Ronreads interview: Alex Gilvarry

It’s been literal months since I interviewed Filipino-American author Alex Gilvarry, but work has been se hectic and stressful and drama-filled that finding the time to just sit down and update the blog has been difficult to find. More often than not, I’d rather flop down on my bed and try not to sob uncontrollably.

But now I have a weekend where I can do actual weekend activities, so before I leave my humble abode to check out National Book Store’s Warehouse Sale, check out the transcript of my interview with the author of “From the Memoirs of A Non-Enemy Combatant”.


RONREADS (RR): You’ve been here to the country three times before?

ALEX GILVARRY (AG): This is my third time, this is my third trip. I think I came once in 2004 just for vacation with my family. That was my first time here. And then next time I came back was while I was researching this book, looking for locations to set it in and get a feel for the place. The third time, the book is out and I’m on a book tour here (laughs). It’s pretty cool.

My first time here in 2004 made a big impression on me. I grew up in New York so I had no idea. I sort of had an idea of what it would be like but it’s a really wild place, especially Manila. There’s so many people here, it’s so packed. I think that’s where I got the germ for this book, being here. I knew that I wanted to write about it.

RR: Where were you in the country in 2004?

AG: In 2004 I was in Manila. I had family in Samar. I went to Samar and spent a couple of weeks there. Those are the two places primarily where I’ve been on both trips.

RR: Before 2004, what was your idea of the country?

AG: My mother left the country in her early twenties and she didn’t return for about 14, 15 years. She had kind of idealized the Philippines. In my mind it was always a very idealized place. I was always scared of going because I don’t like to fly. It’s a very long flight from New York.

I can’t remember what my expectations were, but I just remember it being like when you go to any other country. You get culture shock. The vibe of the city is different. I’m very tall, everybody always looks at me whenever I go because I’m so tall. When I got here it just made such a big impression on me. I wanted to write about it. It’s even hard for me now to get a grasp on this city, I still don’t know it very well. I’ve only been here three times.

RR: Could you expound on how that 2004 visit became a germ for the book?

AG: I’m half-Filipino. I’ve always associated more so with the Filipino half. Growing up, it was a very Filipino household, very family-oriented, grew up on the food. But when I came here, I felt like I was an American. I felt like an outsider everywhere I’ve lived. A lot of writers feel that way and it’s a good way to be a writer because you can observe instead of being part of the group.

Writing about it was to me about a Filipino identity that I wanted to explore. The germ that I caught was from that first trip when I came here, seeing the way Manila in particular was. I wanted to set a story here. And then my book ended up being set mostly in Gitmo and New York, which I know very well. But a little of it takes place in the Philippines. I always knew I wanted to end the story here. I guess something out of that trip and the trip after that, many people that I had met sort of ended up being models for characters in the book.

The search for identity was more of a personal journey for me because my character is full Filipino. He’s supposed to be from here. It’s hard to talk about identity (laughs). It’s such a big concept. You don’t really know. You take a trip, you go into a place, and then something happens or changes in you when you come out of it. Through years of writing I was always trying to capture whatever it was that was happening to me through fiction. It’s not something that I can state specifically to you now, but it was sort of something that filters through the work.

RR: Did you immediately start writing the novel after your trip here in 2004?

AG: I started the novel in 2006, two years after that. I came back to the Philippines again in 2006, and I came back knowing that I was writing this novel and had about 40 pages. I came here right when I was writing the chapters about Boy’s family and his history in Manila. It was a great time to come. And speaking to you research question, I hit a wall about how I would be writing this man’s past, so I came back and ended up finding places and meeting people to create his past.

In the book, where he’s from is this place in Quezon City where the streets were named after cigarettes. I ended up using that. That’s where his family lives.

RR: In Makati there’s a place where the streets are all named after scientists.

AG: Really?

RR: You can live in the intersection of Volta and Faraday.

AG: No way, that’s awesome! I got to see that (laughs).

RR: Did you ever worry about Boy’s voice being authentically Filipino?

AG: Yes, I was very worried about that. The best fiction needs to be believable, otherwise you’re going to stop reading it. I think I had a good sense because of my relatives and my mother and the rhythms of the speech. I don’t see his narration as typically Filipino; I write the way that I write. But I think there are certain details you can include in fiction which can make it real. But it was definitely a worry.

RR: When did you stop worrying about getting that voice right and just go ahead and finish the novel?

AG: I think you get the voice right very early on. You can’t continue writing until the voice is there, or at least I can’t. I’m a big voice sort of fan when it comes to fiction. To me it was just a perfect vehicle for sailing through the story. For me it was always right. And of course once you finish the draft of a book, you reread it and then the book stinks (laughs). You see holes where the voice isn’t quite working. You edit and you go back and you fix and you fix. That’s what’s so great about fiction and writing books. Nobody has to read it until you say it’s done. I went back and combed over and comber over, sort of perfecting what was there.

RR: What made you focus on fashion and Guantanamo Bay in particular?

AG: You write whatever interests you. Fashion was always something that interested me, but more specifically I had a link to the fashion world in New York because my ex-girlfriend was a model. I ended up going to a lot of fashion shows with no real purpose but to be there and support her. I ended up going to a lot of fashion parties and I was meeting all of these people in my early twenties. They were just really interesting people. Fashion is a really easy target for humor. There’s a lot of pretentious sort of language.

Also, when I was in my early twenties, I worked for a publisher that was located in Soho, New York, which is a really fashionable part of Manhattan, so I was just surrounded by it at all times. Somewhere out of that just came the narrator of the story, which was a fashion designer.

I didn’t really want to write about fashion, but the subject kind of chose me. And then to make the character real, I had to make a lot of research beyond what I knew of fashion. How to talk about women’s clothing. I had no idea how to write women’s clothing. You had to sort of learn a new language.

Guantanamo was something that was just really present before I started the novel and during. It was something that was on the radio and in the news constantly and I heard stories about men being mistakenly locked up in one of the worst prisons in the world. And when the US is the one doing it, any sort of injustice, specially when it happens in the US, sort of fires me up. I really wanted to write a book that sort of addressed the situation in Guantanamo and enemy combatants directly.

I should say that while thinking of this book, I wanted to write about the post 9-11 world, specifically in New York where I was. Living in my twenties, there was a lot of paranoia and the country was flipped on its head. That’s what I wanted to do, and putting a character in Guantanamo was a way to write about everything I wanted to write about.

RR: How much research went into the fashion parts of the novel and the Guantanamo parts of the novel? Which one was the hardest to research about?

AG: They took an equal amount of work. In each subject I had a little bit of knowledge. With Guantanamo I read every book that I possibly could, books that were published by former marines and former prisoners, and Guantanamo has a specific language to it. They have their own lexicon and I had to learn that.

It’s the same thing with the fashion world. I thought I had a handle on it, and like I said I had to learn how to write about women’s clothes. I wanted this to be a really believable fashion designer. I did a lot of research. But that research was a lot more fun than the research on Guantanamo (laughs). Guantanamo is such a serious subject and fashion is lighter.I remember I started subscribing to women’s fashion magazines like Vogue and W and reading them religiously and getting little tidbits from that to use. I also talked to fashion people and designers.

RR: How do you know when to stop doing your research?

AG: Research is a great way to procrastinate and stop writing (laughs). You don’t stop, you just do it throughout the whole period of crafting a novel. You write everyday, and I can’t write fiction for more than four hours a day. Some people say they write for eight hours or more, but it’s really hard to sustain that type of concentration, you just become exhausted.

I always tell people you can only make stuff up for so long for the rest of the day. Half my day is writing and the other half is researching the book. That’s where you get your ideas from. That’s what informs you. Throughout writing I was always reading. In this book, I was reading non-fiction. The research never stops. There’s no line where you say that’s it. You think you may have, but then you hit a wall and then you realize you don’t know everything so you go research it some more.

RR: Did the book start out as a satire or did it become one as you were writing?

AG: It started out as a satire. That’s just kind of the way I’m wired. I write funny and I like to make myself laugh when I’m writing. The voice of Boy, the narrator, was there very early and it was satirical and very funny.

Some of my favorite books are satirical novels. I read “Notes from the Underground” by Dostoyevsky, and that was a very funny novel, a very satirical novel. I had certain models that I wanted to go for. And by having Guantanamo, this very serious subject, contrasted by the fashion world which is lighter and more superficial, I found that sort of marriage for a ripe satire.

RR: Are there certain books you took inspiration from? The first thing that came to mind when I started reading it was “Lolita”, because of Boy writing the acknowledgment.

AG: Yes, “Lolita” is a good call. “Lolita” was a great inspiration to me. I love that novel. Also very dark, very funny, and what a great voice. Also by Nabokov, “Pale Fire” was one, where it played with structure. The beginning is an epic poem and the real novel is in the footnotes and the endnotes. I love books like that.

Another book was “Barney’s Version” by Mordechai Richler. Also another inspiration was this old postwar novel called “I’m Not Stiller”, which is one of my favorites. I had many. But then every novel you end up reading and liking and finishing has some kind of impression on you as a writer, and you use all of it.

RR: How long did it actually take to finish writing the first draft?

AG: I started writing in 2006 and I finished the first draft in 2009. It was a long time, but it was my first novel and I had no idea what I was doing. It was a long road. And then it took a year to rewrite it two more times. And then, once you sell it, you have to do another year of editing with your editor, so I made two more drafts. I sold it in 2010 and it’s just coming out.

RR: Seeing how long it took, were you ever worried that some of the things you were writing about might end up sounding dated?

AG: Yeah, I was sort of worried about that. I was hoping the prison would be closed and that this book would be some kind of period piece. I was always aware that something would change by the time the book came out. Of course when the book came out nothing changed. It’s still open for business.

I hope the book now has much greater impact because of that. One of my intentions was to maybe change the way people think about prisoners and about Guantanamo. They’re not even called prisoners, they’re called detainees. It’s a way of dehumanizing the people who are there.

You get a guilty feeling from those kinds of things, wanting it to be open, not wanting it to be open. Truman Capote had the same thing when he was writing “In Cold Blood”. He was writing about these two murderers and he just wanted it to be over so he could finish this book. I had similar feelings (laughs).

RR: Could you talk about the feeling of getting signed?

AG: That was the greatest feeling of my life, really. It was amazing. You’re working along for a couple of years and it’s a very uncertain sort of feel. My agent went out with the book and I think there were four publishers who all really liked it, four editors who all wanted it at the same time. That was amazing for me because you really only hope for one. And then I met my editor who works for Viking-Penguin and she was a genius. She was just super talented and she understood the book almost better than I did. She had read it twice before I did. That’s when a new phase of work begins, with another person. It’s a little more collaborative and she line-edited the novel like crazy and just made it so much better.

And then you have another shock when the book comes out and people are actually going to read it. It actually feels better when you sell the book than when it comes out, because then there’s the big fear of how it’s going to be received, what the reviews are going to be like, and people are going to read it and think about it. It’s very nerve-wracking.

RR: Were you worried now that you’re the one being reviewed, especially after having established the Tottenville Review?

AG: Absolutely. In fact, I started Tottenville maybe a year before I finished the book. Some of the books were pretty harsh, but once I became an author, I became an better editor for reviews. I understood how hard it was to write a book and how much work went into it. That was a better way to help me understand criticism. It’s not to sugarcoat reviews, but to edit them better and clearer.

RR: What’s the best and worst review you’ve ever gotten?

AG: The best review was in the New York Times, which was incredible. It was better than the actual book (laughs). I can’t believe what they said. They just really got it. They definitely understood it and it made me immensely happy.

The worst review I got was in San Francisco. You don’t remember how bad it was. It wasn’t actually that bad, but you always remember the person who wrote it. Another author told me that with reviews, you can get as many good ones as you want, but it’s the bad ones you always remember. It wasn’t that bad, they just misunderstood the book and the misunderstood the voice. We just have particular books that find us and are for us. There are just books that we feel have been written for us. This book just wasn’t written for that type of reader. It was a total mismatch.

I understand that. With Tottenville Review, I try to match up new books with people I think will understand it. Not necessarily love it, but understand what’s trying to be done. That has to do with the subject matter, the genre, all that kind of stuff.

I do remember that I was doing a lot of radio when the book came out and the comments on National Public Radio, on the website, were the most vile insults (laughs). One guy said that I was exploiting 9-11 to push forward the gay agenda (laughs).

RR: (Laughs)

AG: He hadn’t read it, but he called me a giggling author because I was laughing a lot during the interview. It was a funny interview. But it was so funny, it was the most vile thing I’ve ever read about myself.

RR: What’s the most gratifying reader reaction you’ve had?

AG: As soon as the book came out, a guy who works for the ACLU, I think he was a former translator who worked with Guantanamo detainees, he wrote me a letter after he finished the book and he said that I was doing something that they’ve been trying to do for years, which is to get people to read about Gunatananmo Bay and to bring more awareness. That was the most gratifying thing for me to hear because at the back of my mind, that was what I was trying to do. We tend to turn a blind eye to something like Guantanamo, but that was incredible. That made me super happy. Since then, I’ve gotten so many letters form fans who like the book and have been affected. I still get them. It’s been out nine months and they still come in.

RR: Did you grow up in a family that was particularly into reading or literature?

AG: I did. I was a child of television, so I was a movie fan and a film fanatic and my first introduction to story was through TV. As a kid I didn’t really like to read (laughs), mostly because I didn’t know the good books.

My mother was a reader and she’d always read novels, but I’ve never fallen in love with them as a child the way other writers do. They’re lucky enough to discover them very early,  I wish I had. But I think I always wanted to be a writer, essentially. In high school I started writing screenplays. I wanted to write for the movies.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I encountered the novel and what it could do and how it made me feel. I have so many good memories that aren’t actually from mine but from good books. I fell in love with the novel and with fiction in college. That’s when I really began to develop as a young writer.

Then I met my first author, Gary Shteyngart, and at the time he just published this book called “The Russian Debuntante’s Book”. It was in an amazing workshop that I met him, and it was an amazing experience meeting another working writer and novelist. Up until that point I thought all novelists were dead (laughs). I didn’t think they still made a living doing that. I thought that this could be a career for me.

But I still didn’t think I could write an actual book, a whole novel. I cut my teeth on short stories. But of course I wasn’t a very good short story writer. I graduated from college and went to work in the publishing industry for a little while until I started this book. Once I started this book, I decided to quit this job and go to grad school. I wrote a lot of the book in grad school, in Hunter College in Manhattan. I studied under some great writers who really guided me.

RR: What were you taking up in college?

AG: I was a Creative Writing major. Throughout college I took fiction workshops and studied literature and poetry. Then I got out into the job market and there wasn’t much for me to do except work in publishing (laughs). You could do that, but it’s not the most gratifying job for someone who wants to write books, because you’re always working on other people’s books. I went back to get an MFA in Fiction, and it was an intense study of the novel.

RR: How much of a help to your writing was your MFA course, and do you think it’s essential to someone who wants to be a writer?

AG: I don’t think it’s essential, but I think it takes of a good number of years that you would end up working on your own. To be around professional writers and to get their opinions on their work as well as see the way they work became an intense model for me. I think it’s certainly a great thing.

There’s always a controversy about getting an MFA or not to write a book. I always tell people you should because it will advance you. It will knock off four years of waht you will learn on your own.

RR: How about the criticism that all of these MFA programs end up with books that all sound the same?

AG: I’ve heard that before (laughs). I didn’t worry about it because I had my own model and my own tastes. I think that’s more true for the short stories, because a lot of people who go to MFAs are primarily working on short stories. The workshop is the perfect setting to work on a short story. You have 12 readers who read it and a couple of months to finish something. That’s partly true with the short story. But the novel is too large and too big to make sound the same. There are novels that do sound the same, but that’s been happening forever. I don’t think that has anything to do with an MFA program.

RR: You talk about how you first fell in love with novels in college. What was your first love?

AG: My first love was “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. That affected me immensely. Gary Shteyngart, who I met, not only was he a working writer, but he was writing the kind of fiction I always wanted to read — satire. He’s incredibly funny and incredibly smart, he’s such a great writer. As an undergrad, I remember reading Donald Barthelme. Brilliant short story writer and he blew my world open, as did Grace Paley, she was another great author. I remember finding a copy of Grace Paley in National Book Store when I was here in 2004, the first time, and being really excited about it.

RR: What do you want Filipino readers to get from this book?

AG: That’s a really hard question. I don’t think there’s anything different that I want Filipino readers to get than American readers. I think the book has many different readings. Primarily, I want them to enjoy it and have an enjoyable experience with the book and to laugh. But I also want them to think about some of the things going on with reference to terror and terrorism, which happens here just as much as it does in the United States if not more.

RR: Would you have a favorite book?

AG: I think “White Noise” by Don Delilo is one of my favorites. I’m trying to think of a good one that people can actually buy here.

RR: Any advice you’d give to someone who wants to get into writing?

AG: Write a good book. Just make it good (laughs).

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