy them all. I wouldn’t know what to choose. Are you finding something you like?”
Liên was admiring a green shoot of daffodil in a small ceramic bowl, with half-opened white-and-yellow buds on it. “This is hoa thủy-tiên―water fairy―which grows from a bulb,” she explained. “There is an art, almost lost to us young kids, in how to prepare the bulb for planting so that it blooms exactly on the First Day of Tết, or New Year’s Day. My father practiced it for years and had amazing success. But he cannot this year, after the stroke. I will get this for him before we go.”
I followed her to the next stall, which displayed long stems of fresh-cut gladiolas. “Tết is a sacred time for us,” she continued. “The whole family gathers to remember our ancestors and pay respect to their memory. Every home sets up an altar for the ancestors during the holidays. My mother loves to use these glaїeul, the red ones especially, to decorate ours. The French brought these new plants to Việt-Nam a century ago. It’s funny that they have become very popular but we still call them by their French name only.”
She bent down to pick up a bouquet of elongated spikes of white flowers that reminded me of Mexican tuberoses. “These, Roger, are called hoa huệ. In Buddhist families like mine, we place offerings of these on Buddha’s altar. Look how pure, how lovely they are. And very nice fragrance, even sweeter at nighttime. Like lotus flowers, they symbolize spirituality.”
Dodging around long strips of red firecrackers that dangled across the stall entrance, she spoke as if making a mental note to herself. “I also need to buy a couple of these strings for my father. He always went out and got them himself in years past.” Then turning to me, “Have you ever heard firecrackers this size explode? They scare me half to death, like real gunfire.” She laughed. “They must be loud enough to chase away evil spirits. The past few years, for security reasons, we are allowed to set them off only on New Year’s Eve and on the First Day of Tết, during the cease-fire. That’s plenty for me.”
She was excited and happy, flitting like a butterfly from one stall to the next, touching and admiring everything in sight. Watching her, I imagined the wide-eyed little girl who had held her mother’s hand during annual trips to the flower market in preparation for Tết and for a lifetime of familial duties. Just like that, her turn had now come. To play grownup herself.
The following are links to his book:
If you would like to get to know Mr. Hoang a little better, you can connect with him through the following links: