The Story of Us: Sunday Inquirer Magazine
19 December 2009
WHEN London-based Filipino author and journalist Candy Quimpo Gourlay first heard the heady news in mid-November, that her literary agent Hilary Delamere had sold her juvenile fiction novel “Tall Story” to British publishing giant David Fickling Books (DFB), she was both delirious and incredulous. They actually liked my story, she thought in disbelief. She felt like she had reached a successful bend in a long journey – “nine years of rejection and trying again and again.”
“Tall Story” is a novel with a distinctly Filipino flavor, using the legend of Bernardo Carpio and other Philippine folklore in clever and innovative ways to unfold the narrative. It’s the story of 16-year-old Bernardo from Montalban, separated from his mother, a nurse in London, and his 13-year-old half sister, Andi because of immigration snags. Bernardo’s widowed mother had been forced to work abroad, where she eventually married an Englishman, Andi’s father. The opening scene is London’s Heathrow Airport, where the family awaits Bernardo, and is astounded by his arrival. They know he’s tall – but eight feet?
Playing on Bernardo’s unusual physical attributes, DFB made its formal announcement of the acquisition with a press announcement titled, “Publishing Giant Acquires Giant Novel,” describing it as a “new stand-(tall)-alone novel.” Bella Pearson, editorial director of the company comments on the novel: “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. We are feeling immensely excited [and smug!] to be able to add her name to the DFB list.”
Candy thinks that it may have been the “Filipino-ness” of her writing that caught the publisher’s eye. Hers was a deliberate attempt to include what she describes as “that quirky laugh out loud Filipino humor into the story.”
Although Candy had several earlier attempts, it was actually an agent’s comment that got her thinking and led her to more successful stories. She was asked why she was writing about English settings and characters that had little to do with her own experiences.
Candy had to rethink her original deliberate attempt not to write on anything Filipino, for fear that a Filipino setting and characters would never make it in the British publishing world. So she dug deep into her Philippine experiences and wrote “Volcano Child” based on her reportage on Filipino migrant workers. It is set in a fictional village in the shadow of a volcano reminiscent of Mount Pinatubo.
Her third novel was “Ugly City,” a dystopian fantasy on children living in a perfect society where it is unlawful for parents and children to live together. This was based on an interview with children of overseas contract workers. She entered this story in a competition of the British Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for “Undiscovered Voices” among unpublished children’s writers. As one of 12 winners selected from over 250 entries, “Ugly City” was published in an anthology distributed free to all children’s and agents.
Candy recalls that after the competition and getting an agent, “I found myself on the threshold of children’s publishing.” She wrote an anthology of animal trickster tales from around the world, which included “The Monkey and the Turtle” from the Philippines, for Oxford University Press. A short story, “How to Build the Perfect Sand Castle,” based on Boracay’s looming environmental woes, was part of “Under the Weather,” an anthology of stories on climate change. She did a series of five stories for the children’s radio station Cbeebies on BBC 7.
It is the contract with David Fickling Books that truly signals Candy’s entry in international publishing. “Tall Story,” will be published in hardback edition in London in June 2010, followed by David Fickling Books in the US, and a separate Philippine edition by poet-publisher Ramon Suñico of Cacho House.
To Candy, having her book published locally is important. “I would feel mortified if my countrymen had to import my books when the stories I tell are theirs as well as mine.”
Meanwhile, Candy awaits the release of her novel with much anticipation. “When David publishes, the world listens. Let’s hope they pay attention when my book comes out! I’m so nervous—I do hope I live up to David’s standard.” But rather than worrying any more, she has decided to sit out the waiting game—and write another book.
Moving to the UK in 1989 after she married Richard Gourlay, who was the Manila-based correspondent for The Financial Times of London, Candy was the London correspondent of the news agency Inter Press Service and later, the editor of the magazine, Filipinos in Europe.
She considers her years in Manila as a neophyte journalist for Eggie Apostol’s Friday tabloid during the waning years of the dictatorship, Mr. & Ms. Special Edition and the then fledgling weekly Inquirer as the best preparation for her life as an author today. It was then, she says, when she met her best mentors, two feisty women – Apostol and Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, PDI editor-in-chief. “I learned to write not for the byline, not for the money, not for the kudos but because I had a story to tell.”
Her husband Richard gives her “the space to find myself,” Candy says, and even if he does tend to fall asleep over her manuscripts, does not resent her long hours on the computer. Their children –
Nick, 18; Jack, 15; and Mia, 11 – provide her with details she borrows for her fiction characters.
Her writing hours are typically when the children are in school. Before the DFB contract, she was into web and graphic design for numerous clients, from a performance architect to authors in need of blogs and websites, a breeze for her as she is a technology geek. She also manages their family holiday cottage that is rented out to vacationers on a weekly basis.
She admits that despite her happy and fulfilling life overseas, deep in her is a “secret suffering from being away from my native land.” Thus, the loneliness and homesickness that somehow emerges in her stories. Candy Quimpo Gourlay, the author, is Filipino – and does not make her readers forget it.