This week, I am very excited to welcome Loan Le to the Debutante Ball! Loan is a good friend, a fantastic writer, and a superb editor, and her upcoming book A PHO LOVE STORY is out in 2020.
A PHO LOVE STORY is Loan’s debut novel, a YA romantic comedy about two Vietnamese-American teens who fall in love and must navigate their newfound relationship even as it causes an uproar among their families, old rivals with competing restaurants. The novel is a coming-of-age exploration of what it means to be a teenager growing up in an immigrant community, and given Loan’s talent and thoughtfulness, I can guarantee that this book is going to be one of the best in 2020.
In this interview, Loan talks about how the writing process can surprise you, the value of having a writing community, and so much more. Let’s welcome Loan to the Debutante Ball!
Stephanie Jimenez: Tell us about your debut novel, A Pho Love Story, and the twists and turns of writing your first book.
Loan Le: A Pho Love Story is a YA romantic comedy following two Viet-American teens, Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen, who fall in love and must navigate their newfound relationship because of their respective families’ longtime feud about their competing neighboring phởrestaurants. At the same time, these characters are learning to be themselves. Linh is a gifted artist, but her parents don’t find it a viable career for her. Bao is painfully aware of his mediocrity, but he’s discovering himself as a writer and an editor as he works at his school newspaper with Linh. Self-love is something I loved exploring here.
I see this novel as an ode to the people who raised us as well—especially immigrant parents. Like my main characters’ parents, my mother and many of my relatives escaped Vietnam by boat (a few by foot), endured hardship on their way over to the states, and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to make a life for us. So in some immigrant families, there are some kids who might feel guilty for pursuing their “dreams” while their parents couldn’t. That’s a real struggle that I hope kids will connect with in this novel.
Writing A Pho Love Story was certainly challenging in both the writing portion and just the emotional act of writing. While I enjoy reading novels, my first love as a writer was short stories, which now that I think about it, acted as training ground—mini-studies in character and plot. Also, I’ve never written young adult or romantic-comedy before. I was one of those (*snooty MFA voice*) serious literary writers. In the end, I had so much fun writing YA and can see myself writing more. Practice makes perfect!
This novel is also the most of me that I’ve put in any of my writing. For example, my parents speak to me in Vietnamese, then sometimes slips into English (and vice versa), so I found myself writing the dialogue like that. Referring to the character’s fathers as Ba, the mothers as Mẹ was freeing in a way I can’t explain just yet! Staples of my upbringing also make appearances: the emotional connection with phở and other foods; gatherings where you’re unsure who you’re exactly related to, and Vietnamese keywords like “Paris by Night.”
SJ: You and I are in the unique situation of being authors who have also worked within the publishing industry. Can you speak a little abut how this has helped your understanding of what’s to come? How has being an editor impacted your process?
LL: The experience of working as an assistant editor at Atria Books definitely keeps me from freaking out (too much). I think authors tend to worry about the next step—what comes after the manuscript?!—so they’re anxious and unsure. I feel that I was able to zone in the writing side more because I’m already familiar with the basics of what’s to come.
I also feel completely safe in the editorial process. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more understood! I loved my editor’s (Jen Ung) editorial letter. Her comments were just razor-sharp, echoing things that I felt as I was writing. I’m learning not only about writing but also about editing.
Basically, as someone inside publishing, I trust my editor and my agent Jim McCarthy wholeheartedly. I trust the process because I’ve seen it work so well.
SJ: You are part of many, many writing communities. You are an incredible advocate for other writers as well as a wonderful teacher — I have always been impressed by your ability to give such thoughtful feedback to other emerging writers. Can you tell us about those communities you’re part of and why you prioritize them?
LL: First of all, thank you so much.
Sadly, as I worked in this novel, I had to bow out of certain writing groups, but I hope to begin anew when I hand in my final draft. I used to lead a writing group with Young to Publishing before its closure, and I loved the solidarity among the members. I kept thinking: “Look at us. We’re from so many parts of publishing, yet we are all writers.” It was an amazing feeling.
Our group—I’m not sure if we should say the name in public (lol)—has been incredibly helpful. Being writers in New York is nothing new, but being in a focused group that’s small, but supportive and diverse like ours shaped me in so many ways. One book doesn’t define our writing style, and I loved seeing what you and Mariah do next. [Readers, please buy Stephanie’s book They Could Have Named Her Anything!]
I’m also in a monthly writing group in Connecticut with fellow MFA grads from Fairfield University. We’re called The Hastings and on the surface level, it doesn’t seem like we have much in common, but we’re all dedicated to our craft. This space is important to me because it proves that getting an MFA is just the beginning; we’re all constantly growing as writers. These people are so wise, and love, love, love them.
In general, I joined writing groups to grow in my craft and learn from other fantastic writers, but I’ve also gained some fantastic lifelong friends.
SJ: What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to a writer looking to publish their debut?
Don’t forget your reason for writing the book in the first place.
SJ: Lastly, let’s end with something fun. Your book is about teens. What were you like as a teenager?
LL: Awkward! Oh so very awkward. Shy. Romantically challenged.
. . . I guess I haven’t changed very much.
Loan Le is a fiction writer living in Manhattan. She is an assistant editor at Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books imprint. She graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from Fairfield University. You can follow her Twitter account @loanloan or her blog writerloanle.me.