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Author Spotlight: Isabel Yap

Author Spotlight: Isabel Yap

Spells and stories, urban legends and immigrant tales: the magic in Isabel Yap’s debut collection jumps right off the page, from the friendship and fear building in “A Canticle for Lost Girls” to the joy in “A Spell for Foolish Hearts” to the terrifying tension of the urban legend “Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez.”

As we celebrate Read Filipino in August, we put the spotlight on local writers and illustrators. In this Author Spotlight, we asked Isabel Yap about her fascination with Philippine mythology, the creative process as an author, and what's next after having to publish Never Have I Ever.


1. What's the inspiration behind your book Never Have I Ever? What do you want your readers to feel after reading your book?

Never Have I Ever is a collection of short stories written between 2011 and 2020. The inspirations for the stories were varied. Among them were: stories from my family, my friendships, growing up as a Catholic schoolgirl, moving to the US, my love of mythology and folklore, videogames and manga, and the desire to read more fun and weird Filipino stories.

As for how I want readers to feel--the first answer that came to mind was overwhelm. A lot of my favorite books make me feel that, so it's aspirational for me, but because these are short stories and you’re context switching with each one, that may not be achievable as an overall effect. The second answer I came up with was familiarity. I hope that readers will be able to recognize something true in the book--like a passage that resonates as accurate to some lived experience. A lot of my favorite books do that. It’s something I aim for as a writer.


2. What made you decide on the theme of your book?

The more I write, the more I believe that we don’t really get to choose the central themes in our work--the problems we obsess over, or the questions we can’t help but return to. They’re sort of inherent to us. I think most authors have a limited set of themes they’re genuinely drawn to, and they just explore them through different stories. So it wasn’t really a conscious decision on my part--though I will say, I made a decision midway through my 20’s to try and write some happier stories.


3. When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

Since kindergarten. Basically, since I started reading. Reading made me very happy. It taught me new things, and kept me from being bored. It seemed to me the best thing in the world to make others happy in that same way.


3. Tell us about your creative process.

My process is pretty chaotic. I don’t have a common starting point for my stories. Sometimes I’ll have a rough idea--Hurricane Heels for example was “magical girls in their mid-twenties;” A Canticle for Lost Girls was “demon summoning in a retreat house.” Sometimes it’s a character: Patrick being a boy witch was the basis for A Spell for Foolish Hearts.

I rarely know the whole plot of a story when I start writing, and I don’t always know the structure. Sometimes I’ll have a few lines I want to include, or a sense of the tone. Otherwise it’s very intuition-based. I rely super heavily on my subconscious. I have several false starts where I’m just searching for the right way in. Once I’ve found it, it’s like a camcorder turns on in my head and I can start to visualize the story. My job from that point is to just transcribe it, all the way through to the end. For most of my short fiction that’s resulted in a mostly-whole story, and then I do several rounds of line edits, including printing it out and marking it up, reading aloud, and reading on my Kindle just to see it in a different format.

This intuitive process hasn’t worked so well for novel writing. I’m having to plot and plan a lot more, but although I know more about the story, that somehow hasn’t really made the writing easier. I’ve learned a lot of new things in this process, and I’ve had to change my process a lot. For example: I used to binge-write short stories, like trying to finish a whole draft in a week, with successive hours of writing. While working on this novel I’ve had to cut down my daily writing time, and make up for the difference by writing more regularly. It could also be that I’ve just gotten older and busier.


4. Who is your biggest literary influence?

The fanfic authors I admired growing up. They taught me so much about prose and characterization. They were masters of the quiet character moments that I like so much in fiction, and the way they build tension in relationships is amazing. There are five fic authors whose works were extremely influential to me at various points in time, and I read almost everything they wrote, even for fandoms I wasn’t in, hoping to absorb some of their skills.


5. What's the best thing about Filipino stories?

That they’re mine? And I don’t mean “mine” in reference to my own work. I mean that when I read a Filipino story, it feels familiar and particular. Like something reaching back to a primordial part of my brain, reminding me that I have a home (even one I’m mostly not in); I have community, I come from this certain place and certain people. There’s also some kind of narrative style and playfulness in a lot of Filipino stories that I enjoy, even when they’re dealing with dark or difficult things. I believe those are cultural traits that are naturally reflected in our writing.



6. What's the most challenging thing about being a Filipino writer?

For me, it’s dealing with the guilt and worry that comes from the privilege of managing to publish. I know what a rare opportunity it is. I’ve worked really hard for it, for a very long time, but I’m also aware that so many others don’t get that chance. And I worry about getting it wrong, even if “wrong” is very subjective. I have my own experience of being Filipino, and that’s certainly not going to be universal, and I’m not even trying to be universal--that’s just impossible. But sometimes I get it into my head that I need to “do this right” because “I’ve been given this chance,” and that can be negatively pressuring. That’s the Filipino side of the question.

Then there’s the writing itself, which is always incredibly hard. Getting out of my own way enough to do the work, and trying not to think ahead so much, and instead focusing on doing my best every day. Doing all that in the very limited time I have around my tech work, which takes up a lot of mental energy.


7. What are your top 3 recommended books by Filipino authors?

Reccs are always hard! For today:

Wounded Little Gods by Eliza Victoria
Song of the Mango and Other New Myths by Vida Cruz
Mananaggal Terrorizes Manila by Jessica Zafra


And some poetry while I’m at it:

Diwata by Barbara Jane Reyes
Object Permanence by Nica Bengzon
The Proxy Eros by Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta


8. What's your advice to aspiring Filipino writers?

It takes time to develop your craft. It might seem tempting to rush into publishing, and it’s hard not to think about the publishing process even as you’re writing. But when you’re starting out, I hope you can enjoy exploring your writing for the sake of the writing, and not the finished product that you can sell to others. Spend time understanding what you love about stories. Find authors you like, who are doing what you want to be doing. Read their work carefully. Copy their sentences down, if writing good sentences is something that matters to you. That tactile exercise makes a difference. (While you’re at it, if the author you admire is living, send them fanmail! I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.)

Learn how to critique work. If you’re in school, get involved with your literary folio. If you’re out of school, apply for workshops, or try to find a local or online writing group. Understand how to specify what you like in a story and what you think can be improved. Critiquing others is a great way to improve your own craft. This can also help you find community, which has been a critical part of my journey. I think it would’ve been incredibly difficult for me to stick with writing if I didn’t have writer-friends.

If you want to write Filipino stories, read what’s out there, then figure out what story you want to read that doesn’t exist yet, and give it a shot. It might be really hard at first. When I was in high school and college I mostly wrote fanfiction, or retellings of Western myths and fairytales. That meant I was primarily writing Japanese or American or European characters. I didn’t know how to write Filipinos. I could write a blonde mermaid, or a schoolgirl named Sakura, but I couldn’t write about a girl living in Manila named Isa. At the same time a lot of the stories I was reading for Eng Lit or Fil Lit classes were very depressing and heavy, and I had a desire to subvert that. I found some ways of doing so by writing speculative fiction, but that’s not the only avenue. If you’re struggling, something that might help is simply focusing on writing the story you want to write. Since you’re Filipino, something in the story will be Filipino.
Lastly: I hope that you try not to let it go. I hope you keep doing it. It’s hard to keep writing when there’s so little reward. If there’s something inside you that wants to write, I hope you stick with it, that you persevere. I want more of our stories out there.


9. What's next for you?

I’ve been working on a novel since 2020. It’s been extremely difficult, and has taken up all of my writing energy and focus. Talking more about it feels kind of like a jinx at this point, but I’ve mentioned the main gist in previous interviews. I’m not sure when it will be done. The first order of business is finishing, then actually turning it into a good book. I’m trying to remind myself that it’s okay to give all of that time. When that one’s finished, I already know the next book I want to write, which plays with a different genre. I’m excited to become the version of myself that’s capable of finishing novels. It’s taken a ton of work, and there’s still lots more work to go.


Grab a copy of Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap and other books authored by Filipinos on Fully Booked Online. Free shipping applies for a minimum order of Php 799 only. Happy reading!



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