It could be a scene from a cheesy Hollywood movie. An aspiring writer receives a cardboard box containing $6000, and a note: "No Strings Attached".
Although the gift was anonymous, Camilla Gibb had a fair idea who'd sent it. Just days before, an acquaintance had sat beside her in the courtyard of the University of Toronto, where she worked in administration. He had noticed she always looked unhappy and asked "What would make you happy?" She told him of her dream to write fiction. "What would it take?" he asked. "Time" she replied. About six months and $6,000 to cover her living expenses.
The gift enabled Gibb to quit her job and concentrate on writing. Her fourth novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement is one of our June feature books.
Gibb says she always knew she would pay the gift forward and she found her opportunity in 2007 while on holiday in Vietnam. She became friends with a young tour guide named Phuong, who dreamed of opening his own pho restaurant.
Gibb gave him $6000 to open the restaurant, and Phuong gave her the inspiration for the Beauty of Humanity Movement, when he told her of an old man who made the best pho in Hanoi, setting up a stall in a new location every day. "There wasn't time to seek him out," says Gibb. "I came home and literally wrote him into being."
Your last two books explored two very different cultures and both have been praised for their authenticity. How do you get to know another culture and place so intimately?
I'm a social anthropologist by training. It's a stance that allows you to participate in things while maintaining some degree of objective distance. I was never very good with the distance part. I tend to dive right in. In order to do that, you have to divest yourself of yourself to a certain degree. Re-learn the world according to a whole different set of cultural norms.
How much time did you spend in Vietnam to research the novel?
Very little. I was there for two weeks on holiday initially, but as soon as I came home I knew I would have to go back because I had started writing about a place I knew very little about. I returned to do two weeks of very specific research nine months later.
You've spoken about the friendships you made during your research. What do these friends make of the book?
Phuong played an active role in my research. He helped me in a great many ways, and in honour of that friendship, the book is dedicated, in part, to him. He's immensely proud, and like many Vietnamese I have spoken to, delighted to see a happy story about Vietnam, where there are so few.
I can see how your background in social anthropology aids your research, but what about the writing process? How easy was the transition from social scientist to storyteller?
I made that transition with my last book, Sweetness in the Belly. It was not easy - there is a tendency to tell rather than show in academic writing, to be didactic because of the need to make an argument. That argument has to be defended, contextualized, thoroughly referenced, all of which is fatal in fiction. I made all of those mistakes with Sweetness, largely because much of the material I was using for the novel was drawn from my academic work. With Beauty I was much freer, not constrained by knowing too much, simply seeking out what I needed to know and using history as a jumping off point.
I got quite hungry reading the book and felt inspired to experiment with making pho. Any tips?
The MSG seems to be critical, I'm afraid.
I've noticed the book has four different covers for four different markets (Canada, US, UK and Australasia). Which is your favourite and why?
I'm very drawn to the Australian cover because the bowls are beautiful and represent so much. The Canadian cover is also one I love. I had a lot of involvement in the latter. The designer, publisher and I looked through old Vietnamese propaganda posters in order to get an education in this particular sensibility. And then the designer came up with her own version.
What do you like most about being a writer?
The things I like are also the things I hate. The solitude of it suits my personality, but then I can find it lonely and isolating. The epic scale of a novel - the fact that it takes years and is never straightforward - this is at once such a rich and immersive experience and a supremely frustrating one.
Who are your favourite writers?
Haruki Murakami, earlier William Boyd, earlier Kate Atkinson, earlier J.M. Coetzee, David Mitchell.
What next? Is there another culture you'd like to explore through fiction?
I'm actually thinking about non-fiction - the Philippines and the international economy of domestic workers.
Congratulations to Linda Neale, Linda Armstrong and Kat Chandler who've each won a copy of The Beauty of Humanity Movement in our June giveaway.
On Tuesday look out for Bronwyn's Q and A with Sarah Quigley, author of our other June feature book, The Conductor.