Author Interview: Gail D. Villanueva

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Hello, little foxes! Today I’d like to introduce you to Gail D. Villanueva, author of the upcoming My Fate According to the Butterfly from Scholastic in 2019!

When superstitious Sab sees a giant black butterfly, an omen of death, she knows that she’s doomed!

According to legend, she has one week before her fate catches up with her–on her 11th birthday. With her time running out, all she wants is to celebrate her birthday with her entire family. But her sister, Ate Nadine, stopped speaking to their father one year ago, and Sab doesn’t even know why.

If Sab’s going to get Ate Nadine and their father to reconcile, she’ll have to overcome her fears–of her sister’s anger, of leaving the bubble of her sheltered community, of her upcoming doom–and figure out the cause of their rift.

So Sab and her best friend Pepper start spying on Nadine and digging into their family’s past to determine why, exactly, Nadine won’t speak to their father. But Sab’s adventures across Manila reveal truths about her family more difficult than she ever anticipated, and get her into real trouble.

Was the Butterfly right? Perhaps Sab is in danger after all!

 

About the Author:

Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipina author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer, an entrepreneur, and a graphic artist. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken. My Fate According to the Butterfly is her debut novel.Goodreads

 

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What made you become a writer? Was there a certain event or person that inspired you?

I’d love to say I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but that won’t be true. When I was four, I wanted to become an astronaut. Then my mom said I had to study really hard to get on a spaceship, so I decided it would be more exciting to become a firefighter instead. When we got a dog, I wanted to become an alchemist-veterinarian, so my pet could live forever. But he didn’t, and I abandoned that dream.

I had a wild imagination, but I wasn’t a reader. You see, I was already seven years old, and I still couldn’t read. I was way behind my first-grade class. But my grandmother patiently taught me to associate words with pictures. Before long, I was devouring books appropriate for my reading level.

It wasn’t until the fifth grade did I decide I wanted to write my own novel. I’ve been making comics and writing short stories, but I never really wrote anything too long.

I remember that day quite clearly. I’ve already read the books my mom bought me for the month, so I was going through my grandmother’s library for something different. She wasn’t into fiction much—her collection consisted mostly of bible stories and science encyclopedias. Lucky for me, I did find a novel that had a back cover copy that interested me, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Now, my experience of reading the book wasn’t exactly what you’d expect. I didn’t turn the last page and became a woke eleven-year-old. However, it did leave me with an important question: Why did it have to be a white girl who tells the story of a Black man?

I told myself that I would one day write an important book like Harper Lee’s (hehe I had big dreams), but with a Filipino protagonist. I would write about Filipinos because I am Filipino.

As I continued to write, I eventually outgrew my unrealistic publishing expectations. I even listened to advice that the main character of my novel should be white or half-white, so agents and editors could relate to them. Still, I never abandoned my dream of writing a novel with a Filipino protagonist.

And I did write one. It’ll become a real book in 2019.

I still believe I would never be Harper Lee. But I would be me.

As an author living outside the United States, what challenges did you face when you were querying and searching for an agent?

“I can’t connect.” That’s a form rejection authors are all too familiar with. As a querying author (and later, as a mentor), I knew it just really meant what it said it meant: the agent couldn’t connect. There was no “zing” for them, no tingly I-need-to-rep-this-like-right-now feeling. However, when you’re an author who lives outside the United States, you can’t help but wonder if this goes beyond craft. The self-doubt doubles, because you don’t know for sure if it’s just your writing or it’s actually your culture they can’t connect to.

So, you can just imagine how happy I was when I received my first call from an agent. I had four offers of representation all-in-all. It felt so surreal—like, I couldn’t believe that after a year and a half of “I can’t connect,” four agents were actually saying they could, and even loved my very Filipino book.

In the end, I signed with Alyssa Henkin of Trident Media Group. My gut feeling told me we understood each other the most, and it was right. Alyssa understands me and my writing, reminding me that “I can” every time I feel like “I cannot.”

When we talked earlier, you described My Fate According to the Butterfly as a very book Filipino. How did you make your book palatable to an American audience?

The concerns of my main character, Sab, are very universal—you don’t have to be Filipino to relate to her. You don’t need to be Filipino to relate to her fears, her joys, or her disappointments. She is a ten (almost eleven) year old kid who just wants to reunite her family when she sees the black butterfly omen of death.

It is through these familiar feelings that allowed my story to become palatable to an American audience, even if the story itself is set in a culture and a country so different from theirs.

Did you have any difficulties with staying true to your culture or yourself, but making it understandable for Americans?

No, and yes. The Philippines had been a colony of the United States for 48 years when they bought our country from Spain. My ancestors have been required to learn the English language and adapt to the American way of doing things. Even though we’re “technically” no longer a US colony, the effects of colonization are still very much alive and well in our generation. A lot of us are bilingual (myself included), having learned English as a second language from birth.

While this allows me to write a book with cultural references Americans can easily understand and connect to, it does come with a caveat. There are things about our culture that I had to explain through narrative, dialogue, and situations because direct translations just aren’t enough. And since my book is middle grade, I had to do this without being preachy, or I’d lose my reader’s attention.

One of these “things” is the effect of colonization: colorism and colonial mentality. From a western perspective, it’s hard to understand why Filipinos would put anyone with white or fair skin on a pedestal. It’s a privilege willingly given because of our long history of colonization under Spain (333 years) and the United States (48 years). Our ancestors have been conditioned to believe that you need to have white or fair skin to be considered beautiful and deserve the best.

That’s something I had to explain in my book. I certainly hope I did the subject justice because dark-skinned kids like me need to know that they are every bit as beautiful and as deserving. And at the same time, I’m also praying it’ll help light-skinned kids understand the privilege they have. I wrote My Fate According to the Butterfly with the intention of giving readers a mirror and a window, so it was very important to be able to keep the balance—give readers an enriching Filipino cultural experience that they can understand and relate to even if they aren’t Filipinos themselves.

Besides writing, what else do you like to do in your spare time?

Oh, I’m so glad you asked. I don’t spend all of my free time screaming about colorism and colonial mentality on Twitter and blog posts, see. Haha.

I love doing web design and development. It’s been my profession for more than 20 years now (let’s not discuss how old I really am haha), and I still find joy in doing code and designing graphics and layouts. I feel very fortunate that the thing that feeds my family is the same hobby I’ve loved since I was thirteen.

I’m not a total geek though. Whenever I need a break, I usually take out my mountain bike for a ride (my husband and I are training for the trails—I’m so excited), jog, or shoot some hoops. I love spending time with my pets (I have dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and a chicken), doodling intricate patterns, cooking for my family, and sewing tote bags for my friends (I’ve just learned to how to make a sundress, so they’re going to get dresses from me soon). Sometimes, I paint with watercolor or do digital art. I love to do a lot of other things when I’m not writing, but that’s all I can think of right now.

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