Ronreads interview: Alexander Yates

The huge crowd at the MIBF book signing for Alexander Yates and Samantha Sotto.

Alexander Yates was one of the many wonderful people I met at the craziness that was the Manila International Book Fair (MIBF). The onetime Manila resident was brought back to Manila by National Book Store to promote his debut novel, “Moondogs”, as well as to participate in a forum alongside fellow first time novelist Samantha Sotto.

I know I said the same thing about Lauren Kate and Samantha Sotto, but I can’t help it if the authors I get to interview are really nice people! I’m sure it would make a far juicier story if I said Alexander Yates was mean during the interview, but the meanest thing he probably did was insult Sookie, and Sookie isn’t exactly making it hard for people not to insult her.

Anyway, since my article on him already came out today, I thought it would be great to put up the full transcript of the interview with him. A lot of stuff got cut out of the article because of space constraints, so here’s a chance to read about everything we talked about!

RONREADS (RR): When was the last time you were here in the country?

ALEXANDER YATES (AY): I left near the end of 2004. Half of 2004 I was here, and by the end of the year I moved to the United States with my fiance at the time. This is the first time i’ve been back since 2004.

RR: What was the biggest surprise since coming back?

AY: I left in 2000, came back in 2003, and already so much has changed, so I guess I expected construction to happen and things to look different. But even expecting that it was still a surprise. Makati and Ayala, that area was different than I remembered it. Every year it gets so much more built up. What I remember as parking lots are now buildings (laughs). There’s now a building in what used to be an outdoor parking deck near Rustan’s and Ayala. And I haven’t even been to The Fort yet!

RR: Could you talk about growing up as a foreign service kid and growing up in different countries?

AY: I loved it. I consider it a blessing because I got to have a lot of different experiences and I got to meet a lot of different people. For all the angst, because it was a little difficult to return to the United States and feel out of place in what was supposed to be my home country, I’ve made peace with that fractured identity. I did nothing to deserve that upbringing, but I really consider it as a blessing.

RR: You talk about Manila as your hometown. At which point in your childhood did it start to feel that way?

AY: I think it was in my senior year of high school because a lot of friendships crystallized in that moment. It was clear that this was going to be lifelong friendships. I was dating a woman who became my wife here in the Philippines, we had our prom in this hotel (Manila Hotel) (laughs)!

It was that senior year and that first year in college. When I went to the States and thought of home, it was Manila that I was thinking of. It’s an important time because at that age you crystallize into the adult that you’re going to be, and I was here during that influential time of personal growth.

RR: Any particular experiences in Manila that you look back at with fondness?

AY: Just a lot of misbehaving at night with friends, going out on Jupiter Street, in Makati, and in Malate. Also, just good close friendships, and the times when my family would go out to Batangas once a month. We’d go diving, and it’s just a beautiful country. The countryside is just fricking gorgeous. It’s easy to feel nostalgic for a beautiful time.

RR: You’re not the first author to write about the city of Manila. Alex Garland wrote about the city in “The Tesseract”, James Hamilton-Paterson in “Ghosts of Manila”. What do you think it is about the city or the country that makes it ripe for stories?

AY: For me, I didn’t come to Manila seeking inspiration. It wasn’t like I was looking at multiple cities and I was going “Oh, Manila is the most fertile ground for fiction!” It was where I was, I didn’t chose to come here. I was just here, and it was my hometown. It was just the exact age that I was starting to think more seriously about becoming a writer. The natural material that presented itself was what I knew best, the city I lived in.

But that said, I do think that Manila is especially fertile ground for fiction, especially for American authors. It kind of shocks me that the Philippines is not more present in the American popular imagination. I think the reason why it’s not present in the American popular imagination is the story of our adventures in the Philippines is not the way we like to see ourselves. We talk about colonists in history class, it’s always in world history, not in American history.

The people who don’t know that we have a colonial history in the Philippines, that we put down a rebellion, that we liberated them but “won” them from the Spanish and fought a war to deprive them of freedom, it’s amazing that not a lot of people know that. It’s amazing especially in the context of 2004, when we’re talking about “benevolent hegemony” in Iraq, and “benevolent assimilation” was used for the Philippines. It just felt very salient, and I think because of this shared history, for American authors, there’s a draw there.

RR: When did you first get the idea for the book? Obviously it was during the elections….

AY: It was exactly that. The elections were in May and I started writing notes for the book in June. It was slightly after the elections, but it was during that first summer when I moved back to the Philippines. I took a job at the US Embassy. I had been writing in college but I didn’t have a big project like a novel. It was in June that I started taking notes and after five years I was finished.

RR: Why did it take five years?

AY: The first drafts were different from how the book turned out to be. It was just a process of discovering what the book was about.

RR: How long did it take for you to revise the book?

AY: Two and a half years just to get to the first draft, and then two and a half years just to revise, revise, revise.

RR: That’s a long time.

AY: Tell that to my wife (laughs). Yes, it’s a long time. It’s intimidating now to be starting a new one and I want to be done in a year. I don’t want to spend five years of my life doing it (laughs)! But I think that’s the only way to do it. When you’re writing your first novel, you’re not writing it yet, you’re just teaching yourself how to write a novel.

RR: What was the book supposed to be like in the very first draft?

AY: The very first draft was just Benicio, Bobby, Howard. Ignacio was just going to play a very small part, there was no Effram, no Renato, no Charlie Fuentes. In the beginning it was just a father-son story and Benicio goes to Manila and links up with Bobby and goes on this insider’s tour. As the story developed and I added an Embassy character I got interested in those other points of view, and that required a commitment of a few years to figure out what they were going to be about. It takes some time to inhabit them and see what their story is all about. In the beginning it wasn’t quite as complex as it turned out to be.

RR: Did you have an interest in writing before getting into it in college?

AY: In elementary school I wanted to be a writer. I always liked reading when I was young. I remember very vividly that I was in fourth grade and I was looking in the books at this rinky-dink bookshelf with all these books on it and it dawned on me that it was someone’s job to write those, and it sounded at the time like an easy job. It’s not (laughs)! From there I kind of got into becoming a storyteller.

RR: Was “Moondogs” a novel from the very beginning, or did it start out as a short story?

AY: It was a novel from the beginning. In college I had written stories about Manila because I was very homesick. When I moved to the States for college, I had never been to the States before. I had moved around my whole life. I’m an American, and when I moved back, people kind of assumed that I knew the score and that I knew the right football team to cheer for. But Manila felt like home for me. I felt very much out of water in the States. I was really nostalgic about Manila and I started writing stories about Manila, all of them very rough and very early stuff. It was after I returned to Manila that I got inspired and started writing again and I wanted to commit to a bigger project.

RR: Could you talk about what those earlier projects were like?

AY: Other than being bad (laughs)? There was one set in Boracay, about a German tourist who’s in Boracay for diving and he is rescued by his diving instructor. He went back to his diving instructor’s house and got to see this whole other world that the tourists don’t experience. It’s about him getting to witness that other experience.

RR: When did you realize that you were ready to tackle a bigger project like a novel?

AY: I think when I started out I didn’t appreciate what a big life commitment it was and how difficult it would be. When I first started, I never had a moment where I had to ask myself if I’m ready for this. When I started, I didn’t appreciate how big it was. Two years down the road, I realized that if I really want to do this, I really have to devote more time to it. Two years in, I decided to get more serious about it. I quit my job as a contractor at the State Department and went to graduate school to work on the novel full time.

RR: What was the most difficult part about writing this novel?

AY: Getting the points of view right, because there’s a lot. I think some writers have the character in mind and the story comes from that, but for me it was the opposite. I had a story and mind and the plot mechanics and architecture, but the first draft the characters were all just cardboard cutouts. It’s very condescending to have characters just have do things. It’s not that I didn’t have respect for the characters, it’s just that I didn’t have the talent to really breathe life into them. Going from having characters just filling a role – Effram was just there because I needed a policeman character to save Howard – to an actual character that has motivations that I can understand. Getting the characters and the different voices right took a lot of time. It only started to work near the end of the five years. That was very difficult.

RR: Did you have any apprehensions about misrepresenting Manila?

AY: I think when I started writing I didn’t appreciate the responsibility. There’s a long tradition of Westerners writing about Southeast Asians and getting it wrong. I think I just had to make peace with the fact that I am writing about my hometown and all my characters kind of have the same relationship with the town as I do. They’re all struggling with their own culture. Benicio is struggling between his mother’s life in Costa Rica and his father’s life in the Philippines and his own status as an American. Monique was raised in the Philippines and she had this idealized version of the sweet yaya and the lovely yard in Subic. It’s like an Eden for her and she’s always longed for that and she comes back and she’s a foreigner. It’s fair because she’s a foreigner, but she just had this idea that she would be coming back to this ideal home.

I think my comfort level comes from the fact that I don’t think I’m stepping beyond my experience. All the characters are interacting with the city in the same way that I do. For the Filipino characters, the criminals and the heroes, I had respect for the humanity of all my characters and all I can do is trust myself. To some extent the fear of offending people is healthy because it makes you be critical of yourself and evaluate your own assumptions and your own intentions. It’s helpful in that extent. You ask yourself, “Am I being an asshole? Am I thinking I understand more than I do?” But you can’t let that fear keep you from writing, because if you’re afraid of offending people you’ll never write anything.

RR: Were there parts of the novel that you felt might offend people but were integral to the story you wanted to tell?

AY: Maybe the kidnapping and the bumbling criminals? But even him, he’s not a criminal because of who he is. He’s not a criminal because he’s a Filipino meth addict cab driver. There are meth addict cab drivers all over the world, it’s not unique to the Philippines (laughs). That storyline is more of a satire on media, because he is addicted to the movies, the news. His understanding of the situation is that Americans are being kidnapped in Iraq and in Mindanao, there’s an American in my cab, the thing I should do, obviously, is kidnap him and sell him to Muslims. It’s preposterous.

When I first wrote it I was worried about the whole selling someone to Muslims thing. The mosque that Ignacio goes to is not cooperative, and I had a lot of anxiety about that and nobody had a peep to say about that. I was worried about the kidnapping, but my comfort zone comes from the fact that it’s satire and it’s not about cultural politics, but about the media narrative about the West versus the World and how we as consumers can sometimes buy into that and that nuance actually exists and that if they go to a random mosque the imam won’t be a terrorist.

Alexander Yates at a book signing event at Powerbooks.

RR: At which point in the writing of the novel did the superpowers come into play?

AY: It was kind of late. I was working on the policeman story, and I was writing it and writing it and it was terrible. It was boring, it wasn’t credible, it just read like a crappy comic book. After a lot of revision and trying to find out why it was failing, I found out that the reason was that these blue collar Pinoys were people I did not know. My Pinoy friends at ISM are already a self-selected group of wealthy people. I had to admit the fact that this was not an experience I had access to as an author. If it’s reading like a comic book, the best thing I could do was not to write it as gritty and realistic, which I can’t do, but to write it at least as a good comic book. It was just, as an author and artist, owning the fact that this is fantasy to a large extent.

Also, I was reading a lot of Rushdie at the time, and that storyline was affected a lot by “Midnight’s Children”. They characters are superheroes but their powers speak to their cultural identity more than anything else, and that was how the powers of the people in the book are defined.

RR: Aside from Rushdie, are there other authors or books that influenced the writing of this novel? Some of my friends say that it reads like Chuck Palahniuk in some parts.

AY: I’ve only read one of his, Lullaby, which I enjoyed. The bigger influence for this book was Rushdie and F. Sionil Jose’s “Gagamba” was also a big influence. In the second half, there’s an extended “Gagamba” homage, with the earthquake and the shared experiences. It’s a beautiful book and I’m trying to do something similar in the second half of this book, where all these disparate stories are brought together by this one incident that has no respect for cultural status or identity. Just like an earthquake, you feel it whoever you are. There’s something beautiful and artistic about that because everyone is brought together and forced into a moment of shared experience.

RR: Are there other authors beside F. Sionil Jose that you read when you were here that you particularly liked?

AY: We read a lot of Nick Joaquin. I love him and F. Sionil Jose. I recently read Miguel Syjuco’s book “Ilustrado” and I enjoyed it as well, but that came out recently so that doesn’t count (laughs). That book I really enjoyed. That book is interested in the same things but it’s more interested in the writer as a moral force, and with the Philippines having Jose Rizal as a national hero, that makes sense. It’s almost like Russia, where writers were great moral forces. The Filipino experience of the novelist is kind of similar to that.

RR: How did you get signed and published?

AY: I was really fortunate. I was with the MFA program at Syracuse and one of the professors there referred me to an agent, who passed the book on to another agent, who really loved it and signed me. That agent gave me some edits, light stuff, two months of work, and then she sold it to my editor at Doubleday.

RR: Did it surprise you how easy the process was for you?

AY: Yes, absolutely, which is why when other writers ask me about it I don’t want to tell them because everyone had these great stories about not giving up and how they got rejections after rejections. Rejections are like a badge of honor, and the first agent who looked at it said that they liked it but that they didn’t have room for me. The second agent signed it, the editor she gave it to bought it. My story’s boring, but I fully recognize that it’s about luck, and that I got the right agent, and she knew the right editor for a book like mine.

The crowd at Alexander Yates' solo signing event at the MIBF.

RR: Did you have an inkling when you were writing it that it would be well-received?

AY: No, because I didn’t think that I would sell it. When you’re writing a book, chances are no one is going to read it because people don’t publish books. Some people do and there’s a lot of luck involved and I was very lucky I had a good agent who really believed in it and knew the right editor for me and who was passionate about the project, but when I was writing it I was just focusing on writing the best book that I could write and also writing the book that only I could write, which is to say that this is the book that I want to read. This is the book that reflect my own particular hang-ups and cultural obsessions and my nerdball obsessions with superheroes and evil chickens. This is the book where I could be the weird person that I really am.

It was only later on, when I got an agent and it appeared that this could really happen, that I wondered what people were going to think of it. But at that point, the book is written, and if I had gone back to change for that, I think it would have killed it. When you write a book towards expectations, you’re not writing a novel. It’s not art.

RR: Has there been a difference between the reactions of Filipino readers and Filipino-American readers?

AY: That’s actually a good question. So far, I’ve had Fil-Am readers who I’m friends with or we follow each other on Twitter, and they’ve sent me notes that it’s very true to life and they were really digging it. In terms of Filipino readers, when I was working on it I shared it with a lot of old friends in Manila. They’re Filipinos, but they’re also old friends. I think they’re honest with me, but they’re not totally outside my circle. They had some really good suggestions. I appreciated the fact that while I consider Manila my hometown, it’s still a city that I will never understand the same way that native Filipinos will understand it. I don’t have access to the full range of the Manileno experience. I asked them to read it and tell me if I was being an idiot. They had some really helpful comments and overall they were very supportive. In terms of Filipino reactions in Manila, those were the earliest ones. There hasn’t been that many yet because the book has only recently been launched here.

RR: From the signings that you’ve done here, what has been the reaction among the people so far?

AY: Everyone’s been super sweet and supportive. I think a lot of people who ask questions haven’t read it yet. There’s a 50/50 split. Some have read it, some have not. There’s a lot of questions about process and getting published, and what Manila means to me. But so far everyone’s been sweet.

RR: What’s the most unusual reaction you’ve gotten about the book?

AY: To some extent, the book is kind of weird. It’s a thriller, but it’s a literary novel, but it’s pulp, but it’s magical realism. I was kind of surprised that some people came to it expecting to get a straight-up thriller, and they’re really surprised by all the other stuff going on. The unusual stuff has been having people read it with the conventions of thriller in mind, and their reactions as to how those conventions are subverted or ignored or not met.

It’s not the most unusual reaction but it’s the reaction that interests me the most is how people approach the book. Are they approaching it as a quiet, masculine, literary story, and then go “What’s this evil chicken doing? This is silly, this is kids stuff.” “Moondogs” is a book for everyone in me. There’s someone in me who’s delighted by superheroes and likes an evil chicken. Trying to make that coexist with the adult, nuanced stuff is part of the project as far as I’m concerned. Seeing people react to that has been interesting.

Alexander Yates with Samantha Sotto and National Book Store's Xandra Ramos.

RR: Have there been characters that people have latched onto that you found surprising?

AY: Monique. People either really like her or hate her. And the people that hate her, really hate her. I think we’re less tolerant of women cheaters somehow. The fact that she’s cheating on her husband, the people that hate her, they cannot forget about that. But then other people totally understand her struggle. I’ve been surprised by how varied the reactions to her have been. Everyone seems to like Effram, even though he’s killed a lot of people (laughs).

RR: How is the second book going?

AY: Still dreading it (laughs). I’ve been working on it for about a year. If “Moondogs” is a literary pulp thriller, the next book is a literary high fantasy, with elves and ghosts. The next one takes place in Finland. It shares the same concerns as this book about cultural identity and where a person belongs, but I’m trying to do my version. “Moondogs” is my version of a comic book pulp thriller. The next book is my version of high fantasy. Which for all I know will piss off fans of high fantasy, but I can only write what I can write.

RR: Did you do any research while writing Filipino folktales and mythology while writing this one?

AY: I went by the seat of my pants at first. But as it started to become more prevalent and it started interesting me, I started to research about tikbalangs. There’s a lot of mentions about duwendes. But you can’t really live in Manila without saying “Tabi, tabi po” at one point or see a picture tilted. That’s stuff is ingrained into you. I’m not interested in doing a take on that mythology. This is just a pop culture versions, just like comic books, which are pop culture versions of the hero’s story. I just tried to do that and set it in Manila.

RR: What advice would you give to young writers?

AY: Don’t be lazy. Laziness manifests in a lot of ways. You can be writing full time and still be lazy. You really have to be willing to do the hard work of questioning yourself and be willing to write about the things you’re afraid to write about, don’t be afraid to push yourself. This might be bad advice for people who want to write a genre book, but don’t write for an audience. If you write with an end goal in mind, the book is going to be a slave to that. It’s only going to be a successful book if it surprises you and you go “Holy shit, I didn’t know I could do that.” That’s when you’re really creating something new, that’s worthwhile. Be brave, be new, and question yourself.

RR: What was your holy shit moment?

AY: My holy shit moment was when I was allowed to have superheroes, that the literary police would not knock on my door if I had superheroes. There’s some stupid, silly, off-the-wall shit that happens with these superheroes. Letting myself do that was like I could suddenly breathe. I hadn’t realized I had been stopping myself from doing what I wanted because I had this idea of what a literary book was, that it was understated and masculine and nuanced, and I was going to be all of those things even though that’s not who I am. And when I started to really be myself and let go of my own preconceived notions of what a book should be and let the book become what it really was, that happened first with the superheroes. That was the holy shit moment. When Effram, in Chpater 4, killed the prisoner, that just happened. I didn’t know that I could do it. That was when I said, “This is going to be a weird book.”

(Photos from National Book Stores’ Facebook page.)

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2 thoughts on “Ronreads interview: Alexander Yates”

  1. Hi Ron! We’re happy to let you know that we’ve included RonReads in the list of Pinoy book blogs at Read Philippines.com. We’d love to have you join our fast-growing community of Pinoy readers!

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