Right from the very first paragraph, I was already sold on Marivi Soliven Blanco’s “The Mango Bride”. It was just the kind of humor that I liked, and as I continued reading the book kept on winning me over again and again, either through its humor or the peek into Philippine high society that Soliven Blanco gives us.
That was why it was so exciting for me to actually talk to her during her (still ongoing!) visit here to the country. I was able to sit down with her before her book signing event at the National Book Store flagship store at Glorietta 1, and she talked about the long road to publication, her fondness for Manila, as well as whether the workshop process is something all aspiring writers should undergo.
RONREADS (RR): I really liked how “The Mango Bride” read like a telenovela. Was that something that your publisher or editor in the States welcomed?
MARIVI SOLIVEN-BLANCO (MSB): I don’t think she mentioned it, but she loved the story. People have told me that it reads like a telenovela, and I certainly allude to the telenovela, so yeah.
RR: I also like how you acknowledge it near the end of the book when the detective says Amparo’s story sounds like a soap opera.
MSB: Señora Concha also says to Amparo “Why do you have to think that everything in your life is like a telenovela?” I certainly pay homage to that whole fondness for the melodramatic in Filipino life.
RR: How different is this version of the novel from the one that won the Palanca in 2011?
MSB: Malaking change. When it one in the Palanca, it was chronological, at saka nag-umpisa siya ng 1960s in Manila all the way to 1995. Diretso ‘yan eh. There was the same stabbing incident, and in the end of the original version, it’s with Marcela stepping up to the table. Tinitingnan na niya ‘yung kutsilyo. My editor said that it was interesting, but also that the story isn’t about Marcela. It’s about these two women who go abroad. That was the first thing.
The other thing was that in the original “In the Service of Secrets”, it was 135,000 words. And for the dimensions of this kind of trade fiction book, she said kailangan between 90,000 and 100,000. Tinanggalan ‘yung 135,000 and there were two extra chapters that were added along with the character of Manong Del. The whole portion of Manila in the 1960s was taken out, and the love story and early life and teenage-hood of Clara, tinanggal na rin. The teenage lives of Marcela and Clara, tinanggal na ‘yun. When you see Clara, middle age na siya, di ba? It was significantly different.
It took eight months to alter. I had the initial conversation with the editor in late 2011. She came back at me with the actual list of requested revisions sometime in the spring of 2012. And then between the spring of 2012, siguro mga bandang February until August we were working on the revisions. The book came out in 2013. But the finalized manuscript, it was ready for the first stages of publishing August or September of 2012.
RR: Which parts of the old version were the hardest to let go?
MSB: I really liked Clara’s character and that whole history of why she was the way she was, what she aspired to be. Ang backstory kasi ni Clara, she comes form a poor family, a fisherman’s family. But she was the one, along with her mother, to be the white one in her family. The backstory of that is that several generations earlier, one of her ancestors was impregnated by a Spanish priest. Ever after, each generation had just one pale-skinned child, and Clara was that child. She inherited her mother’s belief that the pale-skinned child is blessed by the gods and that she deserved a better life. When Clara was contracted by the Duarte family to come to America, the mother thought it was the beginning of their rise from rags to riches. But Clara has a fall from grace, but before she has her fall from grace she infected her daughter with the idea that she will have a better life. That’s why she named her Beverly after the Hills. She infected her with the same promise, that she has inherited this same gift from the gods (laughs).
RR: I also like that you don’t present an idealized or romanticized view of Manila in the novel, but your fondness for the city is still very evident. How did you find that balance?
MSB: Because I lived in Manila and I’m very fond of Manila. I still consider myself a Filipino. I will always consider myself a Filipino.
The book is a social commentary on that particular class, which is where I come from and I can speak of it with authority because I come from that class. But Manila, like any city, has beautiful and disgusting things about it. More specifically, I love UP (University of the Philippines). I went to school there, my parents went to school there, I taught there, I met my husband there. I have a very nostalgic view of UP. I wanted that to come out.
I don’t know what Dan Brown said, pero my god naman, hindi naman siya publicist ng Maynila, why are you blaming him? That’s not his job. Whatever the problem was, you’re pointing the finger at the wrong person. Anyway, I digress.
I wanted people to see that Manila is a many faceted creature. Much as people love to hate it, they also love it, the way you love an old lover. It makes you cry, it makes you tear out your hair. You leave him, but you still look back at him with much fondness. That’s the way I wanted Manila to come out. I don’t know if I could necessarily live here. I could live here for many months, but probably it wouldn’t be good for me to live here for many years. I couldn’t afford to live here like that now (laughs).
RR: I also loved the book’s humor, right from the opening paragraph. Was that present in the version that won the Palanca, or is it something unique to this version?
MSB: It was there ever since. That did not change. That was always part of it kasi you can’t take things too seriously. Otherwise, it’s depressing. Saka di ba ganon naman talaga ang mg Pilipino? Gross na nga ‘yung pinagu-usapan pero they’re still laughing (laughs). Kahit na may trahedya, there’s always something that they find funny about it. That’s the whole dichotomy of the Filipino psyche. someone will always post something that’s absurd about what’s happening here, no matter how tragic. And I like that about the Philippines. No matter how bad things are, somebody will always find something funny to say, however un-PC that funny thing is, and I wanted to bring that out.
RR: Was that something that the publisher liked when they read the novel?
MSB: I’m sure she did because I poke fun at Americans as well. It has to go both ways. There is the good and the bad, and you also have to do it kasi ang heavy nung topic. Human trafficking, medyo mabigat din ‘yan. You have to leaven all of that tragedy with some humor, otherwise it’s just a downer. However much people like to read serious things, you’re still in the business of entertaining. People will not tolerate it when you have this message book on human trafficking and domestic violence. I really dislike making message books.
RR: Could you talk about how “In the Service of Secrets” made its way to Penguin and became “The Mango Bride”?
MSB: What happened was I was in the process of writing “Spooky Mo”. When I was writing it, I was already in San Diego and Taryn Fagerness, who is this literary agent who used to work with Sandra Djikstra, the agency that handles Amy Tan, read the manuscript and she really, really liked it. She wanted to represent me na and she brought it up with her agency, but they said that this is an unknown writer in America, and we only publish people who write novels. For whatever reason, the first publication of a writer, they only do novels first. She asked if I had a novel and sabi ko wala (laughs).
Until I wrote “In the Service of Secrets”, I wrote things that were no longer than 10,000 words. I had this real fear of the long form. I knew I had to get over this fear. I came so close tapos umatras. I have to get over this hurdle so that when I come back, I can get published. I joined NaNoWriMo, which is every November. I did it with friends. Three of us finished. That was 2008. I was trying to figure out how am I going to finish this, and I was talking to a friend of mine in San Diego Writers, which is a non-profit which nurtures the writing community in San Diego. I approached them and said that this could be a novel but I don’t know how to proceed. Judy Reeves, who was leading a writing group at the time, said why don’t I join their group? Every two weeks I had to submit a chapter on Wednesday night to a group of eight writers each working on long projects. After two years of every two weeks a chapter, I had the manuscript finished. That was December.
I called Taryn and asked her if she wanted to read it and she said sure. I sent it to her. As this was happening, San Diego State University hosts a writers conference every January. It’s a big conference, where agents come from across the country and you can pitch them your story. It’s a very expensive conference, but if you got in by January 2, you can get the early bird discount. So I told her that I would sent it to her but she has to get back to me by January 2 kasi I wanted to get the early bird discount.
I told my writing group about it, pinagtawanan ako. They said “Who does that? Literary agents read at their leisure! You can’t give them a deadline. If anything, they give you a deadline.” I said, “Oh well, too late, I gave it to them already.” I thought she wouldn’t be reading it kasi Christmas nga naman, but then the first morning of the morning year, January 2, I got an email and she said that she read my novel and that she liked it. Unfortunately, she already set up her own agency and what she deals with is foreign subsidiary rights. She said she couldn’t help me because all of her contacts are now abroad, but she could refer me to her colleagues in the industry and see if they would like to read my book. She asked if I wanted her to do that or if I wanted to go to the conference. I thought I could save $350-something (laughs).
As soon as I shot her that email, I get another email from another agent and she said that Taryn had such nice things to say about my novel, and could she read it. That agent didn’t like it, but her partner really liked it, so I was taken on for literary representation by the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Jill Marsal is my agent now. She had me do several revisions. She was asking what happens to Amparo when she goes to the States, because in the original version, pinalayas lang siya ni Señora Concha, but you don’t hear from her until she meets Beverly in the end. She said that I need to beef up Amparo’s story because there’s this whole gap. I did and when she was happy with the revisions, she sent it out to all the major publishers and then through March and April I kept getting these rejection letters, which wasn’t that many pala, mga nine or 10. I found out after the fact that there are some people who had it really hard just finding an agent. I had a friend who sent pitches to about 40 agents before landing the one, but that was after months and months of trying. April 11, I signed with Penguin, and then in August I heard about the Palanca award.
That’s the long story, it took me 2008 to late 2010 to write the novel, and then 2011 I got representation and the Palanca.
RR: Were you surprised by how relatively easy it was for you to get signed?
MSB: After the fact. When you’re on submission and your agent sends you your rejection letters, siyempre masakit (laughs)! At the time, I thought ang tagal naman nito. But when I think about it in retrospect, mga six weeks lang siya on submission tapos nabenta na siya. Now I’m surprised (laughs)! Pero after the fact.
RR: Did they tell you what they liked about the book?
MSB: Not in so many words. They said they really loved it, loved the writing and the characters. I think for them it was because there was so much detail about the Philippines. I’m extrapolating about what other Americans have told me. They liked the idea of Manila being so clear in their minds, of the characters and the culture being so fully fleshed out. In the States, aside from the food, Filipino culture is largely an unknown quantity. I think they liked that. It was an unknown to them. And I really worked hard in making Manila’s culture realistic without romanticizing it. The good and the bad, neither one outweighing the other. And I really didn’t want to parody it because Manila culture, especially high society, lends itself so well to parody, di ba? It’s high camp. The book comes close, but I didn’t want it to be over the top. I wanted to respect that whole consciousness, even as I comment on it indirectly, so that can see for themselves that it is kind of distasteful, but on the other hand they can understand why they think the way they do.
RR: The whole book was written throughout the workshop process….
MSB: Parang ganon. It’s called a read and critique group. You bring your work to a group, and because we were eight, every Wednesday evening, four people would have their work discussed. Every other week ako. I really tried hard to have a chapter every week that I was up so I could make progress. A chapter was 10 to 15 pages, that was the limit of pages that you had to give. The process was if you had a piece that was going to be workshopped on Wednesday, Sunday noon you had to have your pages ready to be sent out by email to the group. Wednesday you have a three hour session where everybody gets a half hour or more depending on the conversation. You read three paragraphs and people who have been reading it since Sunday will have their comments on the pages they printed out. But it wasn’t like I was in class.
RR: How did you pick and choose among the comments the ones that you really needed?
MSB: There would be people who would be better writers than others. I knew who those people were, so I gave more weight to those comments. But also, if only one person mentioned this as kind of a red flag, if nobody else mentioned it and I felt really strongly about it, I would keep it in.That’s my prerogative. But if one particular scene or character acted in a way that was universally agreed to be kind of illogical for the reality I created for that character, then I would try to amend that. I would give really good weight to that.
A lot of the comments were for me to slow down. They couldn’t understand some of the things about Manila. I wanted it to be understood by American readers and that was really helpful to me. I was the only Filipino in that group, and except for one guy that had been in the Marines, none of them had been to the Philippines. I wanted to make sure that if you’re an American who’s never been to Asia, let alone the Philippines, this was something that you could understand. I also supplemented a lot of my chapters. I would attach Youtube clips so that they could get it in their heads what I was talking about. It was a good sounding board.
RR: Is that something you would suggest to aspiring writers? Or is the workshop process something you need to have a particular constitution for?
MSB: Have you ever been to a writing workshop? I went to the UP National Writers Workshop, and at the time, the way they ran their workshops, parang bull session. “Ang pangit naman nito, gasgas na gasgas na ‘yung sinulat mo diyan.” Maybe they were accurate for the writing being discussed, but it wasn’t helpful. In that sense, that’s not the writing workshop I went through. I went to a read and critique group where it was always very structured. “I’m wondering if you could expand this part.” Or “I’m wondering why this character would do that, given what happened in her past.” In that way, there was always an understanding of what you’re trying to do and why you’re not doing it in that particular chapter or scene. I find that very helpful. If you find that you need a sounding board or a deadline, then writing groups are crucial. I don’t know about you, but if I don’t have a deadline and I don’t think anyone is going to read it, I would not have finished it. It’s a cycle of encouragement and affirmation of what you’re doing. It’s an incentive for you to keep going if you’re receiving that constant feedback.
Some people can do it even without the feedback. They can write 100,000 word novels. But paano kung palpak ‘yung novel? You have to start from scratch (laughs)! Taryn used to run workshops on how to write these query letters to an agent, and I attended those classes because I really wanted to know how to pitch my novel to an agent. The first step is getting them to read the first 50 pages, and to do that you need a really interesting query letter. And one of the crucial things you have to say is that “This novel has been vetted by…” or “This novel went through this workshop…” so that the agent knows that this wasn’t written by someone in a shack for 10 years. They want to know that it’s already gone through some kind of vetting process, that it’s been evaluated by other people who are serious writers.
RR: How much of your own life informed the lives of your own characters? You also worked as a telephonic translator.
MSB: For Amparo, yeah. What she does as a day job is what I do as a day job. That went into it. Where Amparo lives was basically where we lived when my husband was doing his doctorate in Oakland. That whole apartment was exactly the apartment we lived in. That’s exactly the neighborhood we lived in. I know there was a Manong Del character. His name was Mang Flor. He wasn’t a veteran, but he did rent out chess tables at Market Street. I used to see him a lot. As for Amparo’s life in Manila, I went to UP, she went to UP.
People ask me if I’m Amparo, and I say no. Amparo is the embodiment of the values and the ideals and the persona of that particular social class. We know people like that, coño kids. I kind of came from that class, pero I didn’t live in Forbes naman. But I understand and I knew people like that.
RR: You have a blog and a Twitter account. How do you prevent your online life from overtaking your writing life?
MSB: Those are all new things, the blog and the Twitter account. Those were things that my publisher asked me to do. I really didn’t want to tweet, and if you notice I haven’t tweeted a lot. I was really resistant to it, but they strongly encouraged me to do so because social media is part of my job now. I have to grow my audience and create this community, and the fastest way to do it is online. The Goodreads reading community has heard about it. I had to guest blog. All of that takes time and it has kind of eaten into writing my next project.
I don’t know what I’m going to do, but in the early stages of this coming up I had to tend to it muna. It’s just part of the writing process. Like when a movie is made, the actors have to do press junkets. It’s not enough that you complete the product, you have to sell it. Through the process of doing the book tour and blogging, I’ve found out that there are people who really want to hear from you. The one-on-one really helps, and pretty much every place I’ve read at, the books almost consistently sold out. People are really wanting that personal connection with an author.
RR: What’s the best reaction you’ve gotten from a reader?
MSB: May ibang umiyak about certain things that happen in the book. When people tell me that this really resonates with their experience as a person of color living in the United States. Or even when a Caucasian American will say that they really enjoyed it. There are reviews on Amazon where they say that even though there are certain Tagalog phrases that they don’t understand, it doesn’t matter because they get the context of what happens. If they read everything in context, some of the Tagalog phrases are explained.
RR: Sometimes immediately after!
MSB: Yeah. But I know that Filipinos do that in the States. “Gutom ka na ba? Are you hungry?” They’ll do it like that when they’re talking to you (laughs). I know it’s a speech construct that people who live here may not necessarily do, but in the States they do it.
(Photos from the National Book Store Facebook page.)