Sunday, June 27, 2010

An interview with debut children’s author, Candy Gourlay

First off - go and get a cup of coffee or tea or whatever - we're settling in for a long and very interesting chat.

Tall Story, by Candy Gourlay

Unlike many of my other interviewees whom I’ve only met via Facebook, I’m happy to say that Candy Gourlay and I have actually met – twice! – in real life. I first encountered Candy on the Wordpool and SCBWI-BI children’s writer’s groups and then met her at a conference in Winchester and again last year in London. Candy and I are also in the same critique group (I’m hoping only good things can come from this sort of illustrious shoulder rubbing…).

Children's author, Candy Gourlay

Candy is wonderful – she’s funny, feisty, exuberantly energetic, industrious, professional, kind and caring and there is far, far more to her than meets the eye. Are you blushing yet, Candy…? But aside from all that, the way Candy writes, well, it’s magic!

For years Candy has kept a blog called Notes from the Slushpile, in which she talks about the difficulties of getting published. She’s provided her readers with humour and loads of tips and insights. She has done an inordinate amount for her fellow writers. So it’s only right that Candy now gets her chance in the limelight – and my god, she’s done it with style.

Candy's debut novel, Tall Story, is a bittersweet, funny, poignant and magical story. It will make you cry and it will make you laugh out loud. It is a story about wishes and being careful what you wish for. It is a tale of basketball, mythology and of a brother and sister separated by bureaucracy and bound by love. It is told from both points of view – the sister, Andi Jones, born in London (Candy’s adopted city) and her brother, Bernardo Hipolito, born in the Philippines (Candy’s home country). It is a cross-cultural novel but without being heavy on cross-cultural issues. It is the very best kind of story, beautifully told and powerfully written. Buy it and read it. You’ll love it.

But without further ado, here’s Candy Gourlay…

Candy Gourlay with her publisher, David Fickling, at the book launch of Tall Story

Candy, her publisher, the Philippines ambassador, and fans at the launch of Tall Story

Candy, you’ve written about your inspiration for Tall Story in several places on the internet, but for the benefit of Absolute Vanilla readers, please tell us what inspired Tall Story.

Nicky, thanks very much for having me on your brilliant blog. Yes, I have talked about the inspiration for Tall Story in several places already but today, I suddenly remembered something that I haven’t ever mentioned before.

When I left the Philippines to live in England, my two younger brothers were only just so tall … they were little boys. I visited Manila only a year later and who should open the door to my family home but a young man. It took me a long minute to realize that it was one of my brothers, grown tall in the months that I’d been away.

It’s a little bit like that, living away from your family. You visit, there’s a babbling baby. You return, the baby has morphed into an articulate boy with a penchant for singing the theme songs from Marvel superhero cartoons.

In Tall Story, one of the big moments is when 12 year old Andi, a mouthy, basketball-mad Londoner, meets her gentle Filipino half-brother Bernardo for the first time and realizes that he is eight feet tall.

I’ve always been fascinated by gigantism, and when I told my sister, Joy, that I would like to write a teen novel featuring a giant, she told me the story of Ujang Warlika, a seven foot four inch tall Indonesian Boy. Joy’s husband, a basketball coach, was asked to turn Ujang Warlika into a basketball star like the Chinese giant, Yao Ming who is seven foot six and earning millions as a player for the NBA in America.

But the problem with Ujang was that he was not tall, he was a giant – he suffered from a pituitary tumour that produced abnormal amounts of growth hormone.

Basketball player, Yao Ming
(image nicked off Wikipedia)

Along with the story of Ujang Warlika, you also tell the story of Bernardo Carpio, the mythical giant. Woven together with Bernardo Carpio’s story are elements of Filipino folklore. To what extent does the mythology of the Philippines influence and underpin your writing and how important do you feel it is for children to understand something of mythology?

I think mythology enriches our perception of who we are. Think about any myth and it will reveal so much about the people who originated it – myths are all about life and death and taking the measure of where the power lies in our environment.

In places like Indonesia and the Philippines on the earthquake/volcano/typhoon belt, our mythologies attempt to make sense of calamity. And with the passage of time, the stories continue to live and breathe as the storytellers adapt them to current events.

Bernardo Carpio’s mythology may have risen from earthquakes but he has also been portrayed as a revolutionary (when Filipinos were struggling against Spanish rule) as well as a hero who fights to release Filipinos from poverty.

The first novel I ever attempted had English characters and European locations – partly because I perceived my ethnicity as a barrier to publication. Then I met an agent who pointed out that unless I somehow used my Filipino-ness in my writing, readers would find it difficult to make the connection between the book and the author.

“But I’m writing what I know,” I pleaded. Isn’t that what all writing books tell you to do? Looking back, I realize that all those books were wrong. James Scott Bell, one of my favorite writing gurus, says: “It’s not about writing about what you know, it’s about writing who you are.”

In my own country, folklore and mythology still hold powerful sway, to what extent is this true of the Philippines, or have generations of religious influence erased the impact of mythology – and if so, what is your view of that?

The Philippines is the only Catholic country in Asia – a result of 300 years of colonization by Spain. But all that religious and cultural influence has been assimilated into our folklore – in the same way that Filipino Catholicism is an amalgamation of our ancient animist practices and modern belief.

We cannot escape our mythology because it lives and breathes in the natural environment of the Philippines.

What does endanger Philippine mythology is the fact that most of it is not written down. But children’s publishing is burgeoning in the Philippines and I have high hopes that the rise of publishing will result in the archiving our folkloric heritage.

Through mythology and his size, you give Bernard Hipolito almost godlike qualities, yet at the same time you juxtapose “ordinary” people’s responses to anything which is out of the ordinary, responses which are invariably less than charitable. Andi’s own initial reaction to meeting her brother is a case in point. It seems to me that you make some critical social observations in doing this, can you tell us more about that?

People are always making assumptions about other people before they know who they are. If you met me on the street, for example, what assumptions would you make about me? Would you think I’m an author? Or someone’s cleaner? Does it matter?

It’s not just how you look but what you sound like. Anywhere in the world, accents send out clues to someone’s social status and upbringing – I blogged about it recently.

I am acutely sensitive to how assumptions are made based on an accent – here in London, I often help a Filipino friend by making phone calls on her behalf because she finds that people – like her doctor and council workers – change their behavior when confronted with someone who has an accent that is not as “other” as hers.

In Tall Story, Bernardo speaks in hilarious, broken English. But half the book is told in his voice, showing his thoughts and feelings to be as complex as anybody’s. I guess this was me trying to tell the reader not the judge a person by his accent!

You used to be a journalist, to what extent do you feel this has influenced how you write and the subjects you choose to write about?

I feel really lucky to have been a journalist at a seminal time in the Philippines. There was so much going on, and my reportage took me all over the country – I wrote about famine in the sugar cane growing regions, I toured the countryside interviewing witches, I witnessed utter poverty and shocking wealth, I saw the effects of guerrilla warfare on the lives of people who lived in the countryside, I’ve been tear-gassed while covering opposition rallies, I was exposed to values and issues that made me question my own place in the scheme of things … and made me realize that nothing is black and white, everything is a complicated shade of grey.

At the time, I was very young - I could report what I saw, but I couldn’t tell you what something meant. Coming to live in the so-called First World allowed me to see my world from different eyes. I can’t say I am wiser – but certainly, it was easier to see the stark contrasts between a developing country like the Philippines and comfortable, cozy England.

A photo Candy took during her time as a journalist, of soldiers and village people

Candy and her best friend - newbie journalists saluting,
while in the background a riot assembles

You write with a social conscience because, I suspect, this is “who” Candy Gourlay is. How important do you feel it is to bring social commentary/observations into children’s writing?

I was recently involved in a Carnegie shadowing event, where children were discussing the books that were shortlisted for the Carnegie prize.

The children were so amazing in that they just get what the books are about. They don’t miss a thing and they embed a book’s message in their hearts. Kids who read good books are packing a lot of good stuff that will be useful some day. As Newbery winning author Richard Peck says, children should read because the words that build a story become theirs to build their lives.

One of Candy's photos taken during the Marcos years - a woman singing in an evocation of hope and despair

Candy arrives in Pyongyang to cover the 40th anniversary of Kim Il Sung

One of Candy's photos of crowds in Pyongyang celebrating the 40th anniversary of Kim Il Sung. She says, "It was a strange and amazing experience to see a million people in the thrall, or so it seemed, of one man."

Tall Story contains several themes, one of them is the issue of migration to Britain. Bernardo and his mother, Mary Ann, are separated for 16 years while bureaucracy takes its course. What is your view of how this is handled, has there been any improvement over the years and do you have a view on how new immigration policies might impact upon this?

When I first visited England in the Thatcherite eighties, immigration and asylum were already raging issues.

I remember arriving in Heathrow, very excited to be in my first cold country. I told the immigration officer at the desk that I was there to visit my boyfriend and she became very hostile. “You’re not going to marry him while you’re here,” she said.

Later during the trip, sitting alone in a restaurant somewhere near Trafalgar Square, a man suddenly sat at my table and began to shout things at me. It took me a while to decipher what he was saying because I wasn’t used to the British accent yet. He was telling me to get out of his country. The waitresses chased him away and apologized to me.

On that trip I met a lot of Filipino women who entered the country with foreign employers who brought them in on tourist visas but treated them like slaves. There was a woman hiding in a church who was fighting to stay in England with her baby, fathered by her British pen pal who subsequently decided not to continue with the relationship. When my husband and I decided to get married, we discovered that it was usual for a bride’s visa to be delayed – officialdom hoped that this would discourage any marriages of convenience.

I met many Filipino workers who never went home for fear of not being allowed to return to England. When my own brother applied for a visa to visit me, he was turned down because he was deemed likely to become an illegal immigrant.

Are things better now? Well yes and no. In Europe, the anxiety over immigration continues but the law has changed so that the slavery stories are rare (though not non-existent). Nurses are now allowed to bring their immediate family into the country to live. Many long term workers have been given proper status that allow them to work and pay taxes in England.

But the forces that drive people to leave their families are just as strong. It is an act of total desperation to leave everything you love behind. And yet in the Philippines, which was once regarded as one of the most successful countries in Asia, migration to seek better jobs/future/livelihoods is the norm. How can a successful economy be built in a country where leaving is the only path to prosperity?

I wonder what would happen if the energy and resources put into keeping migrants out of Europe were poured into helping migrants stay in their home countries?

The plight of Mary Ann and of Bernardo, separated from one another by bureaucracy, is the story of a mother trying to improve her life and that of her family. It doesn’t take much to imagine how very hard it is, and having recently watched a documentary about Filipino women who leave their country I have to ask: how do you feel about the need that drives people away from their homelands and the way many are subsequently treated by their host nations?

For a few years in the nineties I was the editor of a pan-European magazine called Filipinos in Europe. I got to visit Filipino communities all over Europe, interviewing women who decided to leave the Philippines. Are their lives better for it? Some do have better lives. But there are many who have only experienced heartache as a result of their decision to leave. Children who don’t know them. Husbands who stray. Money that is frittered away by relatives.

The Philippines is the only Catholic country in Asia and Christ-like sacrifice is elemental to our culture. Leaving is one such sacrifice.

But I really, really wonder if the sacrifice is worth it. What is clear to me is that this kind of sacrifice is an unsustainable way of bringing up children.

I couldn’t help thinking when I started reading Tall Story that Andi and Bernardo’s mum seemed so much like the mothers Amy Tan writes about, particularly in the Joy Luck Club. Is this depiction of Asian/South East Asian mothers something of a caricature or is there more to it?

No, it isn’t a caricature – I recommend Amy Tan’s books to anyone with an Asian mum. It’s nice to know that you are not alone.

Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club gives a fascinating insight into Asian mothers, so similar to Mary Ann, the mother in Tall Story
(image nicked off Amazon)

There is much about Tall Story which is undoubtedly a reflection of your own life and your own life experiences clearly influence what you write. This is visible in the weaving together of the magical mythology of the Philippines with the gritty realism of London and the juxtaposition of life in a small Filipino village with life in a London suburb. How easy, or difficult, have you personally found it to integrate two worlds and then to write about it?

Coming home to the Philippines from England is like moving between two fantasy worlds with two different sets of rules and boundaries. In England, life is secular, practical, say what you mean. In the Philippines, it is spiritual, everything is personal, and nobody says what they mean – you have to be good at mind-reading and guessing at the feelings of other people.

If my mum says, “No, I won’t go shopping with you.” She might well mean: “I’d really like to go with you but I don’t want to say I will because I don’t want to be a burden so please could you persuade me just a little bit more.”

In England, there is an invisible space around each person that you have to respect. It’s all about being an individual.

In the Philippines it’s about being part of a group, all for one and one for all. Maybe that’s why I try to turn everyone I like into extended family. It’s because I miss my herd.

I think anyone who moves away from their home experiences a kind of push-me-pull-you, love-hate thing with the life they left behind.

At the beginning of living away you spend a lot of time comparing your new home with your old home. Moving to a first world country as I did, you marvel at how life is more comfortable, services more efficient, the future more predictable. You feel more acutely all the many inferiorities of your old life.

Then as time passes, the comparisons become more emotional. Do you laugh as much now as you used to? Are your friendships more true?

And then you put down roots and the new home isn’t so new anymore. You know all about the little imperfections, the cracks beneath the surface … and the odd thing is you have come to love them in the same way that you realize you will always yearn for your old home – and everything that comes with it.

Candy's family - 1986

Candy on assignment for a destinations article - she claims she was working...

Candy on one of the white sandy beaches of the Philippines

You evoke an incredibly vivid image of life in the Philippines – do you think you could have created the same effect had you never moved to London or do you think that being away from your homeland gives you a unique insight and perception of the Philippines that you could never have had, had you not moved away?

I think my writing would have been very different had I never left the Philippines. I read my old stuff now and like my current writing, they reflect a social awareness that probably comes from being a journalist as well as growing up in an environment where social inequalities are constantly in your face. What my writing has acquired is a kind of yearning that probably comes from being homesick all the time.

Images of reality from Candy's home - a sleeping volcano in the Philippines...

The aftermath of the awakening of a Filipino volcano...

The volcanic theme is powerfully evident in Tall Story

Despite the fact that you show and interconnect two different worlds, in many ways they remain very separate. As Andi says at one point in the story, “The blank faces on TV are not people either”. As much as we live in a global village, we still live separately in our own villages. Living with a foot in two worlds, how does that make you feel? And do you believe that Tall Story and cross-cultural stories like it can make any kind of difference to bridging that gap?

Whenever I see a Far Eastern calamity on the news, I see myself in the close ups of brown faces. I guess I wrote that bit about blank faces because I wanted to make my readers aware of the humanity behind the TV screens. That these people who don’t look like you and speak the same language have mothers and fathers and complex feelings like you do.

At first Andi does not see herself at all in Bernardo – but there comes a point in the story when she’s watching him sleeping and she realizes that yes, they are just like each other.

Will Tall Story bridge any gaps? I don’t know, but I hope children who have read Tall Story will realize that there is no such thing as Us and Them because we are, all of us, just people.

Some of Candy's favourite scenes from her homeland, the Philippines

Despite the bittersweet moments in Tall Story, your novel is ultimately one of love, acceptance and hope. How important to you feel these elements are in children’s writing?

I think the American author Richard Peck puts it best: “A story for the young must move in a straight line with hope in the end.”

Hope is what differentiates writing for children from other forms of writing. Our readers are looking forward, not back, and it’s our responsibility to give them lots to look forward to.

You have created two very distinct voices in Andi and Bernardo, something which is not always easy to do. To what extent did having a daughter around Andi’s age influence Andi’s voice, and which character did you find easier to write?

My daughter is no way as lippy as Andi. Andi came from … Andi! I just positioned my hands over the keyboard and everytime it was her turn to speak, she spoke. It was far more difficult to write Bernardo’s voice. I was very worried that I would not find his voice while I was writing the scenes in the Philippines. And then Bernardo landed in England and opened his mouth and said: “I am glad you meet me.” Suddenly he too began to speak and writing the book progressed easily after that!

I’m not inclined to classify Tall Story into a particular genre but… Although the story is very much one of realism, it might also be said to fall neatly into the genre of magical realism. How do you feel about such a classification and would you agree with it?

Someone in a critique session mentioned magical realism to me and I’m sorry to say I had no idea what it meant. I went home and googled magical realism and still I couldn’t be sure. I really can’t describe what sort of story I wrote – magical realism sounds lovely but I didn’t set out to write Tall Story any particular style.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on the development of your writing?

Well, I have to say that my husband Richard is my inciting event. My life in the Philippines had a very clear trajectory until I met Richard. He took me out of my comfort zone and everything has been unexpected since.

Candy and her husband, Richard, at her book launch

And who, if you could throw a literary dinner party, would you invite to dinner and why (you can invite six guests)?

A literary dinner party? Well!

I would have Jo March of Little Women and have a little moan with her about rejection and manuscripts (every dinner party has its quotient of whining).

I would have Bernardo Carpio, the giant, and we will laugh about how storytellers (including me) twist his story to suit our ends.

I would have Samuel Clemens, who by the way, was a great champion of Filipinos when America annexed the Philippines. We won’t just talk about Philippine history though because I’d love to hear about how he wrote the Prince and the Pauper.

I would have Philip Ardagh, just because I’d like to see how he and Samuel Clemens (another great humourist) get along.

I would have Frankenstein’s Monster. I’ve always felt he got a raw deal and I’d like to make things up to him as long as he doesn’t leak formaldehyde all over his plate.

I would have Spiderman. And I don’t care if you say comic books aren’t literary.

Candy and Tall Story
(image courtesy of Paolo Romeo)

You are actively involved in the British Isles branch of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and you’ve been extraordinarily generous with your time and insights on your blog – what motivates you to help your fellow writers in this way and what is your view of the community of children’s writers that you connect with?

I decided to join SCBWI when I became serious about getting published. I was attending a lot of talks and I thought all that good information was going to waste so I started blogging. I was deep in nappies at the time and I enjoyed blogging because it had the edginess of journalism a deadline which I missed.

I was amazed to make friendships via my blog and SCBWI – amazed because I had no idea that there were other people out there like me. The children’s writers I met were generous and fascinating and I felt blessed to be part of the community. When I started hearing the work of other people I also realized that there were a lot of really good writers out there and I had to raise my game.

People tell me I’m really good at marketing because I’ve been writing a blog for years but the truth is I was just a lonely housewife desperate to get published. The fact that I became totally enamoured with all the new technology is another story.

Tall Story on display at Candy's London launch party

Candy and the Philippines ambassador at the launch of Tall Story
(image courtesy of Paolo Romeo)

Magic and superstition are woven throughout Tall Story, do you believe in either? Do you have any of your own personal magical stories?

Moving to England, I was amazed at how one plus one equaled two. Life in London seems to be so full of certainties compared to life in the Philippines. I grew up in a middle class household constantly struggling against the odds. I always had the feeling that I had no control over my fate – good or bad, the future was beyond my control.

25 years ago, I had occasion to travel across the countryside, interviewing witches with a view to publishing the stories in a coffee table book. The coffee table book was never made but I came away from the experience realizing that for many poor women in the countryside, becoming a witch, faith healer or seer gave them better prospects than most. Magic gave them an edge.

Filipinos are often described as ‘fatalistic’ – we have an expression “Bahala na” – which roughly means, “Leave it to fate.” And yet, during that trip, I realized that many people were not leaving their lives to fate. Through magic they were making something of themselves. So no, I don’t believe in hocus pocus … but magic certainly has other uses.

One of the so-called spiritists/witches whom Candy interviewed

And finally, I have to ask this, given I know how “tall” you are… did you play basketball?

Height of course is relative. Though I was by no means the tallest, I was one of the taller girls in my class, always sitting at the back, always standing near the end of the line. Basketball was our p.e. in those days but the truth is, I was never a contender. I just couldn’t shoot straight!

Many thanks to Candy Gourlay for agreeing to this interview. It’s been a real pleasure watching Candy reach publication and a thrill to hold and read her book. I wish her huge and exuberant dollops of success with Tall Story and the manuscript she’s currently working on. Yes, that does mean I’m getting sneak previews. No, I’m not telling you about it! Not just yet, anyway…

Candy with a young fan at her book launch in London

For more about Candy Gourlay:

Browse Candy’s website

Mooch around the Tall Story website

You can read Candy’s blog

Follow Tall Story news on Facebook

Follow Candy on Twitter

And, most importantly, you can buy your own copy of Tall Story either at Amazon or the Book Depository

You can read other Candy Gourlay interviews and Tall Story reviews at:

Scribble City Central

Tall Tales and Short Stories

My Favourite Books

The Bookwitch

All images courtesy and copyright of Candy Gourlay, unless otherwise indicated.


lakeviewer said...

This was a treat! Glad to know about this talented writer.

Candy Gourlay said...

Thanks for having me, Nicky. Your questions really got me thinking, they really probe to the heart of things.

Jenny Woolf said...

This is really fascinating. All kinds of stuff I didn't know. Thanks so much for this, Nicky!

Addy Farmer said...

essential Gourlay reading! Well done, Nicky!

Jan Markley said...

Great interview. I met Candy in London recently and I agree with all the adjectives you use to describe her. She is very supportive of the children's writing community, even supportive of children's writers from Canada ;-J

kathryn evans said...

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful interview - so good I'm going to read it twice.

Sue Hyams said...

What a wonderful interview! Really interesting questions and always it's nice to read more about Candy!

Suzanne said...

Tall Story is a beautifully woven, touching and contemporary tale. One of my favourite books of this decade so far... and I read a lot!

Ruth said...

I really enjoyed this interview - thanks both! Tall Story is wonderful and to know more about Candy's background adds an extra layer of meaning for me now.