Editor’s Conversation with Patricia Laurel
How did you become a writer?
When I was a young girl, my mother insisted I learn about etiquette, so she used to lock me in the library of our home and made me read this thick volume of the Emily Post Etiquette Guide Book; it would be useful when I became an adult, she used to say.
What she didn't know, or maybe she did, was that there were other books in the library. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Roald Dahl, the Grimm Brothers and so many more authors that beckoned me to read their characters. I would quickly scan through the etiquette book and spend my incarceration period fueling my imagination with fantastic adventures.
Yes, maybe my mother pretended to make me read Emily Post even if she knew I hated the thought of learning about etiquette. She probably also knew I would pick up a book and start reading in earnest. My mother was a smart woman.
What was your favorite book?
My favorite then and now is The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint Exupery. I didn't quite get the meaning of the story as a young girl, but I totally related to the poor prince and his rose. He has been with me since and served as my guide through adulthood.
Who or what inspired you to write the Samantha Plum Trilogy?
My niece in real life, Samantha, was diagnosed with autism when she was about 2 years old after returning from a trip to the Philippines. A Chinese man in San Francisco said that a creature of the earth had taken Sammy’s mind and that her mother had to return to the place where it happened and ask for her daughter’s mind back. A few years later, a manghuhula (soothsayer) said that a duwende played with Samantha and offered the same advise to her mother. These stories related by my sister, planted a seed in my head and stuck with me until it was time to write the Samantha trilogy.
Another reason for writing the story is to re-introduce our Filipino heritage to Filipino-American kids and their parents. Filipinos here (in the Philippines) and abroad have developed a serious cultural amnesia and are influenced by western ideas, modern technology, etc. We are quick to adapt, integrate and become absorbed in a different culture. In doing so, we’ve forgotten our roots. In some cases, Filipinos deny their origins or are embarrassed to reveal their nationality. I’ll give you an example.
I went to a Godiva store in Honolulu one day. I was ecstatic. My finger clicked the period button on the final sentence of the second book of the Samantha trilogy. I felt the need to reward myself so I drove to the Ala Moana mall to buy my all time favorite chocolate, and savor the exquisite taste and let it linger in my mouth. It was celebration time.
The young man behind the counter was very courteous, polite and efficient. I asked him if he was Filipino. He said “unfortunately.”
The stinging reply was painful to bear. I took him aside, gave him money and told him to buy my book and read about our homeland and educate himself on anything and everything he could to learn about his cultural heritage. He was polite, took the money and apologized for his remark. Maybe he bought the book and maybe he didn’t.
That incident should prove as a wake-up call for all Filipinos and I’m hoping the books will serve as an informal guide for our kids, as well as a reminder to our people that ours is a unique cultural heritage.
What makes the novel’s heroine special? What makes her different from other Filipino-American kids?
The fact that the character is based on my real life heroine, Samantha is what makes her special. The loving, beautiful girl’s spirit and essence are trapped inside. She is not able to share herself with people that love and care for her. A book reviewer didn’t get it when she wrote of Samantha Plum’s stiffness and unbelievable character, unlike regular kids. She didn’t stop to think that I purposely wrote my heroine that way. I didn’t want Samantha to be a regular kid. I gave her special magical abilities.
Why did you include your real ancestors as characters in the trilogy?
In the first book, I wanted to pay tribute to my great-great uncle, Paciano Rizal. He is our family’s unsung hero, the one responsible for his younger brother’s destiny. So little is written about him. He rightly deserves recognition for his quiet part in Filipino history.
Why did you use the two Chinatowns of Manila and Honolulu as the main settings for the second book?
I never have a clue where to begin when I start to write. The setting for the second book came to me when I spent an afternoon in Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. I sat with the vendors hawking their wares on the crowded streets, rode the kalesa around, and observed the daily goings on of a bustling, commercial district. It was exhilarating. That was when the idea for the main settings came to me. Honolulu’s Chinatown is just as vibrant and alive, albeit more gentrified than Manila.
Can you tell us a little bit about your third book, “The Wiesbaden Wizard?” Is it really the final book of the Samantha Plum trilogy?
Again, as in my other Sammy books, I don’t really know yet. All I can say is it’s the continuation of the cliffhanger ending of the second book. It involves Samantha coming to the rescue of her Tita Patti and her friends in the Philippines. Yes, it will be the final book in the Samantha Plum trilogy. I don’t like to linger once a story has ended. I move on to the next writing project.
With love comes hate or vice versa — is this your view on writing?
The love part is creating my characters and the settings I place them in. It takes a lot of thought, a lot of reading other authors to come up with an idea for a story. What is especially thrilling for me is when the story comes together and it flows like forever. You want to stay and wallow in the story because it automatically takes on a life of its own and you go with the flow. I can sit in front of my laptop for hours and churn out chapters.
Unfortunately, these flows do not last. That is when the hate monster reveals itself. I spend days staring at the pitifully few sentences on my screen that don’t make sense at all. I stare at my notes, talk to myself, pace to and fro like a mad woman, berate myself for not having any idea what happens in the next chapter.
To relieve the anxiety, I take deep breaths, go for walks and do a bit of yoga before I return to my screen. Most times, I reach a balance or state of equilibrium. And come what may, I’m able to turn words into sentences, paragraphs, chapters and hopefully, a book.