Friday, April 8, 2011

Elated Over Eleven: Candy Gourlay

This interview for my Elated Over Eleven feature is a bit different from others in the past. Both Candy and I were astoundingly busy (obviously she more so since she's the fairly newly published author!) so it took awhile for this interview to come together (that was entirely my fault). However we were able to have a bit more of a back-and-forth discussion :)
Tall Story was released in the UK back in 2010 and made it's U.S. debut on February 8, 2011.

Welcome Candy!

What is Tall Story about?

Tall Story is about a brother and a sister separated by visa problems. Bernardo, in the Philippines, is desperate to join his family in the UK - but how is he going to tell them that he's grown to eight feet tall? Basketball-mad Andi, in London, can't get into any basketball teams because (a) she's a girl and (b) she's tiny. Who's got the bigger problem? Then there's Bernardo's village who think Bernardo's extraordinary growth spurt has something to do with a giant of legend who saves them from earthquakes.

How did you break into publishing (was it easier to get published in the UK than the U.S.)?

I don't know what trying to get published is like in the US but I suspect it might be a bit like the UK - it took me nine years to get published. At the beginning I realized how little I knew about the industry - and how much I had to learn about writing books for children. I joined the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in the British Isles. In 2008, I won the SCBWI's inaugural Undiscovered Voices anthology competition which led my agent to sign me. Having an agent meant Publishers were more open to reading my work. But I still had to write a book that they wanted to buy. Tall Story was that book.

I'm no expert on publishing but the process sounds the same to me, long and arduous! SCBWI sounds like a wonderful organization and I love how they seem to have chapters EVERYWHERE (or at least in many parts of the world) XD

Did the magical realism aspect of the story (i.e. Filipino mythology interspersed in the story) come first or did you originally set out to make it a story about a short girl who loved basketball who met her giant cousin?

My original "what if" stemmed from remembering how I felt like a freak in high school (I felt big and bulky compared to my petite classmates). Then I thought, well what if you really were "freaky" ... what if you suffered from gigantism? A while back, I was afraid to put Filipino characters into the books I was working on because I was afraid that no publisher would want to publish me. But an agent told me that I had to put my ethnicity into my writing - she felt it was part of my unique selling point as a writer. And then I remembered stories my father had told me when I was growing up in the Philippines about a giant named Bernardo who caused all the earthquakes. I think it is the mythology that gives Tall Story a certain uniqueness .

What book would your book date?

It would have to be Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce - a beautifully written, funny book about a boy so tall he is mistaken for an adult and manages to get away with adult stuff (like taking cars on test drives and later, going on a space mission!). I just love the Cottrell Boyce's humour - and the way he can bring out the essence of what really matters in his character's relationships.

You mentioned in a previous interview that you felt your ethnicity was a barrier to being published. Do you have any advice to authors who might feel the same way? And do you still view it as a barrier, why or why not?

What a good question. Someone like me who is culturally "other" - I was born and bred in the Philippines - have higher hurdles to jump. Not because of any racism but because we are operating outside our cultural norm. If my book were only to be published in the Philippines, I would have written it in a completely different way. But because I am trying to appeal to readers from both my native and my adopted homes, I worked hard on trying to create archetypes and reflecting the universality of our experience. I wanted my book to be something that someone from any country would read and say, "Oh that's exactly how I feel" at the same time, it's such a responsibility because I want Filipinos to read it and get all the nuances I injected from our culture. I felt like I was holding up a mirror to Filipinos and hoping that they like what they see.

I like how you said someone of color has higher hurdles to jump, not because of racism but because we are going outside our cultural norm. Interesting thought and I agree. Never would have thought to express it that way on my own, but it seems right. Or at least, it's not blatant racism, a lot it just has to do with white privilege and perhaps not remembering that we need diverse stories. when i was writing Tall Story, i kept thinking about how Filipinos would respond to the story. Filipinos have no representation whatsoever in children's books outside the Philippines - i talk about holding up a mirror ... what if they hate what they see? we Filipinos are very sensitive to how we are seen by the world, and all the stereotyping that happens (Filipino? are you a maid? - someone actually said that to me once) is hurtful and damaging to our self esteem as a nation. so ... yes, there's immigration in Tall Story, but it's just a backdrop to characters who I hope capture that sweetness and generousity that (I feel, anyway) characterizes our people. one of my fears as an unpublished writer, was that my Filipino-ness would stand in the way of getting a book deal. who would've thought that it would become my USP? Diversity goes two ways - sure, the white majority who influence the children's book industry needs to acknowledge that there is a rainbow of other people out there. but is the rainbow being true to itself? I wrote an entire novel with only white characters because I wanted to get published. I thought, writing is about "Write what you know", isn't it? So the colour of my character's skin doesn't matter. Then a literary agent told me such a book would be difficult to sell because it had nothing of the author in it. Which made me think, oh, so I will never ever get published. Then I read a book on plotting by James Scott Bell - he said you can't be content with just write what you know - you have to write who you are! And how amazing to find out that it's true. Tall Story was published to amazing acclaim in the UK - the most visited page on my website is my About the Philippines page. The Philippine Embassy in London liked the book so much they held a party in its honour. And I'm just thrilled that there will be some kids with Filipino heritage out there (my own included) who will point proudly at my book and say, "Hey there's a bit of me in there"!

I can think of ONE YA book with a Filipina main character. How pathetic. Now I know of at least two, baby steps. A party thrown by the Philippine Embassy in London? How cool! And what an incredible honor.

What are some of your current favorite YA reads? What fellow '11 debuts are you looking forward to?

I can only list the best of what I read recently - a few are old titles and one of them isn't technically YA but should be read by teenagers!

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

When I was Joe and its sequel Almost True by Keren David

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

Devil's Kiss by Sarwat Chadda

Which two PoC (people of color) characters would you love to hang out with?

Billi Sangreal, the sword wielding heroine of Sarwat Chadda's Devil's Kiss, which combines Islamic mythology with the mythology of the Knight's Templar - she's got a bit of Buffy with an Asian aesthetic! Am I allowed to say my character Bernardo? He's just so loveable and I'd like to mother him ... If I'm not allowed my own character then it's got to be Bud (of Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis) - I know, it's a book from a while back but I adore Bud. I want to cook him a Filipino meal. I'll bet he'll love a bowl of pansit (noodles).

Absolutely Billi and Bud! No saying your own characters ;) I can't wait to meet Bernardo though. Bud was always hungry so I'm sure he'd appreciate any kind of food, but especially food cooked with love (and more unique than what he's used to). Hmm I've never had Filipino food but now I'm hungry.... As for Billi, I have undying love for those books. It's one of my most bookish regrets that there will not be a Billi #3 to further explore the Islamic mythology.

What is one issue you have with Middle grade fiction?

It's not an issue but a question. Are we really reflecting the experiences and sensibilities of our readers?

What is something you love about MG? I love the fantastical worlds of MG fiction ... Harry Potter's universe, the Mortal Engines world.

Where can readers find out more about you and your books?

my website is and i blog on on twitter, i am candygourlay and do come check out my page for Tall Story on facebook!

BUY TALL STORY :) Thank you so much Candy!