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Author Interview: Laura Manivong

Vonlai knows that soldiers who guard the Mekong River shoot at anything that moves, but in oppressive Communist Laos, there’s nothing left for him, his spirited sister, Dalah, and his desperate parents. Their only hope is a refugee camp in Thailand—on the other side of the river.

When they reach camp, their struggles are far from over. Na Pho is a forgotten place where life consists of squalid huts, stifling heat, and rationed food. Still, Vonlai tries to carry on as if everything is normal. He pays attention in school, a dusty barrack overcrowded with kids too hungry to learn. And he plays soccer in a field full of rocks to forget his empty stomach.

But when someone inside the camp threatens his family, Vonlai calls on a forbidden skill to protect their future, a future he’s sure is full of promise, if only they can make it out of Na Pho alive.

Hi, everyone! :o) Today's interview is with the beautiful Laura Manivong, author of Escaping the Tiger (HarperCollins, 2010), a treasure for middle graders who want to do some "armchair traveling" and their teachers and librarians who want to integrate literature into a social studies or history curriculum.

The cultural and historical details in Escaping the Tiger feel natural and authentic, and its 1980s setting in Laos and Thailand is never exoticized. At first I was wary of the novel's presentation of America and France as the places of freedom where Vonlai and his family can escape the Pathet Lao and Communist Laos. I am always wary of stories that might portray the West as the "savior" for people in the "exotic" East, and thankfully Laura Manivong does not do this. Escaping the Tiger is nuanced, realistic, and ultimately balanced: while the rule of the Pathet Lao was more often than not cruel, Vonlai was happy in Laos and misses his home; the Na Pho refugee camp in Thailand is simultaneously a microcosm of all that is bad and all that is good in this world; and (spoiler alert!) Vonlai and his family start a very heartening new life in America, but encounter racism there.

While Escaping the Tiger raises social consciousness; teaches empathy and gratitude; and stimulates discussion on the refugee experience, it also a darn good yarn. Most of the story is about Vonlai's years of waiting and waiting and doing almost nothing in Na Pho, but it is never boring, the story has great pace and tension and suspense are nicely built. Young readers will find this an exciting refugee story about hope and strength and HOME.

Welcome, Laura!

What kind of young reader were you? What were your favorite books? Who were your favorite authors?

A few notches below bookworm, if memory serves. I recall spending great amounts of time outdoors, running through the fields around my house more than I remember being holed up with a book. I grew up near an abandoned turn-of-the-century horse-racing track, which did wonders to feed my imagination. Friends and I would pack a sack lunch, leave after breakfast and not return home until dinner. And yes, this was before cell phones so I was kind of a feral child, what I consider an author-in-training. That horse-racing track, with its many barns, workers’ quarters, and even a hotel and mansion, is the setting for my first completed novel (which is currently in a drawer). As far as childhood books go, a few absolutely stand out, as do their authors. A WRINKLE IN TIME, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Encyclopedia Brown series, THE HOBBIT, and as a teen, GONE WITH THE WIND, and THE GOOD EARTH.

Please describe your writing process (including schedules and rituals, if any).

Chaos. (Kids, job, loud dog, and laundry squelch the concept of schedules.)

Please describe your revising process (including any work with your critique partner or writing group and your editor).

Once all the plot elements are in place, and the most egregious kinks are worked out (thanks to the dedication of my critique partners who cut me no slack), a retreat from the manuscript is crucial for me. If I can hold off looking at it for at least a couple weeks, then I regain a smidgeon of objectivity. Printing out the novel and reading it in a different place from where I do most of my writing helps me see it with fresh eyes. I’ll find phrases that I remember laboring over, thinking they were perfect, when in fact the only purpose they served was to keep my “delete” button active.

Laura's office:

Who are your writing mentors?

Quite honestly, my critique partners. I just happen to live geographically in an area that seems to have something in the water as far as writers of children’s literature go. I critique with Elizabeth C. Bunce and Barbara Stuber, the former, a William C. Morris award winner and the latter, a nominee; Katie Speck, whose cockroach character MAYBELLE is not only lovable but teaches us people a thing or two about what it means to be human; Judy Hyde, a word wizard and moderator of our Kansas City based kidlit critique group that started in the 60s!; and Sarah J. Clark, a heckuva writer and kindred free spirit, traveling with me to Arizona to research my latest manuscript. These women offer their endless support and talent at a moment’s notice. I’d be lost without them.

You're an Emmy-winning TV writer and producer. Can you tell us a bit about your work in the TV industry? How does your background in TV influence your writing, and vice versa?

I write and produce commercials for a TV station in Kansas City. Not the big-time Coke and Nike gigs where I have a crew and a helicopter and a budget, but local advertisers, many of whom have never tried TV advertising before. But writing 30-second scripts has taught me to think in pictures and treasure every word…very handy skills indeed. Yes, a story CAN be told in half a minute.

Laura, I can see the effect on your writing! Your writing is one vivid scene playing out after another!

Escaping the Tiger was inspired by your husband Troy's stories and experiences. Can you please tell us how the novel reflects your husband's stories and experiences?

I initially started writing the book as non-fiction, based on several hardships my husband experienced: being an elementary age prisoner-of-war in the Communists’ re-education camps where he suffered with untreated malaria, escaping Laos across the Mekong River, being a child laborer in Thailand, never receiving any education past fifth grade (until he came to America) and waiting in a refugee camp to start life over. But I couldn’t seem to get the whole story down in a logical way, so I decided to write it as historical fiction. But I’d never been a refugee, never been to Laos, never been truly hungry or feared for my entire family’s safety. The book wouldn’t exist without my husband’s experiences and memories, the emotions he recalls seeing his mom’s face when she knew she didn’t have enough to feed her kids. A few of the scenes in the book can be considered true stories, and if you read about the turkey, you can assume I didn’t make that part up.

Refugee picture of Troy's family:

What do you want young readers to take away from Escaping the Tiger?

I hope they can relate to Vonlai’s struggles and apply them to their own lives. No matter which side of the planet you come from, we all share the ups and downs of the human experience.

Who are your favorite Asian children's book authors and illustrators?

Linda Sue Park’s writing makes me swoon, and A SINGLE SHARD is one of my all-time favorites. And Allen Say creates the most amazing paintings for his books. I’ve met them both and found them to be most gracious and approachable, even though I sort of accosted Linda at an event while she was digging through her purse.

Thank you, Laura!

Thank you for your beautiful novel, for sharing so much with us readers.


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