Dean Francis Alfar (1969 – ) is a very prolific man. He is a playwright, editor and publisher, has written three books and several articles and essays, and has worked with comics.
His newest collection of short stories, “How to Traverse Terra Incognita” was reviewed on my blog last week – a collection that I wrote was teeming with original ideas, with new and exciting ways of telling a story. I wrote that he had a deep empathy with his characters and their fates. I felt that his fiction had a sort of kinship or affinity to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez because of the colours, the richness in detail and the love for life that I also find in Marquez.
He has edited 5 volumes in the series “Philippine Speculative Fiction and is published both in his native language and English. He has won several awards.
And luckily for the readers of my blog he has accepted to be interviewed here.
EWO: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR LITERARY PROJECT?
ALFAR: First of all, many thanks, Jon, for this opportunity.
”How to Traverse Terra Incognita” is my second collection of short fiction, containing stories published in the last few years from magazines such as Apex Magazine and Philippines Graphic, as well as anthologies such as the Exotic Gothic series. It represents my concerns as fictionist – playing with narrative structure and language, exercising voices in different genres, as well as writing about the vagaries of being human. It’s a mixed bag of fiction, and my hope is that readers find a story that resonates with them.
EWO: ARE THERE ANY REASONS WHY YOU WERE DRAWN TOWARDS FANTASY/SCIENCE FICTION?
ALFAR: The power of speculative fiction is its ability to see the human condition through different lenses. This allows us to channel our imagination and experience extraordinary circumstances, while retaining our ability to identify with the characters in those situations. As a reader, I love these genres. As a writer, I enjoy exploring these amazing domains, pushing against their boundaries, and telling the best stories I can. I firmly believe that story matters first – regardless of genre. But I do have a soft spot for the literature of the imagination.
EWO: IS FILIPPINO SPECULATIVE FICTION DIFFERENT FROM ENGLISH/AMERICAN FICTION WITHIN THE SAME GENRE?
ALFAR: We are unique results of our environments – which include our cultural heritage, our languages, our faiths, our surroundings. While I do write in English and mirror certain universal concerns, I believe that everything I write is intrinsically imbued with who I am – a Filipino living in this day and age, exposed to the cultures of my homeland. Who I am informs what I produce, whether consciously or not. This is reflected from the obvious (setting stories in the Philippines, Filipino main characters) to the less obvious (the “big politics”/authorial perspective). These differences between American spec fic and Filipino spec fic contribute to the vitality of the genres – more stories from more points-of-view, more voices added to the chorus of wonder, more representation.
On another note, what I do wish for is this: that the market for speculative fiction in the Philippines was larger. Unlike the US, our market is very small.
EWO: ARE YOU DOING ANY RESEARCH BEFORE YOU START WRITING?
ALFAR: This depends on the type of story I am writing. For some, research is a requirement, for the sake of verisimilitude and correctness. For others, like secondary world stories, I am more reliant on my imagination (as long as I remain consistent). I normally have 2-3 stories in different stages of completion – so while I perform research for one, I can continue writing the others.
EWO: WHAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF WRITING A NEW BOOK?
ALFAR: Discipline is the most difficult part. The conception of the idea or conceit is not difficult. Sitting down and executing the vision is. I do not wait to be inspired to write. I allocate time to sit down in front of my laptop and do not get up until my writing time has passed. During that time, I try my best to produce work. This is when I rely on both craft and technique, finding ways to make my stories more interesting to me (as both writer and reader). It’s important for me to complete stories quickly – this is part of my poetics as a writer. There should always be more stories to tell.
EWO: YOU WRITE YOUR OWN FICTION – BOTH NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES, YOU’RE AN EDITOR, YOU WORK WITH COMIC BOOKS, YOU’RE A WELLKNOWN PLAYWRIGHT – DON’T YOU FIND IT DIFFICULT TO WORK WITHIN SO MANY GENRES?
ALFAR: I find it liberating to be able to tell stories in different ways. It requires shifting mindsets when I move from fiction to plays, for example. It recharges and reenergizes me. With comics, I get to work with an artist who illustrates my words. I also immensely enjoy my work as an editor, as it puts me in contact with new authors and new stories. When I have a story to tell, what matters most is the answer to this question: “What is the best way to tell this story?”.
EWO: DOES SPECULATIVE FICTION HAVE ANY ADVANTAGES TO OTHER LITERARY GENRES?
ALFAR: Unlike social and domestic realism, spec fic is not chained by the world that is or was. Spec fic can take the genre of realism and add to it, transforming an ordinary story into something that feels very strange. Spec fic embraces the unknown and the unknowable, the wondrous and the sublime, the horrible and the ineffable, and tells all those stories without a sense of shame.
EWO: WHAT DO PREFER TO READ WHEN IT COMES TO FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION?
ALFAR: I love reading Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for fantasy. For scifi, I’m a big fan of Ted Kosmatka. For horror, I enjoy Joe Hill and Clive Barker. For sheer pleasure, Junot Diaz.
EWO: IF I TOLD YOU TO RECOMMEND JUST ONE BOOK OF SPECULATIVE FICTION, WHICH ONE WOULD IT BE? AND WHY THAT BOOK IN PARTICULAR?
ALFAR: I have two answers for you. One is very self-serving.
First, read “The New Weird”, edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer (Tachyon). It’s a wonderful collection of strange speculative fiction and includes many great stories.
And now the self-serving one: “The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010”, edited by Dean Francis Alfar & Nikki Alfar (UP Press). This anthology collects excellent examples of Filipino writing (and will be available as an eBook in a couple of months).
EWO: CAN FANTASY/SCIENCE FICTION TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT OUR PRESENT?
ALFAR: Yes, spec fic can and does comment on the situations and times we find ourselves in. This is an important aspect of fiction, allowing us to explore our feelings – whether anxiety or boundless joy – within our social context by using tropes from dark fantasy to surrealism to marvelous realism and everything in between.
EWO: HAVE YOU EVER RECEIVED SURPRISING OR UNEXPECTED REACTIONS FROM YOUR READERS?
ALFAR: Oh, yes. As an author, we yearn for our stories not only to be read but to be felt, to matter if only in a small way. One of the most touching moments for me was when my daughter Sage came to me in tears after reading one of the stories in “Traverse”. Another was seeing some of the characters in my novel come to life in a mural. But the best was certainly suddenly having several young writers come up to me while I was walking in mall, and tell me that I insipired them to write their own stories.
EWO: WHEN DID YOU FIRST UNDERSTAND THAT YOU WERE GOING TO BE A WRITER?
ALFAR: When I was growing up, during the dark ages of no internet and no easy access to books, I quickly ran out of things to read. I promised myself that one day I would write the kind of stories I wanted to read. Fantasy of the type I longed for was rare in the Philippines during those times.
EWO: ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON A BOOK?
ALFAR: Yes, I am currently working on completing my third collection of short fiction. I have 12 stories out of the 16 that I have set as a goal for myself. I am also working (on and off) on a pair of novels – both are quite resistant to my charms. As an editor, I have Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol.8 in preproduction, and have an fantasy anthology for young adults slated for later this year.
EWO: WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR READERS TO REMEMBER OF YOUR BOOKS?
ALFAR: That stories, ultimately matter. How we tell them is just as important as what we tell, and to whom.
[His bibliography is much longer. These are just his own speculative fiction books.]
Salamanca, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006. (Novel)
The Kite of Stars and Other Stories, Anvil Publishing, 2007. (Collection of short fiction)
How to Traverse Terra Incognita, Flipside, 2012. (Collection of short fiction, 2012)