I’ll be doing some interviews with several of our Usok authors, to get some insight as to their lives as writers in general, and their stories in Usok in particular. First up, and rightly so, is Kenneth Yu, editor of the Digest of Philippine Genre Stories which is, I’m not ashamed to admit, the lineal ancestor of Usok. Kenneth is the author of “Mouths to Speak, Voices to Sing“.
Tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea for your story.
There is, somewhere in Quezon City and owned by an old Tsinoy businessman, a large house overflowing with antique Chinese pottery and vases. This old Tsinoy has spent years collecting them; and they come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. I’ve never seen the collection, but some friends who have been to that house have. They were the ones who told me about it, and they were awed at its quantity and extent. The old Tsinoy knows the story behind each of his acquisitions, and my friends estimate that the worth of his antiques could reach the tens of millions of pesos. Over time, this value is bound to increase. This old man was described by my friends as being a nice guy (“mabait” to use the Tagalog word), and quite generous, though they met him only a few times.
My mother owns some antiques herself, but nowhere near the level and scale that this old man possesses. As a kid I would often peer curiously into her vases, wondering what was inside. I never found anything, other than dead cockroaches and a bit of dirt, but in the way that you can hear strange echoes and sounds–voices, maybe music–when you put your ear to a seashell, the same sounds can be heard inside these vases.
Two curiosities I explored in this story: What kind of “mabait” and generous old Tsinoy businessman would collect antique vases and why; and what would these vases be saying if they really could talk. Throw in a little bit of Chinese mythology, and the story somehow formed into what it is.
What aspect of the story gave you the most difficulty?
Trying to find the right sequencing of scenes, for one. Maintaining a consistent point-of-view, for another. It was a bit of a challenge shuffling sentences and paragraphs around, trying to find the best mix. I spent some time moving words around, adding here, removing there, and gauging the effect. I’m glad for the advice of the Usok editor in sorting this out. His comments were a big help. And I did warn him when he asked me for a story that the one I would be sending him was only in its first draft.
[Ed. Note: Usok editor pats self on the back. ]
Do you remember the first short story you ever wrote? What was it about?
Oh, no, I don’t, though an old friend told me recently that he remembered reading a story I wrote when we were 12 or 13, something about a “house on a hill”. I suppose it was a mystery or a ghost story of some sort. I have a feeling it was inspired by, of all things, a Choose Your Own Adventure book I liked very much: The Mystery Of Chimney Rock, a book about, er, a spooky house on a hill. I remember that book fondly, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series was a big hit when I was 12/13 years old, so the logic adds up. I have that title somewhere on my shelves still, I’m pretty sure.
Does your cultural background influence how you write, or what you write?
Occasionally. I’m a Tsinoy, influenced by Filipino and Chinese culture. And there’s no escaping the influence of Western culture, given its pervasiveness on TV, radio, in movies, and books. This influence comes out every now and then in what I write. I suppose it depends on what grabs me at the moment of writing, though it’s been pointed out to me that I did write some stories that are culturally “neutral” (“House 1.0″ from The Town Drunk and “Beats” from Philippine Speculative Fiction IV were the examples given by those people).
What was the best piece of writing advice you ever read or received?
Ah, it’s “Read”. Read, read, read. This advice has stuck with me, and of all things, I received it in such an impersonal way.
Years ago, during the martial law years in the Philippines, when Ferdinand Marcos was still president, the newspapers reported that famous author James Michener stopped by Manila for a few hours, en route to some other destination (I think he was on his way to Japan from Hawaii, or maybe it was the other way around; or maybe I’m completely wrong about where he was going and where he came from, I’m really not sure). His book “Shogun” was a big bestseller back then. Being a celebrity, he was interviewed at the airport and featured on the front page. I forget what the rest of the article was about, but I do recall the last question they asked him: What advice would he give to aspiring writers? He said, quite succinctly, “Read.” I’ve taken that to mean “Read a lot” or “Read as much as you can” or “Read about everything and anything you can get your hands on”; and so, I have.
There is another piece of advice that seems to work for most writers and that seems to run consistently with the most successful ones that I know, and that’s to be disciplined and set aside a regular schedule for actual writing everyday. I don’t know whether I heard it or read it somewhere, but I remember this quote: “The only way to write…is to write.” Makes sense to me. If you have time to read, and want to try the other side of the coin and write, then you have to set aside regular time for both activities.