Author Interview: Candy Gourlay

Monday, November 30, 2009

Tall Story is about Bernardo, an 8 ft. tall boy (a giant!) in the Philippines, and his half-sister Andi in the UK. I really enjoyed reading Tall Story. It's an interesting story and I love so many things about it: How it is about family, Filipino legends and superstitions, and basketball. Its melding of British humor and Filipino humor. Andi's strong and fresh voice. How the main characters seem so real that a part of me thinks there really is an 8 ft. tall boy named Bernardo in the Philippines with a sister named Andi in the UK. I love how in Tall Story there is the question of how belief in legends and superstitions affects how one reacts to events... And does something happen (or not happen) because of a person's belief (or lack thereof) in a legend or superstition?

Tall Story is for children aged 10+ and will be published by David Fickling Books in the UK (June 2010) and the US (early 2011), and by Cacho Publishing House in the Philippines (date to be announced). Today, I am excited to present an interview with Tall Story author Candy Gourlay

Candy is a Filipino writer who lives in the UK. In the Philippines, she was a journalist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. In the UK, she was the London correspondent for the news agency Inter Press Service and editor of the pan-European magazine Filipinos in Europe. Candy moved to the UK in 1989 after she married Richard Gourlay, who was the Manila correspondent for the Financial Times of London. Richard and Candy have three children.


Hi, Candy! 
 
What was the spark that set you off writing Tall Story?

I have always been fascinated by gigantism and had the germ of an idea -  a teenager who suffers from gigantism.

As an awkward teenager, I felt like a freak - a lot of teenagers, the uncool ones like me, feel like that, don't they? I thought: what if you really were a "freak"? Maybe, a giant?  

And then, my sister (Joy Ramos) told me the story of Ujang Warlika.

When her husband, Bong Ramos, a former PBL [Philippine Basketball League] player turned PBA [Philippine Basketball Association] basketball coach, was coaching Aspac Texaco, an Indonesian team, he was asked to turn Ujang into the equivalent of Yao Ming, the Chinese giant.

The thing was, Yao Ming at 7 feet 6 inches was genetically tall ... and Ujang who was 7 feet 4 inches was not tall, he was a giant - he suffered from the disease called gigantism, caused by an overactive pituitary gland that overproduces growth hormones. Ujang ended up spending a lot of time hanging out with my sister's daughter Camille, who is a tiny but formidable basketball player. Camille now plays for La Salle [University] and the Philippine Women's team. Poor Ujang died of his illness.


Please guide us through your writing process, particularly the writing process you used for Tall Story. What influences and inspirations (both literary and non-literary) did you draw from while writing? What were the challenges and rewards from writing Tall Story?

The Philippine legend of Bernardo Carpio is an important part of Tall Story. Can you tell us a bit about the legend and why you incorporated it into the novel? Did you do a lot of research on the legend, or did you rely on the stories you heard growing up?


When I started writing Tall Story in September 2008, I only had that tiny idea - about a teenager with gigantism. I thought of setting it in the UK, but the UK is not a basketball playing country (even though my sons love it, they discovered basketball watching PBA games in the Philippines).

I thought of setting it in the United States - but that would have been super risky, never having lived in the States.

I asked myself what I did know?

I read everything I could find about giants, all the folklore and all the legends. This brought me to Bernardo Carpio, the Filipino legendary giant. I read all the different versions of the Bernardo Carpio story and realized that through the years it had been adapted by storytellers to suit the times - Bernardo Carpio was a metaphor for the resistance against Spain, he was an explanation for a lot of geology in the Montalban area, and he was even a Christ metaphor in the early 1900s. Nick Joaquin wrote a wonderful time travel story featuring Bernardo Carpio in Pop Stories for Groovy Kids, retellings of Filipino stories published in the 80s. That decided me - I was going to tell my own version of Bernardo Carpio and other Filipino folk tales.

I really set out to reflect a Filipino sensibility, despite the story being set partly in London. I had a fear that some Filipinos might not like the way I portray them, given Pinoy sensitivities about their image in the rest of the world. But I set out to capture that unique sense of humour that I miss so much living abroad - our love of poking fun at the way we have domesticated English, the spiritualism that borders on superstition, the rich storytelling seam, the showbiz dramatics, the sense of family and belonging. I hope Pinoy readers will recognize how lovingly I wrote it .. fellow expatriates might feel the undercurrent of homesickness that underlies the whole novel which is the lot of the Filipino abroad. I suspect this will be a constant feature in all my novels!

Was it difficult getting an agent? What was the path to publication for Tall Story?

I have been trying to get published for nine years. I know this because I recorded the date when I started writing my first novel. Tall Story is my fourth!

That first novel was set in London with English characters and had a gripping enough first chapter to have the whole manuscript invited back whenever I sent it out. But I didn't know the ups and downs of plot or in-depth characterization, and had a slew of rejections. I had so much to learn.

I decided to throw myself into the process of learning. I joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and tried to attend every event and volunteered for anything going. I thought I would also use my journalistic skills and report on what I learned in a blog - which continues to this day - Notes from the Slushpile.

But it was only when one agent told me, "Why are you writing about English characters? A first novel should reflect the author's experience." that I realized that I was not mining the wealth of experience and story that my heritage had to give. It was only when I started setting my stories in the Philippines and using Filipino characters that my writing really came alive. After that flurry of rejections with my first novel, I became more cautious. I didn't submit my novel to every agent I ever met or heard of. I concentrated on learning to write rather than getting published.

In 2008 I won a place in SCBWI's inaugural Undiscovered Voices anthology with an excerpt of Ugly City, my dystopian fantasy set in a city suspiciously like an extreme Manila. The agent Hilary Delamere had already read another novel of mine and called to tell me she liked it BUT ... after a bit of discussion, she asked if I had anything else. I sent her Ugly City and three days later she signed me up.

Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that your novel was going to be published? What were your first thoughts and feelings? How did you celebrate the good news?

I'm afraid I didn't believe it. I was sure I'd heard wrong and it was only when I actually met my agent at an event a few days after she told me that I felt I had permission to tell the world. Over the years, I guess I'd become overcautious and my default position was rejection. It was really hard to take in the news. I celebrated in little ways with my family and friends. I think it was only the reaction of my 10-year-old friend Hugo that convinced me it was really happening. Last summer I read chapters of Tall Story to Hugo and a bunch of other children.

Candy: Hugo, my book is going to get published.
Hugo: (slightly bored) Which one?
Candy: Tall Story.
Hugo: (genuinely thrilled) TALL STORY? THE ONE YOU READ US LAST SUMMER? THAT IS SO COOL!

And after that I thought it was so cool too!

How are you going to promote Tall Story? What are your plans for its release?

I have not really made plans that far ahead, although June 2010, the launch date in the UK is coming very fast. I want to do some fun stuff online, maybe make some YouTube videos with the kids which I love doing anyway. I will have to redesign my website of course ... and I am hoping my brother Armand Quimpo who is a cool motion graphics animator will make me a book trailer. I'm definitely going home to the Philippines for the Philippine launch but it's still early days so watch this space!

The two main characters in Tall Story, siblings Bernardo and Andi, make important wishes on a wishing stone. What are your wishes for Tall Story?

Do I get three wishes?

One of my big wishes has already been answered: that a Filipino publisher will take it to a Filipino audience. That has always been so important to me and I made that clear to my agent from the moment we started talking about selling my books. My second wish would be that my readers would love my characters as much as I have come to love them. And my third wish? That the book might inspire kids to read more ... and to write.

THANK YOU Tarie!

Thank you, Candy!!! I can't wait for the world to read Tall Story.



[My copy of Tall Story was provided by the author.]