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.

Butterfly Yellow: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

After six years and two months of careful preparation and unspeakable hardships, Hằng finally arrives in Texas in the summer of 1981.

Hằng knows that her baby brother Linh is waiting for her at 405 Mesquite Street in Amarillo, Texas. She knows that once she finds him she can stop planning, stop preparing. Except when Hằng does find 405 Mesquite Street, Linh isn’t the little boy and adoring brother she lost all those years ago. Worse, he may not be the one who needs to be saved anymore.

LeeRoy has one plan for the summer after he graduates high school: he is going to reinvent himself as a cowboy. More importantly, he is going to become a rodeo star. His university professor parents are less than thrilled but they don’t understand that LeeRoy has it all figured out. The first, most vital step is meeting Glenn Ford. Once they get to know each other LeeRoy is sure Ford will be only too eager to share tips with his newest protege.

There’s only one problem. Actually, if he’s being honest, there are a few since LeeRoy doesn’t know much about being a cowboy at all. But he can learn all that. The biggest problem is that he’s just too darned nice. That’s the only explanation for how he gets roped into driving a surly Vietnamese girl all the way to Amarillo to find her brother. LeeRoy tries to argue. After all, he’s a man with things to do. But any argument gets shot down as soon as it hits the air.

Hằng and LeeRoy start as strangers. By the end of the summer these most unlikely friends will both realize that there’s more to life than plans, than goals. And that sometimes the things–the people–you would never imagine can suddenly become as necessary as breathing in Butterfly Yellow (2019) by Thanhha Lai.

Find it on Bookshop.

Butterfly Yellow is Lai’s debut YA novel. You may already be familiar with her award winning middle grade novels Inside Out & Back Again and Listen, Slowly. The novel alternates between chapters written in close third person following Hằng and LeeRoy’s perspectives.

Although they couldn’t be more different, Hằng and LeeRoy’s stories offer a certain symmetry in Butterfly Yellow. While Hằng has spent six years working towards a reunion with her brother and clings to the past at the cost of all other plans or dreams, LeeRoy imagines a new future where he can become someone else.

Lai uses language–both English and Vietnamese–to great effect throughout the novel creating an utterly unique reading experience complete with sentence trees. While Hằng can understand English when spoken slowly, she quickly realizes she still needs a Vietnamese lens to reframe her new surroundings and begins using phonetic Vietnamese sounds to form her English phrases–words LeeRoy is quick to follow thanks to his ear for language.

LeeRoy, meanwhile, has spent years immersing himself in Texas slang so that even before he could try to walk the walk of a real cowboy he was able to talk to the talk. Although LeeRoy’s meandering speech is filled with colloquialisms Hằng can’t decipher, the sheer volume of words allows her to understand him when other English speakers prove incomprehensible.

The push and pull between Hằng and LeeRoy drives the story as Hằng tries to get closer to her brother and works toward confronting the traumas she’s tried to forget from her journey from Vietnam to Texas and LeeRoy is forced to admit he may not be cowboy material after all.

Both characters struggle with what comes next when they realize that the targets they have been chasing–the benchmarks that would signify success–have changed or may no longer exist at all. Hằng and LeeRoy become unlikely supports for each other as they confront these changes and trade as many moments of comfort as they do barbs in their prickly relationship.

Butterfly Yellow is a gorgeous, evocative story about the people you hold onto at all costs, the choices you make to be your best self even when you aren’t sure who that is, and the resilience you need to build a life when it feels so much easier to choose bitterness or failure. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Lovely War by Julie Berry, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, A Step From Heaven by An Na, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Holes by Louis Sachar, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura, The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

You can also check out my interview with Thanhha Lai here on the blog.