The Halo-Halo Review is pleased to interview authors in the aftermath of a book’s release. This issue’s featured writers include Reine Arcache Melvin.
What is your most recent book?
My most recent book is The Betrayed: A Novel.
When was it released?
At the end of 2018.
What has been the response/what has surprised you most about the response?
Many people contacted me after reading the book, often with very strong opinions about the characters. Readers — including many I didn’t know — wrote to discuss the main characters, especially the two sisters. Some argued about what the sisters did and didn’t do; others disagreed with me about the choices the sisters had made. Some told me how I should have ended the book. An old friend, not a writer but a very good reader, gave me numerous suggestions for the next edition of the book — basically a brand-new plot. (I thought, but didn’t say: perhaps you should write that book yourself?) I heard a lot of positive things, I heard arguments and disagreements — but all these were responses from readers who seemed to have really engaged with the book and characters. I was also surprised (and gratified, and relieved) that, although it is a long book, many people told me they couldn’t put it down. Of course, I’m talking only about people who contacted me…
I had been concerned about what the response — or absence of response — might be. I spent years on the book, sacrificing more than I’d like to acknowledge on the altar of getting-it-done. The novel isn’t autofiction or autobiographical, but it is very intimate. There’s a lot of sex and longing, with women who start out as pawn and prey, then try to turn that around, sometimes disastrously… It’s not my story, but in many ways it’s my skin, and the skin of people I’ve known. Also, the book is set among the so-called elites of the Philippines, in a time of political turmoil, and I thought there would be a backlash against my portrayal of that world, too. So, I worried the book would be savaged and, at the same time and the other extreme, that it would be ignored. As a writer, I was afraid of coming up short, of failing in what I had set out to do, of the idea that all those years of work, the bartering and losses along the way, were for nothing, or nothing much.
That’s why I felt so grateful — impossible to describe how much — for the reviews the book received and for readers’ responses, for the fact that many took the time to write and comment on the book. And I was stunned, and again so grateful, when the book won both the National Book Award and the Palanca Grand Prize for the novel in 2019. When the news came for one of them, by text message on my phone, I dropped my phone on the quay of the Paris metro, and I still carry it with me, cracked screen and all.
Please share something not obvious or known about the book.
I wanted to introduce voices of other writers — especially poets — into the book, because poetry fed the writing. I can’t write poetry, but poetry is what I turn to when I need succor, or when it’s time for some serious soul-bandaging. I started almost every chapter with quotes from poets I’ve read and re-read. Other things: My oldest daughter, who read the next-to-final draft, called me early one morning after finishing the book and told me I absolutely couldn’t end it the way I did — her response made me write a new ending. Also, I struggled for a long time about whether to name Marcos in the novel or call him “the dictator.” I chose the latter because I was compressing and re-inventing historical facts in the novel — I wanted that freedom. I’m not sure I made the right decision. Finally, my ex-husband gave me the faith to continue the book, though I didn’t have the courage/largeness of heart to thank him in the credits.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on the plot for a new book, organizing notes I’ve made erratically over the years. There’s a man, a woman, an erotic game that turns bad. I read Milan Kundera’s story, The Hitchhiking Game, after I started working on this idea and thought: oh no, he’s already done it. But of course it’s not the same story. No hitchhikers involved, not the same kind of erotic game. And not a short story, at least not yet. I also have an idea and notes for a book based on stories I’ve heard about my grandmother and my great-grandmother in Pulupandan and Silay, but I want to write a short book now, so I’m putting that idea aside. I don’t know how much time I have left to write so I am going for the shorter projects! I wish I could write quickly.
Reine Arcache Melvin, born and raised in Manila, is a Filipina-American writer. She is the author of A Normal Life and Other Stories (Ateneo de Manila University, 1999) and The Betrayed (Ateneo de Manila University, November 2018). A Normal Life was translated into French and published as Une Vie Normale (Esprit des Peninsules, Paris, 2003). Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary reviews and anthologies in the United States, France and the Philippines. She has worked as a journalist, translator and editor for various publications, including more than 20 years with the International Herald Tribune in Paris. She co-edited literary reviews in New York and Paris and edited an anthology of contemporary Philippine poetry. She studied at Assumption Convent and Ateneo University in Manila, and has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Warren Wilson College.