By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
Asian American Press recently caught up with author Laura Manivong, an Emmy-winning TV producer and novelist.
Manivong never knew she wanted to write books until she met her husband and learned of his background, but the clues were there all along. Her mother and grandfather were writers. Her college professor told her to keep writing, which made her wonder, write what? And her study at Missouri State University, after some detours, led her to a job as a television writer. But after marrying Troy, it began to click. After eight years, two kids, and countless drafts, Escaping The Tiger was done, its pages based on Troy’s experiences as a Lao refugee hoping for a new home.
Laura and Troy live in Kansas City, where she was born and raised, and where he started life over at 19. They share their house with their two lovely, loud children, their louder dog, and ever-shifting piles of clutter. Escaping The Tiger is her first novel. You can visit her at www.lauramanivong.com.
Asian American Press: What first inspired you to write?
Laura Manivong: As a kid, I never kept a journal or diary or wrote poems on scraps of paper, but writing for school projects came fairly easily. In college, professors told I needed to keep writing, but since I’d studied Electronic Media, the idea of being a novelist never entered my brain.
Things begin to click after college when I volunteered for the National Park Service one summer in Arizona. I’d send letters home, the old fashioned kind written on paper. Friends told me they’d share my “entertaining” letters with others, which I found odd but also exciting.
Through my work in TV, I won an Emmy, not for video production, but for writing. And when I woke one day with a surreal poem composed in my head, I decided to enroll in my first creative writing class, around age 30. It was during that time that I’d share with friends the stories my husband had told of his time as a refugee from Laos.
They said I should write a book. What struck me about the stories he’d tell was his ability to hang onto hope even in dire circumstances. That’s what I wanted to share with people.
AAP: How did it feel to find out your manuscript had been accepted?
LM: I didn’t cry. I’d done that, in that sobbing, head-on-desk, shoulders shaking kind of way, when I finally got an offer of representation from a literary agent, who then sold Escaping The Tiger to HarperCollins. Writers spend years learning their craft with no guarantees. And I knew the odds. Not pretty.
So in order to spend so much time learning how to write, making mistakes, baring your soul on paper, deep down, you have to believe it’s possible, but doubt threatened to derail me at every turn.
AAP: What was the hardest part about writing Escaping the Tiger?
LM: Gosh, do I have to pick only one? Finding time was a big one. I hear so many people tell me they want to write a book but just don’t have the time. They speak the truth. With young kids, a full-time job at a TV station, an ornery dog, and piles of dirty socks, the only time I had was between the kids’ bedtime and the blast of the alarm clock.
Not sure how many years I aged myself writing into the wee hours, but at times, I was a little obsessed, so it’s not exactly a healthy way to work, but it’s what I had. Another big challenge was picking my husband’s brain. Without his memories, I had nothing, and I was asking him to relive a lot of pain, often at inopportune times. He’d be in the middle of a favorite TV show and a steaming bowls of rice noodles, and I’d run downstairs and say, “Hey, tell me again about the mosquitoes in the latrines.”
AAP: Has your family been supportive of your writing?
LM: Without fail. My mother was a writer and is beyond thrilled that I’ve been afflicted with the writing bug. And my husband was always willing to take the kids out for a few hours on the weekend so Mommy could have a quiet house in which to write, or more likely nap, so Mommy could write after the kids ventured into dreamland. Now that they’re a little older, if I let them peek over my shoulder and “edit” me, they feel a part of the process.
AAP: Do you have any other big projects coming up?
LM: I’m just finishing (meaning revising for the 50th time) a young adult novel set in the Arizona desert. I’ve always wanted to write about the experience I mentioned earlier as a volunteer there some 20+ years ago. I acted as a sort of park ranger and fell in love with the landscape. It wasn’t until three years ago that I finally found a story that I thought would fit that setting.
AAP: What’s your artistic process like for you?
LM: It’s undefined and always changing. Reading is critical. Novels are my textbooks, as I break down the passages one by one to define why I do or don’t want to keep reading a particular piece of work. Allowingtime away from a project so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes is critical. Feedback from trusted critique partners is critical, despite not always agreeing with their opinions.
AAP: Do you have any advice for younger writers?
LM: Take caution when choosing what advice to heed. You have to find your own way, and what works for one writer may be ineffective for another. So if you end up beating yourself silly because you don’t operate the way a writer told you was a must, that won’t help you improve. So trust yourself while also being open to attempting things outside your comfort zone.