CREATIVES-QUESTIONNAIRE

‘Stories are our touchstones to the past and remind us of what truly matters’

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Writer Dean Francis Alfar talks about the Filipino imagination and having his work featured alongside literary giants like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. Photo courtesy of DEAN FRANCIS ALFAR/Illustration by JL JAVIER

Creative's Questionnaire is an interview series where artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives talk about their work, the challenges that they face, and their inspirations.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “The effects of the pandemic on everyone’s mental health is profound. There are struggles we need to overcome, including guilt coming from the need to be productive as usual,” says speculative fiction writer Dean Francis Alfar.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was much debate online among creative circles about seizing the moment for productivity. Influential artists like Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh, and Emily Dickinson all created great works in isolation, some would argue. But with the looming fear of death and serious illness, loss of livelihood, and disconnection from friends and loved ones, self-reported incidences of anxiety and depression have reached “higher than historic norms.” Slowly, creatives are learning to push back against the urge to remain productive amid everything going on in the world, including Alfar.

Alfar is the author of works such as the novel “Salamanca” and short fiction collections “How to Traverse Terra Incognita” and “The Kite of Stars and Other Stories.” He is also the editor of the anthologies “Fantasy: Filipino Fiction for Young Adults,” “Horror: Filipino Fiction for Young Adults,” and “Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction 1 & 2,” among many others. Recently, “The Kite of Stars,” his short story that has since been adapted as a play and used as required reading in certain schools, was also included in “The Big Book of Modern Fantasy,” a collection of fantasy stories from around the world written between 1945 and 2010. His work sits alongside short stories penned by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

“Finding my name in the table of contents alongside authors that I love and inspire him is both thrilling and humbling,” he says. “It’s still hard to believe.”

Photo from PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Alfar is a firm believer that writer’s block and writing only when inspiration strikes are myths. “In practice, it is better not to wait for inconsistent inspiration and instead train to write in cold blood,” he says. But he also acknowledges that we are living in some pretty uncertain times. “These are unusual times and we need to be kinder to ourselves,” he says. “I’ve learned to make peace with the fact that I am not my usual writerly self these days — and that’s okay. I do my best to stick to writing routine, but sometimes it is better to just rest.”

We spoke to Dean Alfar about having his work featured alongside literary giants, the Filipino imagination, and the “myth” of writing only what you know. The interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

First is the ability to imagine, to play around with thoughts of “what if?” This helps generate ideas for stories. Imagine someplace else, someplace better. Imagine different rules, different realities. Imagine things that do not exist or twist what exists into something else.

Second is empathy, the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes. This helps with creating characters for stories, as well as getting in the right headspace at work when developing campaigns for a specific audience.

Third is the ability to write and create with or without inspiration. Writing is about discipline and getting it done. Let the deadline be your inspiration.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

For me, writing stories is not just about getting them out of my system. It’s also about sharing them with readers, inviting others to explore the worlds of my imagination. I believe in the Filipino imagination and in our ability to take elements from our folklore and traditions as well as our current circumstances, and use these to tell stories that bring a sense of wonder and delight, offer respite from our harsh realities, bring insight and different perspectives, or resonate with truths of the human condition. Stories are powerful and linger in memory.

As a storyteller, what matters to me is sharing the internal truth of a story — even when the story itself is constructed.

How does that relate to your most recent project? You have an entry in the recently published “The Big Book of Modern Fantasy.” Can you tell me how this came to be, what story you chose to include and why, and please talk about any interesting things that came up in the process.

I am a fantasist at heart and grew up reading fairy tales and fantasy stories of various stripes. Early on, I knew that these were the types of stories I wanted to tell the most. My first professional international sale was “The Kite of Stars” to Strange Horizons, which became the title story of my first collection of short fiction. It’s a story about a girl who goes on an impossible quest just to get noticed by a young astronomer she sees. It has since then been adapted as a play and become required reading in some schools.

Later, Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, editors of famous international anthologies such as “The Big Book of Classic Fantasy,” “The Big Book of Science Fiction,” and “The Weird,” wrote to me requesting for this story to be included in their new project. Of course, I agreed. It is a huge honor to represent our country in the anthology.

“The Big Book of Modern Fantasy” covers the time period from 1945 to 2010, and contains fantasy stories they selected from around the world. Finding my name in the table of contents alongside authors that I love and inspire him is both thrilling and humbling: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jeffrey Ford, Aimee Bender, and more. It’s still hard to believe. So now the book is out, and my hope is that my story in turn inspires someone somewhere to write their own stories.

Every time I have a story in an international anthology is a big deal for me. When I was a younger writer, I had a series of dreams: to get a story published in my country, to get a story published abroad, to write a novel, to publish a collection, and to get a story included in one of the big international anthologies.

One by one those dreams came true, over and over in some cases. So if I, a regular Filipino can somehow do it, then it stands to reason that other Filipinos can as well.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

When I’m finished with a story, and it has been successfully submitted, accepted, and published by a publisher, I move on. I tend not to linger on things I’ve written or done. I invest so much time and energy on each story that by the time it’s finished I am actually quite tired of it, and ready to get started with the next project.

I also resist the temptation to rewrite past stories when putting together a collection. I am in process of my fourth collection of short fiction which includes published stories from the last few years. I see parts that I feel could have been written better, but I choose to respect the timestamp: that was me writing then, and my voice, concerns, methodology, and writerly ability, all these things, were true at the time and valid. I learn from my past self, even if I wince, and believe in letting things stand as they are, warts and all. So when I look back at my past inventory of stories, I can see my continuing progress as a writer — because learning and improvement never really end. I’m happy to see the paths I’ve taken, even if I mislead myself from time to time and fall flat on my face. I tell myself I’m only as good as my last project, so the next one has to be better.

What skills do you wish you had?

On the internal side, more patience and focus. When I was younger, I could sit still for hours and write. As I grow older, much less so. I find my thoughts occupied more with other aspects of life and living.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

It is the same set of concerns for young writers as it was for me then: the need to sit down and finish a draft; the fear of submitting stories to markets because of possible rejection; finding a publisher; and finding your voice and audience.

The answers are: just put in the work and time and finish the first draft; accept that fact that rejections are part of your life as a writer; keep looking; and keep writing — in time your own voice will become clearer and your audience will find you.

But all of these take dedication and discipline. With the rarest of exceptions, nothing occurs overnight. Being a published writer is accepting the fact that it is demanding work — fun at times, frustrating often, but worthwhile.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

The Writer’s Block. Consider the possibility that you are just being lazy or would rather be doing something else. Too many times, we use this as an excuse not to write. There are several ways to deal with this, ranging from allocating a specific dedicated time to write to working on another project for a while.

Write Only What You Know. This depressing myth devalues the perspective of the younger writers who have less experiences. What is important to us changes as we grow older. It also goes against the grain of speculative fiction, where imagination and research are important.

Write In White Heat. Some people still believe that the purest form of writing occurs only when inspiration strikes. In practice, it is better not to wait for inconsistent inspiration and instead train to write in cold blood. Deploy all you know of your craft and let the deadline be your inspiration.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

Writing fiction helps me with many aspects of real life. Disciplined writing translates into time management skills. Crafting characters builds empathy for other people — I do not agree or completely understand them, but I can put myself in their position and see the world a bit through their eyes.

On the purely business side, imagination and writing are the core skills that earn me a living. The ability to speculate on how an audience thinks and tell them a memorable story.

In what ways have you had to adapt to the situation in this pandemic, work-wise?

The effects of the pandemic on everyone’s mental health is profound. There are struggles we need to overcome, including guilt coming from the need to be productive as usual. But these are unusual times and we need to be kinder to ourselves.

I’ve learned to make peace with the fact that I am not my usual writerly self these days — and that’s okay.

I do my best to stick to writing routine, but sometimes it is better to just rest.

What kind of changes do you think are essential to ensure the kind of work that you do can thrive, while still protecting the people who do it?

More publishing venues and opportunities for young writers, increased support from the government and private sector for events that encourage writing, a great push to get more people to read, and more and better funded libraries. We need more readers to fall in love with words and more writers to create worlds for them to explore.

Art and literature are important parts of our societal lives and cultural heritage. Stories are our touchstones to the past, and help remind us of what truly matters. Speculative fiction unleashes our imagination, and helps us envision what tomorrow could be.