Patrick Maher is an American author teaching in Thailand. He has written two successful novels, Pleng’s Song and Candid Confessions. Recently, I had the chance to speak with him about his latest novel, Pleng’s Song, geared for young readers. Here is our interview:
You wrote Pleng’s Song when you were trapped in your home for five weeks during the Thailand Flood in 2011. What was it like for you and your family to experience that disaster?
It was extremely stressful. There was over three feet of water bearing down on the northern wall of our gated community and everyone in our neighborhood worked together to stay dry. We all had different roles. My job was to check the sluice gate so I ventured out a lot into the water to see how high the flood officials were raising the sluice gate. The biggest fear was running out of fresh water so whenever I came across someone selling drinking water, I’d buy as much as I could carry.
As for my children, Fiona and Seamus, they stayed on the second floor of our home which was quite crowded because we moved all our furniture upstairs. My wife and I tried to make life as normal as possible for them. We were stuck on a dry strip of land, but all around us had to be evacuated. The government instructed residents to leave our area and they moved in huge army trucks to help relocate families but we stuck it out and survived.
How long have you lived in Thailand? What are the pros for living there? Any plans for returning to the U.S.? What do you miss about the U.S. (if anything)?
I’ve lived in Thailand for over 12 years and I love it here. The food, music, cafes, and vibe of Bangkok are addicting. There is so much to do and you have beautiful beaches at your fingertips for weekend getaways anytime you want. Hotels are really cheap too, so although I work here, I feel like I’m always on vacation.
I really can’t see myself returning to the rat race of the U.S.A. and as far as missing things in the U.S., I feel for my children because it’s hard for them to enjoy the outdoors in the tropics. I wish they could explore the woods of Michigan and discover nature, like I did as a child. We can’t let them do that here because there are so many poisonous snakes and insects.
What was the inspiration for writing Pleng’s Song?
I wanted to leave something behind for my children so when I’m gone, they can pick up the book and remember me. That was the original stimulus that made me want to write a children’s novel but I also had a wonderful group of special students that helped me with the book. They demanded that I come in with a few pages of the story each day and read to them. As I got about a third of the way through the first draft of the book, the floods hit and I restructured the story because Pleng’s Song was never intended to be a flooding adventure. That happened by accident.
How have your students reacted to the success of Pleng’s Song? Because you’re an author, do you think that inspires your students to put more effort into their writing when you give them an assignment?
The students love the novel and they were very excited to see it in print because some of the events in the story actually happened in our class (Just like in the novel, one of our students got busted by the principal for using her iPhone and another student celebrated a birthday party with ice cream cake). I included these, and other scenes, in the book to show my students how you can take reality, twist it, and then it becomes fiction.
I did this with the principal who is Ms. Sinclair in the story. She is actually Toni Boush who also has reddish curly hair. The difference is Toni loves kids and would never act like Ms. Sinclair. This was a hands-on way for showing students how to create characters. Actually, every character in Pleng’s Song is a person my students knew and could identify. The only exception is the character of Billy. Although he is also based on a real person, he comes from a different place and time in my life.
How do you inspire your students to write? Are there any tips you can share with a new teacher struggling to motivate his/her students to write?
The first thing I do to inspire my students is share some of my own writing and I try to make writing fun. I avoid playing the expert but gently guide children with enthusiasm. I also let students choose their own topics. There is nothing more painful than writing about a topic that doesn’t interest you, so I avoid using writing prompts as much as possible.
My own interest in writing started when I was 8 years old. My dad noticed I had a knack for telling stories so he asked me to write a page a day on any topic. I chose to write stories. My dad praised me and helped me believe in myself, even though I was getting very poor grades in elementary school.
As far as giving advice to new teachers, I think providing choices is essential but obviously, you have to get involved in teaching because you sincerely want to help children. If you have that passion, everything will fall into place as long as you stay abreast of current educational teaching trends.
In Pleng’s Song, the main character has to deal with difficult family issues; an alcoholic mom and a neglectful father. Why did you add those problematic family issues into the story’s plot? What prompted you to have the main character, Pleng, struggle with personal conflict?
I felt these were real issues that surrounded Pleng. The floods were just a vehicle for her to come to a point of self-discovery. As I mentioned, I started the story before the flood crisis so it was essentially going to be the same story minus the floods, but I’ll admit that without the flood adventure, I’m not sure the story would have been so successful.
Will your teaching job allow you enough time to promote your book?
My primary commitment is to teaching children and raising my own kids so they can enjoy a bright future but I am always seeking out book reviews and there should be a few more coming. As far as me trying to get in the public eye, I highly doubt that will ever happen. I prefer to be private and don’t enjoy crowds of people.
Your first novel, Candid Confessions, was the #1 Best Selling foreign book with Amazon Japan. Which of the two books are you most proud of and why? Which novel was more challenging to write?
I wrote Candid Confessions when I was single, in my early thirties, living in Japan. I am much more proud of Pleng’s Song because it’s good for children and it helps them develop their literacy skills. As far as which book was more difficult to write, I’d clearly say it was Pleng’s Song. I was forced to construct simple sentences yet integrate multiple layers of meaning beneath them. As a writer, this is very challenging. Clyde Robert Bulla did this very well with The Chalk Box Kid. It’s very hard to make a story appear like it was easy to write. That’s a sign of a skilled writer.
Do you have any plans for writing another book? What’s next for Patrick Maher?
I’m going to continue writing for children, specifically for English-speaking children in Asia. I’m outlining a teen romance now. There isn’t anybody writing novels for the English-speaking kids in Asia and the only material they can get over here is targeted for Western youth. There is a lot of opportunity for aspiring children authors, all over Asia.
You can visit the author’s website at PlengsSong.com