‘WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT WHAT YOU GET’
Monsters aren’t always what they appear to be, says award-winning Filipino children’s book author Candy Gourlay. She speaks to Anand Raj OK ahead of the Literature Festival
One feature that underscores all of Candy Gourlay’s works is a gentle nudge to the reader to look beyond what they see. The award-winning children’s book author, whom The Guardian termed ‘a darned good writer’, is quick to agree when I point it out to her. ‘That’s right. “What you see is not what you get” is a constant theme of my storytelling.’
She should know. The UK-based Filipino author has faced numerous situations where people have made judgements at face value.
‘I experience it on a daily basis; people seeing me and judging me for my looks and not for who I am,’ says the 54-year-old, ahead of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which starts in Dubai today (March 3). Candy is one of the leading authors at the festival.
‘When my children were small, people used to ask me if I was their nanny,’ she says.
‘As a Filipino living abroad, one gets fed up with being asked about Imelda Marcos. Even when I was growing up, I felt that people made judgements at face value instead of trying to look beyond. Funnily enough, this theme emerges even when I had not planned it to be there.’
Candy, who followed up her multi-award winning debut novel Tall Story in 2010 (it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for 13 other prizes) with bestseller Shine in 2013 (she also won the Crystal Kite Prize for Europe for both books), says few things give her greater pleasure than writing for young people. ‘I love children,’ says the mother of three. ‘And to this day I remember being that little girl discovering the magic of books for the first time.’
Growing up in the Philippines, she recalls how as a six-year-old she’d chanced upon a set of children’s books – the Beverly Gray mysteries by Clair Blank – in her grandmother’s house in Cubao. She’d been warned not to enter her grandmother’s room ‘so of course, I went there’, she says. Candy’s delight at discovering the stories is still palpable in her tone. ‘I felt a kind of electricity running through me,’ she says. ‘I still remember the “aha” moment when I realised that words came together to tell stories.’
And she immediately made up her mind. ‘I [decided I] want to be the person who conjures that magical moment for my readers.’
After exhausting the ones in her grandmother’s room, Candy began devouring all the books she could lay her hands on. ‘Like many girls from my generation, I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and desperately wanted to be the tomboy character Jo, who loved writing.
‘I also loved The Prince and the Pauper by Samuel Clemens [aka Mark Twain] - I loved the identity switch in the plot. Clemens’ description of the gap between rich and poor resonated with me, growing up in the Philippines, where wealth disparities are shocking,’ she says.
The second of six children, Candy was so overwhelmed by the magic of the written word that with her sister she produced a newsletter documenting the happenings in their community. Apart from writing short stories and reports for it, Candy, who also has a deft hand for drawing, began contributing cartoons and sketches – a talent that’s perhaps in her genes thanks to her father Orlando, an architect, who used to ‘spend all his time at home, head down, drawing’.
After graduating in communication arts from Ateneo de Manila University in 1984, Candy was never in doubt about her career path. In a gradual progression from her days in the newsletter ‘I decided to become a journalist,’ she says.
After a stint at Mr&Ms magazine and then at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Candy moved to London following her marriage to Richard Gourlay, whom she met while he was the Manila correspondent for the Financial Times.
Journalism, she says, taught her several valuable lessons but one close to her heart is that ‘there is an endless supply of stories in the world.
‘If you are curious and interested in people, you can find stories everywhere,’ she says. She did, moving on to novels.
The flip from journalism to children’s author occurred a few years after she arrived in the UK, and Candy makes it clear it wasn’t easy. ‘Journalism is all about conveying information in the most concise way, whereas writing fiction is about unfolding a story, holding back information so that the reader is delighted and surprised by twists and turns in the plot, and saving the best for last.
‘Unlearning the art of getting to the point quickly was the toughest thing. I had to relearn everything I knew about telling a story.’ So how did Tall Story come about? ‘Wherever there are earthquakes, people tell stories about giants being part of the landscape. Having grown up in the Philippines, which sits on the Ring of Fire [the earthquake fault that circles the Pacific Ocean] I wanted to write a novel about a giant,’ she says. ‘I didn’t want my giant character to be magical but a real boy – and
‘The characters are all FAMILIAR from my world – the hard-working NURSE trying to survive in another country, young people straddling TWO CULTURES. I wanted to hold up a mirror to Filipino readers’
so eight-foot-tall Bernardo, who suffers from gigantism, was born.’
Tall Story has a mélange of Filipino characters that many people from the archipelago would easily be able to relate to. ‘The characters are all familiar from my world – the hard-working nurse trying to survive in another country, the family left behind by migration, young people growing up straddling two cultures. I wanted to hold up a mirror to Filipino readers. I wanted them to see themselves in my book… and like what they saw.’
However, for her second novel Shine ,a beautiful melancholic tale populated with ghosts and monsters that aren’t really what they appear to be, she shifted the setting to Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, India.
‘I wanted to set Shine in the rainiest place in the world,’ says Candy, ‘and was googling rainy places when I chanced upon a photo of a mountain in Cherrapunji covered with streams that looked to me like they were weeping. In fact, apart from calling one of the characters Yaya, which means nanny in Filipino, I don’t actually say that Mirasol – the location for the story – is set in the Philippines.’
Does she write for an Eastern or Western audience and does she think the twain will ever meet?
‘The two are meeting right now because I write for both audiences,’ says Candy, who also maintains a popular blog.
‘I have to say the main reader in my mind is a Filipino child. But because I am published in England and in the West, I have to make sure that cultural context is always clear. It is difficult, but satisfying when I manage to achieve it.’
Candy says that starting off on a novel is ‘like facing a row of rabbit holes. You explore each rabbit hole until you find the novel you want to write.
‘There are hundreds of rabbit holes to explore… So many rabbit holes, so little time! Whenever I get to the end of a project, I’m almost paralysed by the thought that I’d now have to choose the next story to write from all the choices around me.’
Choosing one, exploring it and then crafting a book is clearly no easy task.
‘I write seven days a week,’ she says. ‘On a week day, if the sky is blue and flowers are blooming, I will write in my office, which is in my garden.
‘If I’d like absolutely no distraction – which is most days – I write in the Reading Rooms of the British Library.’
She takes a break for lunch around 3pm before quickly returning to her desk to write. ‘But I’m always disappointed because once I’ve stopped, the words do not continue to flow. So I use that time after lunch for admin… or answering interviews like this one.’
Since her three children are living away from home, Candy spends evenings with her husband. ‘At the moment I’m trying to draw every evening to wake up ossified drawing skills from long ago – I used to draw a weekly comic for a magazine 30 years ago,’ she says. ‘I’m enjoying it so much. I also have a lot of rehab for a bad knee and tendinopathy in my ankles, so I do that while watching documentaries. The more physio I do, the more educated I’m becoming. Weekends I write less, usually timing it for when my hubby is out as he referees rugby games.’
Was it easy to settle into London after spending all her growing years in the Philippines?
‘Living away from your normal you’ll always meet people who want to put you in a slot,’ she says.
‘Once, I arrived at a school quiz event and an elderly author who was appearing alongside me said, “So, do you also clean houses, Candy?” What a strange joke.
‘I refuse to take offence though, because I have great respect for the Filipinos who work overseas at jobs like cleaning and nannying. They are the bravest and hardiest people in the world.
‘Luckily for me, I have a husband who has always made me feel that who I am is good enough and better than most. London is also such a vibrant, multicultural place, it is easy to become comfortable in your skin, whatever colour that may be.’