Big Dreams and Awesome Costumes: An Interview with David Hontiveros

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On May - 18 - 2011

David Hontiveros is one of the most prolific writers of speculative fiction in the country today. He’s won a Palanca award and been nominated for a National Book Award, and his work spans both prose (his Penumbra novellas) and comics (Bathala: Apokalypsis). Hontiveros recently re-released his online novel Pelicula as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.  I thought it might be a good time to talk to Dave about the novel, superheroes, fantaseryes, and the state of publishing in the country. Here’s what he had to say:

[Art by Kajo Baldisimo]

Tell us a little bit about Pelicula. Do you think it will appeal to fans of science fiction and fantasy, particularly the superhero subgenre?

Pelicula’s about a young up-and-coming actor, Luis Conrado, as he navigates the tricky and turbulent waters of the Philippine showbiz industry, something that’s already difficult under normal real life circumstances.

In the novel, I’ve populated the industry with supernatural creatures from local folklore, who are the movers and shakers of the scene, multiplying the difficulties exponentially as a result.

Luis also happens to be the star of the highly-rated and uberpopular fantaserye, Habagat, on which he plays the title role, the super-bayani of the Philippines, Habagat.

Given that’s there a lot of superhero stuff in the novel– with some of my thoughts regarding superheroes, and what they mean to us as individuals and as a society, and the potentials of their physicality in the real world, informing the narrative– I sincerely hope that Pelicula appeals to that section of the audience into SF/fantasy and superheroes, of which I’m a proud member of, if that isn’t too obvious yet.

Of course, one always hopes for a broader section of readership, so hopefully other sections are pulled in by the romance angle, as Luis falls in love with a mannikin, an actress created by occult means to be the ultimate movie star. (So, aside from my thoughts about superheroes, some of the thoughts and impressions of a lifelong film geek about the film industry also serve to inform Pelicula.)

[Art by Ian Sta. Maria]

You mentioned in your author’s note a love for “live-action superheroics”. Most people would have just said “superheroes.” What is it about the live-action adaptations that interest you?

That goes way back to my grade school days, when, while reading superhero comics, I’d be constantly fascinated by the idea of these heroes stepping out of the panels and into the real, physical world. Things like how would they carry themselves, what would their body language be, what would their costumes look like, how would they sound, kept me preoccupied long past the reading of the comic itself.

It was fascinating to see the ‘50’s TV Superman, and the ‘60’s TV Batman and Green Hornet, and even back then, somewhere at the back of my young head, I was beginning to understand that tone was something that affected the entire package, and that you could have wildly different interpretations of the same character and that was fine (certainly, Adam West was not the 1970’s comic Batman, and George Reeves seemed more interested in tackling gangsters and hoods than interstellar menaces like Brainiac). Perhaps more tellingly, I was also being taught, quite subconsciously during those early years, that budget also dictated how a superhero’s live-action adventures were approached and executed.

Then Richard Donner’s Superman detonated across my young geek psyche, and that was it. If I wasn’t a lifelong fan of the stuff yet, I certainly was when I stepped out of the theater. It was the greatest superhero ever to grace a comic book panel, in real life. Yes, a man could indeed fly!

From that point on, it’s been a constant search for all sorts and manner of live-action superheroics, from the low budget ‘80’s Marvel productions like Captain America (with J.D. Salinger’s son as Cap!) to the glorious cheese of the ‘70’s Superman rip-off, Supersonic Man (still a personal favorite) to the fantastic wire fu/men in rubber monster suits extravaganza of Guyver: Dark Hero, with David Hayter, voice of Solid Snake and Captain America, and screenwriter of X-Men and Watchmen playing Guyver when he’s out of the bio-armor (the mind boggles at the audacious level of that geek cred).

The Betamax era brought treasures like the Kirk Alyn Superman serials my way, while today’s internet offers all the episodes of the zany Japanese Spider-Man TV show on marvel.com (who can resist Amazoness with her pink hooker wig?).

There’s the fantastic world of the superhero fan film out there, and the amazing costume work being done on the cosplay scene.

Then there’s the maddening variety of live-action superheroics in non-English tongues: everything from Indonesia’s Panji Manusia Milenium and Superboy on TV, all the way to the big screen, where we find curious gems like Thailand’s Mercury Man and India’s Krrish, the latter complete with Bollywood-style song-and-dance numbers!

Not to mention the martial arts badassery courtesy of first, Jet Li, then Andy On in Tsui Hark’s Black Mask movies, or the killer moves brought to us by Marko Zaror in Chile’s Mirageman.

Plus the insane tokusatsu sugar rush of Ultraman or Kamen Rider. (And yes, at this juncture we can safely toss our own Captain Barbell and Darna and Zsa-Zsa Zaturnnah into the mix.)

Now, despite what it may sound like, it’s not just about the kickass action, or the amusement and laughs one can find in some of these titles (and there are those, believe me), but it’s about that universal feeling of hope inherent in the idea of a hero who can make things right by doing what he does best: getting into the spandex and kicking some baddie ass.

There’s something reassuring about that thought, that no matter where we are on the globe, no matter the geographic distance and the cultural differences, there is always that shared belief in the power of the hero to make things right. That’s what I try to find in any title I happen to come across, and it’s there, even if it’s in some tiny moment or throw-away line or some badly-written, awkwardly-acted, and terribly-shot scene, it’s there, and it’s honestly a really nice thing to see.

These days, when part of the definition of “Hollywood summer blockbuster” seems to be the word “superhero,” I’m like a deliriously happy pig at an overflowing trough. Now, it’s become about finding the off-kilter, the atypical, the ones that say more and delve deeper into (or even subvert) the material; the Hancock as opposed to the Iron Man 2, the Defendor as opposed to the Daredevil. (And looking back at that, I realize that I’ve singled out two titles that are actually original pieces, as opposed to comic book adaptations.)

But still, typical narrative or otherwise, original or adapted, it’s about that idea of how a superhero can impact on the real, physical world, and taking that thought all the way to its possible real world end point, how can I emulate the best about a superhero even if I’m not actually one at all?

Why do you think that fantaseryes have become such a staple of Philippine pop culture? Does the speculative/supernatural element add anything to these productions?

Well, it certainly increases the show’s budget. :)

Other than that though, I’d like to think that the speculative/supernatural element (or, what I lovingly refer to as the weird sh*t) affords another level to the story being told.

I’d like to think, if the writers and producers of these kinds of shows were interested and inclined to, the weird sh*t could serve as that additional level that can make the show be about something more; weird sh*t as vehicle for metaphor.

You could be talking about vampires vs. werewolves, but you’re also alluding to race relations, or the class divide. You could be talking about aliens arriving to invade the earth, but you’re also making reference to colonialism and the arrival of a new religion that drove the old one to near-extinction.

But, whether or not a fantaserye chooses to be more than simply entertainment, what is readily apparent is, the format does serve to put the audience in a different milieu from the usual domestic/board room/provincial/urban settings of the standard teleserye. We find ourselves in outer space, or under the sea, or in some fantasy realm, and that additional step into some colorful, foreign space makes for more interesting and intriguing viewing.

The fantaserye also mythologizes the tension and conflicts that are a staple of teleseryes. In fantaseryes, it’s not just sibling rivalry, but feuding princes vying for the hand of an exotic princess, one prince, now part of a nocturnal tribe of undead lords, the other prince, cursed to be the leader of a pack of shapeshifters.

Or the adopted child of a poor but humble family who happens to be an alien from another world, or an enkanto changeling.

Or the CEOs of rival companies who happen to be the superhero and supervillainess of the piece, who also happen to have some sexual tension between them as they clash repeatedly across the canyons and valleys of the sprawling urban metropolis.

And, just as fantaseryes mythologize the material, on certain levels, they also simplify the overarching narrative, transposing the story onto a more clearly-defined stage of Good vs. Evil, and thus, the show becomes something the entire family can watch, as opposed to the more traditional teleserye fare, which I imagine would appeal more to adults. (And, with their real world trappings, may actually give children the wrong notion that real life is meant to be filled with evil twins, histrionic monologues, and perennial bouts of betrayal and amnesia.)

I think that’s a major reason why fantaseryes have become a fixture in local pop culture. They’re something that can be enjoyed by families, a common point of reference and discussion between parents and children, between siblings, between relatives of all ages.

I also think they’re the latest step in the evolution of an entertainment form that traces its lineage back, through the Captain Barbell and Darna komiks of old, and on, back through the serialized radio adventures of characters like Kapitan Kidlat, on, further back, all the way to the ancient myths of our ancestors, to the tales told around campfires, narrated by the tribe’s wise, old men, stories that contained wisdom and knowledge, encoded into their words and rhythms and imagery, tales that did not just entertain, but also enlighten.

Fantaseryes are part of that long tradition that will, I feel, always find some fresh, new form in which to exist, affected and influenced by the constantly evolving face of popular culture.

 

Pelicula was initially available as a free online novel. What made you decide to go that route? How was this move received by peers/critics/readers?

That decision was pretty much due to the fact that Pelicula was completed and lying about, like a kid I’d dressed up in an awesome homemade superhero costume, but sadly had no party to go to. So Budjette Tan and Carl Vergara suggested we throw our own party for the little tyke.

The original intent was to have a website (davidhontiveros.com) that would contain the novel, as well as online comics– created by a host of our comic compatriots– telling stories set in the Pelicula universe. The online comics didn’t happen, and the website contained Pelicula for a time, before the online versions of Bathala: Apokalypsis issues eventually crashed the party.

As far as peer/critic/reader reception, I honestly don’t really know. I mean, I would get the occasional, Hey, I read your online novel and it’s great! and it got linked to by a number of sites that focused on online novels. Other than that, I guess the kid was just enjoying his own party in his little corner of the net.

You’ve recently released Pelicula as a commercial ebook on the Kindle and on Smashwords. Why the change, and why now?

That’s down to Budjette Tan, who pointed me towards Bronze Age Media, who were equipped to turn Pelicula into an ebook, and since I knew next to nothing about the platform, I asked myself, Why not? I was curious to see what the experience would be like, to be ebooked, so I went for it.

The idea seemed to present a broader canvas upon which the novel could be placed, where, hopefully, it could be available to another sort of audience, and that thought appealed to me.

And, in the end, it was just another sort of party I could throw for the kid, who’s still not tired of showing off his awesome costume.

 

You’ve made some changes to the text to make it more accessible to a non-Filipino audience, removing Taglish and tweaking colloquialisms. Was this difficult to do?

Curiously enough, I thought it would be more difficult. It was actually either a full-on English language translation, or cobbling up a glossary for the original version of Pelicula, defining all the Filipino terms and dialogue, including the context for these terms and lines of dialogue. That, to me, sounded like a lot of work, particularly since I needed to get into context for every entry.

So I thought we could have two versions of Pelicula, an English language edition and the original version (which will be ebooked at a currently undetermined future point in time). I sat down to translate the Taglish dialogue and the colloquialisms, and it proved to be relatively easy-going.

Still, I feel something really does get lost in the translation, some undefinable Filipino-ness that I’m glad still exists in the original version.

 

As someone who has been published both traditionally and on his own, in print and online, what is your assessment of the current state of publishing in the Philippines?

Sadly, unlike my translation of the original manuscript into its English language edition form, the current state of publishing in our country, as it reflects back on local writers, isn’t as easy-going as I’d have hoped.

If I could have a Big Dream for the local writing scene, I’d wish for a time when a writer can make a decent living in the Philippines by simply writing, without any need for either a steady 9 to 5 job, or sidelines and rackets and freelancing.

Thus far, that Big Dream still seems elusive. I don’t think local writers are racking up the kind of numbers that big ticket international titles like Harry Potter or Twilight are, and that seems a shame.

It does my heart good though to note some publishers’ more ready willingness these days to entertain the work of new writers, or to get into comic books, a medium that I think is still a little misunderstood and underappreciated.

What we really need I think is for the local audience to broaden, for more Filipino readers to pick up more Filipino novels and comic books, to show the publishers that there is demand for this kind of material.

 

Any advice for new authors trying to make it in this environment?

I suppose that would be: Know what you’re getting into.

I’m paraphrasing a famous writer here, but being a writer really isn’t a “want”; it’s a need. One doesn’t really “want” to be a writer. When you’re meant to be a writer, you’ll have no choice but to be a writer.

You’ll have this all-encompassing need to tell your stories, to share your visions. Those stories and characters will batter you from the inside, demanding release in words and sentences, and you’ll have to heed their call, or end up miserable or mad.

Now, I say “Know what you’re getting into” because, in all honesty, it isn’t easy, this.

Face it, we can’t all sell in the numbers a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling enjoys. And, even if the work is recognized by critics and award-giving bodies, that also doesn’t necessarily translate into sales and the subsequent royalties.

It’s a groan-worthy cliché, “to suffer for one’s art.” But the truth is, if you aren’t willing to do that, then a life in the creative trenches may not be for you…

If you are willing to make a go of it though, then welcome aboard!

The world needs its dreamers, and we’re a ragtag and motley bunch of bizarros only too happy to make room on this ship bound for who-knows-where.

And who knows? You could be the next J.K. Rowling after all…

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.

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