Interview with Isabel Yap

We are happy to kick off our Small Beer Author Interview series with Franchesca Viaud's interview with Isabel Yap. Isabel's first collection, Never Have I Ever: Stories, was published in February 2021 — we have a limited number of signed bookplates to go with it. A number of Isabel's stories can be read online: Milagroso, Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez?, & How to Swallow the Moon. Catch up with Isabel's Strange Light Reading Series event with Rebecca Roanhorse here.

FV: Could you speak to your writing process? When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule?
IY: Since the pandemic started I’ve actually kept to a pretty consistent schedule. I have a wonderful writing accountability group from the East Coast. We started writing together virtually last March, and have kept at it since then. I am not a morning person but I’ve been waking up early to join them, even after moving back to California. It’s been amazingly productive despite the mess of the last twelve months. In our time together I’ve written A Canticle for Lost Girls, three long fanfics, ten thousand words of a bad draft, and a lot of words in my current draft, though I don’t know how many because I’m deliberately not looking at wordcount.

I also have more time because my work is remote. Without a commute I have somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour each morning to write. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to get a paragraph in usually. I wish I could say I write more during the weekends, but I don’t seem to be particularly productive without work, though that could also be where I am in the story.

I do want to call out that this is new for me. I was never a write every day person, never a morning person, and now apparently I’m both. I used to be a binge writer (hitting a cafe from noon til 6 p.m. on the weekends, because I had no energy after work). I would also go for months at a time without writing. Processes can and do change. If something’s working it’s wise to stick with it; if it’s not, then trying something new makes sense.

I’ve been a part of a few writing accountability groups and they’ve almost always failed. Either no one wrote or the same three people wrote every single time. As someone who’s part of one that actually works, as in does what it’s supposed to do, what do you think goes into making one effective?
I can relate to that! I’ve been in writing groups before that didn’t last, though I respected and liked the writers in them. Having a schedule that works for people makes a difference, and keeping it flexible. Some days no one is able to show up, but we flag it which maintains the accountability: “Hey, I need a break today” or “Hey, something came up at work.” Being honest about what’s keeping us from writing helps us make sure that “not showing up” isn’t the default. Sometimes even if no one else is there I’ll log in but keep my video and microphone off, that way I’m “visible” in case someone decides to drop by.

We also genuinely work during that time. All of us have made significant progress with projects, because we respect the heads-down time, and that progress keeps us motivated. I guess the last key factor is that we were friends beforehand; I’d had meals with all of them and trusted them. I know that’s not always possible but it helps if you have a personal relationship with at least some of the people in the group!

(I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the same three people writing every time though? We were a group of four for a very long time and it worked out well!) 

How do your stories come to you? I know the stories in Never Have I Ever are rooted in folklore and urban legend. I imagine there was a research component to writing this collection. What was that like? How did you know what facets of the legends to include or leave out?
I always have a lot of ideas. They can be triggered by anything, and I carry them around for years. It usually comes to me as a phrase first, like the seed of a concept. For example: Red’s domestic life with the wolf. Or, school girls in a retreat house. Demon summoning? I have a draft right now that my brain has tagged as K-pop girl group on Mars. The elements aren’t quite right yet, but some things are there. Sometimes I have to make a lot of bad attempts before the story is ripe enough to write; Canticle was one of those. I don’t know what makes a story ready. In some cases it’s just trying relentlessly.

The level of research needed for the stories in the collection varied. My instinct is to say research was minimal, but that’s not actually true. A lot of it just isn’t research in the typical textbook sense. I researched Milagroso by reading up on the Pahiyas festival then interviewing friends and acquaintances who had actually been there. I “researched” Anamaria Marquez and Canticle by asking my high school barkada for stories and memories—verifying things that happened, legends I recalled but wasn’t sure of. I also drew a lot from memory. All the Best of Dark and Bright, A Spell for Foolish Hearts, Misty, and Hurricane Heels all took place largely in settings I’ve actually moved through.

Re: which facets of legend to leave in or out, I try to absorb a lot about the source material—though to be honest, if we’re talking Filipino folklore, there isn’t a ton out there that is readily available. The accessible literature on Mebuyen or the bakunawa, for example, is quite thin. But I’ll read what I can, and I’ll read or watch works that draw from the same thing, then I’ll think about the story I’m trying to tell and write towards that. My subconscious does a lot of the decision making, especially in a first draft. I’ve found myself served pretty well by trusting it.

When you say your ‘subconscious does a lot of the decision making,’ what do you mean by that?
I mean that it genuinely doesn’t feel deliberate on my part. The ideas just “come together” in a primordial soup type of way as I’m attempting to draft. The story itself—in the words and sentences—presents the answer. It’s like that moment you sometimes get in the shower where you’re like “Oh, that’s what needs to happen” after thinking about something endlessly. If I sit there trying to “problem solve” too much on a conscious level, asking myself “What should happen? What should happen?” it usually doesn’t go so well. I do that sometimes as a stop gap, but it’s draining. Whereas sometimes my subconscious comes up with things—pulling from things I’ve read, ideas I’ve mulled over forever, etc.—and it’s only much later on, when the story is done or sometimes even published, when I reread the piece and I realize ohhh, that’s what my brain was doing!

What do you believe makes a good short story? Could you envision expanding one of the short stories in your collection into a full-length novel?
I don’t know that I can be authoritative on “good.” I know there are certain mechanics that make a story land better, but in recent years I’ve found myself much more able to say that there are certain stories for-me, which are the ones I seek out and remember. I don’t know that it varies depending on length or format, either. Whatever I’m reading, I am hoping for certain attributes, and if the story delivers on some of them it’s a success for me. Sometimes I recognize stories as effective, or technically good, but not impressive for me-as-a-reader. (Basically I feel like “It’s not you, it’s me,” towards certain stories.)

I love a feeling of emotional honesty in a piece: when you’re as close as you can get to something real, to a verbalized truth. I like it when a story knocks me flat with genuine feelings, when it’s phrased so precisely that it resonates in me physically. I like effective dialogue, the kind I can hear. I would also happily read pages of beautiful descriptions about wings or bones. I like blood and shimmer in the things I read. I am partial to things that are off-kilter and writing that feels like it comes from fandom, where attention to detail and character dynamics are critical.

The draft I’m working on now takes place in a world quite similar to the one in How to Swallow the Moon, though tonally it’s pretty different. I’m not used to secondary worldbuilding, but I’ve been trying to improve at it. It feels very much like trying to write on hard mode, but it’s the story my brain wants to tell, so here I am. I’ve had a few people say now they wished A Spell for Foolish Hearts was longer, as they would happily read more, which is flattering. I have a San Francisco story idea that uses similar elements, but the cast is different. The protagonist is a Customer Success Associate and eats a lot of pad see ew. It’s actually a retelling, but I won’t say of what. When I do write it I hope to make it a lot of fun.

“I like blood and shimmer in the things I read.” I love that. You mention fandoms and I have to admit my knowledge of the particulars of that subculture is limited. I was more of a manga reader growing up. Can you speak a little to what aspects of fanfic appeal to you? How has it influenced your work?
I love manga too! A lot of the fanfics I wrote were for manga. In terms of how fanfic influenced me, I would say maybe 30% of what I read growing up, and 80% of what I wrote was fanfiction. I learned to write by reading and rereading some really beautiful stories on Livejournal, FF.Net, and later, Archiveofourown. (This is so vital to me that I even say so in my acknowledgments.) So I can’t disentangle how I write from fanfiction, particularly when it comes to style. To be fair I think some of my shortcomings as an author come from the types of fanfiction I wrote, too. I’m not good at making canon or inventing settings wholesale (I unfortunately never wrote AUs), which has been really challenging for some projects.

As for what appeals to me, I really love how in this interview the author Leo Mandel describes one thing he likes about fanfiction as “a finer mesh, in mathematical terms, of emotional subtlety.” That resonates. I also personally think fanfic writers have a strong mission to make a story fun, and that enables a kind of simultaneous risk-taking and indulgence that trad publishing doesn’t always allow. Fic writers are not in it to make money and even a readership isn’t necessarily the primary goal, like when you’re writing for a tiny fandom, or a dead fandom, or a niche pairing. You do it because you want to make something and share it with the world. It’s sometimes not about fans and it’s not about money, so you might as well make it exactly the story you want it to be. It might be as simple as I want these two characters to kiss, goddamit! and none of the other story elements matter much. Obviously this is possible in original writing too, but somewhat harder.

I have a deep respect for fantasy/spec fic writers. The level of foresight and dedication required to literally create a world is staggering. Any tips and tricks for those of us wanting to make the attempt? You mentioned that you’re currently learning to tackle ‘secondary worldbuilding.’ How is that different?
Ah, this ties into my fanfic comment. So as a fanfic writer I adhered to canon a lot. I didn’t like to take characters out of this context. This meant I got quite good at finding gaps in the existing story to explore, but I was almost always doing it within the parameters of a canon world. I never had to invent from scratch. There was something to tether my ideas to.

I’ve done the same thing with a lot of my original writing so far. I write a lot of contemporary fantasy—many of the stories in my collection take place in our world, with supernatural twists. I’m not inventing millennial life for San Francisco tech workers in the mid 2010’s; I’m not “building” the world of a 2000’s Manila private girls school. I’m trying to render it truthfully for a reader, but I’m drawing from memory. Even the near-future stuff is easier for me to imagine because it’s our world.

But what about a space opera? Or a story set in precolonial Philippines? Those are books I want to write, but it’s been hard for me to lay down the rules of those worlds, to make them feel real instead of blurry...because I don’t have source material. Making that source material is hard! And the only thing that’s worked for me so far is a lot of reading for inspiration (looking to history, especially. History has some gems!) and then writing the story itself, to teach myself the world, which is a slow, painful process. I can’t build the set and dump the characters into it. I have to live through the characters moving through the world, in real time, to understand the set, and it doesn’t feel great, but that’s the only way I’ve managed to make it work so far.

Unfortunately I don’t know if that’s much of a tip. It sounds a bit gloomy, but it is a way forward. I’m more hopeful now about finishing a longer draft than I’ve ever been before. I needed to do it this way, but who knows, this process might evolve in the future. I would boil down my two tips to: (1) read some history books! Looking to our real world and its past can be helpful for world creation; (2) do whatever makes the process easier on you.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I’m not sure what aspects of my evolved process are due to publishing the collection vs the pandemic vs a natural evolution in my writing journey. However, a recurring thought I’ve had this whole time is that I’m very grateful my next book is not on deadline. I can’t imagine working against a deadline—which I know most people do for book two!—on top of trying to stay sane through the publication process and managing my day job. The idea alone is extremely stressful. But I know writers do it all the time.

Something that did change: I feel a bit more aspirational about my forthcoming work, and getting to share it with an audience. I think this is positive, though it’s also kind of scary for me. For a long time I thought my potential audience was very small. I tried not to worry about it too much, because I think that’s a publishing consideration that shouldn’t influence my process unduly. But releasing the book has made me think, oh, perhaps the pool of people receptive to my work is bigger than I initially imagined. So now I sometimes think, “Oh man! I have more readers! I would like to do right by them!” My primary goal right now is to finish a first draft simply to prove to myself that I can. Once in a while I feel a frantic, burning desire to make that story really good. For myself—and for all these new readers who are being so kind and lovely!

What did you edit out of this book? How did you decide what needed to go?
Oh, the Table of Contents was a challenge to put together! It was so hard for me to let go of some stories. And after my editors expressed interest in some other ones, it was hard for me to let go of their choices too. But a collection can’t be too long, and with a new novella and long novelette in the TOC, we needed to keep the story count tight. Initially I just picked out what I considered my strongest work, without a thought to theme. But when I discussed it with Gavin and Kelly, it started to come clearer that there were a few unifying factors in my stories, and we could put something together that worked as a whole, though that meant letting go of some incongruous stories.  

Windrose in Scarlet is an example—I love that story, I wanted it in there, but I agree that it would have disrupted the collection’s cohesion. Still, I wanted a story that was queer, with somewhat elevated language, so we landed on including How to Swallow the Moon. It ties into the rest of the stories better because it’s set in a fantasy Philippines (as opposed to a fairytale Europe, which is where Windrose takes place). I’m so grateful I got to have that conversation with Small Beer. I learned about story order from that chat, too!

What was your hardest scene to write?
Three come to mind. One of them is in A Canticle for Lost Girls. It happens close to the ending, and involves sexual abuse between a teacher and a student. While I was drafting this scene I really asked myself what needed to be on the page. Around the same time I was working on this story, a Filipino musical called Ang Huling El Bimbo streamed online for a few days. It set off a discussion around rape and how it is often used as a plot device: furthering the narrative, but stripping women of their agency. Rape was an integral part of that play, a pivot point, and the conversation around it was really important. I thought hard about the use of rape in a story, and asked myself: what needs to be in mine?

I had conceived of this story before I had ever seen or read about Ang Huling El Bimbo. I knew what needed to happen, but that discourse made me reconsider how much was necessary in-scene. I wrote it as best as I could, trying to find the most honest way to tell Raquel, Tisha, and CJ’s story. But I agonized over it. There was a sentence I took out and put back in a couple times. I talked about this concern with some friends, but actually no one else saw this story before my editors did, so I’m honestly still nervous about that execution.

All of Asphalt was pretty hard to write, because that story is basically nonfiction.

The last scene actually happens in A Spell for Foolish Hearts, which for the most part is lighthearted fluff, but there is a sequence where a character recounts coming out. A dear friend told me they cried when they read that part, which touched me, and also made me go “Yeah.” It’s a live pain in some ways. I look at those lines and they frighten me, but I think that’s partly why Patrick’s story is in the book in the first place.

We hear, time and time again, how writing endings is the hardest part. You’ve written several. How do you go about it?
Endings are hard! I’m not a planner so really most of the time, again, my subconscious does the heavy lifting. It veers towards an ending and I just hope it’s the right one. Then I reassess during revisions. Thus far in my finished works, I’d say the ending that I first draft ends up being the actual ending 80-90% of the time. I try to do what the story demands, and if there is anything I think about consciously it’s what feeling do I want to leave readers with? Sometimes it ends with the opposite of closure. Sometimes I end on a question, a jolt. Sometimes I try to have it both ways: wrapped up, but with something left for you to wonder about. I do like ambiguous endings a lot, but I know that doesn’t work for everyone.

Can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?
A lot of these stories are very millennial, which is an identity I’ll claim, even if it embarrasses me frequently. The stories were written from 2011-2020 and draw from a particular '90s kid experience. It was interesting to put it together and think about how much technology has changed even just in the last decade. The high school girls in Canticle don’t have smartphones, for example; in Hurricane Heels Netflix isn’t a ubiquitous streaming service yet. But everyone in every story knows what Pokemon is. Except Anyag and Amira, for obvious reasons. I’ll be curious to see how readers in later decades will receive these stories.

Also: some people may not know this, but I wrote four other stories in the Hurricane Heels sequence, one for each of the other girls. It all added up to a short book that was published in 2016. The book is out of print now, but if you would like to read more about Alex and friends, and the battles they get into, you can find it online at The Book Smugglers.


Interviewed by FV

Never Have I Ever: Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9781618731821
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Small Beer Press - February 23rd, 2021

"Explore a world where the supernatural is an accepted element of everyday life and the horror is mined from the realities of existing." -- New York Public Library Best Books of the Year

"Am I dead?" Mebuyen sighs.