Author interview: Jessica Hagedorn

'Manila Noir' contributors (standing, from left) Kajo Baldisimo, Budjette Tan, F. H. Batacan, Jessica Hagedorn, Butch Dalisay, Angelo R. Lacuesta, (seated, from left) Lourd De Veyra, R. Zamore Linmark, and Rosario Cruz-Lucero.
‘Manila Noir’ contributors (standing, from left) Kajo Baldisimo, Budjette Tan, F. H. Batacan, Jessica Hagedorn, Butch Dalisay, Angelo R. Lacuesta, (seated, from left) Lourd De Veyra, R. Zamora Linmark, and Rosario Cruz-Lucero.

I know, I know, it’s been a few weeks since “Manila Noir” was launched. But my day job has all but eaten into my blogging life, and as such updates have been very few and far between.

Anyway, enough excuses. Here’s the transcript of my interview with Jessica Hagedorn, editor of “Manila Noir” and acclaimed author of “Dogeaters”.


RONREADS (RR): Was it a little shocking to see how much the landscape has changed, especially since the Intercontinental played such a huge part in “Dogeaters”?

JESSICA HAGEDORN (JH): Well, I always expect it to change, so it’s not so jarring. We did pass the Intercontinental during the daytime, and I said that it looks dwarfed now by all the buildings around it, where way back when, it was sort of by itself out there. There’s a difference, but I expect all cities to be like that now. One day, you wake up, and then “Oh my God!”

RR: But looking at how much has changed, do you still think Manila still retains that noir quality, despite all the development that’s happening? 

JH: Oh yeah, development doesn’t stop noir (laughs). At night, it’s still, if not more. Just look at the cover of the book. What is it? Is it the bridge, is it the LRT? What is it? It’s spooky.

RR: Who approached whom with regards to the book? Was it Akashic who approached you?

JH: No, I went to them because I’m a fan of their series, and I know the editor-in-chief who also founded the “Noir” series. I just pitched it to him over drinks. We were meeting about many other things and I said I’m such a fan of noir films and books, and I wanted to edit. He knows my works and it made a lot of sense, because some of the people I know have edited stuff for the series. I said that busy as we all are, we do this because we love this stuff.

He’d never been to Manila, but he travels all the time. He asked me what it is about Manila that would be perfect, so I was telling him about all the writers here and how there’s already a strong community and that I wanted to make it half writers who live here, and because of our situation as people who also live in the diaspora, I said I could also pull from writers who don’t necessarily live in Manila, but who grew up there and know the city. They’re writing from different parts of the world, and this is going to make it really different. He was intrigued by that and he committed to it.

RR: How do they pick the cities to be part of the series?

JH: Some of them are generated by the publisher. They’re interested. “Why not do Paris?” Those are like the obvious cities, that also have a strong tradition of noir and detective fiction. It makes sense to me that those cities are the obvious.

But as the series grew, writers like me approached them and go “Have you thought about….” Some of the books are generated by the people in the publishing house, and others by writers themselves, who go to them with ideas. It now has a life of its own and it’s been going on for years.

RR: Manila is such a rich setting for noir, but F. H. Batacan has been the only one to write an actual crime novel. Does it surprise you that not a lot of authors take advantage of this?

JH: Yes, and I think filmmaker John Sayles said the same thing. He couldn’t understand why the people here aren’t writing.

Sometimes, when you’re living in a place, it takes someone not living here to point out that something is right under your nose. Appreciate what you have. You don’t have to look outside to find something interesting.

RR: How did you pick the contributors?

JH: I was interested in gritty writers, but writers who also had different styles. I read a lot of material by writers who I did not know but were recommended to me as the new writers. I told them to buy me the books, send them to me, and I will read and pick and choose who appeals to me. I knew I wanted writers who are capable because every story in the series has to be original. You can’t use something that’s been published already. It has to be a writer who’s not a beginning writer. I wanted diversity of style and voice.

RR: Did all the writers you invited make it into the collection, or did some of them not make the cut?

JH: The only one who decided to withdraw because he didn’t have time to do rewrites was Charlson Ong. I invited him originally because I’ve been reading his work and he writes beautifully about Chinatown, and I wanted that neighborhood represented. He sent me a draft of something, and I asked him to revise some parts. But he didn’t have time and unfortunately he had to withdraw. But everyone else? I committed to them, and they committed to me. We rode it through.

RR: Was there a particular story that made you feel like this was something new for the writer, that they were taking their work to the next level?

JH: I didn’t know. I don’t know if this was taking them to the next level. I just thought that as an editor, if I could make each story as strong and as terrific as possible, then whether that took them to the next level or not is up to the reader. That was my job, not to worry about taking them to the next level, but working with the story to make it as good as it can be, and give suggestions. If people think this is really sharp, then that’s great. But that wasn’t at the top of mind.

RR: Is this the first one in the “Noir” series that featured a comic? Was it a hard sell to the publishers, or did they welcome it?

JH: They’re from Brooklyn, so they said yeah. There’s a big craze for graphic novels in the States, so this was a no-brainer. They were wondering why they didn’t think of it before. But it’s up to the editor to come up with that. They were very into it, and the fact that it was black and white didn’t make it hard to reproduce.

RR: What about this collection do you think would attract readers of noir who aren’t necessarily aware of Manila?

JH: I think readers of noir are always interested in what’s the next thing. Their curiosity will lead them to pick up a book that look compelling. I’ve never been to Budapest, but I would pick up “Budapest Noir” because I’m always interested in the films and stuff like that.

The reviews so far have been really wonderful. There’s been a lot of articles written about it in online literary journals in the States. There’s a lot of journals dedicated to crime fiction, and they take it seriously and they talk about it. “Manila Noir” is unusual and it’s gotten people to go “Woah, what’s this?” It’s all been very enthusiastic.

(Photo from the National Book Store Facebook page.)

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