Kevin Nguyen is usually on the other side of this. During his time at GQ, the writer/editor interviewed and profiled an array of cultural icons, from Ramy Youseff to Ryuichi Sakamoto. His disarming and curious nature makes him a superb interviewer, and his incisiveness an ideal novelist. His debut New Waves was an NPR ‘Best Books of 2020’, and his highly anticipated follow-up Mỹ Documents comes out in March, 2025. He took time away from editing the Pulitzer-nominated features section of The Verge to walk us through his Brooklyn neighborhood. Later, we talked about the writerly aspects of tennis, finding profundity in reality tv, and the value of making art for art’s sake.



CM: Thanks for joining me, Kevin. So now that you've had a taste of the model life, are you giving up writing to pursue it full-time?

KN: *laughs* I was telling the (Corridor) team that when I was at GQ, I probably sat in on over a hundred fashion shoots in my time there, and it's funny being on the other side. It just feels so different.

CM: So much of your profession is centered around observing and perceiving, was there something interesting in having that thrown back at you?

KN: Yeah, it actually made me more sympathetic to interview subjects in that sense. Even people who like the spotlight or being interviewed or talking, there's obviously a level of performance that's always happening, even when you're being honest. Your awareness of being watched, it's something I was feeling acutely and I think I appreciate even more now.

CM: I've seen some of the photos and they're really wonderful. People tend to reveal themselves in these shoots, and I see a sense of dignity in yours, which makes sense, as I consider you a very dignified person.

KN: How are you defining dignity? 

CM: Self-assuredness without the pomposity.

KN: I think I spent a lot of my life faking it until maybe I deluded myself into some form of self-assurance. I grew up in Massachusetts, in an area that’s pretty white. There were some Asian people, certainly no Vietnamese people. I was a lot smaller than I am now, somehow, so I think you always just puff up your chest a little bit. Not necessarily trying to make yourself feel bigger, but just making yourself more comfortable at your size.  I think that manifests in a lot of ways for people, sometimes it's being louder, sometimes it's being really reserved. It's a reaction to how we are perceived in a way. As much as I don't think anyone likes to admit that - we'd like to think we come to the world fully formed and knowing who we are or how people see us - I think we shape ourselves in reaction to that. I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing. That is self-awareness after all, knowing how you are perceived at any given moment.

CM: Did you find that a challenging part of writing a second novel, having gained an audience with the first?

KN: Yeah, I think the second one was harder because when I was writing the first one, I wasn't really worried about anyone reading it. When you're writing your first book, you hope one day it'll get published and people read it, like that would be great. But as I was writing it in my head, I was like, this will be the novel I get out of my system and then I’ll put it in the drawer and then I know how to do it, and have a lot of confidence going into a second one. I feel pretty lucky that the first was published and people liked it. But yeah, then the second time around I just felt like I needed to approach it with a little bit more rigidity, because people were expecting another one. And that was a new pressure, though not a bad pressure, but that wasn't hanging over my head the first time around.

CM: Are you consciously thinking about that audience when working on something?

KN: When editing or writing journalism, I am thinking pretty clearly about the audience. With fiction I'm only thinking about the reader in the sense of ‘Does this make sense? Will this be clear? Will they understand?’ but I'm not imagining a specific kind of reader, and in fact I think I don't care to. I think some novelists write the book that they want to read, and I think that's true for everyone, right? You don't necessarily want to spend so much time putting something out in the world that you yourself don’t enjoy, but I don't even think I perceive the reader as me either. 

CM: You wrote a piece for GQ called “The Bachelorette is The Best Science Fiction on Television”, for which I was absolutely the intended audience. I watched the first Bachelorette back when I was like 15, and have seen more seasons than I care to admit, and appreciate the critical and thoughtful approach you took. I think it’s deserved.

KN: There's a moment where I think this happened with a lot of pop culture. A lot of things that were seen as low-brow and populist were dismissed, and I think reality TV got dismissed partly because it’s a thing women largely consume, right? I do think that in the past handful of years it has flipped on its head a lot. It's funny, when Netflix was coming up as a streamer, they said we'll never do reality TV shows, and now it's kind of all they do.

CM: I just finished The Ultimatum: Queer Love, it’s great.

KN: I mean they're good at it. But yeah something happened, the snobbery went away. And now I think the flip side of it is like maybe we take these things too seriously now.

CM: Agreed, I think it’s affected how people act on the show. Everyone seems super conscious of the post-show career available to them now. The contestants are trying to eliminate risk, and the show itself is produced to eliminate risk, after the string of controversies from the last few years. So there’s an especially uncanny approach to the way people communicate with each other now, like everyone’s running for office. No one's really allowed to be idiosyncratic or weird.

“I think as I've gotten better at writing, it's been less improving at turning out better copy early, and more being more comfortable with just getting bad words on the page really quickly and knowing that I can edit it later, just like having that confidence”

KN: Yeah, it's like there was obviously always some level of artifice. You could just let it wash over you a little bit in the earlier seasons.  I kind of think you’ve just seen it all now, and no one is incentivized to be interesting. I feel like there used to be stronger incentives to be a villain and you don't even get that anymore either because it doesn’t benefit you if you're the villain after the show.

CM: You profiled Ben Shelton after his incredible U.S Open run this summer, and you wrote that tennis is a game of observance, and about how Shelton so quickly went from obscurity to being observed and perceived and watched at all times, and how he deals with that new reality. I know you're a big tennis fan, and we met through our friend Giri Nathan, who is also an incredible tennis writer.

KN: Mhm

CM:What is it about tennis that you think attracts the writerly mind?

KN:  I think in terms of a sport it just has a great narrative construction, there's a simplicity. The basis of tennis is more simple than any sport except maybe soccer. It's like, if you just keep the ball in, you win the point. And I think there's just a lot of funny dramatic stakes: It's a duel where two people look at each other for three hours but never touch, and they just take turns, and there's just a lot of good psychic drama there. And until recently you couldn't even talk to your coach, on the professional level. So it's just people fighting themselves.

I think all sports are mental, it's just clearer in tennis, or you see that ecstasy and anguish more on the tennis court, because it's not a team sport and they can't talk to anyone. So there's an intense loneliness happening at the same time. And in fact, the only person you're engaging with for that amount of time and test match getting along is your opponent.

CM: Have you felt this firsthand? Do you play often?

KN: I took tennis lessons as a kid. Michael Chang won a grand slam and my parents signed me up for tennis lessons immediately. But I didn't really take to it and I honestly didn't really start watching a lot of tennis after college. I do love ping pong.

CM: We’ve got a table at the office.

KN: Yeah, I hear it's pretty serious. Dan was saying you play every day.

CM: It’s a somewhat embarrassingly important part of my workflow now. I read your review of the movie Perfect Days, and in it you wrote ‘I don't love work, but I love stories about work.’ I’m interested in hearing more about how you work. As someone who's both a critic and an editor, do you find difficulty with self-editing when you're working on the novel?

KN: I think as I've gotten better at writing, it's been less improving at turning out better copy early, and more being more comfortable with just getting bad words on the page really quickly and knowing that I can edit it later, just like having that confidence. I know I need to shit out rough drafts first and just keep moving forward and write through a story before I understand it. I don't do a whole lot of outlining for fiction, I need to figure out the characters before I can throw plot things at them.

A lot of the reason I finished my first book 'New Waves' was because I wrote a lot of it on my phone. The phone is a really hard place to edit, right? It's just hard to tap back and change a word, so you keep moving forward, and I think the early pages of that book only got done because doing it on my phone forced me to keep going. I did use a computer later, and I was editing a lot, but I think, especially in the early process of things, being okay with things being rough is honestly just a really hard mental leap to make, but it's a really helpful one.

CM: I’ve found journaling helps with that. Do you journal?

KN: No, I do take a lot of notes though. Mostly I jot lots of stuff down and then forget to revisit it. I try to install some kind of organization, but it never really works, but it's almost not the point.

CM: Do you listen to music when you work?

KN: Yeah, I know a lot of writers can't listen to music with words. I can, and also tend to listen to a lot of ambient music. There's the nice piano music but then there's also the crunchy noise stuff, I kind of like it all when I'm working.

CM: Talk a little about Ryuichi Sakamoto. You wrote a touching tribute to him for GQ.

KN: He's amazing because his career is so wide-ranging, first and foremost. He was kind of a scholar, he had a master’s in music composition, so was always learning about new music technology. I feel like he could appreciate all forms of it and was interested in making many forms of it as well. And outside of being prolific, I find for someone who makes experimental music, you'd expect them to be kind of a snob, but he started out as a pop star. So I think he appreciates all facets of music.

It's funny, he has this one song called “Energy Flow”, that's one of his more popular piano pieces, and originally that was made for a commercial for an energy drink. He put it on one of his big albums, BTTB. So even when he approached making a song for an energy drink, he brought the same enthusiasm for music as he does scoring an auteur film.

CM: I’ve enjoyed writing to his music, because there's technical precision but also playfulness, and I think that's the quality of writing I most admire.

KN: There's a sense of humor in a lot of his work, yeah, and he's not afraid to do things that are sentimental. I think that's what people love from his film scores. I know sentimentality gets kind of a bad rap, but using the right amount is extremely effective. 

CM: It’s all so obviously the work of an observant and curious man.

KN: Yeah, you can just feel it in the music. 

CM: Coda was a great documentary about his work process, and reminded me of a Miyazaki documentary that came out in 2013, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. It followed studio Ghibli while they made The Wind Rises and The Tale of The Princess Kayuga. I appreciated how it showed the painstaking nature of making those films, and I'm wondering what degree of writing for you is painstaking, and how do you work through that?

KN: As a writer, I'll just admit that I am not an extremely meticulous person. I'm not like a ‘beautiful sentences’ person. I'm a person that wants something to read easily and clearly, though I do admire people who write passages and not paragraphs.

But yeah, I think a lot about work. My first novel is about work. The second is a little bit about work. It’s funny, I feel like there's a lot of film and TV that's about work, but much less literature, certainly literary fiction.

CM: The only one that comes to mind is Moby Dick.

KN: Yeah, it's a work novel. It's also a book that is not afraid to tell you all about how the work works, and there's a confidence in that. Yeah, maybe people don't write a lot of work novels because it's like, how are you gonna top Moby Dick?

But we spend over eight hours a day doing this thing, and some part of me believes that human beings want to work on some level. And I know it doesn't mean every job is great. It doesn't mean all the work we do is for the right reasons or companies, it doesn't negate the fact that most jobs are exploitative, but I do think human beings, we just like to make stuff. My friend Sarah Jeong wrote a book called The Internet of Garbage, and her belief is that human beings are good at making one thing and it's garbage. Even in digital spaces, and certainly in physical space. I think my twist on that is that you either try to make art or you just make garbage. So maybe I'll try a little harder to make art.

CM: And it sounds like your writing process is to be comfortable with making garbage, and trust that art will come of it.

KN: That's true. Did you see this Kelly Reichardt movie that came out this year, Showing Up? I love this movie, I think about it quite often. It stars Michelle Williams, basically she’s a sculptor and she has an exhibit coming up. So she's obsessive and trying to finish all her stuff for exhibits, but she has all these things with her family, issues to deal with at her job, which is at an art college, and then she has a landlord that’s also an artist, and who’s kind of a rival, and you kind of think where it’s going is: to be great you have to be like an art monster.

I don't think it's a reveal, because it happens slowly and at times upon you, but Michelle Williams’s character is kind of fussy, but she takes care of her family. She takes care of her job and then her rivalry with her landlord, and they are actually just good friends, and she finishes the stuff for the exhibit on time. And the art actually isn't very good. The whole point is that her life is dedicated to art-making because it sustains her. It's not about being famous or successful or even making great art. I think about that a lot, it's kind of an anti-capitalist approach to art-making.

CM: Is it also trying to say there’s an artistry to living a good life?

KN: I think it is a little more obsessive than that. She must be making art to be happy, but it does not get in the way of her taking care of her loved ones and friends. I don't think the movie advocates that her life is satisfactory because she takes care of her friends. It is art-making.

CM: And that resonates with you?

KN: Yeah, I think it's satisfying to feel productive and to make things but to also not let that get in the way of taking care of the people that are important to you.

CM: There's a dignity to it.

KN: Some kind of self-assurance definitely.


Kevin Nguyen is the author of New Waves, the features editor at The Verge and was previously a senior editor at GQ. Keep up with him here, and look out for his next book.


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