One of the perks of hanging online with other writers for young people is advance notice of books I can’t wait to read. This is also one of the liabilities, because I had to wait almost two years for my second Porch Book of the summer to be published!
Escaping the Tiger is Laura Manivong’s middle-grade book chronicling the experience of 12-year-old Vonlai and his family as they escape Laos and the brutality of life under the Pathet Lao. [Note: a “middle grade” book is an age reference, not a quality judgment. The sequence for non-adult fiction goes: board books, picture books, easy readers, chapter books, middle grade (MG) books, young adult (YA).]
Escaping the Tiger is based on the experiences of Laura’s husband and in-laws in the early 1980s. It opens with 12-year-old Vonlai and his family swimming the Mekong River under gunfire to reach the safety of Thailand on the other side. But life in a refugee camp has its own brutality, which they must endure for an indefinite time–possibly the rest of their lives–as they wait for clearance to join other family members in Kansas. There is no guarantee that this clearance will ever come.
Laura graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the process of writing this book.
Q. Some bad things happen in this book. You manage to write the story so that the level of violence and overall distress is both appropriate for a younger reader yet tells the older reader exactly what’s going on and how bad things were. How long did it take you to get to that point?
There was a little bit of back and forth with my editor in one “on-camera” scene. I removed a few specific images, but kept all the reality and danger intact. I also think that having the lighter scenes in the book, typical locker-room-style boy humor, helps readers to realize the resilience of the human spirit. That one theme is the essence of this book.
Children all over the world suffer the hardships my characters suffer, and more. I feel very strongly that their stories need to be told. If parents decide it’s too much for their children to read, that’s perfectly fine with me, but it doesn’t affect my determination to tell it like it is. I think if kids have to live through this kind of violence, then I, as an author, have the obligation to tell it like it is. I don’t believe humans learn empathy by turning their eyes away from the realities of the world, and readers of all ages can learn that in the safety of a book.
Q. How much resemblance is there to your first draft and the published book?
Virtually none. I had no idea how to write a novel when I started. But this project started out as a picture book, since that’s what my naive self thought writers of children’s literature did. So when an editor told me she liked the story but my protagonist was too old for a picture book, I decided to turn it into a longer work. But memoir-type or fiction? I was clueless.
My first attempt at turning it into a longer work was non-fiction. But then the problems started, trying to be true to life but having so many holes. Eventually I figured out that fiction, historical fiction, was the way to go. Creative license is a great and liberating thing!
Q. You probably had way too much material to work with on the family side. One of the first lessons a fiction writer has to learn is that What Really Happened does not necessarily work in a novel. Were there any outtakes that were especially hard to remove?
My wonderful editor, Rosemary Brosnan, told me that very thing. Just because it happened that way in real life, doesn’t mean it belongs in your novel. There’s a character in my book, Khom, who readers only meet in flashbacks. He was the best friend of my protagonist, Vonlai, before the protag and his family escaped Laos. As the story progressed, my editor said the few references to Khom slowed the story, because readers were firmly entrenched in the present setting of the refugee camp.
But instead of removing the references to him, I made them more relevant and more frequent, using his character to show the loss that refugees feel leaving their entire lives behind on a moment’s notice. It was important to me to keep that in, since so much of what my husband, whose story is the basis for this novel, talked about were the people who were left behind.
Q. Did you have to do any other research to supplement what you knew from your in-laws’ story?
A huge part of my husband’s childhood experience is his time as a prisoner of war in the Communist re-education camps in Northern Laos. He was there for four years, finally released when he was in fifth grade, but the Pathet Lao (Communist party) held my father-in-law for 12 years. I wanted to include that in my book someway but had to do so through a secondary character, Colonel.
I know about my husband’s experiences there, but not my father-in-law’s, so two very important books that were rare finds helped immensely with the specifics.
One was written by the father of my husband’s best friend, who was in Na Pho refugee camp at the same time as my husband: I Little Slave: A Prison Memoir from Communist Laos, by Bounsang Khamkeo.
The other is Indochina’s Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, by Joanna C. Scott.
These two books gave me no-holds-barred accounts of the atrocities prisoners of war must face.
Q. What bumps did you encounter on the journey to publication, and what confirmations did you receive that you should persevere?
Having an editor say, at the picture book stage, that it was a great story that was told well gave me the drive to attempt a novel. Other than that, the biggest bumps are what most writers experience: trying to balance a family and job with the incredible amount of time it takes to polish your writing to a publishable form. So there’s that, and the crushing doubt that you’ll never be good enough.
Q. Without being a spoiler, can you tell me about The Colonel? Was he based on a real person or is he a composite of the people who managed to transcend the difficulty of camp life?
Both, actually. My father-in-law was a Lieutenant Colonel for the Royal Lao army, fighting alongside Americans. Now that he’s here living in Kansas, so many men who served with him and also live here still call him Colonel. The respect shown to the character Colonel is mirrored from how I see people treat my father-in-law. But as I mentioned above, I didn’t know too much about his particular story, so I fictionalized that character into a composite of what men, like the author of I Little Slave, endured for many years.
Q. What’s next?
Ooh, a complete departure from Escaping the Tiger. I should have a draft done this summer. It’s YA paranormal, set in the mystical desert southwest. It centers on the conflict between the ranchers who want the land to graze cattle versus the proponents of the Mexican Gray wolf that was reintroduced to the area barely ten years ago after being slaughtered to near extinction. There’s a kick-butt heroine, a cowboy hunk, a biker dude, rattlesnakes, angry birds, wolves, and a significant amount of weirdness. No, the wolves don’t shape-shift, but they’re intense nevertheless. And yeah, I need to work on my elevator pitch, but I told the tentative title to the eighth grade class at a middle school, there was a community “Oooh!”
© 2010 Anne Bingham and Making It Up as I Go