An Interview with 2021 Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist Christina Soontornvat

YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction is awarded each year, chosen from a field of 5 finalists (2021: Candace Fleming’s The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh). This year’s finalists covered a wide range: the space race, a primer on democracy, the memoir of a genocide survivor, and a biography of a complex figure in the narrative of the United States. And then there is Christina Soontornvat’s All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team which takes readers on a harrowing journey underground and into the hearts of the boys, their families, and the international rescue team working to bring them out safely.

Recounting the details of the 2018 event where a team of soccer players and their coach go exploring and find themselves trapped by unseasonable flooding in the cave system of Tham Luang, Soontornvat draws upon her Thai heritage and an immense wealth of empathy and curiosity to tell this gripping and emotional story. In this interview, we talk survival and sports and much more.

THE HUB: This book is so compelling! I, of course, had heard the story of these boys and their coach who had been trapped in this cave. I knew the outcome, and still I was completely captivated. I was nervous. I felt the urgency of the rescue. I was terrified at times! All the while, I knew that the outcome was a good one, was a miraculous one in many ways. How did you do that? What magic were you working to create such intensity and urgency in a story where the outcome was already known?

SOONTORNVAT:  Thank you! That was something I worried about a lot when I was writing – that people who knew how it ended might not want to read it. But really when I was interviewing people who were involved in the rescue, they were still so emotional about what happened. They were there in the flesh when the boys came out alive, and they still kind of got goosebumps and still pinched themselves, saying, we can’t believe this actually worked! It was still very raw for them. So I was just trying to capture that emotion that I felt when I was speaking with them, even though it was 2 months after the rescue took place. 

THE HUB: That timing is fascinating. You were actually in Thailand as all of this was unfolding although you had to come home before the rescue occurred. Is that right?

SOONTORNVAT: Yes! I was visiting in northern Thailand; we weren’t very far away from where the rescue was taking place. And I think that helped, too. I felt it first hand, being in the country, it was of course all over the news. And it built very quickly into this big international story. All of my family, we were all following it so closely all the time. I was checking the Thai Navy SEALS facebook page, getting it translated. I was sleepless that whole first night when they were going to bring them out. And I think there were people all over the world doing the same.

But at the time, I didn’t realize, and I don’t think everyone all over the world realized, just how unsure the rescuers themselves were. I tried to bring that out in the book. Talking to people after they were successful, they could admit how nervous they were. This is all they do. Their job is search and rescue. They’re very undramatic about the work, so when they say they think half of the children will die, that’s serious. 

THE HUB: Oh yeah, I’m thinking of that moment early in the rescue operation, when they weren’t at all convinced they’d even find the boys alive. What stands out in my memory is that moment when the divers first emerge from the water, and they’ve braced themselves for the smell of a decomposing body, and instead they are greeted by the oddly welcoming smell of poop! What a thing to be so joyful about! There’s human waste here!

SOONTORNVAT: Yes! I watched this interview with one of the divers; it was so funny. He was describing that moment and trying to be very polite about it. And he said, “when I came out of the water, I could smell that the boys were close,” and the interviewer said, “Oh that’s so sweet! You could smell them?” I think she thought that he could smell these sweet children like you can smell a baby, and his face was like, “yeah, you do not understand what smell I’m talking about.”

THE HUB: Ha! Totally an unexpected sign of life! About the timing, you have commented that you worried your story might come “too late.” But you also knew you wanted to write this book immediately.

SOONTORNVAT: Yes, we started right away. But I knew there were going to be other books that would come out first. And for the kind of book I wanted to write, I knew I would have to go back to Thailand and spend time there. It’s a long trip, and I wanted to talk to as many people as possible and research as much background into cave diving and the science behind the rescue, and all that would take time. I felt like I was working so fast and furious, but it was still going to take awhile to fact check it and make maps and illustrations. So I did worry that everyone will have read about this and know everything there is to know already. Why would they want to read one more book? My editor had to reassure me: you’re going to have something new to say, something special to say. 

THE HUB: And she was correct, of course! And the connection you made about Own Voices narratives is so important — that it doesn’t matter if someone else has told your story first. Undoubtedly, your family history, your Thai heritage, is a huge part of what sets this book apart, and I wonder if you can speak to how your background affected the process.

SOONTORNVAT: I think my family and my connections in Thailand gave me access to people that I would not have had. We were talking to people in the community that felt comfortable because we were Thai and because I was with my dad. We went into the temple and were given an audience with a senior monk who knew the children and Coach Ek. And my dad has been a monk before, so he knew exactly how to speak with him. There’s a lot of social rules and manners that are important when you’re having those kinds of conversations. 

I think I was also able to pick up on things that others wouldn’t – for instance, when I learned that the boys hugged their divers. That said a lot. I don’t know if a Western reporter would have seen that as meaningful as I saw it. Or when the families made offerings in front of the cave. That is very common; you see it everywhere in Thailand. But sometimes I would see people report it as a strange thing, almost ridiculing country people for doing that. And I knew how important that was for their culture and their spirituality, so I wanted to treat that with the utmost respect. There’s no way I could have written a book like this if I hadn’t had those connections and the experiences all my life of going back and forth between Thai and Western culture, trying to make sense of it, explaining it to people and to myself.

THE HUB: That comes through also in the ways that you didn’t privilege the Western versions of leadership. There were so many narratives that lifted those that might otherwise have been ignored – like the team of villagers that kept the rescuers supplied, or the engineering expertise required to pump out the water. I’m not sure that those stories would have been told in any other book. Through them all, the people really shine. Not just the roles they played, but their personalities, their hearts. With so many people involved, how were you able to make each individual so alive?

SOONTORNVAT: Just getting to talk to all of the people involved and getting to know them! Everyone was so kind and so open. They shared so much with me, even things that were revealing about how the rescue was conducted. They didn’t hold anything back. And we’re friends now! We text each other still, especially every time there’s an award, I text them: “Hey we got another recognition!” And they’re so excited!

I felt a lot of responsibility to portray them as real people and even flawed people. Like Vern Unsworth, he admits freely to some of the mistakes he made when he was communicating during the rescue. I thought that was so vulnerable and honest of him to do that.

Going into it, I wanted to write the book because I saw a narrative of hero worship taking over the story. For instance, if you Googled anything about the rescue, one of the top results that would come up was about Elon Musk, who actually had hardly any involvement in the final rescue. But he’s a celebrity, so he was prominent in the conversation about the cave rescue. So I wanted to make sure that the people who worked so hard, who often don’t have a lot, saw themselves in the book. They deserved to have their photograph in the book and to truly be called heroes.

THE HUB: So true. You have shared that one of the most important questions to ask is “What part of this experience was unexpected or likely overlooked?” And the responses were often “the water!” Clearly you listened because the book emphasized the challenge and disruption and harm of that water. How did that emphasis come to be?

SOONTORNVAT:  Definitely. I kept hearing, you’ve got to talk to this guy Thanet, so I did, and I was blown away by what he told me. Most of what he was doing didn’t happen where the media were at base camp. All their interviews and focus was on the divers, but his work was all over the place – down at these springs and up on the mountain, and he was working non-stop. He kept a diary. He’s an engineer, a very methodical, data-driven person, so he was taking photographs and recording data every day in great detail. He shared that with me, and it was, without question, the most powerful piece of research. And he’s Thai American, so he speaks English fluently and has lived in the United States, so he understood the differences in the ways people were communicating. He could see the tension between the Western rescuers and the Thai leadership and could navigate that in a way that I could relate to.

I think the pure power of the water was something I wanted to bring out in the story – how much there was, how strong it was, and how they just could not beat it. It was like a tiny ant taking on a force of nature, this incredible story that had to go in the book.

THE HUB: It certainly did. Let’s go underground! Have you been caving?

SOONTORNVAT: I have been! The first time I went, it was this cave on a friend’s property, nothing touristy at all. And it was really long, so we had to crawl through mud and wade through water, and get on our bellies and slither through. I’ve done others, less intense, more tourist-oriented experiences. I think it really helped me in the book to know what it feels like to be that far underground and be a little freaked out. But I liked it, so I completely understand the cavers like Vern who would rather be underground in a cave than anywhere else. It is very magical.

THE HUB: There is definitely something terrifying and wonderful about that sense of exploration and that willingness to go where you don’t know what’s next – for both the boys as they explored the cave and for the rescuers! They had to do things that had never been tried before. They had to make decisions about how to get those boys out, and they could not know what might happen.

SOONTORNVAT: Oh yeah. And to hear the people who cave for a living and then have them say, “I can’t believe those boys made it 10 days before they were found. Most people would go mad.” 

THE HUB: There were even some suggestions the boys could just wait out the rainy season? Some thought they might just bring them supplies and they’d stay underground for months?

SOONTORNVAT: Yes, though that wasn’t suggested by anyone who caves for a living or any of the local people who knew the caves and the climate. But they just thought diving the boys out sounded so dangerous, and they thought half of them might die in the process. But leaving them would have been a disaster because the cave flooded even more, and even seven months later, it was still too flooded to go inside.

THE HUB: You make minor mention of the fact that the patterns of these rainy seasons are changing, that climate change is making this type of weather less and less predictable, and it’s undoubtedly still on your mind after losing power and water in your home of Texas during the recent winter storms.

SOONTORNVAT: Oh yes. Actually the next book I have coming out is a picture book about climate change. There’s no question that we are in the middle of it. It’s something we are all going to be continuously dealing with, and it happened to catch those boys. It was a freak occurrence. If it had been any other year, they would have come right back out and gone to that birthday party. 

THE HUB: You said at the Celebration of Nonfiction event, that you went into this book thinking it was going to be about how if we all work together, great things can happen, and it is about that. But you emerged thinking more about that positive outlook, the necessity of a calm, forward-thinking, hope-centered outlook. I can’t help but draw the line between that idea and our current conversation around climate change and how easy it would be to despair. In the face of big problems like climate change, this book would argue that you have to keep that hope, but hope alone isn’t enough, right? There’s hope plus a lot of problem solving?

SOONTORNVAT: Absolutely. That theme of where is your mind, what state is your mind in, that just kept coming up. Every person I spoke to talked about that in some way. The rescuers, for example Major Charles Hodges of the U.S. Air Force and his team, basically all they do is crisis problem solving. They’re doing search and rescue or responding to some sort of environmental crisis or battle. To solve the problem properly, you have to detach your emotions a little bit. You have to be positive and believe in the possibilities, and you have to avoid panic. 

That’s what the cave divers say, too. If you’re going to live doing this most dangerous thing in the world, you have to have a positive attitude and when you get into a crisis, your oxygen ticks away, and you’re watching your meter go down, and you cannot lose it. That’s when people die. I realized the way they talked about it was really similar to the meditation that Buddhist monks do. They’re breathing very calmly, they’re keeping their heart rate very low. 

So all of these things kept circling around this idea that your mind is everything. It’s not about how physically strong you are or how smart you, or even how experienced you are. It’s about that mentality. Of course you can be in a tragic situation where no matter how strong your mind, you might not survive, and that’s not your fault. But the common element in so many survival stories is that the difference between those who made it and those who didn’t was their mentality.

THE HUB: It feels a little irreverent to pivot from literal survival stories to sports, but soccer turns out to be the perfect metaphor for this story. That sense of not giving up, even when it seems there’s no chance of a win, when you do everything in your power to finish that game well. There’s no place in soccer for a player to think, “We’re down 3-0, and I’m going to take control of this game on my own” like you might see in basketball or in baseball, where the Grand Slam can feel like such an individual achievement. And it feels like a particularly good way to connect to younger readers, who may not be able to see themselves in a story of arctic survival but might relate to those boys as teammates. Would you agree? How do you see the role of sports in your book?

SOONTORNVAT: I really do think that helped those boys. They were not going into this situation unprepared. They had been working together as a team. Of course, they hadn’t been doing survival training, but they knew each other, they had practiced relying on each other. And exactly what you mentioned – it’s about playing through even when you know you’re not going to win. It’s about playing your best and doing it for your team. That’s not easy. There are a lot of people who can’t do that because they’ve never had to face it before.

One thing I want kids to know, reading this book, is you have what it takes. You may not think of yourself as some hardcore survivor, but you have what it takes if you’ve played a sport, if you’ve worked with a group in your class. Right now, one thing I see kids doing with virtual learning is they’re really encouraging each other, they’re staying together even though they can’t physically be together. 

I had this one sweet moment in a virtual author visit the other day. I had given the whole presentation about the book, and one girl raised her hand and said, “I just think if I had been there in the cave, I would not have made it. I just don’t think I could do that.” And all her classmates in the chat were like, “Yes you could! We know you could! We wouldn’t let you die. We would be together!” It was so sweet!

I do hope that kids relate to the book and see that these boys are very ordinary, and that’s what makes them so special.

THE HUB: I keep thinking of the decision the boys made when they were going to be in a parade and whether to wave to the crowd or to wai (traditional Thai greeting). They had to decide how to receive their fame. Did they embrace it, or was that fame unwanted?

SOONTORNVAT: That’s my very favorite story about them! You  know, I think they did enjoy having fame! I think they loved the attention. They got lots of presents. It would be hard for any tween or teen not to be excited about that. And they were getting to do all these exciting things!

The fact that at the height of that, they did something that was very humble, it made me feel really good about who they were. When I heard that, my first thought was, “their parents must be so proud!” How many grown-ups can we think of that aren’t so grounded and self-aware? 

That’s their culture. That’s their coach being a good example. That’s coming from a small town. That’s also who they are, and it’s part of good sportsmanship. Most of us want our kids to play sports because of these life lessons they learn. Very few of us care if they make the Premier League! We just want them to be stronger, good people, and sports definitely teaches you that. 

THE HUB: That is so true. Is there any element of this story that you uncovered in your research but that you weren’t able to fit in the final version?

SOONTORNVAT: It’s very hard to pick one! But I’ll say this: out of all of the photographs that people shared with me (which I was so grateful for because it brought so much life to the story), the last photographs that we cut because we didn’t have any more room were these photos of volunteers and Thai military on site, and they were completely passed out, their bodies draped over empty air canisters or just lying directly on the ground. The photo said so much about how tired they were, that any moment they had to rest, they just collapsed. The volunteers that I talked to said they slept for days after it was over. They were exhausted.  

THE HUB: Wow. That says so much about their commitment, both physical and emotional! 

Christina, thanks so much for this interview, and congratulations to you on all the awards you’ve enjoyed this year. We’ll be looking forward to the new picture book and whatever else is on the horizon for you!