Vietnamese American author Loan Le published several adult short stories and began working as an editor at Atria Books before writing her debut YA novel, A Phở Love Story. Celebrating her Vietnamese heritage through descriptions of delicious food, the novel follows two star-crossed Vietnamese American teens whose families run rival phở restaurants directly across the street from each other. PW spoke with Le about her process, her debut journey, her perfect bowl of phở, and what readers can expect from her next.
A Phở Love Story touches on how it feels to grow up as a child of immigrant parents, through the lens of food. Were you inspired by your own childhood?
My earliest memories have to do with food, which has always been important to me and my family. I’m from a family of immigrants and food was a way for them to connect to their home and their memories, which they passed on to me. I was always in the kitchen—not being very helpful—watching my family. We would come together to make phở and other Vietnamese food. That memory of food immediately connotes family, and since it’s a passion of mine I had to include it.
I think a lot of kids from immigrant families can’t really separate themselves from their family. Family is ingrained in our language and the way we approach other relatives. It’s like breathing. But there was no singular moment when I thought, “I have this idea.” I think it was just a gradual melding of things that interested me. Then when I have inspiration, I immediately write.
How has your path to publishing your debut been thus far? And how have social media platforms such as TikTok made it easier for you to reach a larger audience and to connect with other POC and YA authors?
It’s been exciting and nerve-racking. If my college senior self knew that I’d be publishing something now, she’d think, “that wouldn’t happen,” because I was very career-focused. I still am but I thought, “Writing will be later when I get my career settled.” But for me it’s impossible to separate my writing and editing. Writing became an outlet I stuck with. Now the book is coming out and I’ve been so grateful to see all of the early love from Bookstagramers especially and bloggers. I’ve become closer to that community because I’m publishing a novel. They are the unsung heroes in the industry; you usually think Amazon or indies, but book bloggers are the people who are doing this while they have other responsibilities. They’re spreading the word, and I am extremely grateful for them. I hope the book will touch them in the way that they wanted it to. I don’t want to let anyone down.
I’m still relatively new to TikTok but teens have always been smart. There’s just so much going on and the way they process it is through social media, and they do it in a funny but really smart way. I have a younger cousin who is so observant and every time I’m in her presence—she’s also very cool—I’m thinking, “She’s just picking up on all of my quirks and judging me.”
BookTokers are also so good at analyzing. They’re not saying things just for the likes, they’re basically making essays and starting debates related to books. I haven’t gone too deeply into it but I’m so glad they are thinking this way, and if they chose to pursue publishing they would change it completely.
You’re also an editor at Atria, working on horror, mystery, and suspense. How has your editorial experience impacted your writing process?
Initially when I started to write, my editing side interrupted me, which was incredibly annoying. I would write and then I would stop and remove myself from it thinking, “Okay, this is what I should’ve done.” I was undermining my own work by not trusting myself. When I realized that, I decided to let loose and let my creativity take over. It wasn’t until I had the full manuscript that I put my editor hat on. It helps for writers to know that you just have to write that first draft, and then you can go back and polish it up.
I have always been interested in ghosts—but in a literary setting where the ghost represents how the characters are missing something. I’ve been writing a lot of ghost stories that I’m editing right now. I think eventually I’m going to keep working on them and polishing them up.
I also write adult short stories, so I am thinking about going into adult mystery. Maybe a mass market mystery. I thought it would be cool for me to meld the idea of ghosts, my Vietnamese culture, and my mother-daughter relationship. I was tweeting and then a thought just sat with me of this daughter who has to chase her mother around the world because she’s chasing after a food recipe. And you know how mothers cook from memory. It was a ridiculous thought of why can’t mothers ever give us this recipe with ingredient measurements. Why not have this daughter chase after her mother but then realize her mother is on the run for another reason? It’s not just to avoid her, but there’s something else. I just have to find time.
Speaking of food, A Phở Love Story highlights so many delicious dishes. What goes into your perfect bowl of pho?
You have to have Thai basil. I also like hoisin sauce so I have to put that in. I’m not really good with spice, and that’s unfortunate, but I like the occasional pickled jalapeño that my mom makes. The perfect spoonful has to have broth. I put the pickled jalapeño at the bottom and then I bury it with noodles—which is essential, obviously—and a slice of beef. And then some bean sprouts. I also love lime; you have to add just a tiny bit for that flavor. We don’t use it in my family recipe but when we’d occasionally go out for phở, I would see if they had tripe. I love the texture of it.
I feel like more people these days know about phở. But there’s also people who don’t, and I had a lot of fun introducing it. There is so much home-style Vietnamese food. And as I’m doing interviews like this I keep thinking I’ve left so much out! But you can’t have a whole novel just about food, you have to have the characters, too. There was an interesting article that talked about how Vietnamese cuisine here is frozen in time and how we’re not aware of new trends. Because a lot of it came from right after the fall of Saigon, those are the recipes that have been brought it over here. I’m trying my best to catch up because I want to try more experimental Vietnamese food. But maybe that’s for the next book.
A Phở Love Story by Loan Le. Simon & Schuster, $19.99 Feb. 9 ISBN 978-1-5344-4193-4