miami university

Interview with Marianne Villanueva in The Manila Bulletin, October 6, 2007

A Writer’s Tale
by Karen Ann C. Liquete

Marianne Villanueva has an M.A. in English major in Creative Writing from Stanford University, as well as an M.A. in East Asian Studies (concentration in Chinese), also from Stanford.

Since then, she has been writing and publishing stories about the Philippines and the lives of Filipino-Americans abroad. Her critically acclaimed first collection of short fiction, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books 1991) was short–listed for the Philippines’ National Book Award. Her story, “Silence,” first published in the Three penny Review, was short–listed for the 2000 O. Henry Literature Prize.

She has co–edited, with poet Virginia Cerenio, an anthology of Filipina women’s writings, Going Home to a Landscape (Calyx Books, 2003), which gathered together the writings of Filipina women from around the world. Her latest book is Mayor of the Roses: Stories (Miami University Press, 2005). Born and raised in Manila, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches creative writing and literature at Foothill College, Notre Dame de Namur University, and UCLA Extension.

In this interview, Marianne tells us about her personal reasons for writing stories and the literary avenues she is set to explore in the future.

Youth and Campus Bulletin (YCB): What makes a good short story?

Marianne Villanueva (MV): There are almost as many ways to answer this question as there are writers. I don’t generally write with a plot in mind, though sometimes I start a story already knowing the ending. This has happened a few times, mostly with the stories in my first collection, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila.

Most of the time now, I write from impulse. Something that’s been percolating in my brain and my emotions for a long time will suddenly find a trigger—like a news item, or a movie I watch. Then the writing is done very, very quickly, and I go straight through from beginning to end, not knowing “what happens next” but letting my intuition guide me forward.

I get very impatient now with stories where I feel manipulated, as if the writer knew all along he was going to end up at Point B, and everything else was just bells and whistles to get the reader to point B, and the story doesn’t snap and crackle, it has no tension. A story should feel a little unpredictable. If I am not continually surprised as I read a story, I just get bored and stop reading.

YCB: In “Mayor of the Roses”, the themes of desperation, fragmentation and abandonment echo in all your short stories. Is there a personal reason for pursuing this direction?

MV: Well, you know, my 30s were a hard decade in my life. I’d just had a book published (“Ginseng...”), but no one was telling me to write another one—I didn’t have an agent. I wasn’t making any money from my writing. Then Jessica Hagedorn came along and invited me to submit to the first “Charlie Chan is Dead” anthology.

And the timing was just—well, she wanted the story the month after my only sister died. So, of course, everything I wrote had to be about my sister. And I was very scared all the time I was writing those stories about my sister, because they were so personal. But those stories saved me, in a way, or showed me a way in which writing could save my life. So all the desperation and grief and loneliness I felt, I put into writing my stories. No one ever said to me, oh, these are so good, we’ll run out and give you a book contract. I wrote them really for myself. But what I discovered, after they started to get published, was that people could really relate to my characters and the events I was describing. And these are not just Filipinos I'm referring to, but people from all different cultures and backgrounds.

YCB: Most of the characters in your short stories speak from a Filipina emigrant’s point of view. How much of the author can we find in these personas?

MV: There’s a mix of different characters in the women. They have some of my fragility, but also some of the strength of other women I know. Hopefully, they don’t all come off as victims. They have minds and hearts and have complex relationships.

I also took a lot from my reading, and so many times I would find myself being inspired by characters, say, from a Bharati Mukherjee or Chitra Divakaruni story. I seem to find much in common with stories from the Indian diaspora.

When it comes to the emotions my characters feel, every single emotion that my characters feel is something I myself have felt. The experiences of the characters may be different, in some cases markedly different, from my own, but the emotions are the same: Jealousy, anger, grief, insecurity. The great story writer Isaac Bashevis Singer said that every person is “a millionaire” when it comes to emotions, and that is something I myself believe, very strongly.

YCB: Are there any subject themes you’d like to explore in the future?

MV: Yes, I’d like to write about larger themes than the ones I’ve been dealing with in my stories—perhaps instead of focusing on just one family or one marriage, doing a couple of stories about three generations in a family, or about a group of couples living or traveling together. I think it sounds like I'm trying to write a novel! Maybe I am, though I haven't started it yet.

YCB: Please tell us more about your next projects.

MV: I’m trying all kinds of new things: I recently started trying to write plays, and I find myself having a lot of fun with this. I also started writing some very very short pieces, in some cases only one page long, and when I show it to people they say it sounds like poetry. I’m not a poet, but the pieces I write have some of poetry’s compression and intensity.

I would like to try writing some “fabulist” stories, because I’ve always adored Italo Calvino.

But, in general, I am writing, always writing, and I think I actually have enough material for a third short story collection.