Sweet as Candy

Candy Gourlay signing books at Copthall School (Photo by Jackie Rice)

Candy Gourlay signing books at Copthall School (Photo by Jackie Rice)

"I love children. I really like writing for them,” author Candy Gourlay enthuses over cold beer and chicharon (pork cracklings) in a shabby-chic café-bar in London. Her manner is warm and friendly, and her affinity with her audience shows in her vivacity and childlike sense of wonder. When she speaks, her animated facial expressions breathe life to her stories as she recounts her journey from journalist in the Philippines to acclaimed author in the United Kingdom.

Candy’s first novel Tall Story was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and won the National Children’s Book Award in the Philippines in 2012, while her second novel Shine was shortlisted for Calderdale Children's Book of the Year 2015 and nominated for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize 2014. Both books received The Crystal Kite Awards for Europe (in 2011 and in 2014), apart from being featured in various “Best of” and “Must read” lists.

Candy Gourlay's Tall Story

Candy Gourlay's Tall Story

In the beginning was the Word

Born Maria Cristina Lopez Quimpo in Davao City, Candy’s family relocated to Manila when she was a toddler. At age six, she discovered a love of words. “I realized that words and paragraphs strung together made stories.”

During her school days at St. Theresa’s College in Quezon City, she became a librarian’s pet, striking a friendship with fellow bibliophile Ms. Diaz. She was borrowing so many books that her mother secretly asked Ms. Diaz to set her a limit. “Mom thought I was reading too much,” Candy recalls.

Growing up, she dreamed of being a writer like Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Like the character, her first foray into writing (at age 11) was for a homemade newsletter that her then seven-year-old sister edited. “Mostly, I wrote about my dogs and my little brothers and life in Manila where I grew up.”

After graduating with a communication arts degree from Ateneo de Manila University, Candy worked as a journalist for Mr & Ms Special Edition where she honed her skills under her editor, role model and mentor, Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc.

Candy Gourlay (right) and Frankie Joaquin were covering a rally in Mendiola which later was dispersed with tear gas. (Photo by James Goodno)

Candy Gourlay (right) and Frankie Joaquin were covering a rally in Mendiola which later was dispersed with tear gas. (Photo by James Goodno)

“In mythic fiction, there is always a character, some kind of spirit guide, that leads the hero into another world. Letty did this for me. Until I met her I didn't think I would ever leave the country or amount to anything much. She showed me that the world never ran out of stories,” she says.

The multifaceted writer also took photographs and illustrated a weekly comic strip. It was while writing for Mr & Ms, covering the People Power Revolution, that she met her husband, Englishman Richard Gourlay. At the time, he was in Manila as a correspondent for the London-based Financial Times. She documents this meeting in the sweet and funny A Comic: An Affair to Sort of Remember, which can be found on her blog (http://www.candygourlay.com/2014/07/an-affair-to-sort-of-remember-my-comic.html).

Culture Clash and Identity

In 1989, Candy moved to the UK after Richard accepted a work offer. Soon after she arrived, she got a job as Chief Sub-editor at Marketing Magazine, a Haymarket trade paper. It was here she realized that the English she spoke was different from the English spoken by the British.

“One time, I captioned a photo: 'X had so much spunk,' which in American would mean, so much verve, energy. Imagine my dismay when it turned out that spunk was slang for male ejaculant!” she laughs. 

She also saw unexpected similarities between how things worked in both countries. “I thought I’d have to work at a gas station (when I got here). I applied to many newspapers with no success.” Over dinner at a journalist friend's house, she met the publisher of the magazine. She recounts, “She helped get me the job. I was pretty surprised because I had been so pleased to arrive in what I thought was a meritocracy only to discover that it helped to know people in the right places.”

Candy later worked as a journalist at the International Press Service (IPS). To learn how the British expressed themselves, she educated herself by listening to Radio 4.

“I found British people to be knowledgeable and articulate, even the ordinary person,” she says. “In the Philippines, it was difficult to get people to talk. You had to coax them to get a quote, but it was easier here because people liked to talk. I would be on the phone (interviewing someone), then I’d have a story.”

But things weren’t always smooth. Adjusting to life in a new country left her homesick. She hung out with fellow journalists Marites Vitug and Sheila Coronel who were studying in London at the time. Later on, she turned to Filipino food for comfort, although she says, “Back in the ‘80s, it wasn’t so easy to get a hold of Asian ingredients. You had to find an Asian store, unlike now when you can get them from the supermarket.”

After her stint in Marketing Magazine and IPS, she landed work at the magazine Filipinos in Europe, which she edited for two years. By then, she had two babies. How did she balance motherhood with a career? “With a lot of difficulty,” she sighs.

Candy and Richard had a nanny. But the tragic experience of losing a baby from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), made Candy reassess what was important. She quit her job to be a stay-at-home mom.

When her children were older, Candy began writing again. She wrote and presented Motherless Nation, a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the social impact of Philippine economic migration. It is a subject close to her heart.

“It is core to who I am as an expatriate Filipino, and also as one of the many Filipino children who experienced being left behind by a parent and dealing with the trauma of family separation,” she explains.

It was around this time when she realized that what she really wanted to write was fiction. But it had been a struggle. It took 10 years from when she started penning novels in earnest to being published.

She submitted to numerous agents and publishers, but kept hitting a brick wall. After writing her first novel, a friend read it and told her what was wrong with it. “I stopped writing for a whole year. I couldn't believe that I had not noticed all the simple errors and the typos. And afterwards, I saw no merit in my writing and couldn’t see the point of continuing to write.” 

But the desire to pursue her dream was strong. To motivate herself, she started the blog Notes from the Slushpile (www.notesfromtheslushpile.com) and joined the writing group Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) aka Scooby.

On the Same Page

One agent told Candy that her story was good, but that there was a disparity between the novel and the author. The book was about (white) British people in Britain. Until that point, Candy hadn’t thought Filipinos could be characters in books. In her favorite stories, everyone was blonde and fair-skinned. She says, “I used to think Filipinos weren’t allowed to be in books. Maybe Filipinos don’t belong.”

Candy Gourlay with the students of Xavier School (Source: candygourlay.com)

Candy Gourlay with the students of Xavier School (Source: candygourlay.com)

This epiphany led her to explore themes closer to home. Tall Story features an eight-foot-tall Filipino boy and a half-English, half-Filipino girl, while Shine is set on an island very much reminiscent of the Philippines. Another recurring subject is that “People are not what they seem,” stemming from her experience of being an immigrant. In an interview with the children’s book blog Mirrors Windows Doors, Candy said, “I am acutely aware of people making instant judgments of who I am all the time. I guess what I’m trying to say is, ‘Look beyond what you see!’”

“Part of what makes Gourlay’s work unique is how it shows the clash of cultures between the Philippines and the UK,” Ruel S. De Vera writes in a feature for The Philippine Daily Inquirer. As someone who straddles two cultures, Candy is aware of the challenges of writing for both Filipino and Westerner. Her primary audience is Filipinos, but she tries to make her work accessible to Western readers. “I try to find a bridge, a familiar thing if something is too foreign or exotic (to explain),” she says.

Candy nabbed an agent after winning an SCBWI writing competition, then sold a story for the anthology Under the Weather: Stories about Climate Change. A book of animal stories, Animal Tricksters, followed. Then Tall Story was published by David Fickling Books (DFB), who also gave her a two-book deal.

At present, Candy is wrapping up a historical novel about a boy from Bontoc during the Philippine American war.

Does she still get homesick? “I am homesick every day. I miss being with people who share a common past, being with family. Whilst I am happy in London and culturally embedded, I find that it is only in the Philippines and with Filipinos that I can laugh without any inhibition. The Philippines seems to be at the core of anything I write.” 

This article has been revised and updated. 

Emmily Magtalas Rhodes

Emmily Magtalas Rhodes

Emmily Magtalas Rhodes is a freelance writer and mother-of-two based in Derbyshire, England. She loves wine, coffee and road trips, and misses taco trucks.

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