Tall Tales and Short Stories Blog Interview
10 May 2010
Hi Candy and welcome. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?
I have been a web and graphic designer, a cartoonist, a press photographer and a voice-over artist for Filipino movies that needed American accents … but for most of my life I have been a journalist.
I suppose you could say I reported on dictators in the Far East. I covered the People Power revolution in the Philippines and I wrote about the 40th anniversary of Kim Il Sung in North Korea – which happened to coincide with the Olympics being held in Seoul.
When I married the Financial Times correspondent in Manila and moved to England, I continued to write – as London Correspondent of Inter Press Service and occasionally contributing to Asiaweek (a now defunct weekly magazine owned by Time Magazine). I later set aside journalism to do battle with dictators of the nappy clad variety … three in all (now aged 18, 15 and 11). Eventually, I took up website design to avoid doing the dishes.
Now that my book TALL STORY is going to be published, I hope to take procrastination to new levels by social networking full time under the guise of promoting my books.
Andi desperately hopes her long lost half brother Bernardo will be as mad on basketball as she is. But when he steps off the plane from the Philippines, she can’t believe her eyes.
“Tall Story combines wry humour and profound comment on cultural identity … convincing, witty and poignant” The Bookseller children’s book choice for June 2010
“It isn't often that I am in fits of laughter one minute and in tears the next - TALL STORY is one of the warmest, funniest, most moving books I've read in a long time - and Candy Gourlay is a rare and new voice in children's fiction.“ Bella Pearson, editorial director, David Fickling Books
What inspired you to write TALL STORY?
For years now, I’ve had this idea for a book, about a boy suffering from gigantism who would be so desperate to become a basketball star that he refuses to have the operation to stop his growth and save his life. I thought a boy with gigantism would strike a chord with teenagers who often say they feel like freaks, outsiders.
I happened to tell my sister Joy about my yet unformed idea, and she said she knew a real giant. His name was Ujang Warlika.
Joy’s husband Bong Ramos is a pro coach who has worked with teams in Southeast Asia and Ujang was a teenager from the Indonesian backwater of Bandung who was recruited to Aspac, Bong’s then team. Ujang was 7 feet 4 inches tall and the basketball recruiters hoped that he would become another Yao Ming – the Chinese giant of the same height who earns millions in the American basketball circuit.
But Yao Ming is a tall man born of tall parents and Ujang was not tall, he suffered from the disease, Gigantism which is caused by excessive growth hormone produced by the pituitary gland. Poor Ujang died in 2007 from his illness.
Because of his health problems, Ujang often wasn’t fit enough to play. So he often sat in the sidelines with my niece, Camille – Bong and Joy’s daughter – who even as a tiny 10 year old was a fervent basketball fan. Camille, now 17, is an awesome basketball player.
You incorporate Philippine folklore and superstition into your story. The story of Bernardo Carpio, witches, the wishing stone, are they all based on real beliefs and superstition?
When I was growing up, my father was always pointing out mountains and valleys and telling us children the stories of their origins. That is a broken hearted girl who lay down in her grief and turned into a mountain. See, that is her waist and hip. Those are the handprints of a giant who pushed the mountains apart.
When I tried to research my father’s stories, I found so many versions – Philippine folklore is handed down in the oral tradition, adapted by storytellers to suit the audience.
Giants, in particular, are prevalent in the folkloric traditions of countries that sit on the Pacific Ring of Fire. – a fault on the earth’s crust which means calamity in the form of volcanoes and earthquakes, is never far away. In the Philippines we always say that earthquakes are caused by the shrugging of the giants who shape the landscape.
The Philippines’ most famous giant is Bernardo Carpio – who is said to have saved the area of Montalban from destruction by holding apart the sides of a massive fissure. It is impossible to pin this story down: every comic, film and fairy tale written about Bernardo Carpio puts a different spin on the story.
Description Bernardo Carpio's legend being told in the comic book of the same title by Mario "Guese" Tungol with art by Ricky A. Serrano.
Sourcehttp://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images?p=bernardo+carpio∋=20&ei=UTF-8&fr=yfp-t-203&xargs=0&pstart=1&b=1 Article Bernardo Carpio
Purpose of use Visual representation of the character.
I’ve read stories that portray Bernardo Carpio as a Samson character, as an Atlas with the world on his back, even as a time traveller ... and, in the colonial era when the Philippines was ruled first by Spain and then by the United States, Bernardo Carpio was an anti-imperialist revolutionary!
TALL STORY is my own Bernardo Carpio story, set in our world: a world in which Globalization impinges on our most fundamental relationships, where a boy can be separated for most of his childhood from his mother, and where cultures inevitably come into collision.
As for witches and wishing stones … I once worked on a coffee table book travelling across the Philippines interviewing witches – not the ones with the pointy hats and brooms, but people who combined faith and magic in providing services to poor communities.
At the heart of the story is a long separation – in which Nardo is stuck in the Philippines, kept from joining his family in London by immigration paperwork. I was rather shocked to read about the length of time it took for him to be granted permission to join his mother in England. Is this based on fact, can it take this long for visas to be approved?
And sometimes, they are not approved at all.
When I first arrived in England 20 years ago, it was a common story – mothers separated from husbands and children. The system has changed now and things are much improved – Bernardo’s problem would be an aberration. But even today, Filipinos who are permanent residents or British citizens (like me) cannot be confident that their family will be granted visas to visit them in the UK. When I invited my brother to England upon his graduation from secondary school, he was denied a visa because he fit the profile of someone who might become an illegal immigrant.
Filipinos are no strangers to separation. Since the 1980s, there has been a massive migration phenomenon –it is believed that more than 2,000 migrant workers leave the Philippines every day.
As a journalist living abroad, this has been the subject of most of my reportage. In 2005, I wrote and presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary Motherless Nation, about the children left behind by the migration phenomenon. Any Filipino can name a relative or friend who left the country in search of a livelihood.
The Philippine economy in the 80s was in such a bad state that my father left his architectural practice to work in Africa and the Middle East. My older sister has worked across Southeast Asia as a rock singer, her husband coaches basketball teams in Indonesia and Brunei. My younger brother jokes that he is a ‘tourist teacher’ – he teaches in English-speaking schools around Asia.
Did you have to get any help with the basketball references or are you a fan yourself?
Like the mum in TALL STORY declares to her exasperated daughter, Filipinos love basketball – it’s as important a cultural staple as rice.
When I was a child, there was a basketball goal nailed to a telegraph pole on every street (I think this habit is no longer allowed). Filipinos love to say that we were colonized for 50 years by Hollywood when we were under American rule. But sometimes I think we were colonized by the NBA!
Did I get help with the basketball references? Well I kind of knew enough, although so much has changed since I was a proper fan.
I had to double-check my basketball on the internet and my sons, who are big fans, were a great help. And Andi and Bernardo’s basketball heroes are hall-of-famers like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Michael Jordan, who are now part of basketball history.
The narrative is told from both female, Andi’s, and male, Nardo’s, first-person perspective. Did you find one character easier to inhabit and write than the other?
The first line of the book is in the voice of Andi, Bernardo’s sister who grew up in England: “So many armpits, so little deodorant.” It’s also the first line I ever wrote and it popped into my head without any thinking whatsoever.
Andi wrote her own chapters. It was like automatic writing. I just kind of roughly sketched out in my head what I wanted to happen, positioned my hands on the keyboard, and Andi spoke. It’s not that I inhabited her character. She inhabited me. Her voice arrived fully formed.
Andi came on so strong that I was terrified that Bernardo would not find his voice. I was writing chapters and chapters of Bernardo’s scenes in this really bland voice and by comparison, Andi sounded so much more interesting. The other difficulty was that Bernardo’s chapters are of course written in English but it is understood that he thinks and speaks in his native Tagalog.
And then I got to the scene where Bernardo steps off the plane and we hear him speak in English for the first time. And he says: “I am glad you meet me.”
Suddenly I had Bernardo’s voice. I guess until he actually met Andi, I had not yet met the complete character! I went back and rewrote all his chapters!
Did you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your book?
I did read the first draft of my unpublished adventure story Ugly City to my daughter’s Year Six class, a chapter a week. It was a great experience because the children audibly GASPED during exciting moments and they got so emotionally caught up with the characters.
Every summer, I take neighbourhood children as well as my own to our cottage on the South Coast and last year, I was reading chapters ofTALL STORY to the younger ones in the garden when I realized that even the teenagers who were sitting in a great big walnut tree above us had begun to listen. They only let me stop reading when I ran out of chapters. For me, I think that afternoon made all the hard work worthwhile. Everything else now is a bonus.
Is TALL STORY a standalone novel or do you hope to return to Andi and Nardo’s story again?
TALL STORY is a standalone novel.
It did worry me at one point when it seemed the only publishing contracts going out were for series fiction or trilogies. I thought I’d embarked on the wrong road ... again!
Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of TALL STORY?
I don’t, like so many writers, write a book through to the end in draft and only then rewrite. I polish and polish and polish as I go along, always reading it from the beginning.
TALL STORY is your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?
My strategy on the route to getting published has always been to keep writing the next book. And TALL STORY is my fourth novel. I reasoned that I could only get better. And I believe that getting published is a matter of writing the right book at the right time.
My first novel took me three years to write and ... well, it sucked. Probably rejected by a good agent near you.
My second novel was VOLCANO CHILD, about a girl living in the shadow of a volcano. It was with VC I learned that to write with real emotion, you had to pick off the scab of your oldest, deepest wound and rub it until it bleeds all over your manuscript. Metaphorically.
As a result, VC has a lot of me in it. Because it meant so much to me, I sometimes wondered if I should wait until I was a better writer before I worked on it. But there is a time and place for everything. And that was the year I needed to write Volcano Child.
I only showed VC to very few people. I was told it was ‘a quiet literary novel’ – which at first was flattering, but I swear, by the nth ‘quiet and literary no thank you’, I would have given anything for ‘commercial and crap, yes please’.
So I wrote UGLY CITY thinking commercial all the way. It’s a dystopian fantasy for readers aged 8+, each chapter ending with my characters hanging off cliffs by their fingernails. It won a place in the Undiscovered Voices anthology competition and got me signed with my agent.
But it took eighteen months after finishing Ugly City for a book deal to finally come along.
How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?
Well, I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind for years. But I started writing TALL STORY in November 2008 and sent it to my agent at the end of September 2009. We got an offer two weeks later.
Do you think your journalism background has any bearing on your choices of subject matter or influences the way you write?
Gosh. My journalism background ... and EVERYTHING else.
I used to wish (and apologies to my Filipino compatriots) that I had been born in another country ... maybe a place where the weather wasn’t so hot all the time, where life wasn’t so unpredictable and difficult, where people weren’t so poor, where there weren’t so many earthquakes and typhoons and volcanoes erupting every now and then.
But the truth is, the Philippines is such a rich seam, teeming with story. And there’s nothing like a bit of suffering to give an author an edge.
How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?
I asked my daughter how long I’d been writing and she said, “Forever.” My daughter is 11 but I think I started taking fiction seriously when I didn’t have to worry about her nappies. So. It’s been nine years.
I did have some unfortunate advice at the beginning. “Never show your work to anyone,” a published friend told me. So I didn’t – and how I regret that wasted year. I should have listened to my instincts.
It was only after I signed up with SCBWI that I joined a critique group, met my first real authors, my first real editors and agents. I found out how the system worked and what the industry wanted from writers. I found out that other wannabe writers were very talented and I had to up my game. I found out that one book was all it took to open the door. But which book?
I didn’t want all that knowledge to go to waste so I began blogging onNotes from the Slushpile in 2004.
As the London correspondent of the new features agency IPS in the 1990s, I used to write two 600 word articles a day. It was such a rush, researching in the morning, producing the story by 5pm and picking up my baby from the child minder at 5.45pm. I loved it and blogging gave me back that excitement. I’d like to think it also kept my writing gears rolling.
Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?
I only learned how to plan when I was midway through Volcano Child.
That was when I learned about ‘step outlines’ from Sol Stein, the legendary New York editor who wrote the book Solutions for Novelists. It involved roughing out the novel in scenes. But I think it took me longer to understand story arc and plot.
The lightbulb only lit up in my head when I attended one of author Lee Weatherly’s synopsis workshops , in which she handed out a simple diagram of a story plot. It’s funny because I’d read about it, I own many books about plotting, but it took Lee’s diagram for it to finally make sense!
Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing?
The oddest thing is that I have been rejected for years because I write ‘quiet literary novels’. And I had a hankering to write a vampire novel the other day and someone said, “No! Don’t! They’ll be wanting something literary from you!”
I’m still not sure I know what a literary novel is.
Would you recommend having an agent? And, if so, why?
I think the first thing is to write the best book you can.
And because the industry is under so much pressure and there are so many people trying to get published, an agent is your best bet to get a publisher to pay attention to your book.
But it’s tough, getting an agent. A good product, will make them pay attention. If they are not paying attention – then I always say write another book.
What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?
I am far more comfortable in the company of children than adults and I guess children are the audience that I want to entertain. But David Fickling told me the other day that Tall Story is an ‘all-read’ – as in all ages will enjoy reading it. I do hope so.
Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?
I read Little Women and wanted to be Jo March.
I read Enid Blyton and wanted to live in a thatched cottage with secret passages to magic worlds.
I saw Oliver! in the cinema which led me to reading Dickens, which I loved despite the fact that I could not even begin to imagine life in a Victorian slum. I thought Dickens’ London was just a version of a third world city like Manila – only colder. When I first arrived in London in 1989, I re-read Great Expectations and walked the streets, tracing the landmarks mentioned in the book.
I also loved The Prince and the Pauper by Samuel Clemens. I read that book many times.
Re-reading these books as an adult, I am astonished at how complex and archaic the language is. Why did I enjoy them? How did I manage to understand them?
My theory is that I focused on the story and just glossed through the verbiage. I probably didn’t care if I didn’t understand a word as long as I got the story!
So when kids tell me some books are too hard to read, I just tell them to skip the boring parts. The crime novelist Elmore Leonard once wrote: “Do not write the parts that people tend to skip.” And I agree.
We as children’s authors have no business being boring.
Have you ever tried writing for adults? Is it a market you'd consider writing for in the future?
I would never say never. But I don’t get the same thrill from the approval of adults.
Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?
It is such a tough choice, writing.
Learning the craft is hard.
Getting published is hard and getting harder.
And once you’re published, the slings and arrows do not stop.
I think people who keep at it do so because they love it. So whatever stage you are in, remember that ultimately, you are doing it for love.
Agent's comments: Hilary Delamere, The Agency
Why I chose to represent Candy Gourlay:
It is always hard winding back to remember the sequence of events: having read Candy’s first two pieces of work I felt she had a wealth of ideas and a voice which should be widely heard. I liked what I read of her early manuscripts – there was something different and special not least in the setting for her novels but also a whole different cultural perspective on life coupled with a real story-telling ability – but the next stage, and almost as important, is finding out about a writer’s determination and approach to their work.
Candy’s reaction to comments and suggestions was open-minded and responsive and I immediately had a very good feeling. This was utterly borne out by how she dealt with initial rejections of some early material – she threw herself deeper into her writing with utter determination to get it right… and then she sent me TALL STORY.
I read it in one sitting and wept – it will make you weep as it is a rollercoaster of a story – but I also shed tears of delight as all our discussions about what was missing, how to construct the story, what the starting point should be, had been analyzed, researched, assimilated and then TALL STORY was delivered –pitch perfect!
Thank you, Candy.