GROSS: Viet Thanh Nguyen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write this novel from the point of view of a spy?--Marshal Zeringue
VIET THANH NGUYEN: Well, when my agent told me I should write a novel, the first thing that came to me was a spy novel and partly it was because it's a genre that I really enjoy and I wanted to write a novel that was actually entertaining, that people would actually want to read because I knew that I would also be dealing with a lot of very serious political and literary matters. And then the other inspiration for that was that there really were spies in South Vietnam that rose to the very highest ranks of the South Vietnamese bureaucracy and military.
And there was a very famous spy named Pham Xuan An who was so important that during his time as a mole he was promoted to a major general by the North Vietnamese. And he was friends with people like David Halberstam and all the important American journalists. And they had no idea that he was a communist spy who had studied in the United States. So all these factors were in my mind.
GROSS: The war in Vietnam was central to your whole family's story. Your parents are from the north of Vietnam and fled to the South in the mid-50s when the country was divided. They were teenagers then. Why did they choose to leave North Vietnam and flee to the South?
NGUYEN: Well, they were part of a great migration of about 800,000 North Vietnamese Catholics who had been persuaded by their parish priests that the communists were going to massacre them or at the very least persecute them. And that idea...[read on]