An Interview with Laura Manivong

Laura Manivong is the author of “Escaping the Tiger,” a historical upper middle grade novel due out from HarperCollins Children’s Books on March 9, 2010. The story is loosely based on the experiences of Laura’s husband and his family who spent time in refugee camps in Thailand after fleeing Communist Laos in 1987.

VLD: Since I know where you got a lot of your information, I’ve often wondered how much did you rely on his and their memories and how much of your imagination did you put in?
LM: The plot is completely made up but there are a few scenes for which I relied heavily on my husband’s experiences. Attempting to cross the Mekong River in a sinking canoe, which is how the novel opens, is one. I needed to know how far sound would travel, the temperature of the water, how people were positioned in the boat, the landscape of the bank, and so on. It’s those sensory details that are difficult to find in a google search. There’s also a scene with a turkey that anyone who’s ever thrown a ball through a window can relate to. And if the scenes in the book aren’t true to life for my husband’s family, they are true to someone’s experience.

VLD: Obviously, it’s an exciting story, but what was the core element that made you decide to write it – especially as fiction. You could have done it as a memoir, for instance.
LM: My friends made me do it! I didn’t grow up knowing I’d be a writer, but when I’d tell people bits of my husband’s background, the common response was, “That’d make a great book.” I wrote it initially as a picture book, and when an editor rejected it saying the story was good but the protagonist was too old, I decided to turn it into a novel, which ended up being an eight-year process (child bearing included). As far as making it fiction, I’m not sure it started that way. I have drafts in my drawer that are more true to life, but I kept running into problems with the timeline. My husband was a prisoner of war in the Laotian “seminar” or Communist re-education camps as a young boy, then he was an illegal resident in Thailand working in factories as a tween, then a refugee in his late teens. Such a long time frame was overwhelming, so after many, many attempts, I ended up focusing on the refugee storyline.

VLD: I know Lian Hearn and Alma Alexander have both mentioned that they sometimes felt presumptuous to write about a culture in which they don’t belong. Did you find it difficult or problematic to write about this place?
LM: I find writing in general difficult and problematic! But sure, I worried about doing the story justice. I’ve never been in a refugee camp or nearly drowned in a river, but I can pick the brains of those who have. As writers, we hear all too often to “write what you know,” but I think it’s equally import to “write what intrigues you.” Someone smarter than me said to write the book that you’d want to read, and I think that’s sound advice.

VLD: What was the hardest part of writing “Escaping the Tiger?”
LM: Gosh, do I have to pick only one? The kids, the full-time job, the laundry, the lack of confidence. But almost every writer has those challenges, so my answer for this question has to be 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 bowl of rice noodles, and I’d run downstairs and say, “Hey, tell me again about the mosquitoes in the latrines.” He claims I even woke him up in the wee hours of the morning begging for details, but I’ll deny that to the death!

VLD: Do you have any tips or resources for other writers, particularly those of us who use an Asian setting?
LM: I’m not sure what writers did before the internet but there is an abundance of information to get you started. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit Laos, but I was able to see settings, how the people interact with each other, their environment, etc. It was better than nothing!

VLD: If you could ask your readers one question about this book, what would it be?
LM: What I want kids in particular to come away with – without sounding too didactic – is to be open-minded when you meet someone who’s different. Take the time to stop and wonder: what is this person’s background? How has their life been different from mine? What can I learn from them? If someone has an accent or speaks broken English, it doesn’t reflect on their intelligence. In my husband’s case, it’s because he was a prisoner of war from 1st through 5th grade and never had the opportunity to go to school outside those confines. Imagine what it would be like to start life over in a country where not only do you not speak the language, but the alphabet is not even recognizable.

VLD: What’s next?
LM: I’m writing a young adult novel set in the Arizona desert. There are wolves, a curse, a tangled romance, and three generations of brothers who’ve all died without explanation.

VLD: Do you think you’ll ever return to another Asian setting?
LM: I can’t see it happening now, but I never thought I’d write historical fiction either. I won’t say it’s never going to happen. There are just too many ideas in the pipeline to think about that now, although my husband wants me to write about his re-education experience in the Communist seminar camps. That’s where his father spent twelve years in prison at a labor camp. It was where the Communists forced people to go after the war to try and get them to re-think their belief system.

VLD: That would be very powerful, too.
LM: Yeah. That would take the same hair-pulling as the first novel and I don’t think I have time to do it right now. But yes, it would be powerful.

Laura, I look forward to whatever you come out with next. Thank you so much for talking with me! Laura’s blog and book trailer can be seen at




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11 Responses to “An Interview with Laura Manivong”

  1. Colleen Ryckert Cook says:

    Great interview, Vicki! Thanks, Laura and Troy, for sharing such a amazing, inspiring story

  2. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Colleen!

  3. GalaktioNova says:

    This is indeed a great interview and a very inspiring story! Thanks a lot!

  4. Victoria Dixon says:

    Thanks for stopping by to chat and follow, GalaktioNova! It is a wonderful book. One of my favorites this year and I've read a LOT, thanks to the agent and research materials quest. ;D

  5. catwoods says:

    Victoria, thanks for interviewing Laura about her journey from spouse to author of an amazing story. I definitely cannot wait to read this book.

    My great aunt used to host refugee families and we got to spend a lot of time with them: sharing their stories and eating their delectable authentic foods. You took me back to those memories with this simple interview.

  6. Victoria Dixon says:

    Cool! I'm glad it helped you remember something like that – I love taking readers to a specific time and place. 🙂

  7. Christina Farley says:

    Oh I love this interview! I cannot WAIT to read this book. Sounds incredible. And such an inspiration to me who also has kids, a job and life around me. Thank you both!!!!!

  8. Julie says:

    Great interview, Victoria. Laura is a very interesting person. Thanks for sharing her with us!

  9. Say No says:

    Laura has got to be one of the funniest people I know – at least in writers-ville. She's a treat to talk with and patient with newbies, to boot. 🙂 I stumbled (literally) into one of the best writers groups on the face of the earth and Laura happens to be part of it. I'm incredibly fortunate. I don't always remember to give enough thanks for that, but it's true.

  10. Victoria Dixon says:

    I'm laughing at myself. "Say No" was me logged into Craigslist to update some stuff I've got for sale. Then I forgot that I'd logged out as the Empress and came in here and commented. I'm such a goof.

  11. Julie says:

    Well I came over to see your "boo-boo" with the log-in name. At least your Craigslist ID isn't something embarrassing! When I commented on LTWF the first time, it defaulted to my old WordPress ID which WAS ridiculous! (I was able to delete it…) Anyway, thanks again for the GREAT interview with Laura!

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