‘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

Friday - - In The UAE -

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.’

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