Author Spotlight: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is the author nine books. The Mountains Sing is her first written in English. In this Author Spotlight, she shares how it felt to write at such length in English and her personal connection to the topic of the story.
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Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is the author nine books. The Mountains Sing is her first written in English. In this Author Spotlight, she shares how it felt to write at such length in English and her personal connection to the topic of the story.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Name: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Literary agent: Julie Stevenson (Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents)

Book title: THE MOUNTAINS SING

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Release date: March 17, 2020

Genre/category: Historical fiction, coming-of-age fiction, cultural heritage fiction, war fiction.

Elevator pitch for the book (1-2 sentence pitch):

"[An] absorbing, stirring novel . . . that, in more than one sense, remedies history." —The New York Times Book Review

"A luminous, complex family narrative . . . The Mountains Sing affirms the individual's right to think, read, and act according to a code of intuitive civility, borne out of Vietnam's fertile and compassionate cultural heritage." —NPR

Previous titles (if any) by the author: The Secret of Hoa Sen (poems, BOA Editions).

What prompted you to write this book?

Vietnamese people have gone through so much that each family’s account could be written into an epic novel. For many years, I wanted to write a book that encompasses the experiences of not just my family, but of others’ as well. I wanted to create a world which is authentically Vietnamese and fill it with Vietnamese characters, language, poetry, and culture. Yet I could not find a key to open the door to that world.

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 PostO, The Oprah MagazineUSA TodayReal 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.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope that while reading The Mountains Sing, the reader will join me in embracing the values of peace, normality, and family. And I hope that the reader will see the common humanity of all peoples on this earth, with the help of our literature, as in the words of Hương: “Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai | The Mountains Sing

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

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.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai | Mountains Sing

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About Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

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. Married to a European diplomat, Quế Mai is currently living in Jakarta with her two teenage children. For more information about Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, visit her at www.nguyenphanquemai.com.