Author Interview: Thanhha Lai on Butterfly Yellow

Thanhha Lai author photoThanhha Lai is the author of Listen, Slowly, and National Book Award and Newbery honor winner Inside Out & Back AgainButterfly Yellow, her first novel for young adults released in 2019 and quickly became one of my favorite books of all time. I had the pleasure of talking to Thanhha at Tampa Teen Lit Fest’s virtual panel “Forging Your Own Path” last month and am thrilled to have her on the blog today answering a few questions about her work and this gem of a novel.

Miss Print: Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Thanhha Lai: I didn’t write fiction until my mid 20s, after a brief stint in journalism. I got an MFA from NYU, which is a fancy way of saying I waited tables for years while putting my first novel together. That one was a convoluted mess. After struggling for 15 years on that, I was exhausted and decided to write about myself. That effort turned into Inside Out & Back Again.

Miss Print: What was the inspiration for Butterfly Yellow?

Thanhha Lai: As a journalist, I wanted to write about the second wave of refugees who fled Vietnam. They experienced horrendous stuff, pirates at sea, years in camps, years under Communism. But it was too invasive to splash someone’s name and face across the front page. So I went the fictional route to add humor and show how a girl heals from trauma that she refuses to acknowledge.

Miss Print: Butterfly Yellow has a complex narrative with dual points of view, flashbacks, and even grammar trees along the way. How did you decide what pieces to include to tell this story?

Thanhha Lai: I included just enough to tell Hằng’s story after she landed in Texas. The people she met, her job, her family, her brother’s new family. I left out specifics of Vietnam and the trip over because I wanted to focus on healing, not trauma.

Miss Print: Do you have a favorite scene from this novel–either a favorite to write or one you’re excited for readers to discover?

Thanhha Lai: The entire novel centers on the rainy-day canyon scene when Hằng and LeeRoy truly connect without speaking. I loved writing that scene.

Miss Print: I love that scene so much!

Miss Print: We’re living in a strange time with the pandemic as we all continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, and work together to stop the spread of Covid-19. How would Hang and LeeRoy be handling the pandemic?

Thanhha Lai: Hằng would get her shots, put on a mask, and keep going without missing a step. LeeRoy would follow her and off they go to reclaim David.

Miss Print: What does a typical writing day look like for you? Has this changed in light of the pandemic?

Thanhha Lai: I was already living in a cave pre-Covid. So life continued on, except for masking while grocery shopping.

Miss Print: Can you tell me anything about what you’re currently working on?

Thanhha Lai: I’m on deadline for a sequel to Inside Out & Back Again. The family will have to move to Texas and endure the long process of re-settlement.

Miss Print: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

Thanhha Lai: I always tell students to read. Everything. That way they can get a sense of how they want words to land on a page. That’s the voice and the hardest aspect of writing fiction. The voice then dictates character and plot. So read, lots.

Thank you again to Thanhha for taking the time, while on deadline!, for this interview.

You can find more about Thanhha and her books on her website: https://www.thanhhalai.com/

You can find my review of Butterfly Yellow here on the blog.

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