Interview of Elaine Russell, author of Across the Mekong River

An author of several books, three with Indie Brag Medallions.  An author for over 20 years, Ms. Russell draws from her travels weaving both culture and fiction together.  

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.

Interview with Paula Houseman, Author of Odyssey in a Teacup and Apoca[hot]lips


I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing the two Paula Houseman books, Odyssey in a Teacup and Apoca[hot]lips.  She graciously consented to answering my interview questions.  Learn more about this insightful and delightful woman who captivates by being herself.


  1. What were your goals and intentions in this series of books, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

I had something to say. I have a viewpoint that’s outside of mainstream thinking—a mode of being that’s helped me through difficulties. And I wanted to get it out there. Initially, I intended to just blog about it, believing it had nothing to do with the book I was writing, which was a collection of unrelated, humorous short stories. But it had everything to do with it!

It’s a way of life and humor is very much a part of that. And once I let the idea weave its way through the stories, they all started to come together to form chapters of a novel, Odyssey in a Teacup. I carried the theme into the next book, Apoca[hot]lips, and it’s continuing in Book 3.

I feel I’ve achieved my objective because couching ideas in humor is a non-aggressive way of getting a message across. Whether or not the reader responds to it consciously, at the very least, it will have planted a seed.

  1. What are some of the references that you used while researching these books?

I googled a lot! Still, when it came to important facts like laws and rules and procedures and timelines, I didn’t want to misrepresent the truth. So I called the relevant organisations and asked the necessary questions.

But probably my greatest research came from my favorite book, Woman Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. And that wasn’t about researching the book’s content, but allowing it to help me explore the contents of my own depths.

  1. What do you think most characterizes your writing?

I’ve been told my writing is very real. It’s bawdy, for sure! But the colorful words and double entendres aren’t there for shock value. They’re not forced. It’s earthy humor—a sacred one.

Writers and readers connect at the most fundamental level of humanness, beyond all the social categories that can divide us. And that’s where I write from.

  1. What did you enjoy most about writing these books?

I’m not a plotter; I’m a pantser—I fly by the seat of my pants. So I didn’t feel bound by a specific plan. I let the characters and the story lead me. And that made the experience mysterious and much more interesting. I just never knew where I was going to be taken, or end up. So, I was the reader as much as I was the writer.

And writing is the one place I can always be all of me. I love that it moves me. If I’m laughing or crying or raging as I write, I know I’m on the right track. If my writing isn’t stirring my passions, I can’t expect it to stir the reader’s.

  1. What was the hardest part of writing these books?

I didn’t find writing the books hard. And that might be because I’m not attached to any writing formula that’s at the risk of not working. I know the creative process is messy, but I trust it. Even being taken into some dark places isn’t what I’d call hard. Challenging, maybe. It’s probably akin to wading through raw sewage at times, but I’ve been there so often, I know that under it all, there’s that warming and inspiring sacred obscenity … the ‘holy shit’!

I guess the part that I did find hard came after I’d finished the books—checking through the editor’s comments, and then scanning the manuscripts after they’d been formatted for ebook and for paperback to see if it everything was correct. Both are laborious and require a lot of focus. And then, there’s the necessity of promoting the books, when I’d rather just be writing.

  1. Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

As a baby boomer, I grew up at a time when the catchphrase ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ still held sway. ‘Children’ really just meant girls. Women. But I was pretty feisty, and I was in trouble a lot because I’d laugh at inappropriate times and I had an up-yours attitude!

I had plenty to say and I wanted it to be heard. It just wasn’t what my family wanted to hear. Being hamstrung made for a difficult childhood and adolescence. Reading allowed me to escape into the alternative realities books offered. Writing has allowed me to create alternative realities. More than that, though, it’s allowed me to be heard as an individual, and as a woman.

  1. How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your books?

It was about twelve years ago. I’d read Estés from time to time and I found her views uplifting. She shows us that folk tales contain fragments of what you find in the uncut, no-holds-barred ancient myths. And that we don’t just read or tell stories, we live them.

It raised questions for me, not least, if there are only remnants of the original stories in our current ones, then what’s missing from my whole story and my life?

Reading Estés’s book reminded me that it was the wild aspect of me that had gone underground—the ‘Wild Woman archetype’, she calls it. So it answered my question … but only to a point.

And then, as providence would have it, I was drawn to a sociology course at university that also promoted the archetypal approach. The main text was Care of the Soul, by archetypal psychologist Thomas Moore. In it, he exposes what he calls the ‘salvational fantasy’: Our desire to be saved from our shadow side, which makes us turn to magic bullet solutions—whether that’s a person, vitamin, exercise or diet regimen, or therapeutic modality.

At first, I hated what Moore had to say because I realized I was hostage to this fantasy. I wanted my wild woman back, but I also wanted to be rescued from the darkness where she resides! Like most people, I’d understood the idea of bettering myself meant heroically wiping out ‘undesirable’ aspects—negative thoughts and feelings and impulses. But these things are innate; you can’t erase them. And it’s unhealthy to deny them a place in our psyches and lives.

When I started to embrace this archetypal model that holds a place for everything, life became easier. I got that ‘rising above’ stuff isn’t a sign of bravery; diving into it is. Discovering that my story was much more comprehensive than a fairytale-like framework helped me become accepting of all of it. And once I did that, the aspects I’d been ashamed of didn’t have to clamor for attention as much.

  1. How long have you been writing?

It began with journal writing twenty-five years ago. Both my parents had died within seventeen months of each other, and apart from the grief, I was left with an avalanche of feelings over having had aspects of me tamped down. I needed to find a safe space to let loose without fear of being judged or shamed. Writing gave me that. And the audience of one grew to include others when I started university. I still had a lot to say, and it was very well-received. It evolved from there: submitting the odd poem to the university’s student publication; joining an online writing community; and then writing my books.

  1. What inspires you?

With my first book, I didn’t have to look past my own childhood and adolescence for inspiration. But the more I unearth the innate comedy in the tragedy, the more I understand just how absurd life is. And it’s that ridiculousness that inspires me!

  1. What do you like to read in your free time?

Mystery | thriller | suspense novels. I love whoddunits, particularly, Sandra Brown’s books. She combines mystery with romance and sex.

  1. What projects are you working on at the present?

I’m writing Book 3 in the series. But I also have to commit time and energy to promoting the other books, and to blogging (which I don’t do often enough).

  1. What makes your books stand out from the crowd?

Without having read the many thousands of books in my genre, it looks like a difficult question to answer. But I think it’s actually quite simple. When I write, I’m being uniquely me; I’m expressing my essence through that particular medium. It doesn’t make me better or worse than any other writer. Just different. In the words of Dr Seuss, ‘There is no one alive who is Youer than You.’ So, because no one can be Me-er than Me, that’s what sets my books apart from the rest!

  1. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

A couple of years after I started university, I realized what I most loved about the whole experience was essay writing. And I was fortunate in that I had very encouraging tutors & lecturers who applauded my unconventional take on things. It inspired me to become more daring in my essays. But then in my final honors year, I came up against a brick wall. I had to deal with traditionalists, who were scathing in their criticism of my thesis—both my approach and my ideas. In the end, I tried to take on the establishment, but even those who commended my paper and supported me were made to back down. It was disheartening. But it was a turning point. From then on, I decided no one was going to shut me up again! I finished my first book a couple of years later, and I also started blogging.

  1. What question do you wish that someone would ask about your books, but nobody has?

There’s no one question that comes to mind. But I’d like to think my books raise questions in the readers about themselves—ones they might not have considered. Like what I asked myself all those years ago: What’s missing from my whole story and my life?



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