Ex-Register reporter turns childhood rage into National Book Award

ThanhhaLai-ocm.jpgFormer Orange County Register reporter Thanhha Lai "spent 15 years grinding away at a sprawling novel she could never quite get right. So, five years ago, she turned her creative energies to a verse novel about a single year in her childhood as a Vietnamese émigré." “Inside Out & Back Again" recently won the National Book Award for young people’s literature. Scott Martelle observes her backstory in the February issue of Orange Coast Magazine:

For a writer, that’s like hitting the lottery with the first ticket. “It just came out of nowhere,” says the 46-year-old Lai. “One cannot expect this sort of thing.”

Lai was a groundbreaking 1988 hire for The Register, which then was struggling to cover Orange County’s burgeoning Little Saigon community. In a sense, her reporting career here helped propel her literary journey. “Journalism is just very structured,” Lai says. “One day I turned in a story and [an editor] said to me, ‘You can’t compare inanimate objects with animate objects,’ and I realized I had to leave.”

Jeff Brody, a Cal State Fullerton professor and former Register reporter who covered the Vietnamese community with Lai, says he isn’t surprised by her success: “Someone with her talent, ability, and intelligence wasn’t going to be stuck at a desk with a police radio. She was far more creative.”

She now lives in New York City and is on leave from a teaching job at Parsons. Martelle's next book, "Detroit: A Biography," will be published this spring.

Media book note: "The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed" by former Los Angeles Times terrorism reporters Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer is due March 26 from Little, Brown. It just got a starred review in Kirkus to feed the early buzz.

Photo of Lai: Michelle Nolan

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