Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Slice of Life: Online Chat with Thanhha Lai

Today I join my fellow bloggers in "serving up a slice" 
to the Tuesday Slice of Life (SOL) community.
Thanks to Stacey, Tara, Betsy, Dana, BethAnna, Kathleen, and Deb
                    for hosting this meeting place each Tuesday and nurturing our writing lives.

They came from the 100 wing, they came from the 200 wing, they came from the math wing, they came from points all around our campus.  It wasn't our usual meeting time, but with an advance email to teachers and notes delivered to classrooms by office TAs, Book, Brownies and Beyond members assembled in the library at 10 am for a special treat.  (No, it wasn't for Mrs. B's cookie bars.)  We joined a virtual chat with Thanhha Lai, the author of Listen, Slowly, one of our recent reads for You Choose the Next Newbery sponsored by King County Library System (KCLS).  
Books, Brownies, and Beyond club members ready for chat with Thanhha Lai
Our moderator's questions came from students.  The author was unaware that her book, Listen, Slowly, had been selected by KCLS children's librarians as one of five titles for students to read as Newbery possibilities.  She explained that she was writing and on deadline, and only talks to two people:  her husband and her daughter.  We felt lucky that she took the time to talk to us about her books and her writing process.  We were immediately drawn into this conversation.  Katie commented on one of the first things she noticed as the interview began, "I thought it was interesting actually seeing the author, naturally, not with fancy clothes or anything, just at home in her writing state."  and Elsa concurred, "I thought it was really cool that she seemed so human, kind of laid-back and relaxed..."

We enjoyed learning about the author's daily routine for writing which includes putting her daughter on the bus for school and then jogging for about two hours.  Everyone agreed with Rio, "Jogging for two hours is amazing."  That time outside is important to her.  As a child in Vietnam she wanted to be a naturalist when she grew up.  When she gets home around ten, she eats a huge amount of food, and is then ready to begin writing in her favorite writing uniform, pajama pants.  She always writes until three, but on a good day she writes until six.  The hardest kind of writing is working on brand new sentences. Whether she's writing those brand new sentences or revising (sometimes up to sixteen hours a day), she shared when you're an author, it's necessary to sit still a lot.  It is a solitary occupation, one that is done alone.  She's currently working on her third novel, Butterfly Yellow, which is aimed at an older audience than her previous two books.

While characters in her books are often based on someone she knows, she embellishes them and even combines traits from different people to create the characters who people her books.  The character of Mai was influenced by conversations with her niece who visited Vietnam for the first time as a 12 year old.  The mom in Listen, Slowly is based on her own mother.  All of the stories in your life add up to a voice inside you.  She commented that if I weren't a refugee, I wouldn't be a writer.  Norah whose grandmother is Vietnamese felt a connection to the author, "It was interesting to see how her life story of moving to America was like my grandmother's experience."

When asked about the cover of the book (one of our favorites of the books we're currently reading), the author responded that the covers for this book and Inside Out and Back Again were designed by the same person, an illustrator in western Europe and selected by her publisher.  When asked about the decision to write in poetry or prose, she commented that it depends on whose head she's inside of.  If it's a Vietnamese character, then it has to be poetry because her language is such a poetic language.  We agreed with Chris, "What really surprised me was how long it took to write a book," when we learned that it took her fifteen years to write her first book.  

As we arrived at the most powerful part of the chat, Maggie commented, "I really liked the advice she gave to young authors because I write a lot and it was cool to hear an actual author's perspective."  Her advice to young authors includes:
1.  Read a million books.  They can be fiction or nonfiction.
2.  Begin to recognize the styles and genres you like.
3.  Develop your sense of self based on what you like.  
4.  Eventually you'll find the one book that you would give your fingers for.  
5.  Look at how it's put together.  Tear it apart.  Copy sentences from it.  Shred it. 
6.  This is your spark. It will let you put together a book that is yours.  It will have echoes of the book that informed you, but it will be yours.

After our short time spent together, Charlie summed up the chat with this response:  "That was really cool.  It was amazing to hear from an actual writer about how she writes and about her process.  Her advice was good as well.  I will definitely try it out.  And yes, I would give my fingers to have written The Lord of the Rings."  

Here's the link to the entire video chat archived by KCLS:    


  1. Wow--what a powerful experience. I love the way you include your students' comments and questions. Very cool. I have a new book I want to read now.

  2. What a wonderful and joyful experience for all of you, Ramona. Great that your book club students could attend, too.

  3. What a cool opportunity! It's great that the students could hear such good advice. I don't think I'd mind a full-time writing "job". :)

  4. Ramona, this was an interesting conversation with the author. I met her at NCTE15 and just missed having her sign her book. They ran out of copies. My post the past two days have been centered around NCTE15. Have a great holiday.