There is an interview in Writer’s Digest of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, who is the Vietnamese author of nine novels, in which she talks about writing The Mountains Sing, which was published in 2020 and reviewed by The New York Times.
Born into the Việt Nam War in 1973, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai grew up witnessing the war’s devastation and its aftermath. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia. She is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction published in Vietnamese, and her writing has been translated and published in more than ten countries, most recently in Norton’s Inheriting the War anthology. She has been honored with many awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hà Nội Writers Association, as well as many grants and fellowships.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
What prompted you to write this book?
Then, in 2012, when I was traveling with a Vietnamese friend in a car, I asked him what it was like for him during the Việt Nam War. He told me that he was 12 years old when Hà Nội was targeted by B-52 bombers. His parents were in Russia at that time and he was living with his grandmother, who saved him from the bombing raids. His story moved me so much. When I went home that evening, after putting my two young children to bed, I sat down at my computer and googled about the bombings of Hà Nội. I heard audio broadcasts of the sirens warning citizens about bombing raids. With tears running down my face, I penned 2,000 words which eventually become the opening scene of The Mountains Sing. I wrote without knowing where the story would lead me. But I knew I had to let Grandma Diệu Lan have many children, who would be separated by historical events which in turn lead them to becoming the enemy of one another.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
I took me seven years to write and edit. My vision for the book stayed the same, but the objectives became clearer: that I needed to write about war to highlight the value of peace, about darkness to be able to talk about light, and about desperation to be able to bring a sense of hope.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
I have published eight books in Vietnamese and The Mountains Sing is my first novel and first book I have written in English. I learned English in the eighth grade so penning this novel felt like climbing a mountain barefoot. I arrived at the mountaintop and am stunned that the magnificent view of all the love which has been pouring in for The Mountains Sing. Never in my wildest dream did I dare think my book would be reviewed on the New York Times, NPR and is picked as a Best Book of the Month/Season by The New York Times, The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, USA Today, Real Simple…. Readers’ feedback on Goodreads has also been amazing and I am grateful beyond words.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
The Mountains Sing was fueled by my wish to have a grandmother. Both of my grandmas had died before my birth. Growing up, I was very jealous of my friends who had grandmothers to tell them tales and stories of their family. So I told myself I would write a novel one day with a grandmother figure in it. And finally I found Grandma Diệu Lan in The Mountains Sing.
I have no photos of my grandmothers and as I wrote the novel, I could imagine how my grandmothers looked, I could hear their voices. Grandma Diệu Lan and her granddaughter Hương are very real to me, as well as all other characters, including Hương’ parents, uncles, and aunt.
As a writer, I used to underestimate the power of imagination. I learned that once I let go of my fears and trusted my imagination, my writing will soar and take me where it is destined to be. Of course the imagination has to be grounded in knowledge for it to be believable, so research and hard work is key.
I used to be a documentary filmmaker, and a film director once told me: “You can’t make a good film unless your hands tremble behind the camera.” Let us write stories that move us to the core, because when our pen is trembling, the reader can feel it, too.