Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Interview: Dean Francis Alfar

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Dean Francis Alfar is a Filipino playwright, novelist, and writer of speculative fiction. His plays have been performed in venues across the country, while his fiction has been published both nationally and abroad (The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Rabid Transit, Exotic Gothic 2).

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, I want to talk about the term "speculative fiction". Why did you choose that term as opposed to fantasy or science fiction?

Hi Charles, thanks for having me. While there is a long tradition of the fantastic in the Philippines, especially in terms of folklore and heroic tales, modern literature of the imagination is relatively young, with only sporadic examples in the previous decades. Realism, of the domestic and social sort, is dominant, and has been dominant ever since we fell under the influence of the Americans in the past century. Non-realist stories have traditionally been regarded as somehow less valid, less serious or less relevant to the Filipino reading experience.

When I decided to put together an anthology of fantastic fiction, I opted to use the term “speculative fiction” at this point in time as an umbrella term that covers non-realist genres including fantasy, science fiction, horror, magic realism, slipstream and things in between – stories that do not necessarily conform to the mode of realism (but may use elements of realism as desired) but also articulate the human condition through the lens of the fantastic. I needed an inclusive term that would welcome the different types of stories, being as open and unrestrictive as possible in terms of genre. .

What made you decide to push for speculative fiction in the Philippines?

I have always loved the fantastic. I am a fantasist at heart. At one point I realized that everything I loved to read – fantasy, scifi, horror – all of these came from outside my country. There was very little of these genres in the local bookstores. At the same time, I recognized the love we Filipinos have for the wondrous, for the supernatural. I wanted to provide a venue for the types of stories that I loved to read and to encourage writers young and old to fall through the trap door into other worlds. In 2005, I sounded out a call and was delighted with the results. Stories came in from across the archipelago and from Filipinos around the world. That was the year the first volume of Philippine Speculative Fiction came out from Kestrel, my micro press. We released the fourth volume last month, and along the way the series has been a finalist for the National Book Awards and gained a co-editor – my wife and writing partner, Nikki Alfar. Putting the book together is a highlight of our year, in the tradition of The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror series from Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, Kelly Link, Gavin Grant and Jim Frenkel (which will be sadly missed).

You've certainly made a name for yourself locally as well as abroad. How did you about establishing yourself?

I don’t know about “making a name” but I sure am trying to get more stories out. My spec fic writing began right after I read a story by Christopher Barzak (“Plenty” in YBFH 15). I loved the story and was inspired to try my hand at submitting to the market where his story first appeared – Strange Horizons. “L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)” was my first submission, and my very first pro sale. I was stunned when it was accepted and absolutely floored when it was reprinted in YBFH 17. It was as if the impossible had occurred. A nobody Filipino made it to The Book, alongside icons like Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King! It was (and still is) huge for me (spec fic fan boy that I am). Fueled by that, I wrote as much and as well as I could, and in the subsequent years produced a novel (Salamanca, Ateneo Press, 2006) and enough short fiction published in various venues locally and abroad to come up with my first collection (The Kite of Stars and Other Stories, Anvil Fantasy, 2007). Much of my work appears in Filipino publications such as The Philippines Free Press, Story Philippines and The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories. During this period, I also set up the LitCritters, devoted to reading and writing spec fic. I’ve also been a vocal advocate, encouraging young writers to explore the fantastic in talks, conferences and workshops.

What was one of the biggest hurdles you had to overcome?

Fear of failure – locally, going against realism; internationally, rejection, of course. In the case of realism, it simply became a matter of believing in what I was writing and getting published. In the case of rejections, it was accepting the fact that rejection is part of the process, that one lucky break does not a career make – and continuing to submit while collecting rejection slips with pride.

I also continue to struggle with time. Nikki and I have two young daughters. And I manage three businesses (I’m very hands-on, office every day). I need to juggle writing time with the demands of family and business. It’s tough, and there are days or weeks when my writing output is zero especially with an infant, but it makes every completed and published story absolutely worthwhile.

You started out as a playwright. What was it about plays that appealed to you? What made you eventually decide to transition to writing fiction?

I started writing plays in the late 80s. The challenge of telling a story chiefly through dialogue was a heady rush. On the writing side, I loved the fact that only the spoken words carried the burden (when performed, of course, other aspects such as direction, acting, set design, etc. become vital parts of the whole). I loved the layering of subtleties in an exchange of words.

I was initially afraid of writing fiction, primarily because as a young man I did not enjoy reading Filipino realist fiction. I found it didactic, poorly written and predictable. I thought, wrongly, that if I wanted to write prose I had to write that way. But along the way, I found works by authors like Nick Joaquin whose sensibilities and use of words were above par. Ultimately though, what made me take the step was the yearning to have something I’d like to read. So I began to write stories that I’d want to read myself (and I don’t always succeed).

What were some lessons you learned in writing plays that applies to fiction?

Shifting gears from plays to fiction, one of my biggest advantages was my ability to write dialogue. Because it had been my focus earlier, it allowed me to pay attention to other aspects of the narrative form that were new to me. Thankfully, I also had a sense of story structure, permitting me space to play around in. Much of what I knew was complementary and really helped me out. Later on, the learnings I had from writing short fiction would come in handy when I attempted to make sense of the novelistic space. Writing in different ways is always helpful.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books?

It changes, but my perennials are Jeffrey Ford, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kelly Link and Salman Rushdie. For books, I love historical non-fiction as well as odd books that make me think.

What in your opinion are some of the mistakes new writers make? What were some of the mistakes you made?

One of the biggest is that by simply being disciplined, you’ll get published. Just because you finish and polish a story doesn’t mean that the market will snap it up. Another is giving in to writerly despair, being affected by rejection. The third mistake new writers make is two-fold – not reading enough and not writing enough.

Personally, I have made all those mistakes and more. What I’ve learned are important: keeping things in perspective, having goals, having the ceaseless attitude of someone who needs to learn more, and actually writing and submitting to markets. And that it better to write than engage in debate.

Before you started making a push for speculative fiction, one of your thrusts was Filipino comics. What made you decide to produce Filipino comics?

I love comics! I grew up with everything from the Claremont/Byrne X-Men to the Morrison Doom Patrol. By the time I was an adult, I enjoyed the non-superhero comics more – books like Berlin by Jason Lutes and Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware, stuff by Adrian Tomine. In the Philippines, there were a number of locally produced superhero stories but very little of the kind I was looking for. I wanted stories that did more than present costumed cosmic fistfights.

A group of friends and I, all writers and artists with a love of comics in common, got together and put out an anthology, Siglo: Freedom. It contained 10 stories describing the Filipino experience of freedom across 10 decades of Philippine history. It was a National Book Award and we went on to produce Siglo: Passion. We expanded the page count, invited non-comics people and challenged them to make comics exploring passion in the context of the Filipino condition, again across the history – and into the future. Siglo: Passion also won a National Book Award.

But as much fun and gratification I had helping put together and edit those two books, I felt I wanted to pursue something else. Comics, I decided ultimately, was not for me. Its future was safe in the hands of better creators like Gerry Alanguilan. But I remain supportive of the medium that I still love.

As a comics writer, what does it feel like, dependent or collaborating with an artist to produce your final text? How is that different from writing plays or writing fiction?

Since I could not draw to save my life, I was a pure comics writer. I needed to collaborate with an artist to get my vision across (and I’ve been fortunate to work with such talent artists like Arnold Arre and Carlo Vergara). It’s a partnership and often the results are wonderful. But there is a lack of autonomy. I prefer to write fiction or plays because I can be a full dictator when I’m doing writing, in full control editorially.

In your pursuit of your many projects, whether comics or prose, you ended up establishing your own imprint. Could you talk more about Kestrel, why you established it and what kinds of projects are under it?

Kestrel is my design agency. Under its auspices, I published my comics output. In the recent years, Kestrel publishes the Philippine Speculative Fiction series and not much else. There is a big dream of one day being able to publish more, but with the state of the economy and the rising costs of publication, distribution and marketing it remains a dream. I am looking into digital media though.

You're one of the Filipino writers/businessmen in the country. Could you talk about that relationship, how one relates to the other?

I cannot live off my creative/fiction writing in the Philippines. It is simply impossible. Every creative writer has to have some other source of income. In a nutshell, having a business allows me to pay the bills and affords my small family a modest life. And when I can eke out time, either through scheduling or via guerrilla-writing, my being an entrepreneur allows me to tell my stories. Thankfully, my businesses are something I enjoy spending time on. They keep my mind sharp and I continuously learn.

Did you ever consider writing poetry?

I am a poor poet. I simply do not have the knack or the”ear” for poetry. My efforts are always good for a laugh.

Going back to your fiction, could you talk about your Hinirang setting? Could you tell us more about it, how you ended up collaborating with friends on the world, and whether you're write more Hinirang stories in the future?

Hinirang is a reaimagined Philippines set during the time when the country was a colony of Spain. “Hinirang” comes from the Tagalog phrase “lupang hinirang” (“land longed for”) from the Philippine national anthem. It was created as a shared setting among friends, envisioned to be populated by a diverse cast whose stories were told by short stories and comics. Much of my early prose is set in Hinirang, where I was free to spin fantasy into the narrative. “Terminos”, which appeared first in Rabid Transit: Menagerie (edited by Christopher Barzak, Alan DeNiro and Kristin Livdahl) is a good example. I do have a more Hinirang stories in mind, so I have not left that world completely. It is a rich setting filled with potential – and it is uniquely Filipino.

Several years ago, you disliked science fiction. Why? Is that still the case?

Sad, but true. Years ago, my exposure to scifi left me cold. I was never a fan of idea stories and demanded more from the texts I read. I have to admit that my reading then was quite limited. But the solution was in broadening my reading horizons. Recently, I fell in love with science fiction again, thanks to authors like Ted Kosmatka – one of the finest scifi authors alive, I tell you.

Every year, you publish the Philippine Speculative Fiction volumes. What made you decide to to create such an anthology?

Basically to provide a venue for the stories I love to read. By encouraging writers to write speculative fiction, Nikki and I help grow the collective Filipino body of work.

What's the work dynamic between you and your wife Nikki when editing the anthology? Like do both of you have to like the stories?

As editors and readers, Nikki and I have different but overlapping poetics. We read the submissions apart and make notes and fashion short lists. Then we wrestle with each other until we come to an agreement on which stories make the cut. After that, Nikki does the heavy lifting editing-wise, coordinating with the authors for recommended improvements. Meanwhile, I focus on the production side, commissioning the cover, managing the story pages’ layout and coordinating with the printer. We both work on the launch event, while I handle the marketing and distribution.

What do you look for in a story?

Above all, it needs to be well-written. It must have some element of speculative fiction. I also tend to make the occasional oddball choice – because once in a while a story comes along that does not necessarily conform to what I think makes a “well-written” story but works superbly anyway. In those cases, I lay down my poetics and take a good look at it. If it works, it works and in it goes. The first three volumes of Philippine Speculative Fiction generated 12 Honorable Mentions in the YBFH, so I think in terms of story selection, Nikki and I are getting there.

It’s important to us that we encourage new authors as well. We are happy to publish first-time authors next to multiple award-winners. A good story trumps literary credentials any time.

How would you describe the landscape of speculative fiction in the Philippines?

With optimism. Speculative Fiction is being produced and read and enjoyed today by a growing audience. The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Story Philippines, Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic and other periodicals, as well as university folios, provide venues for the literature of the fantastic. Publishers are producing single author collections of speculative fiction and are looking for novels. Writers are exploring the vistas of fantasy, science fiction, horror and other non-realist genres with imagination as their only boundary, slowly articulating who they are as Filipino writers of the marvellous in their current socio/political/cultural milieu - wrestling, perhaps inevitably, with issues of personal /authorial and national/post-colonial identity as they contribute texts and locate themselves (or define space for themselves) in Philippine literature.

And all the ten dollar jargon aside, we’re having fun doing so. Speculative Fiction is relevant to the younger audience who are open to the fantastic – and are not writing it themselves.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read a lot. Write more. Submit, submit, submit.

Anything else you want to plug?

Philippine Speculative Fiction IV is out. If you’re abroad and want to purchase a copy, drop me a note at deanalfar@gmail.com and we’ll work something out.

My story “Remembrance” appears in Exotic Gothic 2 edited by Danel Olson (Ash-Tree Press).

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