If you think you can’t get down with short stories, then you haven’t read Mia Alvar. Her debut short story collection, In the Country, was published in June featuring Filipino characters living under martial law in their own country in the 1970's and working and saving up in the Middle East and the U.S. The subject matter in her shorts is fresh, the settings vivid, and the sentences beautiful. Alvar will be at Books & Books on Wednesday discussing her collection in a conversation with University of Miami Creating Writing director and fellow Filipina author, M. Evelina Galang. New Times caught up with the author ahead of her visit to chat all things lit, travel, and getting in the writing zone.
New Times: When did you know that you wanted to write and what kind of writing got you interested in the craft?
Mia Alvar: I was a reader of everything but I’ve always felt like reading and writing went hand in hand. As far as thinking of it professionally, it was probably in high school that I had a really great poetry mentor. As far as fiction goes, I didn’t really consider it until my senior year of college and then I became really serious about it. I started writing some of the material that ended up in In the Country back then.
When did you write the first story for In the Country ("The Kontrabida")?
Honestly, I was still in college. I had just traveled to the Philippines in 1999 for my grandmother’s illness and impending death. I was taking in all these details related to her funeral and the practices around death and dying in the Philippines. I didn’t think I was going to turn them into anything necessarily, but they stayed with me, so when I went back to the states and my regular college life I started thinking about incorporating some of these details into a story.
About how long did it take you to write In the Country?
I’ve been saying ten years, and that’s rounding down a little bit. I wasn’t working on it full time or consistently since college so there were years and months where I would step away from it for a particularly demanding day job or other stuff.
What stage are you at with your novel-in-progress, and is it still about Milagros and her daughter from In the Country?
It is still about them and nothing much has changed because it’s still in the early stages. I haven’t really had the amount of time I’d like to have to focus on it since my collection came out and I’ve been promoting that. My thoughts about it now is that it will be about Milagros’s life after the end of In the Country. I’m also interested in going into her life before the events of In the country and her childhood in the Philippines, all of the backstory I had in mind but wouldn’t fit in the story.
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You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you get “spooked” by writing and I was curious as to what exactly makes you anxious about the writing process?
I think that I get too focused on results and that really kind of leads to anxiety and freezing up. So I can relate to people talking about trying to get in the zone, where it doesn’t feel like you’re reinventing the wheel but you’re very engaged in the immediate task at hand.
Do you have any tips for getting in "the zone"?
For me I try to avoid sitting in front of a blank computer screen. I find it much easier to be reading something related to the things I’m thinking about, whether it’s a literary device, or a research thing, so reading and having a notebook next to me and having an eye on what I want to focus on feels a lot less scary. That’s probably why it takes me ten years to write a book.
Do you feel close to any one place or culture, such as the Philippines?
No. I feel like one of the things that comes up often in my book is that people find their home in relationships and communities as opposed to a country or whatever their official passport says. One of the cool things about having written a book is that my eyes have been opened to areas where those things converge, like being able to chat with other Philippino Americans in the arts and literary communities that are dealing with diaspora and the city. I feel more connected now, which is nice.
In conversation with University of Miami's director of creative writing M. Evelina Galang, Wednesday, October 21, at 8 p.m. at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. Free admission; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com.