Christina Soontornvat is this month’s interviewee and the author of two 2021 Newbery Award-winning books: A WISH IN THE DARK and ALL THIRTEEN: THE INCREDIBLE CAVE RESCUE OF THE THAI BOYS’ SOCCER TEAM. Engineer, STEM educator and author of many other children’s books, Christina thanks SCBWI Austin for helping to launch her career. Check out some of her other recent interviews and podcasts online too!
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work? I grew up in Weatherford, Texas at a time when the population was around 10,000 people. It was a pretty small-feeling town, and I was one of the only Asian American kids at my school. I made the best friends of my life during those years (still people who are my good friends today!), but I also experienced the othering and alienation that comes along with being different. That experience definitely shaped who I am today and it impacts everything I write. Most of my books explore themes of belonging and family, and those were the themes that ruled my everyday life.
Did you always want to be an author, or did that come later? No, I really didn’t think about being an author. It didn’t even cross my mind as a job you could have. I had never met an author and didn’t have a clue about how you would become one, except that it probably involved moving to New York City. I went to college and studied engineering, became an engineer, then a museum educator. When I was working at the Austin Children’s Museum, I had a meeting with a chemistry professor named Brian Anderson. Brian also happened to write children’s books and he told me all about this organization called SCBWI and encouraged me to come. I came to a meeting and that’s when I started my writing journey!
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see? I take the kids to school in the morning, work, work, work in my office while they are in school, meet them at the bus stop, then it’s a hurricane of soccer practice, making dinner, bedtime, cleaning up. Doesn’t that sound so mundane, haha? If anyone thinks the life of an author is glamorous, I can drive them around in my minivan for a day to disabuse them of that notion!
How does your everyday life feed your work? My kids absolutely influence my work. We are always talking about books or TV shows, or I’m listening to them play or tell jokes to each other. All of that swirl of activity makes its way into my books. And of course I beta-test story ideas on them!
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud. I’m still gobsmacked about winning two Newbery Honors in one year. And I’m very proud of all of the accolades that ALL THIRTEEN has received because I so wanted to represent Thailand and the Thai people to the best of my ability. I’m proud of those recognitions, but I think I’m more proud of the actual work and that I can say that each book has been my very best work at that time. The work is the part that I’m in charge of (I have no control over anything else!), so as long as the work is good, I feel happy with myself.
What surprises you about the creative life? Um, how much email there is? Haha! Seriously though, maybe I’m just surprised that I have a creative life. I always viewed myself as a science-person and here I am, making up stories for a living. Life is wild.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find? I really hope they find a story that pulls them and doesn’t let them go. With every book, I’m aiming to write something that readers get lost in, something that makes the whole world fade away. Getting lost in books is what helped me find myself. And I hope I can create those moments for young readers.
Favorite science museum? Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. This was the museum that turned me into a “museum person” as a kid.
Any predictions for future snowstorms in Austin? Did you have a chance to play in the snow this year? My kids and I played in the snow so much! Mostly because we didn’t have power and what else was there to do but forget our worries and go sledding? I do believe more extreme weather is in our future as the climate continues to change and the planet warms.
First place you’d visit if you could time travel? Ooooh. I’d go back to when my kids were babies and pick them up and snuggle them.