Subway Stories: Kevin Nguyen ’09

Call him the accidental novelist. 

Kevin Nguyen ’09 was living in Brooklyn and working in tech. Each morning and evening, on the crowded subway filled with New Yorkers intent on ignoring each other, Nguyen wrote notes on his cell phone—bits of dialogue, science fiction story ideas, observations about race. Not until he realized he’d written 20,000 words did he attempt to weave within them a cohesive storyline. 

“There was no end goal,” Nguyen recalls. “It was not like, This is going to get me a book deal.”  

Kevin Nguyen ’09
Kevin Nguyen ’09

Except, of course, that it did. Nguyen’s debut novel, New Waves (One World, 2020), is the story of two frustrated millennials at an internet startup—one Black, one Asian—who conspire to steal the firm’s customer database. The book earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and plaudits from the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, which wrote that Nguyen “captures beautifully the subtle strains of being disenfranchised, poor, and lonely in New York.” NPR named it one of its “favorite books of the year.”

Nguyen knows something of workplace angst. A double major in English and international political economy at Puget Sound, he spent nearly a decade in tech, including stints at Amazon and Google, before turning to journalism, first as an editor at GQ, where he survived five rounds of layoffs in two years, and currently as an editor at The Verge, a website focused on the tech industry. “I got jobs that would pay the bills,” he says, “and did stuff I was really passionate about on the side.” 

These days one of those side gigs is a second book. Nguyen wants to explore the Vietnamese diaspora in America—his parents immigrated here in 1975—though he’s finding himself hamstrung by expectations. “Before, there was a privilege of having an accidental novel that I assumed nobody would be interested in,” he says, laughing. “Now, the pressure is killing me.” 

 

By Christopher Hann
Photo by Matt Martin
Published Feb. 7, 2021