She has over 15,000 Facebook fans, but shuns the limelight. She’s published 3 books—with a 4th coming soon—but many of her readers don’t even know what she looks like. Vietnamese author Zelda Gin, age 25, writes books and poetry on youth, loss, and nostalgia. Represented in each book by a drawing of a penguin, she focuses on writing for herself but has still achieved success. She has lived in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and travels extensively. She speaks English, Japanese, and her native Vietnamese, and is a person who has not only explored the world, but taken what she has learned and turned it into art. She shares her interesting and inspiring writing story in the interview below.
How did you start writing?
The last year of junior high school, I started to get fed up with the education system. I mean, at some point, you will realize that almost everything you learn at school will be useless and forgotten. It sucked. But I had to keep up with my grades to get a ticket to college.
And when I had to keep doing things that I detested, I found myself deteriorating. I tried to save myself by reading various books—but it wasn’t enough. I needed another method to run away. So I began to write.
In those early days, what did you write about? Yourself, school, something else? Was it fiction or nonfiction?
I wrote about our generation. About how we can achieve more and more if we get rid ourselves of prejudice inherited from the previous generation. Those essays were published in 2!, the most popular magazine in Vietnam at that time.
But if you were an unknown author in junior high school, how did you manage to publish your work in the most popular magazine in Vietnam?
At the beginning I wrote from time to time for myself only, but when I got to senior high school, I really wanted to study abroad, so I took a small IELTS class [International English Language Testing System]. There was an older guy in the class who teased me, saying that my writing in English was alright but my Vietnamese writing was messed up. We bet. Then I wrote a serious article then sent it to 2!. Next month, I bought the issue and it was right there, on page 4.
Oh wow. Did you know that you had been accepted by the magazine? Or you actually had to buy it to find out?
I had to buy it to find out, because I submitted the piece by email without any contact information so they had no idea where I was. Later, when I sent them an email again, the editor contacted me immediately and we met and I started to work on a series about the young generation in Vietnam.
Oh wow, so you wrote a column for the magazine after that?
Yes, until I got a scholarship to APU [Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Japan]. I also wrote stories, but they wanted me to focus on articles.
So you mostly wrote fiction or nonfiction for 2! ?
Non-fiction. My editor only wanted nonfiction, but I submitted fiction to its competitor. Sorry! I know that wasn’t fair.
So you were doing a nonfiction column for one of the biggest magazines in Vietnam and also getting fiction published in other magazines, and you were only in high school. That is very impressive. What was your nonfiction column about?
It was mostly about how young people conform to society and how they should break the rules to make something better. But when I moved to Japan, I wrote about Japanese culture: from manga to J-Pop, the sex industry, host clubs, etc.
What problems are created by conformity? What are the benefits of conforming less?
Conformity in young people in Vietnam is like this: You go to a good school, get high grades, go to a good university, find a good company, then a good partner, and you have children, you have a good life. These people don’t take a gap year, they focus on math, physics, chemistry. They don’t travel, they don’t know how people are doing in other countries, they don’t care about politics, or economics, or anything except textbooks. I went to a prestigious traditional school, and my classmates thought of nothing but university entrance exams. They didn’t go to galleries, film festivals, performances (even though there were free tickets everywhere), and that irritated me a lot.
But that was 10 years ago, now people have Facebook and their eyes are much more open.
I’ve learned to pay attention to everything in detail and this habit makes me really patient to find exact words to describe things when I’m writing.
So do you mean today’s youth are less conformist than before?
I think their choices have broadened. They go here and there, they have smartphones, PCs, they can search until they find what they want. They may go to school with a bored attitude but still dream of somewhere better. If they know there is something better out there, I know the choice of conform belongs to them.
Obviously from a very young age you didn’t conform. You did your own thing and were recognized for it. Why were you different?
I think I was different because I read different books. You know the quote by Murakami: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
How did your international experience change you as a person?
I was on my first flight to Japan when I was 17. That’s when I started to learn how to deal with everything by myself. It was a struggle at first, but then I realized that the quickest way to learn is to stop comparing things to what I was used to, and be ready for anything. So I guess I became more independent, and more curious about other cultures. That urged me to travel more.
Did your time in Japan change you as a writer?
I think Japanese culture and lifestyle had a huge impact on me. The people, the scenery, the music, the transportation system, the literature… I’ve learned to pay attention to everything in detail and this habit makes me really patient to find the exact words to describe things when I’m writing.
When you came back to Vietnam from Japan, did you feel like you were coming home, or did you feel like you had become a foreigner?
I left Vietnam with zero working experience, and during the four years in Japan I worked very hard with all kinds of part-time jobs to save money for living and traveling. When I came back home and started working, I had problems fitting in to the work culture here, so I changed jobs around 4 times in one year. Maybe I didn’t fit in at all. So I figured another way out, and sought a scholarship for a higher degree. Fortunately, I got one in Korea.
You’ve published 3 books and a 4th is coming out soon. How did you get your first book deal?
I went to Korea for a Masters degree, but I must have forgotten how boring school has been to me. After a few months in Seoul, I applied for an internship at a German MNC in Yokohama, Japan. The job was not that difficult and I had a lot of time after work. At that time, I still kept writing for magazines regularly but never thought of publishing. One day, on the spur of the moment, I created a Facebook page for my writing. A few months later, publishers started to contact me.
How many followers did you have when publishers began to contact you?
I remember it was more than 3,000. Those publishers were kind of intrigued by finding my page. They were, like, “I read your writing everywhere” and “I have been looking for you.” The day the first publisher contacted me, I was running away from Seoul to Busan during the first snow of the year.
What themes do your books focus on? What do you try to express in your stories?
So far, I’ve published a short-story collection, a book of poetry, and a volume of essays. All of my writing is about youth, and its happiness and sadness. I believe youth is a blue time.
Who is your core audience?
Young people, I guess. When you are grown up and care about mundane things, the melancholy you once felt when you were young doesn’t make sense anymore.
But I do not hold any signing events, and don’t attend any press conferences. I think I am the only writer in Vietnam that people don’t know the identity of.
So you are totally anonymous?
One of my requests whenever having an interview is no real names, no pictures. People find my Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram. Even though I feel a bit intruded upon, I am glad that my writing has a certain influence that puts people into action. It’s kind of thrilling, as if I am leaving a trace of my path in the snow.
You have almost 15,000 fans on Facebook, what about your books is so popular?
15,000 is not a significant number, a famous writer may get hundreds of thousands, or even millions of likes. I don’t want to brag about my books, so normally I don’t do any activities to push sales at all (the publishers must be disappointed–sorry!). My page has been run by one of my core readers from the beginning, so, well, I don’t know. But I guess my writing is different because I do not try to sweeten anything. I mean, why do people always say we should forget or ignore sadness and remember the fun, the happiness only? They are entwined and it’s not fair to write everything with happy ending. I do not take sadness lightly. I write about it in every aspect I can observe. Maybe people need someone who writes about what they really feel, not about what they should feel, sometimes.
My sole purpose when I write is for myself, my mind, my imagination.
Making money off writing is difficult even for successful authors. Are you a full-time writer?
My dream is to live in a forest with a lake nearby, in a wooden cottage, and be able to write everyday. However, the Vietnamese economy is not good for writers at the moment, especially for an introvert like me. So, yeah, I do other work to make a living, and to pay for travel as well.
I think if I care too much about money, it will affect my motivation to write, or I will end up like F. Scott Fitzgerald.
What do you think it says about modern society when even an author with 4 books and 15,000 fans can’t write full time for a living?
Actually, there are many successful authors out there who live just fine by their writing. Besides writing their books, they have to do a lot of other writing, for magazines, for companies, whatever will get them paid. It may enrich their vocabulary, their knowledge, or it may dilute their style, I don’t know how it is for everyone else, but for me it is the 2nd case. I worked as a copywriter for Vietnamese company, and I worked as a scriptwriter for Korean company. My wages were decent enough. I have been offered some deals to write a series about traveling, since I travel a lot. However, my sole purpose when I write is for myself, my mind, my imagination, and it’s another story.
Many people dream about becoming a writer. What advice do you have to others who dream of being published?
I think I have been very lucky to get noticed by publishers. In my case, I did it by going step by step. From doing a middle school blog, to magazines, then publishing books.
The only hardship you may face is when you are rejected. People will not tell you why, or exactly where the problem is. But there is no right or wrong in writing, and it’s not easy to give up, either. Keep reading, keep writing. If your work is outstanding enough, people will find you eventually.
Find out more from Zelda at her Facebook page.
As someone who found success relatively early on, Zelda seems to paint an optimistic picture: If you write it, they will come. To those of us who have spent years writing with little success, it can feel jarring. Yet her early success reveals multiple important traits for artists and writers: First, she put in the time and effort. She began writing in middle school and continued to do so for years. Second, she was not afraid to submit her work to magazines, no matter how prestigious. While not everyone who submits to magazines will be accepted, the fact that she believed in her work enough to submit is crucial, especially for writers who often can be consumed by self doubt. Third, despite the success she has achieved, Zelda still writes for herself. Even though she has a magazine column, 15,000 Facebook fans, and multiple books, she has kept her art personal–instead of diluting it for commercial or fame-based considerations. These are all valuable lessons for writers and artists.
Moreover, she has gained so much from living in several different countries. As creatives, new perspectives and ideas are quite literally our life’s work. Her desire to seek out these new experiences is commendable.