Candy Gourlay interviewed by Noga Applebaum

Candy Gourlay was born in Manila during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos; after working as a journalist for some years, she moved to the UK in her twenties. Candy is now a full-time writer across a range of medium; short stories, blogs, websites, journalistic features and radio programmes.   

You had a successful career as a journalist, what made you turn your hand to writing for children?

My ambition at first was to be become a picturebook writer, that’s all I wanted from the start. I used to be a comic strip artist. I was a photojournalist and also had a weekly comic strip in one of the magazines in the Philippines.  I can draw, but I’m not an artist – Sarah McIntyre for example is incredible, she thinks in pictures. I think in stories, which is why the comic strip worked for me. I’m doing a graphic novel course now. I love Charlie Brown and Calvin and Hobbs, and material like this isn’t really published today for children. I love the new autobiographical graphic novels like Persepolis – it has a simple drawing quality but has so many layers and such a powerful message.  Or Craig Thompson – he really knows how to tell a story.  I want to do something like that, but there is no time! However, I’m doing a lot of the things that I love, so I shouldn’t complain. My priority is to write novels.

I started writing when I became a stay at home mum and being around the kids all day drove me crazy. I used to see my name in the papers every day, stay at five star hotels and travel all over Asia interviewing important people I was a foreign correspondent selling stories to big newspapers. Suddenly I was in North London staring at brick walls and changing nappies. I thought ‘is this it?’

When I was growing up I wanted to write books, and children’s books were the most formative books of my life – Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton. I loved them so much. But I noticed the absence of Filipinos or any other Asian characters and as a child I thought that there must be a law that forbids Filipinos from being in books and I decided that writing was not for me. As a grownup, I realised that there was no money in writing books in the Philippines. So finding myself in London, I suddenly realised that I had an opportunity. I was in the land of Shakespeare, and I knew how to write and sell stories.

I started writing picturebooks and illustrated them but the more I submitted my work the less I believed in myself as a picturebook artist. An agent told me that I should consider writing novels. I started and it took much longer than I thought – five years to write my first novel. And I wrote four novels before Tall Story was published. One was called Dead Cool, and it had a great premise - a boy finds himself living in the flashbacks of a dying elderly man, but nobody wanted it. I was a Filipino writing about an English boy in an English setting, and it didn’t ‘match’. Publishers are looking for connections between the author and the story because it helps them to sell the book. I realised that you have to write who you are, so I wrote Tall Story and that was picked up.

Both your books draw on myth and folklore – how much of the material is found and how much invented?

A lot of it is real, based on folk tales.  I did a lot of research on giants in folklore for Tall Story. The Philippines is an earthquake country, it is just normal, and my dad used to tell stories about giants, so when the earth moved he would say ‘oh, it’s just Bernardo Carpio shrugging his shoulders’ and he would take us to the mountains to see Bernardo’s handprints, he’s tell us all these stories. The story about the Gods separating from the humans is a Filipino legend – the earth used to be close to the heaven, and people would shout up to the gods and communicate with them. But the noise of the pounding of the rice irritated the gods, so slowly the heaven drifted away. Then there is the myth of Albion – where the daughters of Albion mated with demons and the giants that populated England were their children.  I thought how children of mixed marriages and immigrants mean that you belong in both worlds, but also don’t belong to any world, and this is what Bernardo Carpio’s story is all about. He is rejected by the people, yet he wants to save them. This dynamic is part of my life. 

When I started Shine in 2008 there was a part in the novel which I later cut which connected to the flood.  Manila was flooded, and when the water came down you saw little corpses of animals, it was horrible. My brother had to live upstairs and dive into the kitchen every time he needed food. My Facebook feed was full of such stories, so I thought of a world where it never stopped raining. I wrote a complicated myth about the reason this happened – a monsoon falls in love with a mountain, and gets jealous of the sun who keeps the mountain company when the monsoon is away, but eventually I had to cut it all out because it was taking too long and slowed the pace of the narrative.  

What about the girl who gets pulled from the sea and sucks the life out of the fisherman’s son? Is this invented?

Yes. In all the stories I’ve written there is the question what makes a monster. In Tall Story Bernardo thinks he is a monster, even though others don’t, and in Shine, Rosa is a girl who is called a monster by everyone, and the question is are these characters monsters, how you become a monster. This relates to my own life, I was the tallest in my class, and my family teased me and called the Hulk. It was hard to find shoes for me. I always thought it is unfair that people judge you by your appearance. When I came to the UK, I was also judged – people have their ideas of what a Filipino woman is – usually mail order brides or cleaners, and they didn’t know how to talk to me. I used to ask myself ‘how do I make myself human?’

What attracts you to this folkloric material and how do you see the relationship between myth and reality in your fiction?

My first reader in my mind is always a Filipino, not a British reader, and afterwards I work on it to make the story more accessible. I feel that I have to add to the small pool of original Filipino books for children, because mostly books in the Philippines are imported.  I’m grateful to be accepted there and have my stories on required reading lists in schools. Our society is still caught in-between faith and believing in enchantment. People in the Philippines are able to reconcile religion, science, and animism. And I wanted to show that with respect. I don’t want to send an anti-religious message like Pullman. In the Philippines  everything has a magical quality, in every village there is a witch. They go to witchdoctors because there are no doctors, it’s a poor country. That interplay between reality, faith and magic is therefore always part of my story.  For example, the wishing stone in Tall Story – you never really find out if it had power or not – it is up to the reader to decide.

In both novels magic and myth are rife within small, traditional communities, but the city, London, is depicted as a much more ‘rational’ space.  Why?

That’s the whole tension in Tall Story. But I won’t say the city is devoid of magic – a lot of people are willing to suspend disbelief, but there is a knowingness in this suspension. In Glastonbury I saw people dressed like fairies, and that jarred with me. In the Philippines there is a belief that magic exists in the ordinary world, it is normal and they don’t need all these costumes, it is real. The Philippines is a new country, only 150 years old, and religion was only acquired at a later stage, so in a way the society is a bit like English society pre Wolf Hall.  How Christianity was practised back then. For example, I was once in a cab on the way to talk at a school, and on the radio a woman said that the volcano erupted because there was an old man asking the village for food, and nobody gave him, so this is his punishment. I started laughing, but the driver said ‘don’t laugh! In MY village, when the volcano erupted, there was an old man asking for food…’

Your books engage with superstition as one of the main themes, and both characters suffer as a result of prejudice. Yet even as you ‘debunk’ those beliefs (Bernardo has a hormonal problem, and Rosa has a genetic condition) you still leave room to suggest that perhaps the supernatural does exist. How do you settle this tension?

This space is a good space, it one that the reader wants – that delicious doubt. I like books like that, because the reader creates that last bit of magic, depending on their own reading. Also, books are windows and mirrors, and I don’t want my Filipino readers to hate what they see in the mirror. I want to hold up a mirror, so they can see the superstition, but I want them to also like what they see.

What about you? Do you also tread between the magical and the rational?

I’m afraid I’ve gone to the dark side.  I don’t even like alternative medicine! I think it would be good if people were a little more rational, but it isn’t something you can impose and it will take time.

Bernardo wants to grow but grows too much, while Rosa is seeking a voice and freedom – are these conditions metaphors for gendered teenage anxieties?

I wouldn’t say it is gendered, gender isn’t a big deal in my storytelling. Filipinos are a little insecure about their height, which is why the myth of the giant sprung up. Andy, the sister living in London is also short, and has to fight for her place in the basketball team. Shine was inspired by someone I knew who had delusions that she was someone else. I spent time in chat rooms where people were talking about their delusions, and they really do believe in them, it’s a terrible mental illness. I don’t write metaphors deliberately, but sometimes, after I finish writing I realise that they are there. Everything I write is really based on what is happening to me, I can’t help writing it.

In Shine the internet gives Rosa and Danny a voice and forges their friendship, and in Tall Story a phone saves Jabby’s life. Do you belong to what seems like a minority in children’s literature who view technology as a positive force in young people’s lives?

I love technology! The fear of technology is unfortunate. It allows me to chat to my family abroad, where before it was so difficult and expensive. As a journalist it was such a release – editing on a computer instead of cutting and pasting, emails and fax instead of posted letters, it was just easier.

I do mention ‘stranger danger’ and both Rosa and the reader know that what she is doing is dangerous, but it is also a core part of her life, which is how it is for teenagers today. It was actually something that my publisher David Fickling pointed out to me, and I realised that the internet had to be a turning point in the story.

In Tall Story the phone is really a homage to the Philippians which is the number one text messaging nation in the world. People are texting constantly. I couldn’t not include a phone, because that would be unbelievable.  It had to be an important part of the story, it is not a random choice.

Sibling relationships are at the heart of both novels – what draws you to this theme?

I have six brothers and sisters! I was the second child and a sort of a surrogate mother. My dad left the family to work abroad – as 11% of Filipinos do. It was hard for my mother to cope with six kids, so I helped with the housework. I went shopping in the market every day, plucked chickens and cooked them.  And as it is in every family, especially large ones, there were secret jealousies, and these exist in both my novels.

Tall Story is told from two perspectives – a boy and a girl’s and also challenges gender perceptions. Shine, however, is narrated by Rosa and her mother who are more ‘traditionally’ feminine.  Is you ideal reader the same in both books? Do you feel that your audience has changed as a result of this decision?

My ideal reader is 10+, of both genders, which is the reader of Tall Story.  I made a mistake, and after it was published, instead of taking one of my unpublished novels that I had written already, and working on it, I arrogantly said that I’m going to write a horror story, a vampire novel. It was 2008 and these were very popular. It was supposed to be based on a Filipino folkloristic creature called manananggal, which is a beautiful girl by day, but at night its upper body separates from its legs and it flies and sucks blood.  The idea was great, but the problem was that I didn’t read horror or knew how to write it. I forced myself to write it, and when I finished it I hated it. Simon Mason was my editor, and I was ready for him to tear it to shreds. But he sat me down and for thirty minutes outlined what was great about the novel, and told me that when I rewrite it, not to see it as a ‘fix-it’ job, but to approach it afresh. I went away knowing what my story was but it took me three more years to write. From the point of view of the industry, I should have published a novel within a year from Tall Story to ‘seal’ the readership, but it took me longer, and my readership changed – they grew up.  Children of both genders are still discovering Tall Story, also through school, so I still have young readership, but Shine is mostly read by older girls, though I did have response from a few boys.

Looking at the acknowledgments at the back of Shine, it seems the book went through much editing.  Can you explain some of the process you went through?

At David Fickling they don’t edit, they have conversations. As a journalist I was expecting slash and burn, but really they expect you to work it out on your own. The problem is that I do deep edits, and every time they saw the novel it was completely different book, by the end David said ‘please, stop, no structural edits!’ It took a long time. My new one only took a year to write!

In both books the main character ends up leaving, and having a better future for it, but there is a sense of loss as close friends like Jabby and Danny stay behind. Is this a reflection of your own experience as an immigrant?

This is my life. Leaving things behind is the core of my human experience. It’s a scab I always scratch at. Because even when surrounded by your family, in some ways you are always alone. I have great friends, but only when I go back and reunite with my family do I really laugh my head off. Here I don’t share the same cultural background, my husband gets sentimental about things that I don’t get sentimental about – like old pop songs.

Do you think the children’s book industry is doing enough to reflect the multicultural society existing in the UK today? What changes would you like to see?

To be fair to the book industry, everyone I know is passionate about being able to reflect diversity. The problem is not so much about authors including characters of different cultural backgrounds or race, these do exist, it’s all there already. But these are authors who take on a persona, many are white, and what we have to do is to encourage people from other backgrounds to become part of the book industry. I go to schools and children of all backgrounds enthusiastically declare that they will be authors, but something happens between Year 6, where they feel they can achieve anything, and Year 7, when they go silent and feel they can’t be anything. This is especially true about children from non-white backgrounds. The solution is not so much accusing people  of not doing enough but rather finding ways to approach those who have stories to tell and letting them know that they are allowed to tell them. I never thought that I could be an author, that’s why I became a journalist first. Maybe we can think about grants, or reconsider the literacy syllabus so that they have more role models.

Name five multicultural books that every school library should have on its shelf.

I wrote an article in the Guardian in response to the BBC’s best 500 children’s books list and how they were all from the west. They asked me for an example that should be included, and I said Arabian Nights. Then I did some research and discovered that the one I read as a child was written abridged by a westerner, who even added elements, it wasn’t the original. Then I went to a conference in Singapore and an Indian author I knew handed me her book and it was her retelling of Arabian Nights.  It was released by Puffin India and is to be released in the UK soon.  Her name is Anushka Ravishankar, and the book is called ‘Storyteller: Tales from Arabian Nights’. I was really impressed by that one. I haven’t read that many other books by authors from more diverse backgrounds, I’m as guilty as everyone else.  I’d add the books by Sarwat Chadda, Devil’s Kiss is one for example – a half Pakistani girl who becomes a Knight Templar.  He has a series for younger children which is set in India and includes all the Indian Gods and Folklore. There is also the picturebook So Much by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, which is a bit old, but I loved reading it to my children.

What are you working on at the moment?

It’s a secret, but it is again the wrong book I should be writing…!

Thank you Candy Gourlay for talking to Just Imagine

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