Writer, Lawyer, Literary Agent, Part 1
Andrea Pasion-Flores is a copyright lawyer, author and tthe only literary agent in the Philippines. We first met in Prof. “Jing” Hidalgo’s creative writing class at the University of the Philippines and then at the various events she organized for the National Book Development Board when she was its Executive Director. She holds a BA in journalism, an MA in creative writing and a JD from the University of the Philippines.
The first part of this recent, edited interview deals with her career, the second with her short story collection, For Love and Kisses.
After receiving my undergraduate degree in journalism, I spent two years working for Mccann-Erickson, an advertising agency. I was handling the McDonald’s account. It was while I was there that I was admitted to the UP Baguio Writers’ Workshop for my short stories. I thought writing might be something that I’d like to do. Immediately after the workshop I enrolled in the MA program at UP. That’s where the first three stories from short story collection come from. Then I wondered what I was going to do with this degree. I worked with Cosmo for two years, but magazine publishing didn’t feel like home. It was fun for a while. Magazine jobs are good if you’re young. There are lots of perks. It’s different if you’re married with kids.
I feel I’m both creative and logical, so I thought I should feed the other side of me. I studied law for five years, and I quite enjoyed it, actually. Afterwards I volunteered for a non-governmental organization called Bantay Bata, which has as its mandate helping out physically and emotionally abused children aged twelve and below. I was also working with a law firm. My first court hearing was at the Sandiganbayan, the grafts and corruption court. The first case called was People of the Philippines vs. Imelda Romuáldez Marcos. The second case was people of the Philippines vs. JosephEjércitoEstrada. The third case was mine. I had this strange feeling that maybe I was working for the wrong side. I took that feeling as a sign but plodded along anyway and really tried to figure out whether law firm work was for me. I went back to magazine work, but by then I felt I’d outgrown it.
Then a board member at the National Book Development board suggested that I apply for the opening for executive director. I saw that the position married the law side of me with a bit of writing. There was a lot of legal administrative work, and it dealt with books and publishing. I stayed there for about six and a half years. I think the longest of any executive director. That’s where I really got to do interesting things, like I put poetry in the LRT [Light Rail Transit], namely I got organizations to sponsor posters of poems for people to read on the train and celebrities to record poems so they could be heard at stations. They’re down now, but I I still have people coming up to me, saying, “Thank you for putting poetry on the train.”
With the festivals, it was good to have been able to bring in people I’d read and really admired. And see them talk to Filipinos and engage with the writers here. I thought people needed that interaction. You may have noticed that people here tend to be insular. There’s not much international thinking going on. When you go outside the country and you talk to people, you see that Filipinos tend to keep to themselves.
I think bringing in more expats would help.
Sure. I think Filipino writers could only benefit from the thinking of someone who has been around, who’s experienced living all over the place. When I’m outside the country, I see how much richer the writing and how much more varied is the experience of the different human condition. It feeds the fire and provides so many different perspectives.
As a literary agent reading I’m reading all sorts of people from all over the world, and I see where Filipinos might be able to improve and where we perhaps need to widen our perspective. It’s not just writers. I think it’s the whole industry. We talk to the same people who say the same things, echoing each other—people they’ve had lunch with, people who’ve had dinner or had a drink or coffee with. You know? They’re always saying the same things. It’s different when you go out there and meet people from all over. You get to see from different perspectives.
A lot of places are like that. It would be difficult to find a place that’s more insular than the US was in the 1950s.
It still is a little, isn’t it? A lot of writers want to break into the US publishing market, but they realize that it’s pretty much self-contained. The market tends to pick writers from the US and publish them in the US. The big publishers bring the same US writers outside. But very little exchange happens. So Filipinos know of the US literary canon, but it doesn’t work the other way around. We know more about the US than it knows about us.
So now I work for Jacaranda, a literary agency registered in Singapore. Technically it’s a Singaporean company. We’re three agents, a Singaporean of Indian heritage who lives in Bangalore, an English woman who lives in Singapore and me. We have nonfiction about almost everything, fiction of all sorts, including literature for children above six years old. We have a couple of non-fiction children books as well. We represent a lot of writers from the Asia-Pacific region—the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and India—as well as quite a few from the UK and a couple of people from the US. We’ve represented publishers carrying manuscripts by a Dutch writer, for example. Our authors are as diverse as people in the world, as diverse as our agents are.
We realize of course that it’s not going to earn us the big bucks, at least not yet. People who get into publishing or writing a book are not doing it for the money. We represent a whole slew of writers because otherwise the agency won’t be viable. So we try to pick the best of the various genres we can find in the region. We have a few stars in our roster, which is nice. It’s been only a couple of years since we formed the company, although the lady who founded it has been doing this since 1997. She was the first literary agent in India. Then she partnered up with an Indian-American for five years. When they split up, I was at the National Book Development Board, and I said, “Hey, why not pick someone from my part of the world?” I was practically volunteering. So we found each other—Jayapriya Vasudevan, Helen Mangham and I. We’re spending a lot of time reading and seeing how far we can take it because we do feel that this part of the world is not as well represented as the West.
When I was pushing writers at NBDB, I saw that representation was what we lacked. Back when I was doing the MA, writers were telling each other, “You know, we’re not published in the west because we’re too ‘exotic’ for them. Their imaginations can’t fathom us.”
In my job I see that’s not true. There’s nothing wrong with the imaginations of Westerners. It was just that no one was selling us, plain and simple. No one was picking up Filipino works because no one was selling Filipino writers. Thinking that you have to move to the US to get an agent, that’s a strange kind of thinking, but as awful as it may sound it also almost rings true. You need to think in another way in order to make it to happen.
It’s an extremely insular attitude.
Aren’t you also teaching at UP?
This is my last semester. I’m teaching Composition and Introduction to Literature, but I also have three kids, so I have to find ways of earning a living so I can do the stuff I love. I may go back to teaching when my kids are a little bit older. Right now I figure I should concentrate on my literary agenting job and maybe find something exciting within publishing that might be more in line with what I’m doing. I’d thought that in academe I’d be in touch with all sorts of people working on manuscripts. That might be true, but Filipinos seem to take a while to write, and there’s more of the short form than the long form. They’re always trying to do literary fiction, which is more difficult and more demanding. It’s tough to sell because you’re in competition with the world and there’s just so much excellent work out there. There’s only so much money because it really doesn’t sell, but then again who’s doing literary fiction for the money, right?
Last year when you came back from the Frankfurt Book Fair, didn’t you say there was a demand for it?
In Frankfurt the publishers were looking for fiction, contemporary realism, because at that time the fad was dystopia and sci-fi fantasy, and most publishers had bought enough to last them a long time. Now we’ve gone through the vampire phase, we’ve done dystopia, and we’re in the fault-in-our-stars, make-people-cry phase, right? Commercial fiction is very market-driven. What’s good about literary fiction is that if the story is excellent you know you can sell it. A good story will last through time. But, having said that, when money’s put into something, someone’s job is on the line. If you’re an editor who picks up literary fiction and it doesn’t sell, you’re actually endangering yourself. There are targets. They have to sell. It would be great to find a wonderful book that also sells.
How would you distinguish between literary fiction and commercial fiction?
Defining literary fiction is hard because it’s more about language. When I look at something that’s plot-driven I know that it’s probably going to be commercial fiction, which has to be fast-paced—start with action and conclude at a high point. However, when you put in good language and layers of meaning, it becomes more than just a story or a plot. Then of course there’s what judges tell us is good, the award winners, the books that make it to short lists.
And those awful out-dated things that you have to read because you’re an English major.
Because they were doing something different at that time. Also, nowadays if you’re doing something different from what’s being done, trying to do with language what other people haven’t done yet, that’s also exciting to read. Yes, “literary fiction” can mean difficult, yes boring for some.
With some big exceptions, I find some commercial fiction so badly written that I rewrite every sentence in my head. It’s no fun for me.
When you look at what sells, it’s probably not going to be what you and I want to read. I’ve come to realize that there are more people in the Philippines, for example, who read Wattpad stuff. Those little Tagalog romances are doing very well. They’re being turned into movies and read on Wattpad by the millions. Romances always sell. They’re formulaic, which means they must have a happy ending, they must titillate. If a book has done that, it’s done its job. They also speak to a particular market, economic stratum and age. They’re like Fifty Shades of Grey except very short.
I did a romance in English for Summit Books. Have Baby, Will Date. I’d just given birth, and a friend of mine was the editor. She said, “Why don’t you write about a single mom who’s had a baby?” She gave me the milestones of what had to happen in the story. My first manuscript didn’t have a happy ending. The protagonist and the father of her baby weren’t supposed to get married. I left it hanging. So I got a call, and I rewrote the ending.
While writing that, I had in my head the kind of girl I was writing for, what kind of job she might have, where she lived, where she shopped, how she dressed, what she could afford. I knew she had to be single and had maybe had a couple of break-ups. I was really writing for the market. When you’re doing literary fiction you don’t have a demographic in mind. That might be where you distinguish between writing for the market and writing as literary art. For the short stories I didn’t write for the market.