Interview of Elaine Russell, author of Across the Mekong River
1. What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
After learning about the harsh plight of the Hmong refugees who fled Laos after the Vietnam War and the difficulties they endured in adapting to life in the U.S., I wanted to tell their story. So few Americans know about the history of Laos and its role in the Vietnam War. Many don’t understand why so many Southeast Asians resettled in America. There are many excellent non-fiction books on the Hmong in America, but I hoped a fictional story might reach a wider audience. I wanted to write a story that would inspire more compassion and understanding for the challenges the Hmong and other Vietnam War refugees have endured. I felt the story was best told through the different voices of the older parents and their young daughter, as each faced unique experiences, which invoked very different emotional reactions. There is also a broader, universal truth in the story that extends to all refugees and immigrants coming to our great country. I hope I have achieved my goals. It is rewarding to hear from readers who say they never knew about this episode in history and now feel great empathy for what these refugees have endured.
2. What do you think most characterizes your writing?
I find myself writing most of my stories in first person narrative. It helps me to truly put myself in the position of my characters so I can understand their emotions, motivations, and hopes. I need to feel very close to their hearts and minds. I hope the readers will as well.
3. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
It took me a very long time to complete this novel, almost ten years on and off. I had to keep pushing myself to dig deeper and fill in the missing pieces until the book was truly ready to publish. I spent over six month working with an excellent editor to finalize the story, which was great but exhausting.
4. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I loved doing the research, which involved reading many resources and meeting dozens of wonderful Hmong, Mien, and Lao-Americans. I am so grateful to the people who shared their families’ experiences with me, which were often quite heartbreaking. They wanted so much for their stories to be told, and I was honored to do this. While my book is fiction, it is based on the true events of many different people.
5. How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?
I became interested in Hmong refugees when a number of Hmong children attended my young son’s elementary school in Sacramento years ago. About the same time, the Sacramento Bee published a series of articles on their resettlement in Sacramento. This was followed by my book group reading Ann Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a nonfiction book on Hmong beliefs in conflict with the Western medical system. And as if by serendipity, a young Hmong woman came to work in my husband’s office. She shared her story with me and introduced me to many of her friends. I traveled to Laos a few years later and became interested in the problem of unexploded cluster bombs left in the ground from U.S. bombing during the war. The bombs are still killing and maiming people all these years later. I volunteered with the U.S.-based nonprofit Legacies of War, which works to get more funding for bomb clearance. Through this work I met many Hmong and Lao refugees.
Tens of thousands of Hmong, Mein, and Lao, one third of the population of Laos, were forced to flee the country after it fell to a communist government following the end of the Vietnam War. Many ended up resettling in the U.S. after years in Thai refugee camps in dreadful conditions. Although I was a young woman during the Vietnam War, I knew virtually nothing about what had happened in Laos. I wrote several academic articles on this history and the wars aftermath during my work with Legacies of War.
6. Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them?
I feel this story chose me rather than the other way around. I was a history major in college and have always had a keen interest in the way the past shapes our current world. I would call Across the Mekong River historical fiction (although some of the story takes place in more recent times). I am currently writing an adult novel that is also historical fiction set in 1901, but with a much lighter story. I also have written a children’s middle grade, mystery series, a young adult novel, and a middle grade nonfiction picture book on Thailand. I follow my heart in my writing what interests me, rather than selecting a particular genre. I love incorporating the history and culture of other countries in my stories.
7. Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
I always loved reading from a young age. My mother took my sister and me to the library every week to pick out books. At about ten years old, I decided I wanted to be a writer (that is when I first read Little Women and wanted to be Jo). I would write funny short stories about my dog and my family. Perhaps it came from being a very shy child and spending a lot of time alone.
8. How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing full time for over 20 years, ever since I was able to ease out of my day job (environmental and energy analyst) a few years after I had my son. In earlier years I wrote boring reports for work and dabbled in writing fiction.
9. What inspires you?
I take inspiration from nature, being in a quiet relaxing place where I can think and create. My husband and I are very fortunate to own a condo in Kauai, where we spend part of the year. It is my writer’s retreat. I do my best writing there without interruptions. The beauty of the ocean and landscape and the warm air sets my mind free.
10. What do you like to read in your free time?
I read mainly fiction – contemporary, literary, historical, and occasionally mysteries. Some recent favorites: All the Light We Cannot See, A Gentleman in Moscow, Girl Waits with Gun, and News of the World. Novels must be well written or I can’t get through them, not even with a clever plot. I also enjoy nonfiction at times. I read Up From Slavery and All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay this past fall.
11. What projects are you working on at the present?
I am currently writing a historical novel set in 1901 Denver, Colorado, with the women’s suffrage movement as the backdrop. It is based in part on my great-grandmother who was one of the early women doctors in Denver. I loved doing the research and learning about the events of the era, and how people behaved and dressed, their interests, etc. In the course of my research in Denver, I got to hold and read an original letter from Susan B. Anthony!
I am in the final editing stages and hope to have the book out in the next year or so.
12. What do your plans for future projects include?
For the last year I’ve been studying French to fulfill a lifelong desire to speak the language. The speaking part is still difficult for me, but I’m able to read and write a lot better. I want to write a novel set in French Colonial Laos. In order to research this period of time, I will need to read a number of books written in French. I love a challenge!
13. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I wanted to write from the time I was young. English and writing were always my best subjects in school and writing clearly was one of my strengths in various jobs for my earlier career. I didn’t have the time, money, or dedication to really start writing until later in life. Now I wish I had been able to write earlier as I’m truly passionate about it.
14. How do you find or make time to write?
Finding time to write is always a challenge. At home I have to balance activities promoting my books and writing versus spending time with family and friends, studying French, and volunteering with several non-profit groups. Escaping to Kauai is the best guarantee that I’ll settle down and really work consistently.
15. What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
I’m not sure I have an answer for this one…
16. What book would you like to write but haven’t or can’t yet?
I have so many ideas for books, but I’m not sure how I’ll get to them all. I take it one book at a time. I have one novel in particular I’d like to write that is inspired by my husband’s family history, but I’m hesitant to write it while all the relatives are still around. We’ll see…
Click here to visit Ms. Russell’s author page.