The Writing Process

The Research and Writing of Escape from Communist Heaven

Viet Nguyen and Dennis Dunivan met in the spring of 1987 while working together at a club in London’s West End. Viet was a refugee from Vietnam who had been in the U.K. for several years. He had arrived in London as a teenager, alone, with no family. He knew the only way he would make a good life for himself was to learn to speak English. Viet was married to an English woman and they had three children. Dennis was an American who had recently graduated from journalism school at University of Missouri. He was on a work abroad program for several months in the U.K. They were both in their early twenties and looking for purpose in their lives.

Viet told Dennis several stories about his experiences in Vietnam. He talked about communist tanks rolling through his neighborhood and American helicopters flying overhead…being arrested and trucked to a re-education camp when he was fourteen years old…being tortured in a cage…the psychological manipulation by his communist captors…his escape from the prison camp and finally his escape from Vietnam. Intrigued, Dennis suggested that he write Viet’s biography and Viet agreed. Shortly after this conversation, however, Dennis left London on a planned trip around Europe with a friend.

The stories Viet told kept resonating in Dennis’s mind as he traveled. On a beach in the Greek islands, Dennis decided to part with his friend and return to London to pursue the book. Not knowing how serious Viet was, and with only three hundred dollars and no work permit, Dennis knocked on Viet’s door. Sue, Viet’s wife, answered.

The family welcomed Dennis into their flat on the thirtieth floor of Trellick Tower, overlooking London. This is where the initial interviews took place. Dennis wrote Viet’s stories in several spiral-bound notebooks. The stories were in no particular order, and countless facts needed to be checked with Viet’s family and documents read to confirm dates, spellings, etc. Within three months they had filled more than two hundred pages, all hand written. Dennis then returned to the U.S. to earn some money and to see his family. During the time Dennis was back in the states, Viet was going through a period of struggle, losing his family and his job.

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