When Thao Thai set out to write her first novel, Banyan Moon, she did it in fits and starts. With a young daughter at home, Thai frequently found herself distracted by questions like, “Did I remember to do Girl Scout registration?” So when it came time really hunker down and write, Thai sought refuge outside of the home. “I went to hotels for ‘mini retreats.’ I would have my daughter and husband come for the first part of it, and they would go downstairs and swim in the hotel pool. Then we’d have dinner together and then they’d leave,” Thai tells Bustle. “Honestly, the hotels that will do 24-hour coffee service are lifesavers. I would over-caffeinate and then write a little bit at the desk, a little bit at the bed. Sometimes if there was a nice courtyard, I’d go out there and do that. I would just do a marathon for hours and hours.”
Thai considers herself a “second chance” writer. She received her MFA in creative writing from Ohio State, but afterward she took off nearly a decade from the craft. “It was actually when I became a mother that I reengaged with books in a meaningful way and started writing again. Motherhood really unlocked my creativity,” Thai says. It also led her to the premise of Banyan Moon, her highly evocative and heavily atmospheric debut which follows the lives of the three Tran women. Set in a Gothic, dilapidated house in the Florida swamplands, Thai explores both the fraught and thorny corners of mother-daughter relationships. “[Motherhood] really made me impassioned to tell some stories that might be hidden. Especially within the diaspora immigrant experience, in which motherhood gets extremely flattened.”
To Thai, there is nothing flat about being a mom: a stance she’s eager to shed light on in her fiction, as well as reflecting on her own experience. “A lot of people think of motherhood as this monolithic experience where it’s either all sacrifice, all drudgery, or the super Pollyanna version,” she says. “For me, the reality was somewhere in between, and I really wanted that to be a part of that conversation.”
Below, Thai reflects on Gardetto's mix, bath oils, and inbox zero.
On getting reading recs from BookTok:
For a while, I had a hard time engaging with work that demanded a lot from me. So I just finished this really fun book called Fourth Wing, which has taken BookTok by storm. It’s like this combination of the Hunger Games plus Game of Thrones about a woman with a physical disability who enters this very elite military force to train kids to ride dragons. There’s also an enemies-to-lovers situation. It’s like 500 pages but it flies by because it’s so fun.
On raiding the vending machine:
I really love a Gardetto’s mix. I was visiting the vending machines a lot [when staying in hotels], and it actually made me feel like I used to as a kid, when your parents would give you a dollar and you would just pick out anything. It was all junk but it was just the most satisfying thing. Once at a hotel I actually found Funyuns, which made me really happy because it’s a super vintage snack.
On the recipe for a perfect bath:
I could talk about the pleasures of bath for days and days. I love having a nice bath with good bubbles — I like the little Lush bath oil ones — and I like a sparkly seltzer nearby and a good book. That’s the perfect reward.
On the power of a delayed email:
I’m big on “inbox zero.” And I have a very complicated file system. There are seven levels of folders, so organizing my inbox or responding to emails that I don’t need to be responding to is my form of procrastination. Then sometimes I’m like, “Maybe there’s such a thing as too accessible.” So the delay sends on Gmail have changed my life. Because I might respond to the email within minutes, but I’ll delay it so that I don’t set a precedent for people to be like, “Oh yeah, she’s just going to hop to this.”
On having a multi-purpose writing desk:
My writing desk faces a couple of cork boards. The cork boards were initially supposed to be for plot outlines and inspiration, but my daughter is quite the artist. She loves painting and crafting so she’s filled up both of those cork boards with her art. I find that that’s honestly just as inspiring.
But my actual desk has a cutting mat on it for sewing and a projector system because I’m also a sewist. I make all of my daughter’s clothes and some of my own. So half the time it’s a real writing desk, but another portion of the time I kind of set everything aside and have all my fabric and scissors laid out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.