FOR AN ordinary, career-oriented person, with no formal background or previous interest in writing, publishing four critically-acclaimed novels in six years is definitely an extraordinary feat. But for Filipino-Australian author Arlene Chai, it was a decision she does not regret, having explored the other side of her personality and tried something different.

Her first novel, The Last Time I Saw Mother, released in Australia in 1995, received incredible responses from readers. Chai later wrote Eating Fire and Drinking Water and On The Goddess Rock.

Her latest book Black Hearts, was released in Australia last September and in Manila last month. Black Hearts and her three other books are exclusively distributed by Dymocks Booksellers, an Australian-franchised bookstore located at the Robinson’s Place in Ermita, Manila.

Migrating to Australia

Chai was born and educated in Manila. She received her Bachelor of Arts major in Communication Arts from Maryknoll, now Miriam College. She worked in an advertising agency as a copywriter before migrating to Australia in 1982.

In commemoration of the Australian Centenary of Federation last month, the Australian Embassy in Manila invited Chai to talk about her life, and her best-selling novels.

Leaving the Philippines for good was difficult for Chai. Her career in advertising she doing great.

“I consider myself a reluctant migrant,” she said. But since it was a family decision, she left with a heavy heart, not knowing the very bright future before her.

It took Chai almost three years to adjust in Sydney. She noticed how “quiet” and “dead” Australia was because shops were closed every Sundays and were opened only on weekdays, until 5 p.m.

“I was trying to superimpose the Philippine landscape and trying to turn Australia into something it wasn’t and it will never be,” she added.

Chai also recounted how she faced the threat of unemployment. One of the requirements of Australian employers was local work experience. Chai was however luckily hired at George Patterson Advertising, through the help of her previous employer in the Philippines. She worked for seven years at George Patterson, a sister company of the agency she used to work for in Manila.

These struggles created in her positive attitude towards change.

“Even if you go kicking and screaming, life will eventually take you to where you have to be. And obviously, I had to be in Australia that time, no matter how reluctant I was about it.”

From advertising to writing

It was Bryce Courteney, one of Australia’s leading fictionists and Chai’s creative director in the agency, who advised her to write. Courteney kept telling Chai that fascinating writers come from countries with many interesting cultural influences like the Philippines, so she should be writing. Everytime Courteney prodded her to write she would always answer him with “one of these days.” In reply, he would often tell her that, “’one of these days,’ is a famous line of people who end up doing nothing.”

Healthy discontent leads to progress

After 16 years in advertising, Chai felt bored and needed something new.

In 1992, not knowing what to do, she took the advise of Courteney and started looking for that “something else.”

Chai quit her job and promised herself a year of vacation. She tried all sorts of things like attending Italian classes and even writing concepts for television.

“At the end of three months, I said, ‘Well, this isn’t working. I should try something else.’ At that time, I had friends who were telling me, somebody’s writing this book or that book. So I told myself, ‘Okay, Monday I’ll start one.’” The rest is history.

First book

Her first book The Last Time I Saw Mother, grew from the poignant story of her family during the Second World War. It was taken from the point of view of four strong women characters, bonded by a tragic family story in the past.

“My mother told me about the Japanese occupation. How my grandfather moved to Olongapo, fell ill, and died. They can’t even buy him a coffin. That always remained in my mind,” she recalled.

Chai finished the first draft of the book in three months. Making the novel meant working 12 to16 hours a day. “It came to a point when the story or character is running my life, and not I running it,” she decided.

After finishing the novel, she took a month off after giving five friends manuscripts for their comments. She spent another one month to fine-tune the novel, before mailing the first three chapters to seven publishing houses and three agents. “I picked big publishing houses because I thought it was very difficult to go into small ones, since they do not have the resources to promote you,” she said.

Rejection letters came in first. None of the publishing houses wanted to sign her up because she had no agent. Also, no agent wanted to pick her because she was not yet published.

“I’ve always thought that half of getting published is luck,” she related. And with this stroke of luck, one of the sales representatives of a publishing house took time reading her work and found it interesting. It was passed to several editors and in three months, the firm took the rest of the manuscripts.

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Upon release, Last Time received instant critical acclaim. The book was later released in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Germany.

The creative process

For Chai, there is no formula for writing. A self-confessed bookworm, she advised that the best way to learn how to write is writing itself and reading. “(Writing) cannot be taught. You could learn unblocking techniques if you block. Reading teaches you more than anything,” she added.

She also added that the process of writing is trial and error. And since writing is an unconscious process, “you don’t choose the stories you write (but) the stories choose you. They come to you and very often, you don’t have any control in terms of where they’re going.”

She also related writing in a not-so-chronological-manner. “The last thing I wrote for the first book (Last Time) was the prologue,” she muses.

“If ever you don’t understand anymore where it’s going, just allow the characters to go where they want to go and see where they take you. Find comfort in the fact that the story will make sense in the end.”

And if the work does not, Chai advised that “one must learn how to press delete, because at the end of the day, they are just words and you cannot take a precious attitude with regards to words.”

“If you can’t produce other words, you are not much of a writer,” she added.

Distance from her country also gave her a perspective in seeing things in a better light. “There is a part of you that romanticizes your old life…the picture of the landscape, the taste of the food you missed. These come back to you and help you write. These are all materials,” she said

She also did not find any difficulty being published just because she was Filipino.

“I’m not ethnically self-conscious. I wrote about what I knew and the things that interests me. If you’re writing about something interesting, somebody will also be interested. The concerns of your characters are enough to draw the readers in,” she said.

Chai recalled one of her Literature teachers at Maryknoll who said that people read about stories even if those are very “culturally afar” from them because of the SHE-factor— significant human experience. The factor can transcend different sets of culture, religion or race.

Improving the craft

Chai’s working relationship with Julia Stiles, her editor also taught her the tricks of the craft. She also accepted the loopholes of her works after they were evaluated.

When she hands her manuscript to Stiles, she would sometimes get a 12-page string of questions. She admits curling up in bed, feeling like she has just been stabbed. For her, writers at first believe being able to explain each point, not knowing about the gaps they still need to fill.

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It will take her days to recover. Then, she would realize that her editor makes nine out of 10 valid points. She knows that she has an editor who understands her.

With all the perks in writing, Chai has distanced herself from literary circles. She finds it unhealthy to be mixing with writers and publishers. She would often devote her time gardening, strolling along the beach, staying in cafés and reading. “I am rather anti-social. I like having a life separate from writing.”

Her lessons

Writing has taught Chai trust. She said that in a lot of times, a person can’t see where he is heading and when his writings are actually usable. “Writing is a lesson about trust. It’s often very disjointed. But if you just let go, what can happen is amazing.”

Chai had always told writers that when they get published, they should not even think, even for a moment, that life changed. “It doesn’t change,” she said. “You still have to get up the next morning and do your laundry.”

Looking back at her past, she is fulfilled with how far her career has gone. “I sometimes think that I am a very fortunate person. I refuse choices that have been made for me, but in the end, a lot of the choices I resisted turned out to be positive. Now, I’m not resistant to change anymore, especially with my career.”

After publishing the book Black Hearts, a psychological thriller about a dysfunctional family, she has stopped writing for a moment. “I was very exhausted and really needed a break from this isolation.”

She is currently teaching English grammar for a year now at a language school in Australia. Being with other people and having a new environment stimulates her. As a Filipino, she also finds teaching English to Australians “mind-boggling.” “What’s more odd is, probably, I know my grammar far more than most Australians,” she laughs.

She doesn’t know until when she will be teaching or if ever she will be able to write again. ”I never had grand or long-term plans for my career. You can see it from the way my life had evolved.”

But what she’s sure is that she is trying new things and celebrating the beauty of life. “I have this antenna, that if I don’t know what I’m going to do next, I keep my ears open, just like in writing.”


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