Zibby speaks to debut author Cecile Pin about Wandering Souls, a poetic, immersive, and heartbreaking tale of three orphaned Vietnamese siblings who arrive as refugees in Thatcher’s Britain and must rebuild their lives from scratch, alone. Cecile explains how her mother’s refugee story inspired this novel and what it was like to imagine and write about the atrocities experienced by her ancestors. She also describes her writing trajectory, from philosophy student to editorial assistant to London Writers Award recipient. Finally, she reveals the authors who inspire her and shares her best piece of advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cecile. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your beautiful novel, Wandering Souls.

Cecile Pin: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Your book is so good. It’s so good and so captivating from the very first scene. It’s so cinematic. I felt like I could see every scene that you wrote about, and yet so horrific. By page twenty, I was already gasping out loud. You immediately immerse the reader in the story, the characters. You feel like you’re there. It was so amazing. Great job.

Cecile: Thank you.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners what the book is about?

Cecile: The book is partly based on my family history because my mom was a Vietnamese boat people who left — she was in Laos at the time. She left Laos, spent about a year at a refugee camp in Thailand, and then moved to France. On the journey, she lost her parents and five of her siblings in unknown circumstances. In the book, you’ve got Anh, Thanh, and Minh, three siblings who leave Vietnam and then spend a few months at a refugee camp in Hong Kong before settling in the UK during the Margaret Thatcher era, so in the late seventies, early eighties. Like my mom, they’ve lost their parents and their four younger siblings to the sea. They’re really finding themselves in this new land having to deal with grief and building new lives from scratch. I’ve also intertwined chapters, and they’re the perspective of Dao, who’s their deceased little brother, and also some nonfiction elements. There’s a bit of archival research and newspaper articles from real life events that happened in the book as well.

Zibby: Those were actual articles? You didn’t make them up?

Cecile: They’re articles based on truth, but I rewrote them and made them my own.

Zibby: Wow. The way you did that, too, where you have a scene and then you show us — for instance, when the group of Vietnamese people ended up in Thailand in those horrific conditions and the woman running from the burning bush on fire and what they did with the women, oh, my gosh, it’s so awful. I was just looking at the newspaper. It’s so awful what’s going on — not to make this political, but similar to the atrocities happening right now in Ukraine with the — all this stuff is going on. It’s just reported. Then you have a story like yours where you get us into the people’s minds. We feel like we are on the boat or in the refugee camp or even dealing with not being able to speak the language. The way you did it, it was just so well-done that I really felt like I was living this experience.

Cecile: Thank you. It can be hard. We read so many news articles about the refugee crisis that are always happening, in Ukraine at the moment and in different countries. I think it can be easy to feel a bit numbed by them. In the book, I really wanted to make their lives and their voices come to life. I really wanted people to empathize with the characters and really humanize refugees as well.

Zibby: How much do you know of what happened to your mom?

Cecile: I don’t know a lot. It’s something we don’t really talk about too much. I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted the book to have this fragmented narration, to sort of reflect the way that I learned about my family history, which is something that I learned throughout the years bit by bit. My mom would tell me something that happened at the camp or something that happened on the boat. I don’t really know how my grandparents and my uncles and aunts passed away. I don’t know if it was drowning. I don’t know if it was by pirates or something. There’s lots of gaps left. I just know the timeline. I know that she was in Thailand. I know that she then came to France. That’s one of the reasons why I made the book also fictional and why I set it in the UK, which was a way for me to fill in those gaps with the power of fiction as well.

Zibby: Tell me about your training and how you became an author. Tell me all of your background and how this novel came to be.

Cecile: I didn’t grow up speaking English. I started learning English when I was nine. I didn’t do creative writing in English when I was a child. I liked doing it in French as well. It was one of my favorite subjects in school, but it’s not something that I ever thought I could do.

Zibby: Wait, where in France did you grow up?

Cecile: Paris.

Zibby: Amazing. Keep going.

Cecile: I loved writing. I moved to the UK when I was eighteen to do philosophy. I started just writing essays. Then I thought maybe I would go into journalism and so on. Then I joined the publishing industry when I was twenty-one, I believe. I worked at Penguin Random House for a few years as an editorial assistant. From that point on, I started reading even more fiction. I think I became a bit less intimidated by the idea of writing a novel because I was in that world already. I was gaining in confidence as well. Then the pandemic came. I suddenly had more free time. I was also reckoning a bit with my age and identity. I was becoming more curious about my Asian heritage and doing more research on my own. Brexit was happening as well, so I was also thinking about my place in the UK and the place of my parents in the UK. All those elements came together at the right time. I just began writing the book with really no expectations. I was just doing it for myself. Then I entered the London Writers Awards, which is an award where if you get in, you’re in this program, almost like an MA, where you have writing groups and seminars and so on. I got in for the 2021 cohort, which really helped me, gave me a bit more of a structure in taking my writing more seriously. From January ’21 is when I really started writing the book more intensely, I would say.

Zibby: Tell me about the story of how it sold and all of that.

Cecile: I signed with my agent in the summer of 2021. I wrote the book for about six months quite intensely. Then during the summer, we worked a bit on edits. One of the big editorial work was making Anh, Thanh, and Minh, their narrative parts a bit more fleshed out and adding more details and things like dialogue and so on. We did a bit of that. Then we submitted in September 2021 to the UK first and then 4th Estate, which is part of HarperCollins. Preempted the book in twenty-four hours, which was really amazing because she was , my dream publisher. From then on, we got a preempt as well in the US from Henry Holt, from Ruby Rose Lee, who’s now left. That was also amazing. It all happened really fast, which I’m grateful for because I think it would’ve been quite stressful to have that long period of having to wait to hear back from editors. Then from then on, we got some international territories as well. We’re up to eleven international territories now as well, which is really beyond anything I could have imagined. Then I worked on the edits more for about six months with both the US and UK editor. Now here we are. The book got published last week in the UK. It’s getting published 21st of March in the US.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so exciting. You wrote it in English, didn’t you?

Cecile: Yes, I wrote it in English. I’ve been living here for almost eight years now. English has weirdly become my first language, in a way. It’s the language that I did my studies, my bachelor and master’s, in. I see French as the language of my childhood now. I think I have a bit more of an elaborate relationship with English language. I feel more at ease writing in English now.

Zibby: In the book, there’s a faded, soon-to-be-damaged photo of the family when they were intact. Do you have a photo like that of your family? Does your mom have photos?

Cecile: Yeah, we have a few photos for my family, so I’m able to see what they looked like, what my aunts and uncles looked like and what my grandparents looked like. Like in the book as well, we have a little altar. Once a year, we burn incense for them, which is a very lovely tradition.

Zibby: Was it hard for you revisiting — these are not such happy moments, necessarily, that you’re writing about. It’s tough to put yourself in these situations. When you were doing the act of writing it and putting yourself in the scene so that you could write about it and make the rest of us feel so immersed, how was that process for you? Did you find yourself getting really upset? You seem like a very even-keeled person, even though I barely know you. You seem very even. Did it destabilize you at all? Did it make you really emotional? Tell me about that.

Cecile: Part one was definitely mentally challenging. It’s the part where, again, I was reading and learning about the sexual assaults and the horrible things that would happen to refugees on the journey. That took a bit of a toll on me. I was writing at night because at the time, I was — I’ve now left publishing, but I was still working in publishing back then. I had to write between ten PM and two AM. It felt quite lonely. There was a global pandemic as well. It’s funny, I don’t really remember now. I feel like I’ve sort of blocked it out of my memory. I do remember feeling quite upset. At the time, I was also very aware that I had to take care of myself. I would always try and make sure to talk to friends when I could, go to the gym when the lockdown was over, and try and have seven hours of sleep, boring things as well just to keep my mental health at a good level. It was hard. I didn’t want to ask my mom too many questions as well because I didn’t want to destress her. I wanted the book to come from me. I wanted the characters to come from me and not be based on my family. It was a lonely process, for sure, but it was also a very rewarding one and quite a cathartic experience. I came out of it feeling much more at ease with myself and with my history and with my family’s story.

Zibby: Has your mom read the book?

Cecile: She did, yeah. I gave her an early copy in October. She was very happy. I think it was probably hard for her. She liked that even though especially the first half is quite hard, it ends on a hopeful note. There’s some happiness and some lightness as well. She said that, “I felt like I was there in the camp.” I was relieved because I was so worried all the time about if I had gotten the details right and everything. I felt this burden of responsibility to really be as accurate as possible. I was quite relieved when she said that it felt accurate to her.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. What about your dad’s story? What’s his family story like?

Cecile: He’s French. He grew up in the suburbs of Paris. He’s got four brothers, so they’re five boys. We still live quite near to my grandma in Paris now, which is nice. I think they met through work.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I have this growing group of authors who have been on my podcast who live in Paris. I don’t know why. I keep adding people to the group when I interview a new person from Paris. If you want, I can introduce you to the rest of them if you’re interested.

Cecile: Yes, please. That would be great. Thank you.

Zibby: I feel like we’re up to five. They go for coffee now.

Cecile: I’d love that.

Zibby: I don’t even know how it started. I was like, you have to meet this other person I just interviewed. Maybe your publicist can share your email. I’ll put you on a chain with all of them. I feel like Paris must be so — this is stereotypical. Just the idea of the glamor and the literary history of Paris and the cafés and all of that must make you feel so literary and inspired, versus the loud noise and dirt and craziness of New York City right now. Do you still feel like that? Do you feel that rich history of the literary ?

Cecile: I do. I’m still in London. I’m mostly based in London. I go back to Paris a few times a year just to see my family. I feel like Paris is quiet. You can go and work at a café. No one really pays attention to you. I do enjoy going back to Paris and work there when I can as well. I’m going to start working on book two this summer. I’m planning on going to France to do that. It would be nice for me to have a bit of a change of scenery and be back in my home country, get renewed inspiration.

Zibby: What is your next book going to be about? Do you know?

Cecile: I don’t know. It’s still in the very early process. I think it will be more contemporary than this one and probably less personal. This one was so personal to write and, as we said, quite mentally draining. For this new one, I just want it to be more freeing and maybe a bit of a love story as well. I think it’ll probably take place in the present day. Still in the very early stages.

Zibby: What made you write — do you pronounce it Dao?

Cecile: Yes.

Zibby: What made you write his story formatted almost like poetry? What was that about?

Cecile: It was hard to get his voice right because he’s a child. He’s very young. The formatting in the book, the sentences are not linear. They kind of go in zigzags. For me, that was just to show on the page, that idea of wandering. He’s not very settled. He’s always moving around. Having those very short sentences was to reflect that. It’s just how I imagined a ghost would be, someone who’d always be in a place in between this world and the world of the deceased. It’s just how I imagined it. I was very inspired by writers like Max Porter as well, and Jenny Offill and writers who play a bit with form like that.

Zibby: You have to read this book. We have a book coming out from Zibby Books called Here After by Amy Lin. I would love you to blurb it or look at it or whatever. She also plays with form when she’s writing. That’s a very important component of her story of loss and everything.

Cecile: I’d love to take a look. Thank you.

Zibby: I feel like you would like that. So much for me to do with you after this. Who else do you like to read aside from Jenny Offill?

Cecile: I love Ocean Vuong. I owe a lot to his writing. Him and Cathy Park Hong, they’re two writers that gave me more confidence in the story I wanted to tell and my identity as an Asian person in the West. I love writers like Han Kang as well. I was very inspired by Human Acts, which is a Korean novel which starts during a Korean student uprising in the 1980s. In the book, it starts with the death of a character. You then have different voices reckoning with the aftermath of that uprising. I like that. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is another one that was very inspiring. Atonement by Ian McEwan, that was a very good novel. I love how he plays with the idea of the power of storytelling to reckon with a past. It’s something that I was really inspired by. Maggie Nelson, I quote The Red Parts in the epigraph. I love, again, her way of mingling poetry and fiction and nonfiction. Lots of different inspirations.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Cecile: One advice that I have maybe a bit more for writers of color, but I think for all writers as well, is just to not feel limited in who you can be inspired by and what you can write about. I think you should feel free to be inspired by whoever you want. Don’t feel pressured by what you think people expect you to write as well. Feel free to just write what you want to write. That’s an advice I got which I thought was really helpful for me as well. Then I would also say to really find out what works best for you. You always have people telling you you have to write in the morning and people who tell you that you have to write a certain number of words per day. I think you also have to spend a bit of time getting to know yourself and knowing, what time are you the most creative? What works best for you and your mental health as well? I think there’s not just one way to be a writer. Everyone’s so unique.

Zibby: That’s great. When you’re not writing or working in publishing or whatever, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Cecile: I like to read, of course. They kind of go hand and hand, don’t they, writing and reading? I love to go to movies. I like to go traveling as well. I’m going to be doing a bit of traveling. I’m going to come to New York, actually, in May, which I’m really excited about. I’m quite boring, really. See my friends, going to exhibits. I live in London, which is a great city. Then I try and go hiking as well if I can. I love food as well. I love cooking and finding restaurants and all that.

Zibby: Amazing. When you’re here in May, let me know if you want to come by.

Cecile: I will.

Zibby: Cecile, thank you so much. This has been so lovely. You’re so chic and sophisticated. I just love it. You have such a cool energy to you.

Cecile: Thank you. You’ve got a beautiful house as well.

Zibby: Thank you very much. Congratulations on your book. I’ll be rooting for you. Take care.

Cecile: Thank you so much, Zibby. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.



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