1. What made writing Shine different from Tall Story? Tall Story was very successful. Did you feel any weight or pressure to do better in Shine?
Yes indeed! As I began working on Shine, Tall Story began clocking up shortlistings and great reviews. Every morning when I started writing, my head was not in the right place. What if it was just a fluke, what if you can't do it again? This book can't possibly be any good! Have you chosen the right story to write? And on. And on. I had to shake off all the doubt in order to be in a place to lay down the words of my next book ... in the end it took me three long years to write Shine. I learned some things about myself - that it wasn't success that gave me self-belief but a confidence in my story. And to get the confidence in my story, I had to ask every question that had to be asked.
2. Your use of folktales and legends in both Tall Story and Shine to prove a point or address a message is very effective. What folktale or legend best describe your life?
It has been said that Mythology was the first Science. Because it is through mythology that we try to explain our world. To write a legend, you have to imagine the world that existed before whatever it was came to be. Perhaps the title of my legend will be How the Writer Learned to See -- because the process of writing long-form fiction involves digging deep to see what lies under the surface.
3. I'm really mesmerized by your use of tales and legends. Where most writers fumble at this technique, you SHINE. What do you see in tales and legends that seamlessly bridge reality from our own imagined worlds?
Ah but to have these tales and legends, you need a storyteller. The myths are a reflection of the storyteller's own perception of the world, the stories bring to life both her deepest fears and highest ambition. I like having these characters because they bring me home. Every Filipino has someone at home who described the world to them in this way. So I feel they are an essential part of the casting of any Filipino book.
Also, when I was growing up, I became aware of a certain embarrassment amongst Filipinos about the limitations of our literature. Epics and other grand forms are thin on the ground of our cultural heritage. But does that mean the legend and folk tale should be denigrated? These are such important parts of our literature, I want to celebrate them.
4. The women characters in your novels are interesting and complexed. Who is your pattern for Rosa? Even her voice and personality SHINE through the novel the whole time. Even Yaya is funny and hilarious!
The idea for Rosa was sparked when I met a Vietnamese teenager who had arrived in England as an unaccompanied minor. This meant she came to the UK, speaking no English, with no apparent adult companion. Because she was a child, UK government took her into care even though she was an economic migrant.
I didn't get to know this girl at all, but I was thinking about her a lot. She was only a child, and yet she had to hide many secrets about how she got to the UK and who took her in. As an unaccompanied minor, she was regarded by derision by many who resented the fact that she was being cared for by the state. She was innocent. And yet she wasn't. And I thought, how unfair it was to put a child into that position.
Originally, most of Shine had Rosa, mute and lost in the streets of London. It was only as I explored Rosa's character that it dawned on me that the story didn't belong to London but to Mirasol, the island where Rosa was born. My musings about innocence fed into Rosa's situation: in which she is undeservedly shunned by the islanders.
As for Yaya, I think there is a Yaya character in every Filipino's life. Feisty, complaining, scolding in non-sequiturs, off kilter, funny-but-not-on-purpose, down to earth, loving, irritating, essential. (I have sneaking feeling that I am that character in my children's lives!) Yaya is like Jiminy Cricket, she says aloud what Rosa and her father know to be true. She doesn't tiptoe around niceties which means she is the one person Rosa can really trust.
5. You made me sympathize for Kat. She is a complicated character and she fits in the climax of the novel perfectly. How do you form your characters: plot dictating the character or character dictating the plot?
I always begin with the character. I have a rough idea of my plot but to begin with, I try to get to know my character by writing the scenes that reveal to me who she is. I write many, many, many scenes. And then the story begins to take shape and I become aware of the rise and fall of a plot. Then I rearrange my scenes and develop the structure of the book, heightening the conflict here and there to create a sense of rising tension as the story progresses.
In one of Shine's many drafts, the character of Kat emerged at the very end of Rosa's adventure as one long piece of exposition. It was as if an entire story was playing out ... except it was at the wrong end of the book! I needed Kat's story to develop alongside Rosa's, following the rise and fall of the plot.
I thought of having Rosa read letters from Kat or even a diary, but it seemed too contrived. In the end, my editor said, 'Well why don't you just tell Kat's story alongside Rosa's in semi alternate chapters. You don't have to explain anything.' And that is what I did.
Some people get confused and annoyed when Kat's voice appears. But nobody said a book should make things easy for the reader.
6. What is the novel you wish you had written?
I love so many novels. Perhaps Holes by Louis Sachar. But you know what, I believe each novel is as unique as a fingerprint. And if Holes appeared under my pen, I would've freaked out, wondering where the hell it came from.
7. One of my favorite lines in the novel: "a librarian would never lie" - - where did this come from?
Heh, it's just my little homage to librarians. I've always had great friendships with my school librarians. And now, visiting schools as an author, I get a real peek into the impact they can have on children's lives. It was a grade school librarian that once took me by the hand and said, 'Here, you might like this.' And look at how it's made my life turn out! Every child deserves to have a librarian around to change her life.