Thanhhà Lại is an award winning author of the middle grade books Inside Out & Back Again and Listen, Slowly. She’s ventured into the world of YA with her newest novel Butterfly Yellow released earlier this month. We’re pleased that she took time to answer a few questions about her book and her writing.
Publisher’s Summary: Butterfly Yellow tells the story of the final days of the Việt Nam War, when Hằng takes her little brother, Linh, to the airport, determined to find a way to safety in America. In a split second, baby Linh is ripped from her arms—and Hằng is left behind in the war-torn country.
Six years later, Hằng has made the brutal journey from Việt Nam and is now in Texas as a refugee. She doesn’t know how she will find the little brother who was taken from her until she meets LeeRoy, a city boy with big rodeo dreams, who decides to help her.
Hằng is overjoyed when she reunites with Linh. But when she realizes he doesn’t remember her, their family, or Việt Nam, her heart is crushed. Though the distance between them feels greater than ever, Hằng has come so far that she will do anything to bridge the gap.
You majored in journalism and worked as a reporter. What made you shift into fiction or were you always writing that too?
One day I decided it would be really cool to sit around and craft sentences. Well, journalism is about getting the facts (how, when, why, what) and making deadline. I was a cub reporter on the evening police beat. No one was asking me to turn in soaring prose. So I quit and started writing short stories, which is a fancy way of saying I quit and waited tables for a long, long time.
Could you share some of the challenges or surprises you’ve experienced as a writer?
I had no idea how lonely it would be to sit in my cave and type, for years and years. I have developed a totally new personality where I talk to myself and play with my hair for entertainment. The surprise is that after much frustration and exhaustion, I do manage to finish a novel. To my delight, Butterfly Yellow is better than I envisioned.
You’ve written two successful middle grade books that I really loved. What led you to jump into YA?
My characters had to be 18 for the story to work. Voila, I have joined the YA world.
What are some things you enjoyed about writing the characters in Butterfly Yellow?
I loved loved loved writing in a sorta maybe Texas voice for LeeRoy. I went to high school with boys like him and they amused me then and now. As for Hằng, I got to play with how she dissected English words into Vietnamese pronunciations. I did the same thing to learn English. Readers who speak Vietnamese will know exactly what I was showing.
Could you tell us a little bit about the Viet Kids organization you founded?
In 2005, I traveled with surgeons to the countryside in Vietnam to do translation. I chit chatted with the kids waiting their turn and asked what would make them happy right now. I thought I would be running out to get treats. But everyone said, “A bicycle.” Instead of walking for two hours, a student could zip to school in 30 minutes all the while giving rides to one or two siblings. I now donate my school-visit fees to Viet Kids. Every year, we have been able to give away at least 50 bicycles and scholarships and rice.
Favorite snack food: tropical fruit in season
YA book you’d recommend: News of the World (is that YA?)
Where you’d go if you had free transportation: up and down the coast of Vietnam
One thing we probably wouldn’t guess you’ve done: seen many dead bodies (from my days as a reporter)
Thanks so much Thanhhà!
Thanhhà was born in Saigon, Vietnam, immigrated to Montgomery, Alabama after the war in 1975 and now lives north of New York City. Her first novel, Inside Out & Back Again, won the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor. You may find her online at thannhalai.com.