Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the award-winning author of historical fiction, nonfiction and picture books for children and young adults. Pajama Press has just released her new book, One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way, which continues the true story of Tuyet, the oldest child on the last airlift of orphans from war-torn Vietnam. Tuyet was adopted by a Canadian family and raised in Brantford, Marsha's home town. Today, Marsha tells us about interviewing Tuyet about the traumatic childhood experiences recounted in One Step at a Time, and why writing a nonfiction account of Tuyet's ordeal was both more challenging and more rewarding than a fictionalized version of the events.
Tell us about your new book, One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way.
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch:
One Step At A Time is a continuation of Tuyet's story from Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue From War. That book ended just days after Tuyet was placed in her adoptive home in Brantford, Ontario. Most of that first story traced Tuyet's experiences as she was rescued from Saigon and her airlift to Canada. Tuyet was the oldest orphan on that last rescue flight.
But her story was far from over.
As a young child, Tuyet had contracted polio, and this left her with one leg six inches shorter than the other. Her adoptive parents realized that, at eight years old, she had a narrow window of time for corrective surgery if she ever hoped to walk, so within days of her being adopted, she had to begin the process. Tuyet had barely settled in — she didn't speak English and she was terrified of doctors — but she had to overcome her fear and go in to the hospital to begin treatment. Back in the 1970s, parents were not allowed to stay with their children during surgery, and patients who didn't speak English were not given help. Can you imagine how terrifying this all would have been for a young war orphan like Tuyet?
The book has humourous moments as well. There are many things Tuyet doesn't understand about her adoptive country — like toothpaste and birthday cakes.
What inspired you to begin writing about Tuyet's story?
I was in university when Saigon fell and I followed the plight of Vietnamese refugees with sympathy and despair. In my hometown of Brantford, there is a significant Vietnamese presence — mostly Boat People who had been sponsored by local church groups. Before my first book was published, I wrote “coming to Canada” stories for a local magazine and one of those stories was about Vietnamese immigrants.
I had actually been planning on writing a novel about a Boat Person but I happened upon the story of the last airlift to Canada. When I found out that the oldest orphan on that flight lived in Brantford, I knew it was more than coincidence — the story was meant to be.
Still, I initially wrote it as fiction because Tuyet had suppressed many of her memories. Gail Winskill, publisher of Pajama Press and my longtime mentor, encouraged me to rewrite it as narrative nonfiction. Once I started, I realized how right Gail was. There was still a lot of research to do and also lots of sessions with Tuyet as her memories came back in bits and pieces.
It is an emotionally raw thing to do, to have a real person open up and remember the most painful parts of their childhood and then put it in a book for all to see. But Tuyet has told me that this process has given her back her memories and her childhood. That makes it worthwhile. I also love the fact that her own kids now realize that she is a heroine. Who thinks of their own mother that way? I am in awe of Tuyet's strength.
Did you know you would write a sequel to Last Airlift? How was your writing process different for One Step at a Time?
The initial draft of Tuyet's story was fictionalized, and in that format, I could take her life much further chronologically. But when it is all true, it means the story is more intense, but the chronology is stretched out. So one book became two.
How did you make these books accessible and appealing to Canadian children, especially considering the difficult subject matter?
What child doesn't have something that sets them apart from others? Tuyet's story is every child's story. When a young reader steps inside Tuyet's shoes, it gives them strength to deal with their own challenges.
Tell us about your research process. Where do you start, and what do you enjoy about this stage of writing?
It was a challenge doing research for Tuyet's story because she had post-traumatic stress syndrome and had blocked out a lot of her memories. I had to go about it sideways — interviewing her mother and sisters, neighbours and cousins, the surgeon who operated on her and the man who made her first brace. I looked through the McMaster Hospital photo archives and talked to the archivist about what it looked like in 1975. I'd write scenes and then read them back to Tuyet. For her, hearing it this way jogged her memories. Sometimes she'd call a day or a week later, remembering something completely new, so I'd amend my narrative.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in writing One Step at a Time?
Tuyet's memory gaps. Also, finding good photographs.
What are you working on now?
A World War II novel tentatively called Luka: Underground. It is a companion novel to Stolen Child (Scholastic 2010) and Making Bombs For Hitler (Scholastic 2012). It will be published in the spring of 2014.