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Book Chat: Oliver Phommavanh

Oliver Phommavanh is an acclaimed author of books for children, having written much-loved titles including Thai-riffic!, Thai-no-mite!, Don’t Follow Vee, The Other Christy and Brain Freeze. Oliver is also a stand-up comedian and has worked as a teacher. His latest book, What About Thao?, tells the story of two boys, Thao and Kadir, who are both negotiating their status as new arrivals in a small, mono-cultural country town and face different challenges as they search for inroads to belonging. It’s a moving story with relatable characters who challenge us as readers to think deeply about how we welcome new arrivals into our communities, particularly those who have faced trauma. I’m honoured to welcome Oliver to Book Chat.

Thanks for your time, Oliver, and congratulations on the success of your hilarious and thought-provoking books, and on the recent publication of What About Thao?

To begin with, would you mind sharing a little about your journey as a writer? Has it been a lifelong path for you?


Thanks for having me Cam! I have been grateful to be a children’s author for 12 years, and have had many successful books released since then. I’ve always wanted to be an author since I was a kid, and so I did a writing degree at university. After my initial degree, I did a Master of Teaching and fell in love with primary school teaching. Then I had the idea of becoming a children’s author, since I am a big kid myself and have not looked back. I gave myself five years to make it as an author and it took me three years of networking, crafting my manuscripts and making my own luck. Since 2010, it’s been an amazing time of travelling, inspiring kids and writing stories that have heart.


Please tell us everything you’d like us to know about What About Thao?, and anything in particular that inspired you to write it.


What About Thao is a love letter to all the country towns I’ve visited as an author. I’ve never knocked back any school visits, to even the smallest towns and schools in the middle of nowhere and it got me thinking, well what if I was a kid at this school. Thao is the only asian kid in the whole town, let alone the school, so he gets to experience being different.

But then he meets Kadir, who is new to the whole country, and the two form a bond. This is a parallel new arrival story, one where Thao learns what it really means to be a new person and also a chance for Kadir to see that each new place has its perks and a chance to belong as well.

Your writing captures so well the feelings and perspectives of those late-primary school years, especially in its portrayal of the depth and intensity of friendships at that age. Does writing for this age group come as easily to you as it seems?


I call it the Morris Gleitzman phase haha. It’s this wonderful age where the kids are still full of wonder and yet don’t know much about the real world yet. I loved teaching Grades 5 and 6 because you can have proper conversations with them, and I’ve observed how their friendships go up and down throughout the year, so this was always a natural progression for me to write for this age group.


The characters in What About Thao? are all so distinct and vivid. Can you offer any tips to other writers about creating such believable and affecting characters?


I would do something like get each character to fill in a profile and make that different. Or create a venn diagram where they have some similarities and differences. Outside of that, a lot of my characters are lifted from real life observations. I’m lucky to be visiting schools where I can see what kids are like up close, their interests and behaviour is something I take note of (this sounds creepy, I know but all writers are spies in disguise haha)


I find it really refreshing, and incredibly valuable, that your books address questions around ethnicity and racism so directly, in a way that is accessible and conducive to dialogue amongst late-primary readers. What advice would you offer to other writers for this age group as they address these issues in their own work?


Be authentic and genuine with your stories. I’ve always had a mantra of wanting to write a book that I wanted to read as a kid. There were no books with asian Australians as main characters so all my books have that, just simply because there is hardly enough diversity out there. So I would tell writers to draw from their life experiences, and find that niche that they could tap into it.


One of the things I particularly loved about What About Thao? was how poetry proved to be an avenue for both Thao and Kadir to find a place and feel truly at home in their new community. There is also a beautifully poetic quality to your writing – as well as a number of original poems in the story – all of which made me wonder about your own relationship with poetry, and particularly about how you feel it influences your prose writing.


I’ve always respected poetry and have been to many poetry slams to know that it’s a powerful form of expression, which I wanted to bring across with What About Thao. I love playing around with words and saying them out loud for comedic effect too, so performing poetry has always captivated me. If it brings poetry to the spotlight then I’m all for it, as well for my readers to give it a go.


I’d love to know a little about the drafting process you go through as you write your novels, particularly the process for What About Thao? Was What About Thao? notably different from your other books in this regard?


Normally, I would just write up a 2 page synopsis for my publisher, get the green light and then write a raw draft that keeps getting refined into a high enough standard to send to my editor and agent for advice and feedback. This usually happens in 6 months.

What About Thao was tougher because I had struggled with how to start the story. Original drafts had Thao moving to Megulla when he was in Grade 4 and he had settled into being the new kid until Kadir came along. So I was torn between doing flashbacks or past tense and then moving to present tense.

Then Kadir’s voice started to rise with further drafts. I couldn’t ignore his story so I had to go back and really add layers to his journey to Australia. I was lucky to ask Syrian refugees from my church to make sure that I handled Kadir’s story with dedicate care.

So it took a bit longer to get What About Thao into shape but looking back now, the extra time made the difference.


What’s next for Oliver Phommavanh?


I’m currently working on Sneakerheads (another passion of mine haha) which should be coming out next year.


Where are the best places for people to find you online, and to get hold of What About Thao?


You can find me on Twitter and Instagram at @oliverwinfree

For more info about my books, check me out at www.oliverwriter.com

And you can check me out on my YouTube Channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/VirtualOliverP


Thanks a million, Oliver, for such generous responses. I've really enjoyed learning more about how you come up with your brilliant books, and hope What About Thao? finds the colossal readership it deserves. It seems to be well on the way!


Here are a few more of Oliver's highly recommended titles. Please check 'em out!






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