True events have inspired you to write a great story. Do you write a memoir or a novel? Author Laura Manivong, whose novel Escaping the Tiger was published by HarperCollins in March of 2010, had to answer this question herself, and recently discussed how she made her decision with Julie Eshbaugh of Let the Words Flow.
LTWF: Could you tell our readers a bit about your book and how you came to write it?
Laura Manivong: My husband is a refugee from Laos and had a very trying upbringing, but what struck me about his many stories was his ability to hang onto hope even in the most dire circumstances. That’s what I wanted to share with people. So when I finally realized I wanted to write children’s literature, I wrote this story as a picture book, because I was green enough to think that’s the bulk of what children’s writers did. I wasn’t even familiar with the phrase “young adult literature.” (Yes, I’ll admit ANYthing in an interview!) I submitted it on my own to a few editors and got nice feedback that the story was very powerful and well written, but the protagonist was too old for a picture book. That’s when I decided I had to learn to write a novel, which has different challenges than a picture book, but is certainly no easier.
LTWF: Did you always feel called to write? Did you assume you would write fiction? How did Escaping the Tiger fit in with (or maybe challenge) your plans for yourself as a writer?
LM: During my childhood, I don’t remember being called to write. 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. Write what, I thought. My degree was Electronic Media, a natural progression from my love of photography, but the idea of being a novelist never entered my brain. Gradually things begin to click, though. When I spent a summer after college in Arizona volunteering for the National Park Service, I’d send letters home, the old fashioned kind that were written on paper, not a computer. Friends told me they’d share my letters with others, which was odd but also a bit 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 very surreal sort of poem composed in my head, that’s when I enrolled in my first creative writing class, around age 30, especially since people who’d heard my husband’s story kept telling me I should write a book.
LTWF: Since Escaping the Tiger is inspired by true events, did you ever consider writing it as non-fiction/memoir?
LM: I wrote my very first drafts as non-fiction. But the holes in my knowledge and my husband’s memory were too big. Plus his story of strife and upheaval started in first grade and continued well into his twenties. It was too much time to cover in any book I imagined myself writing, so that’s when I knew it had to be fiction.
LTWF: What ultimately convinced you that the story would be best served as a novel, rather than as a memoir?
LM: I think my biggest problem was trying to create a sequence of events that would continue to rise in tension as the story progressed. My husband’s life story is a series of peaks and valleys, from being held in the prisoner-of-war “reeducation” camps in northern Laos during his elementary years, to his family’s escape across the Mekong as a fifth grader, to his tween years living illegally in Thailand and working in a factory to his eventual journey to America when he was 19.
LTWF: What special issues/challenges do you think you dealt with considering your story was based in fact? How did you deal with these challenges?
LM: I was concerned I wouldn’t accurately portray the experience for people who lived through it. I’d never been to Laos, or a refugee camp, so my husband was my primary source for all the little details that make a story ring true, from lizards on the ceiling to mosquitoes in the latrines. My MO was to pester my husband anytime I was writing a scene, whether he was engrossed in his favorite TV show or sleeping (or so he claims)! And when he would read drafts where I described the layout of Na Pho refugee camp, his memory and my imagination would clash. “There were no trees by the processing building,” he’d tell me. “But my character needs to hide behind it when he steals a mango,” I’d say, and that’s when I really relied on the fiction element to advance the story.
LTWF: Did anyone ever encourage you to consider “the market” in deciding whether to write the story as a novel versus as a memoir? Do you think the market might have received the book differently if you had written a memoir?
LM: I wrote the bulk of this story before I ever considered approaching professionals with it so I didn’t seek any advice on how to write it. I was too busy muddling through the process to even think about the market. That would have been a mistake for me, anyway. It’s too easy to get caught up in trends and trying to time what’s hot and what’s not. That kind of research is the fastest way to suck up valuable writing time, and the writing must come first.
LTWF: What method did you use to build the story? Did you talk to various relatives and then borrow from the different memories, or did you just take what you knew of your husband’s story and create fiction from there?
LM: All through our marriage, my husband has shared vignettes about his life. A handful of those appear in Escaping The Tiger and are fairly close to the truth. And for details outside my husband’s experiences, I talked with family and friends and read a book written by the father of my husband’s best friend: I LITTLE SLAVE, A PRISON MEMOIR FROM COMMUNIST LAOS. The author, Bounsang Khamkeo, held nothing back in sharing the most painful memories imaginable, and this information was priceless in crafting the backstory for one of my characters, Colonel.
During the revision process, my editor told me something that’s quite liberating when writing a story like mine, based on real people but mostly fiction. She said “just because it happens a certain way in real life doesn’t mean it belongs in your story.”
LTWF: Have you ever felt that those who lived the story were at all “offended” by any fictionalization?
LM: Some people have asked which character is based on which real-life person. And many people ask what happened to one character in particular, so I think there is sometimes confusion on how much is fact and how much is fiction. My editor was so insightful to have me include an afterword that helps to differentiate between my husband’s story and that of Vonlai’s, my protagonist. And so far, no one has been offended by my fictionalization, but the Lao people are far too gracious to say so even if there is something that doesn’t ring true to their experiences. People seem very happy to have a part of their story told. We hear so much about Vietnam that Laos feels like a forgotten country, even though it is the most bombed land on the planet. And the main theme of hanging on to hope even in the worst of times is something to which all readers can relate, whether they’ve ever been displaced from their homes or not.
LTWF: Final question! What are your plans for future projects? Are you anxious to write more fact-based fiction? Or do you see yourself heading in a different direction?
LM: I’m currently finishing a paranormal novel that has an element of fact in it: the reintroduction of the Mexican Gray Wolf to its homeland in the desert Southwest after it was eradicated to make room for cattle. A tremendous amount of carnage, from trappings to poisonings to shooting to bludgeoning, was inflicted on these animals, which are top predators who have a very sophisticated hierarchy and serve a valuable role in weeding out weak prey to keep nature in balance. But today, ranchers livelihoods are at stake as well, so the novel addresses issues of balance. And the story also centers on a rough and tumble heroine, a cowboy, a biker hottie, a banshee and lots of general creepiness from swarming rattlesnakes to haunted homesteads. And when I told a group of eight graders during a school visit the tentative title, I got a collective “ooooh!” That’s motivation right there!
Thank you, Laura, for sharing your insight into the essential question of “Memoir or Novel?” To learn more about Escaping the Tiger, you can watch the book trailer here, and you can learn more about Laura Manivong and her writing here.