Interview: Author Candy Gourlay

MWD Interview Candy GourlayCandy Gourlay’s first novel Tall Story (2010) was feted all over the globe, winning the National Children’s Book Award in her native Philippines and a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Europe, and appearing on numerous award shortlists and ‘Best Book’ lists in the UK, the US and Japan.  Her eagerly awaited second book Shine was published last year to rave reviews – not least right here at Mirrors Windows Doors, but also from the people who really matter, her young readers (like the one in the the National Geographic Kidsmagazine – see below: six stars out of five, no less!).

Review of Shine (National Geographic Kids)

I first met Candy in person at the IBBY Congress in London in 2012, when I was thrilled to be given a peek at a draft of the first chapter of Shine.  By the time we caught up again in 2013 at AFCC in Singapore, Candy had proof copies. I was on tenterhooks but it was definitely worth the wait!  Shine is now garnering accolades from all quarters, including a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award (Candy’s second!) and a place in the recently announced Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize Longlist – so we will be be watching and waiting and hoping! If you haven’t read Shine yet, or indeed Tall Story, go get your hands on them – you’re in for a treat…

Candy Gourlay at the IBBY Congress in London (2012) and with a proof of Shine at AFCC in Singapore (2013)

Candy speaking at the IBBY Congress in London (2012) and with a proof of Shine at AFCC in Singapore (2013)

Candy was born and brought up in the Philippines.  Continuing on from the newsletter she wrote with her sister as a child, she began her writing career as journalist, as well as a cartoonist and photographer – highlights include working for the opposition weekly Mr & Ms Special Edition during the People Power Revolution in the Philippines and visiting North Korea to cover the 50th anniversary of the dictator Kim Il Sung.   Candy met her future husband Richard, also a journalist, in the Philippines, and moved to England when they got married.  Three beautiful children later…

Candy Gourlay's kids as babiesCandy set about writing again.  She edited the magazine Filipinos in Europe and presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary Motherless Nation, about the issues for the many Filipino families separated as a result of economic migration — and she began writing for children.  She documented the joys, trials and tribulations on her road to publication in her blog Notes from the Slushpile, now an equally vibrant shared blog/e-zine that continues to provide a valuable forum for writers.  And Candy’s own ‘new’ website bursts with energy…

It’s a real pleasure to welcome Candy to MWD to talk about her writing, in particular  Shine, in which metaphorical mirrors of twinship and distorted reflections give rise to interesting questions of perception and reality…

Tall Story, and Shine by Candy Gourlay

  • Welcome, Candy!  First of all, many congratulations for Shine being selected for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award long list.
    How does it feel?

I know that Shine is one of those quiet books that might not get noticed in the reading whirlwind so I feel relieved … and then, I feel hopeful. And then I feel afraid that I might be disappointed. And then I feel what the heck, it’s just great!

  • Can you tell us about your childhood?
Candy Gourlay as a baby

Candy as a baby

I was the second of six children. We all could draw and assumed all families were like us, sitting around the table drawing all the time. It came as a big surprise when I discovered that other families didn’t necessarily know how to draw.

My father was an architect and spent all his time head-down, drawing over his draughting table, my mother was a teacher who gave it all up to raise us – and I think though she said all the right things about the rewards of motherhood, she was deeply frustrated. She often talked to me about her desire to write books and she made me want to be the same. I was so pleased when I won the National Children’s Book Award in the Philippines, I couldn’t afford to fly home to receive the award so it was my mother who went up on stage and gave a little speech!

  • You worked as a journalist in the Philippines and in the UK. How did that experience shape you as a writer of fiction?

I think the main thing journalism taught me was that there is an endless supply of stories in the world. I worked for a weekly magazine and every issue we started with nothing and always ended up with too much. You can be in the middle of nowhere and turn to the person sitting next to you and discover that they have a mind-blowing story. Children often ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Well … if you’re curious and interested in other people, the ideas are everywhere.

  • Which writers have influenced you, both growing up and as a writer yourself?

When I was growing up I wanted to be Jo March from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – I wanted to write books and bring up a houseful of little boys.I loved The Prince and the Pauper by Samuel Clements [aka Mark Twain]. The idea that you can take two identical creatures and by their circumstances lead them to two different stories has always fascinated me.Falling in love with Holes by Louis Sachar made me decide to become a writer for children. I read everything by Amy Tan, because that East/West clash she obsesses about is so familiar to me as a Filipino transplanted to England. And it was reading Malorie Blackman’s Hacker, which starred children with brown skin that told me to stop being afraid of writing about people like me.I am always blown away by Geraldine McCaughrean – I loved The White Darkness just for the sheer beauty of the writing … but my favourite has to be Not The End of the World – her Noah’s Ark retelling, which made me look at a familiar story in a totally different light.

  • When did you decide to become a full-time children’s writer?

My first attempts at writing were adult fiction, but I couldn’t fall in passion with it the way I did when I finally discovered writing for children. But until I got published, I could never work at it full time – it always had to fit in with family and other work that I do – web design, journalism and managing our family’s holiday cottage… [I’m adding a link here, because it looks lovely! Ed.]

  • Can you take us through your writing process for Shine – did you write many drafts? Was it different from Tall Story? How different was the final version from your first draft?

I got a two-book deal when Tall Story was published. At the time Twilight was all the rage and I thought, gosh, I’d like a piece of that. Which was entirely the wrong reason for writing a book. Shine started its life as a vampire novel – not a European vampire but a Filipino vampire-like monster called a ‘manananggal’, who is a beautiful young girl by day and by night sprouts wings and, ripping the upper part of her body from her lower half, flies through the night eating souls.

When you’re starting out with a novel, it’s like you’re faced with a row of rabbit holes and your job as an author is to explore each rabbit hole until you find the novel you want to write.

Instead of leading me to the riches of a Twilight-style vampire book, I found myself asking myself questions about innocence – because I kept thinking: a vampire is born that way, it’s not the vampire’s fault that she’s a monster. And then I found myself asking, who is the real monster? And I thought about good and evil, and life and death, and how ghosts were just people who chose not to live.

The final draft has some of the original characters I had started out with. But they evolved into different people by the time I was through with them.

Funnily enough, although it seems to be nothing like Tall Story, it shares certain themes. Bernardo is seen as a monster through no fault of his own. Disaster is inevitable. And love binds people together more than hate ever can.

  • Shine is partly narrated in the present by 13-year-old Rosa, who lives a secluded life because she was born with ‘the Calm’. This not only means that she is mute, but that she is also socially ostracised. Where did your ideas for the Calm come from, including its name?

One of the reasons that Rosa is mute is because in my original story, Rosa is trafficked to London and abandoned by traffickers at Heathrow. I had met a Vietnamese girl who had experienced exactly that. I had Rosa lost in London and unable to speak to anyone. I was tapping into my own first experiences in London, how I thought I understood English only to realise that they spoke a different English here! Anyway, that rabbit hole went through many twists which led me to the Calm.

When I’m working out a novel, I often write little creation myths about certain aspects of the story. It starts me off and flavours the way I might work up a scene. The Calm came out of one such story.

I wrote about how the Mountain (which is pretty much a character in Shine) fell in love and married the Monsoon. But the Monsoon was always travelling and soon the Mountain is befriended by the Sun. She and her children spend all their time basking in the Sun’s warm rays and this is how the Monsoon finds them when he returns. To punish the Mountain, the Monsoon sends all her children to the far corners of the earth – and he takes the two youngest daughters and ties them together by their throats. The daughters struggle and thrash and their movement creates the typhoons that batter the world.

In that story, which I don’t think made it into Shine, the two sisters have twisted necks. And when humans are found with the same markings, it is believed that disaster cannot be far away.

  • I love the way the sound/visuals in the book trailer for Shine give the lie to the words that appear on the screen and then pull the rug out from under you… So who/what are the monsters and what for you are the big questions that the book asks of the reader?

Thank you! I enjoyed making my book trailer!

Well, thinking about vampires got me thinking about Original Sin – an idea that I grew up with as a Catholic: that newborn babies are born already besmirched by the sins of Adam and Eve. The idea just seemed so unfair, in the same way that it seems so unfair that a vampire, because of something it cannot help, is portrayed as a villain and a monster. In Shine, I ask: what do we really fear? Who are the real monsters? Who are the ghosts?

My husband says I’m incapable of writing baddies, I start out with a baddy and then I become emotionally involved with them and forgive them all their sins. I’m afraid it’s happened again in Shine.

Shine also carries on from a theme in Tall Story — that people are not what they seem. Maybe that will always be in my books. It’s because living as an immigrant in London, I am acutely aware of people making instant judgements of who I am all the time. When my kids were little, I was always asked: “How long have you been looking after them?” They were assuming I was their nanny — because the only Filipinos they know are nannies! I don’t mind, of course, but I imagine this happens all the time to all sorts of people. Other foreigners. People with mental problems. People with disabilities. People of different classes. I guess I’m always trying to say: look beyond what you see!

  • Superstition is everywhere in Shine – at times, seemingly harmless, but also giving rise to the sinister social discrimination that constricts Rosa’s life – not to mention some extra-fast-tinged-with-trepidation page turning by the reader! How do you view superstition? In the book superstition and medical science are almost set head to head. Did you base this on any particular experience and what were the challenges for you in writing about them across different time frames?

Whenever I go home to the Philippines, I am instantly immersed into a strange tension. There is an all-pervading religiosity that is absent in the West, where I have lived for the past 25 years. Everything is personal, and the codes of behaviour that apply here in London don’t apply at home in the Philippines. I have to unscrew the armour I’ve built up living here in London and become Filipino again. And it isn’t easy because there is no meeting point between the two worlds.

I try to write for both a Filipino audience and for a Western audience. I want to be true with respect and love for the two cultures that I live in. And that is quite a challenge.

  • There are some scary moments in the book, including your retelling of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. It was the first ghost story that I never forgot! Why did you include it? Can you remember when you first heard it?

I used to share a tiny flat with a group of girls who worked at the same magazine. We had no TV and laid out our mattresses in the living room at night and told each other scary bedtime stories. One of our favourites was ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. I never had a copy of the original story, it was just something we would tell and add our own variations to. In fact I was surprised when I read it again to discover how archaic the language seemed, when all these years I’d been telling it exactly the way I told it in Shine,with Filipino characters and an edgier, more contemporary feel. There’s a Monkey’s Paw motif throughout Shine – waiting for that knock on the door… and being forced to choose between looking forward and looking back.

  • Is Mirasol based on the Philippines and why does it always rain?

I am careful not to say that Mirasol is in the Philippines, although so much about it will be familiar to Filipinos. When I started writing the book it was a very rainy time and there were terrible floods in Manila – my brother’s house was underwater and he had to swim down the stairs to fetch some milk for his baby, past the floating fridge and the floating piano. The rain was the one thing that survived through every version of the book. It was the ‘fog of war’ that my characters had to see beyond.

  • The Philippines are still reeling in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which struck in November last year. You have family and friends there, and I know that you have close ties to a number of schools. Can you share some of their news with us?

When Typhoon Haiyan struck, I opened Facebook on the first day and my feed was like New York after 9/11. People listing names and posting photographs of the missing and begging the people on the ground to look out for them. Slowly the missing were found and my feed turned into collection points for relief goods, announcements of containers departing for Tacloban, cries for help. The good news is the services on the ground are now more organised, now that the initial chaos is over. But there is still so much to do…

  • I know we share concerns about attitudes that seem to preclude the production of picture books for older children – can you see any light at the end of the tunnel?

I love illustrated fiction for older children – I love how Jim Kay transformed A Monster Callsby Patrick Ness, and how about Tinder by Sally Gardner, illustrated by David Roberts? Yes I do think that a change might be coming – and ironically it’s because of the rise and rise of ebooks. Publishers need to add value to the book as an object – and illustration will be just the thing. The Kindle can’t cope with illustration at the moment – I’ve had to buy hard copies of several books I already had on Kindle, just because I wanted the object.

  • Can you describe your typical working day?
Author Candy Gourlay in warrior guise

Candy at work!

My day starts with an attempt at exercise. A brisk walk to anywhere quiet that I can write – at the moment I’m working in Archway library, which is such a short walk from my house that I have to walk in the opposite direction and then back again so that I get my exercise!  I often work in cafés in Highgate, which is a 30-minute uphill walk from my house.

I read a little and write a little and read a little and write a little and by lunch time, when I find that there are no long words left in my brain, I head for home.

In the afternoons, I answer emails, do my admin, manage my holiday cottage, do housework, blog… I have tried to write more long words in the afternoon, but sadly, they don’t come. So I know I have to do that writing in the morning. If I make the mistake of checking Facebook before I’ve written anything, I know that the day will be lost.

  • What are you working on at the moment?

I am in the early stages of my next novel, which is exceedingly exciting. I am determined to finish the first draft before the paperback of Shine comes out in January 2015 (published by Tamarind Books). I can’t wait to see this novel born! I’m also working on some shorter texts but finding it hard to tear myself away from the novel!

  • Thank you so much, Candy… and before you head out the door, we’ll just keep you ‘In the Spotlight’ for a moment (or ten!) longer…

Candy Gourlay in the MWD spotlight!

The first book you remember reading as a mirror of you and/or your cultural background?
The Kitchen God’s Wife
 by Amy Tan – this is me, I thought, and that is my mother. And yet Amy Tan was writing about her mother’s life in China, which is not the Philippines.

Reading preference – paper or e-book?
Ebook. Since I got a Kindle app on my phone, I have read one or more novels a week and I LOVE it. But I still have to buy illustrated books like A Monster Calls, or Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon with the flipbook style animation. The Kindle just can’t cope with illustration!

The last book you read that opened the window onto a new-to-you cultural landscape?
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, set in an unnoticed war in Bougainville. The tropics is familiar territory for me and yet this was another planet.

If you could ‘match-make’ any authors and/or illustrators to collaborate together on a book, who would you choose?
Selfishly, I can only think of illustrators I’d love to work with. I would have loved Jim Kay to have illustrated Shine, my ghosty novel. I would like to work with Isabel Roxas, the Filipino illustrator, on a picture book. I’d love to work with Sarah McIntyre – but that’s just because I like spending time with her!

On holiday, lie on a beach or hike up a mountain (you may include any conditions necessary to your choice!)?
Anywhere that involves a road trip with my family – I love being in a moving car with my hubby and kids – they can’t get away from conversation with me!

Initial ideas – notebook or computer?
Notebook with hardback covers. I like seeing my notebooks all in a row on a bookshelf.

Most personally precious object on or within 1 metre of your desk?
A baby photo of my daughter.

Something you have done or want to do because of reading a book?
I wanted to become an author like Jo March in Good Wives.

Something about yourself that might surprise even your friends?
I am very friendly and outgoing – but I often prefer to be alone.

A peep at what today’s work entails?
Visiting a school, emailing speakers for a conference that I’m helping organise, looking after my daughter who is home with a cough, planning a blog post, writing a chapter, reading up on head hunters in the Far East.

Thank you so much for having me, Marjorie! I really enjoyed your interview!

Thank you, Candy.  We can’t wait to read your next book!

Books highlighted here by Candy:

Books highlighted by Candy Gourlay

Thanks to Candy for permission to use photographs from her website: Candy as a baby, her children, and ‘at work’  are linked to their original pages; the photograph of Candy on the banner is taken from her blog post here.
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  1. Pingback: A Reading List: Books from the Philippines and about the Philippine Diaspora - by Katrina Gutierrez ~

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