Monday, December 01, 2008

December Book Club: WHEN THE ELEPHANTS DANCE, by Tess Uriza Holthe

Welcome to the December Book Club Meeting!

Today, we're honored to have Tess Uriza Holthe, author (most recently) of The Five Forty-Five to Cannes, here to talk about her bestselling debut novel, When the Elephants Dance. (Check out the author's website here for information about her other book.)

A brief synopsis:

In the waning days of World War II, the Japanese and the Americans engage in a fierce battle for possession of the Philippine Islands. The Karangalan family and their neighbors huddle for survival in the cellar of a house a few miles from Manila. Outside the safety of their little refuge the war rages on—fiery bombs torch the beautiful Filipino countryside, Japanese soldiers round up and interrogate innocent people, and from the hills guerillas wage a desperate campaign against the enemy. Crowded together in the cellar, the Karangalans and their friends and neighbors tell magical stories to one another based on Filipino myth and legend to fuel their courage, pass the time, and teach important lessons. The group is held spellbound by these stories, which feature a dazzling array of ghosts, witches, supernatural creatures, and courageous Filipinos who changed the course of history with their actions. These profoundly moving stories transport the listeners from the chaos of the war around them and give them new resolve to fight on.

Tess kindly subjected herself to the standard interview, and she'll be checking in later today to answer any reader questions.

Moonrat: Thanks again, Tess, for joining us! How did you land your agent?
Tess: I found my agent, Mary Ann Naples of the Creative Culture, at the Maui Writer’s Conference. I was an accountant and I’d been working on a novel for ‘fun’ each evening after work and my writing group suggested we attend the conference as a group. Our biggest goal at the time was to have someone, anyone (the concierge at the hotel even) say they were interested in the manuscript and to send them a query letter with a portion of our work. We all agreed it would be great practice for when we were really ready. A month before the conference I began working on finishing what would become When the Elephants Dance I didn’t even have a title at the time. But I thought it would be good to have an entire book I could pitch. I worked on the premise during a family barbeque. I read somewhere that the premise should be 25 words or less, which was also very helpful in tightening my focus for the next draft. It helped to put the sub-themes in perspective and let the main theme stand out which was. Philippines World War II: What if a group of civilians hiding in a cellar tell mythical tales in order to survive? I liked the idea of posing the premise as a What If? because it allowed me to think of the book as the ‘answer’ to the question I posed.

Anyway, I signed up to meet about ten agents and one editor. I thought, “Why not? Since I’m already here. Why not pretend I’m really serious about selling this?” Which of course we all were, but pretending to not really be, more to ourselves really, so we wouldn’t be too crushed by the rejection that was surely coming. We could only hope there would be words of kindness in the rejections. Something like, “But your typewriting is very neat,” to lessen the blow. Nothing at all like the beautiful rejection letter the character Briony gets in McEwan’s Atonement. I read that and thought how big my head would’ve been if I received such a wonderful rejection.

Prior to the conference I had purchased a book called Your Novel Proposal from Creation to Contract, by Blythe Camenson and M. Cook. It was very helpful in creating the synopsis and query letter. There was a very helpful little section on what to do when sitting across from an agent and pitching your story. It’s such a short anxiety causing meeting to begin with that I think writers forget that sure they’re interviewing you, but you’re also interviewing them, so have some questions ready that are important to you. Like perhaps, how the agent would pitch your book, to what publishing house, what have they sold in the past, and equally important is it a good fit? Do you feel comfortable with this person as your agent? This will help you to go to the right agent. It also prompted me to research the agents that would be present so I knew a little bit about their clients, which opened up more questions for me. Mostly it helped keep me from staring at them with the deer in the headlights stare.

Sitting with the various agents was a real learning experience; I picked up little things as I moved forward throughout the day to ask the other agents. After each meeting, I adjusted to making my pitch more efficient and my questions for them more specific. I would highly suggest signing up to meet a nice group of agents and not just one or two. When else would you be able to have such a great gathering without having to send out separate query letters? It cuts the whole query, then excruciating waiting period in half. This way they say they’re interested, or what they might be interested in.

There were a lot of terrific agents present, but the minute I met Mary Ann, there was just this connection. I gave her one page of the synopsis and breakdown and one page which had a sample of my writing, the opening scene to the novel on one side and the first short story that’s told in the cellar on the other side. Sitting across from her I felt so relaxed, like I was talking to a friend, and she said she was interested in seeing the manuscript and to send it to her. I went back home to California, tightened the book and sent it to her in two weeks along with an email saying “It’s coming, do you remember me?” And she said she did and that she would look out for it.

To my great and perpetual surprise, (yes I’m still surprised, I think), Mary Ann called the Monday after I sent it to her. She had read it overnight and wanted to represent me. She then described the various editors who were interested and I learned what an imprint is (the different houses within a publishing house like Doubleday, Crown, Knopf these are different imprints within the Random House family) and who the different editors were who could purchase the manuscript from these imprints.

Moonrat: And how did you get the Book Deal?
Nary Ann sold the novel to Crown, an imprint of Random House, in a week and a half, and the paperback to Penguin, and I’m still reeling from the experience. When I see my books in a bookstore it’s still a surreal experience, like an alternate universe or something, where my double wrote the book. I haven’t got my head around the fact that I sat and wrote something and there it sits. I can say that over and over in my head and still, it’s just too big for me to comprehend, so I no longer try. Instead I spend my time thanking God over and over and over again in case he thinks I’m not being grateful enough. Now with my second book, The Five-Forty-Five to Cannes, up there beside it, gathering real estate like on a Monopoly Board, as my friends say, it’s even more disconcerting. It’s a very beautiful, humbling, experience, and every now and then when He’s not looking, I gloat at the memory of an old neighbor saying very smugly, “So your husband tells me you’re writing a book, ha, ha, ha.” And then I become immediately pious again.

Moonrat: When the Elephants Dance is full of magic, folklore, and oral history; at the same time, it realistically and vividly captures one of the worst moments in world history. I was able to absorb the darkness of the history because of the spellbinding digressions the family uses to distract themselves from the war around them. How did you select the digressions you were going to use? And are they all products of your imagination, or are some of them based on established lore?
Tess: Thank
you, I like that spellbinding digressions…Well, it’s interesting. Up until I took a writing class at our neighborhood bookstore, I had no idea I would or ever could write a novel. I’ve always just been a big reader and journal-er (is that a word?). I was learning as I went. The first assignment in our three month introduction to writing class called Life into Literature and taught by Linda Watanabe McFerrin, was to write a one page section about a Myth in the Family and another section on a myth. So, I came to class with the first opening action scene. It was a fictionalized version of something which my father experienced as a young boy during World War II. He was captured by Japanese Soldiers and interrogated overnight. The second was a myth I’d heard, but only a tiny kernel--which became the first story they tell in the cellar, "A Cure for Happiness"--sprouted from this little story my father use to tell about a church that sunk into the ground. Supposedly, an angel came in the form of a dog to test the arrogance of these parishioners who were too proud of their beautiful church and when they scoffed at the dog, it wiped its paws clean and the second the dog/angel left the church it sunk into the ground. From that I created this whole story of the mysterious faith-healer, Esmeralda and the church that sank into the ground.

Writing those two little pieces was such a profound experience for me, and then to be encouraged the next class meeting by Linda McFerrin and the rest of my classmates, well, it was like a drug to me, I just couldn’t stop. To realize I could write something that could be understood by others as a storyline they could follow was just incredible. I went home and could not stop writing. It was like I’d tapped into oil somehow and all these stories came in a flood. I wrote the “digressions” first actually, for fun. And then I saw that I could frame them in the context of World War II, so I wrote three separate segments or they wrote themselves. Structure is an interesting thing for me, I’ve learned that once I’ve set a strong premise and foundation for a story, all of the creativity begins to flex and reward me by opening up. Only when the foundation is truly set-up, truly ready does the story bloom and unfold like petals. If the foundation or the blueprint of the manuscript is faulty, I get nothing in return but wrestling. I guess what I’m saying is I’m a total premise girl. Some people like to write and just see where the story takes them but I have to have a point I’m aiming for otherwise I’m lost.

Moonrat: Was writing it more of a creative or a personal project for you?
I grew up in a huge extended family. My father and grandmother were oral story tellers. It was basically passing along our folklore and history around a campfire tradition only it was around a mahjong table. We had this little community of Filipinos in Bernal Heights San Francisco where I was born and the way we socialized was around my mother’s Catholic St. Kevin’s church group or the mahjong games at our house. Almost every night we had three or four mahjong tables going and each night everyone would tell stories. I basically grew up in a gambling den but didn’t realize it; it was so fun, like one sustained slumber party over 30 years. I presented at the National Kidney Foundation last year with Martin Cruz Smith and Annie Lamott, who are just super warm people, and I described how I grew up in such a household and Martin said that the experience was a gift. And it’s funny, I’ve always thought of it that way but couldn’t articulate, but it was a gift because there were all of these wonderful characters to observe over an intense period of time. I’d never met anyone else who saw it the same way I did, but he just got it.

Moonrat: Do you have plans for your next project?
I am working on something new, finishing up in fact. I can’t really talk about it right now but I’m very excited about it and hope to sell it very soon. It’s set in the Philippines and then crosses over to America and I guess I’d better just leave it at that.

Thanks, Tess! Can't wait to hear reader reactions.


Ello said...

Oh boy I should be the first comment because this was the book that I was telling everyone to go read because I loved it so much!!!

Thank you so much for the interview! It was fascinating to read. I will have specific questions later. But for now I have to tell you how much I loved this book! I read it in one sitting (literally, my butt froze!) and I still think about it years later!

Precie said...

I'm so thrilled, Tess, that you agreed to join us for this month's book club. I read When the Elephants Dance a few months ago and have been kicking myself ever since for not reading it before! It's really wonderful.

Just this past weekend, I passed my copy to my parents, who are both Filipinos. When I explained a bit of it to my dad, specifically the part about the guerillas hiding out in the mountains because of the Japanese occupation, he said, "Oh, that's like your mom!" (No, my mom wasn't a guerilla fighter in her least not that she's admitted...but her family did have cause to hide in a mountain cave for a while during that time.)

Your early writing experiences are fascinating...especially regarding how this particular novel came into being.

So here are a few questions for you:

1) Do you find that a lot of Filipinos relate to the novel? Do they bring up shared/similar experiences?

2) When you started writing, did you feel driven to write from a Filipina perspective?

3) On a more personal note, how do you balance your Filipino heritage with your American life?

moonrat said...

At Thanksgiving dinner, I was over at my Filipino in-laws' place and the book came up. They're all avid readers, and yet no one had read WHEN ELEPHANTS DANCE YET (Christmas shopping ahoy!) so I told them a little about the plot.

Per Precie's comment, Mrs. immediately said, "Oh, that sounds just like what my father's family had to do..." She went on to tell a long story about a bomb shelter hidden under a bamboo grove, and a family manor that was taken over by the Japanese army for a headquarters.

You must find that there's a lot of resonance among Filipinos and Filipino Americans--it seems like there isn't a lot of literature devoted to telling about the Philippines. So I was pleased to hear your next book is also set there!

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Another great interview and another novel for my TBR pile. Thanks!

Julianne Douglas said...

I haven't read this book yet, but I definitely will now! Thanks for the great interview.

Anita said...

I have this book on my treadmill shelf, so I read while I run. You are helping me burn more calories---I can't stop reading!

Pamala Knight said...

What a wonderful interview! I think that someone else already covered any questions I would like to ask, but I'm definitely buying this book for one of my best friends. She's a Filipina and was excited when I described it to her.

Thanks for notice of the next book, too.

usman said...

It is always fun to discover new writers. For me based in Pakistan, I am especially interested in cultures around the world. Though even America is a different culture, yet there is so much I have read about America.
Thanks for bringing this to notice. I love the title.
Question: elephants in a book title, make it always sound interesting, why is that. Consider: Water for Elephants.

Ann Victor said...

Great interview. Lovely to share some of Tess's experiences. Your family upbringing is a true gift!

Have ordered the book from as I couldn't get it from our local (South African)bookstores in time for Moonrat's December Bookclub. Can't wait to read it.

Lina said...

Thanks so much for recommending this book. I just finished it and loved it--it was spellbinding. I would be interested to get a Filipino perspective on it. I found the violence in the book very hard to read, and I can only imagine that if I felt culturally connected to it how much harder that might be.

Anyway, thanks again for a wonderful read!

moonrat said...

Lina--I found the violence difficult too, particularly the tension as Isabel is waiting to see if she's going to be raped. It's nearly panic-inducing. I think the psychological experience is so moving, even though Tess doesn't veer into gorey or visceral descriptions. It was hard for me to read that section, which is a good thing, I think--it's a rememberance to a very real experience that millions of people were subjected to.

Anonymous said...

Hi Everyone, it's Tess Uriza Holthe, I'm just getting around to posting. But i'll be posting more in the next few days, weeks...This is for Ello and Precie, Ello, thank YOU for your enthusiasm, what a great compliment---"Butt freezing is good!" Done that myself with other books!

Precie, in answer to your questions, yes, when I first started my book tour i was amazed at the number of Filipinos who not only showed up but who made the discussion period an open forum for their own family stories. It was an amazing gift to have the audience of readers telling me 'their' stories. 2)When I first started writing Elephants it was during a 3 month intro writing course so I didn't think much about perspective as I didn't think the book would ever be for public consumption. My second book was during a trip to Europe and it's from European/Americans in Europe perspective---I was observing everyone around me and didn't bump into any Filipinos if you can believe that---but, I try not to struggle with whatever voice comes in the writing. There's already a million things you're juggling, story line, themes, ambience, conflict, resolution, i'm happy with whatever voice comes. Writing I've found, shouldn't be forced, it should simply be given room to blossom organically in whatever voice, perspective, time period, genre you're gifted without judgment---otherwise you're in danger of freezing up. 3)my Filipino heritage with my American life---hmmmm...i just do, i guess, i've never known any other way. I am a Filipino but born and raised in America. I'm both proud and grateful for both, they color my imagination, its not necessary to balance, it just 'Is'. I'm so happy to walk down San Francisco and hear Tagalog being spoken, its like music to my ears, and in the same moment be excited to be on a plane to NY to see La Traviata at the MET and maybe to later join those two experiences in a story I come up with on the plane....

Thank you for your questions, i'm answering these on the fly. I'll be back in a bit. Tess