Miguel Syjuco entered the international spotlight in 2008 when the manuscript of his debut novel, Ilustrado, won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, awarded to the best unpublished English-language book by an Asian author. The novel, published in Canada in May, tells the story of a young Filipino writer living in New York, also named Miguel Syjuco, and his mentor, lion of Philippine letters Crispin Salvador. When Crispin dies mysteriously and the elder writer’s long-awaited manuscript goes missing, Miguel suspects foul play and returns to Manila to investigate whether the death was tied to Crispin’s latest work, rumoured to pillory the Philippine ruling elite.Told partly from Miguel’s perspective, partly through fragments of Crispin’s fictional writings, as well as blogs, news reports, and interviews, Ilustrado examines the responsibilities of the artist within the corruption of Philippine politics.Raised in Manila and Vancouver, the 33-year-old author currently lives in Montreal, where he is completing the thesis work for a doctorate from the University of Adelaide. The Varsity met the author over brunch while he was in town for the International Festival of Authors.
THE VARSITYThe Ilustrados of your title: who are they?
MIGUEL SYJUCOWell, on the surface they are the young men, the young expatriates who left the Philippines in the late 1800s to become students, propagandists, and reformers in Europe. These are a group of middle-class scholars, the educated elite, who left, studied all they could in Europe — warfare, the liberal arts, sciences, medicine, philosophy — and then came back and were a central part of the Philippine Revolution. When you talk about the Ilustrado class, that’s what it refers to.But I use it in two other ways. One way I flip the meaning, I use it somewhat ironically in the book, because it’s an indictment of the elites who made the wrong decisions or selfish decisions throughout the generations. These are the ruling elite who have let the country down.The third way that I use it is as a potentiality. The Filipino diaspora is huge: 10 million, maybe more. These modern, contemporary expatriates are all around the world, and they have the potential to follow in the footsteps of those first expatriates who studied all they could, experienced all they could, and came back and contributed to the country — so some sort of social revolution. What happens all too often with the brain drain right now is people go away; they don’t come back.
THE VARSITYCrispin has aspirations to belong to that original Ilustrado class, or at least to have that political engagement.
MIGUEL SYJUCOHe does belong to that tradition, yes.
THE VARSITYBut he’s frustrated that his writing hasn’t had the political effect he would like. Is that something you ascribe to, this idea that books, words, can have that political effect that Crispin is reaching for?
MIGUEL SYJUCOI think every writer — every serious writer — when they write, wants to have some sort of effect. Ilustrado is an examination of this question, whether or not writing or art can be political, whether it can have some sort of engagement or not. Or even just the broader fact that educated, upper-class, well-meaning Filipinos aren’t given the opportunities by the system, by the government, to make any difference whatsoever. So I wanted to play with that idea.I do subscribe to this idea that literature can be a political act, but I have no illusions that it will cause huge waves. I do believe it could cause ripples. It’s not going to be read by the masses who will rise up and revolt and create a new, utopic society, but hopefully it will be read by those people who are in positions of governance, education, public policy, and will do a few things. Number one, remind them that they do have a social responsibility. Number two, that they are not alone in their frustrations. And number three, that somebody out there is watching and trying to tell stories that are meaningful, that are connected with the harsh realities of the country.
THE VARSITYIf serious literature aspires to some sort of effect, would you say that Ilustrado has a moral?
Every writer — every serious writer — wants to have some sort of effect.
MIGUEL SYJUCONo, but it is a book about morality. It is a book that tries to dispel these facile absolutes of good versus evil, rich versus poor, corrupt versus not corrupt, or honesty versus dishonesty. In a country like the Philippines, like any third-world country — like any country — it’s not about that. It’s about the in-betweens, the hidden agendas, the right thing sometimes being convenient. Unless the voice of the people pushes the people in power towards the right thing, they’re not going to do it. So it does look at the morality behind social engagement, behind religion, behind being part of a national experience or deciding to tune out. So there’s no moral. It’s a book without answers, but it’s a book filled with questions.
THE VARSITYYou talk about the Philippine diaspora, which is massive. Is there something specific about that diaspora that you wanted to address?
MIGUEL SYJUCOI wanted to write a book that would appeal to both Philippine readers and international readers. I don’t see any reason why a book can’t be both if it’s deep and rich and wide enough. But I wanted to discuss this idea of coming and going, I wanted to show that experience as something that has happened over generations and over classes, and that’s why I have so many narrative threads. I wanted to speak to the frustration we have that through generations, nothing has changed in the country. I hoped that the book would do okay abroad, that people would read it and that the act of publishing, the act of being read abroad in a way becomes a source of pride for the Philippines. More often than not, people haven’t read a book by a Filipino writer.
THE VARSITYAnd I’ll admit I hadn’t.
MIGUEL SYJUCOExactly, right? Most people haven’t even heard of a book by a Filipino writer, and we’ve got a hundred-year history of writing in English. So by the book’s content I wanted to address things about the diaspora and the Filipino experience at home and abroad. But by the book itself also, I hope it does represent this idea that we can tell our story if we work hard at telling it, and that people are interested, and they want to read it and want to listen to this culture that is all too often dismissed as a bunch of preconceptions such as maids or prostitutes or Imelda Marcos. We’re all of those things and far more, and I wanted to express that and help explain to ourselves and to the rest of the world why we have these problems. In charting 150 years of Philippine history, I’m able to look at the road that we had to take to get to this troubled position. We’re not just some screwed-up country.
THE VARSITYIt came from somewhere.
THE VARSITYThat desire to cover these subjects: was that the jumping-off point for writing the novel? How was the book conceived?
I didn’t do these literary games for the sake of literary games.
MIGUEL SYJUCOI wanted to write about a character, a portrait of an artist, a frustrated guy who, having enjoyed some success when the world was watching, when the news cycle was focused on us, then fell into obscurity and frustration later on, and anger and resentment, and the hope that we could come back. He’s an archetypal character I think for any third-world experience and that’s why I made Crispin Salvador. I thought it would be interesting to create a portrait of an artist through his work. But what happened was, in creating the work, I found that this is a great window into Philippine history and society. So I wanted to create this character and then found that the problem, or the challenge, with discussing culture or history through fiction is that it can sometimes be didactic. The act of narrating it sort of feels like, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, now I’m going to tell you about my country.” It doesn’t feel organic to narrative. But I found that through his work, by using those sorts of didactic forms — essays, interviews, articles, blogs, memoir — I could quite elegantly be didactic without the reader feeling they’re being fed some sort of sugar-coated, potted history. I liked that, and that’s why I chose the form I chose for Ilustrado. I know it’s unconventional and some people say challenging, but that’s fine. I didn’t do these literary games for the sake of literary games. I did it because I had an aesthetic and artistic purpose.
THE VARSITYIn other interviews, you’ve bristled at the word “postmodern” when it’s been applied to this novel. In a way, it’s understandable why people might apply it to Ilustrado, in that it’s fragmentary, and for a lot of people, that’s shorthand for postmodernism. But you don’t think that label applies?
MIGUEL SYJUCONo. I mean, postmodernism was a reaction to modernism, the modernism of the ’60s or ’70s. That was 30, 40, 50 years ago. And I think it’s a shorthand word, you’re right, but I don’t think it’s a precise word at all. I don’t think it’s an applicable word. I think this book is contemporary. The way we look at our reality is fragmentary. Our sources of information come from many places. You look at movies, you look at music: we have a lot of sampling, a lot of influences. HBO TV: they cut scenes and they follow different characters. It’s no longer just one or two cameras following the action. And yet, in fiction there’s a resistance to that sort of move to processing narrative or experiencing narrative the way we do elsewhere. I just see it as a contemporary novel, whereas other novels that stick to older conventions are more traditional. That’s all there is to it. I don’t consider it postmodern at all.
You look at the movies, you look at music: We have a lot of sampling, a lot of influences. And yet, in fiction there’s a resistance to processing narrative the way we do elsewhere.
THE VARSITYThere seems to be this paucity of language to describe contemporary novels, you know?
MIGUEL SYJUCOI do, and it’s almost used pejoratively.
THE VARSITYWhat are you doing your degree in?
MIGUEL SYJUCOEnglish literature.
THE VARSITYEnglish literature. Contemporary stuff?
MIGUEL SYJUCOIt’s a survey of Philippine literature with a focus on the tradition of writing in English. And it was meant to position or define where Ilustrado fits into that tradition.
THE VARSITYSo is that something that you also struggle with? Trying to describe what’s going on in contemporary literature?
MIGUEL SYJUCOYeah! I’m struggling with contemporary literature, period, you know? I’m distressed by the fact that, when something is considered different, innovative, people say it’s “postmodern,” it’s “clever,” it’s “pretentious,” all these things. I don’t know why.
MIGUEL SYJUCOYeah! I was on a panel at the Vancouver festival with Paul Harding, who just won a Pulitzer, Eleanor Catton, who wrote The Rehearsal, and Pascale Quiviger. It was a panel about books with different or innovative — or, yeah, “too clever,” whatever — plot structure or narrative structure. But it was interesting to be on that panel because I suddenly felt not alone. Here were other people going through the same frustration that I was.
THE VARSITYI interviewed Eleanor yesterday, and yeah, she had the same sort of complaint, because some critics have said her book is too theoretical.
MIGUEL SYJUCOWhen did we become like that?!
THE VARSITYI don’t know! I think there’s this expectation that a book should be mere entertainment —
MIGUEL SYJUCOThat’s right.
THE VARSITYOr this beautiful sleight of hand —
THE VARSITYI guess? Which — it’s wonderful if a book can be those things, but it’s like we ask too little of books.
MIGUEL SYJUCOAnd we also ask too much of them.
THE VARSITYWell, there’s something to be said for being entertaining.
I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t assume that readers are smart.
MIGUEL SYJUCOYeah, and that’s fine, but it’s almost funny because there are people who, you know, you think David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Roberto Bolaño: these are writers who people know they’re going to have a challenging time reading, but that’s fine, they understand that. But it’s almost as if they established themselves earlier on in an age when, I don’t know, when it was okay to do those things. But nowadays …
THE VARSITYBut, you know, people do enjoy being set a challenge. You sit down to read David Foster Wallace and you know what you’re getting into and you look forward to that.
MIGUEL SYJUCOExactly. And the thing with David Foster Wallace is, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t assume that readers are smart. But a lot of books out there — and it frustrates me — a lot of books out there feel like they’re kids books for adults. Also, a lot of North American writing has gotten very domesticated.
THE VARSITYHow so?
MIGUEL SYJUCOIt’s about failing marriages. It’s about the death of a loved one. All these things are important; this is part of the universal experience. But where is the tradition of going out there and seeing the world and writing about people? That’s why I think North American non-fiction is amazing. But North American fiction sometimes, people are always worried that it’s dying, and I think it is stagnating in the topics we undertake.
THE VARSITYIt doesn’t aspire?
MIGUEL SYJUCONo. It’s easy. It’s easy to say, “Oh, I’ve gone through a failed marriage,” or “Oh, I know what it’s like to lose a husband and so therefore I’m going to meditate on that, write a book, and publish it as a work of fiction,” rather than saying, “You know what? I’m going to do something critical. I’m going to go to Africa or I’m going to go to see the world and then write about that.” You look at someone like the graphic novelist Joe Sacco. He’s amazing! He’s a war correspondent, and he’ll go somewhere — Sarajevo, Palestine — Safe Area Gorazde is the one that I’ve recently read. But that’s what he does: he goes out, he comes home, and he writes a graphic novel.
I want to write big books that were destined to become failures because they bit off more than they could chew. I want to see more of that.
But if one were to take a look at a lot of the books out there, a lot of the novels out there, you would only find a small percentage, a quarter maybe — they’re all about the same thing. It’s all about looking inward and, well, you can look inward, but you also have to look outward. It’s about the human condition, right? Books can be psychological, but we do live in the world, and we need to go out into the world a little bit more, such as Sacco does. Maybe it’s the marketing, maybe it’s the industry. But that’s not the kind of books I want to write. I want to write big books that were destined to become failures because they bit off more than they could chew. I want to see more of that. That’s my frustration with reading.We need people trying to do things differently. It took me a while to come to terms with this idea that my books aren’t going to fly off the shelves. It’s not going to be universally loved. It’s going to be divisive. There are going to be people who get it, enjoy it, some people in some cases love it, there are going to be people who don’t get it whatsoever, dismiss it, say, “This is crap.” But then there’s that faith, there’s that description: “It’s a good book for a book club.” Like, it’s even taught in schools. I like that. I mean, publishers want to sell books — writers do, too — but this idea that you can write books that people feel passionately about: that’s the most important thing.
THE VARSITYA couple people feeling passionately about it rather than a lot of people feeling okay about it.
MIGUEL SYJUCOExactly. I don’t want a middle-of-the-road book. My readers — people say, you know, “So who was your intended reader?” It’s anyone who likes this sort of stuff. And if they don’t like it, that’s fine: go read something else.
THE VARSITYSo tell me about your thesis, then. I don’t know anything about Philippine writing.
MIGUEL SYJUCOIt was a PhD in English and creative writing. So it had two components: the creative part, writing Ilustrado, and the academic part, my thesis, which is something of a survey/exegesis. But I had to situate where Ilustrado comes in, and I wanted it to be a reaction or an extension of this tradition. I had a lot of work to do that, because Philippine literature all too often is either magical realism, social realism with a Marxist bent, or self-exoticization pandering to the Western view of what Oriental writing should be. I wanted to write a book that satirizes all of that, calls that out, you know, “We can be more.” That’s why there are passages in my book where I have writers saying this.If I wasn’t trying to satisfy the PhD or trying to situate Ilustrado at the end of a tradition, I think I would have written it a bit differently. There were several pages of Miguel and Crispin talking about Philippine literature. If I was writing for the press, for popularity, that’s not something I would dare do. But I wanted it also to be a call to arms for Filipino writers and readers.So my survey charted the importance of language, the peasant language, throughout Philippine literary history: we were a Spanish colony, and then we were an American colony, and then later on we had this post-colonial reaction to the colonial experience where we rejected these languages and tried to bring back Tagalog, tried to bring back all of these things. To this day, there are people in the Philippines who believe that we should be completely “nationalistic” in rejecting the traditions that we have — go back to writing myths, go back to writing in Tagalog. It’s ridiculous! So I spent a lot of time trying to make the point that the Philippine tradition — not even just Philippine literature, but Philippine history — the colonial experience has helped define us, and that our culture is strong enough to not need the impetus of things like, “We should be writing in this way, we should be making these copies.”We have 80 languages and dialects, and English is one of them. Why don’t we write in all of them, and translate each other so that we can be read at home and published abroad? But no. People would rather sit at home or at their offices in the university, and bitch and moan and say, “That’s not Filipino enough, that’s not authentic enough.” “Authenticity,” “post-colonialism”: these are jargon words that have been around for 40 years, and they do not say anything about what’s being done now and what must be done. These are people who went to school 30, 40 years ago; it’s what they learned in school and it’s what they’ve been writing all their lives, and I’m sorry, they’ve just got to get out of the way.
THE VARSITYWhen you were choosing which fragments to use/write, did you have a subject you wanted a section to cover, or did it come out of where you wanted the plot to go?
MIGUEL SYJUCOWell, in the book I didn’t map out, “Okay, I want to talk about the immigrant experience, I want to talk about land reform.” I wanted to create a book that did touch on different aspects of the people and culture, and it just organically grew with the plot, in a way. I knew that because I was writing different narrative threads, I needed to create a way to keep everything together or else it would become this big jumbled mess. So I took from music — jazz and classical music — and I looked at motifs, like when you listen to a jazz piece, the motifs are what keep it together. So with all these narrative threads I do have a framework in the book: I’ve got revolution, social engagement, politics, the relationship between father and son, literature. Thematically, that’s what I tried to do. In doing that, I determined what statement to put on what page. One of the things I wanted to do was write genres that don’t exist in the country.
Dominador’s face is fierce. His teeth, filed into points, make him look like a wolf. Antonio points and tells him: “Ay, punyeta! Look behind you!” Dominador just laughs. “The oldest trick in the book,” he says. Antonio replies: “Not in this book,” then jumps off the overpass and into the water. When Antonio surfaces, he sees eight policemen chasing Dominador. His nemesis, however, is surprisingly quick for a man of his bulk. “I’ll get him in a following chapter,” Antonio mutters before diving, lest the fuzz spot him.
from Manila Noir, by Crispin Salvador
“Where?” Dulcé asked. “That one,” Gardener told the girl, over there, the one with roots for branches. If we’re not careful, we’ll return there before our time.” Thick branches drooped sinewy tendrils around its trunk and deep into the ground. Its hanging limbs reminded Dulcé of curtains, its roots like Gardener’s knotty toes. A teacher at school had taught Dulcé the native names for the trees in their region — narra, bakawan, almaciga, kamagong, molave — as well as their foreign names. This tree was the blaete, or moraceae, also known as the strangler tree. The name alone sent shivers down Dulcé’s spine.
from Kapatid, Book One of Crispin Salvador’s Kaputol trilogy
Late that evening, long after the guests have left and his wife and children have gone to sleep, he writes in his diary: “The developments in the provinces around Manila make me both fear and long for trouble here. This is what we’ve been working for so long! It is close and I’m strangled by fear. I awaken weeping, alone in my room. Suddenly it is bigger, as if I’m in a strange field. The shadows are friars, soldiers, traitors, streaking through underbrush just beyond my seeing. If I suffer such nights, what must that final one have been like for my poor old friend José [Rizal]? Only upon entering Maria Clara’s room, to hear her and the children’s breathing, do I find the bravery to shirk my ideas of independence.
from The Enlightened, by Crispin Salvador
THE VARSITYThere’s no Manila noir?
MIGUEL SYJUCONo. There’s none.
THE VARSITYBut it’s so much fun!
MIGUEL SYJUCOIt was fun writing it! But we don’t have that. We don’t have science fiction, YA, the seafaring novel, we don’t have writers trying to write big memoirs. It’s starting to change now, but not really. We have lots of romance novels, that sort of stuff, but it’s either melodrama or social realism, and it’s ridiculous. So I wanted Crispin to write — what he wrote was kind of my commentary about my frustration. Seriously, Philippine literature is very often about the poor or farmers or labour organizers or families — but there’s so many different aspects [to the country]. I’m clearly a frustrated, angry man. [laughs]
If I’ve got this book crucifying everyone else, I’ve got to crucify myself.
THE VARSITYWe haven’t really talked at all about your other main character, and the murder mystery he sets out on investigating, the major plot of the novel. Why did you give your main character your name?
MIGUEL SYJUCOIf I’m going to satirize, criticize other people, other archetypes, or other groups in the book, I felt it was only right that I started with myself. So the Miguel Syjuco character represents my worst tendencies or the possible mistakes I could make if I’m not careful. He’s somewhat unlikeable, unreliable, lost. So I thought, well, hey, if I’ve got this book that in a way is crucifying everyone else, I’ve got to crucify myself. I’ve got to have the guy with my name represent a lot of crap. It’s not an apology at all, it’s laying myself out there.But I also wanted to dispel this separation between fact and fiction. I wanted the reader to think, “What is fact? What is fiction? This is Miguel Syjuco. Is it autobiographical? Is it not? If this is Miguel Syjuco and this is real, then maybe everything else is real and these other characters are real.” I wanted to keep the reader off balance a little bit, because when you’re off balance, you’re paying attention. So I do that with Miguel, but I cite newspapers that exist, and ones that don’t exist. I have politicians who are fictional constructs and I have real politicians. I wanted to dispel this notion that when we read fiction, we do it to be entertained, but when we read non-fiction, we invest it with all this credulity, we say, “This is important.” Why can’t fiction be that way, too? So I wanted people to wonder both if Miguel is real and if Crispin is real, and therefore if everything else in the book is real. Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter, does it? If it speaks to certain truths, and conveys them well, that’s the point of what I’m doing. Whether it’s real or not doesn’t really matter. I get asked that question a lot, and I find it funny.
THE VARSITYWell, it is unusual. I see what you’re saying, but a lot of authors don’t do that.
MIGUEL SYJUCOWell, it’s very usual for them to write about their…
THE VARSITYTo write about themselves and put a different name on the characters?
MIGUEL SYJUCOExactly. You know, the writer Wayne Grady, he teaches non-fiction in Vancouver. When he’s trying to teach fiction writers how to write non-fiction, he says, “The only difference is that you stop changing the names.” You know?
MIGUEL SYJUCOI wanted to do something different, something challenging, interesting to me as a writer and hope that readers would have the same fascination with those things.
THE VARSITYYour character Miguel, his storyline is like this murder mystery in search of a murder.
THE VARSITYWhat is he actually after?
MIGUEL SYJUCOThe book is a novel that starts out as a murder mystery, or a mystery about a death, and then it branches out to cover the mysteries of life. So what Miguel is searching for is just that: some sort of handle on the mysteries of life that he’s going through. The book is a coming of age novel, but since you’ve read the end, you know it’s not a coming of age novel for Miguel. It’s a coming of age novel for someone else. I mean, what is a coming of age novel? A search for meaning, a search for purpose, a search for your place in the world. I think that’s what Miguel is looking for.
THE VARSITYI enjoyed your depiction of public life.
MIGUEL SYJUCOOf what?
THE VARSITYPublic life.
THE VARSITYThere were three characters that particularly interested me.
MIGUEL SYJUCOWho are the three?
THE VARSITYWigberto Lakandula, Reverend Martin, and Vita Nova. You cover a range of aspects of Philippine society. Each of these characters seems to draw upon a facet of that for his or her celebrity status and political power.
MIGUEL SYJUCOWigberto is a Robin Hood character: this idea of the rich versus the poor. Of somebody who stands up against the status quo and becomes a very romantic character. The Philippines is a celebrity culture. If you want to get into politics, you first become a boxer or an actor or a basketball player. It’s the same in North America, too. Maybe less so in Canada, but you have newscasters, Hollywood actors. In the Philippines, it’s celebrity culture pumped up on steroids. Our politics isn’t about idealism, it’s about how well-known you are. So Wigberto represents this idea that it is about idealism, and that we’re hungry for a hero, someone who won’t let us down. What happens in the Philippines, unfortunately, is that we think they’re heroes and then they let us down constantly. So I wanted to touch on that with him. He’s a reluctant star. He doesn’t want to be a hero.
In the Philippines, it’s celebrity culture pumped up on steroids.
Now, Reverend Martin is somebody who wants to be a star so that he can be a kingmaker, so that he can be rich, so that he can have followers, and the best way to do that in the Philippines is through religion. For generations, for centuries, it was always about the church. Our great national hero José Rizal wrote two books against what is now called the friarocracy: government run by friars of different denominations. And so Reverend Martin is I guess a look at religious leadership and how it is tied to celebrity and, again, it’s not about morals, it’s about popularity and finding power through that popularity.Vita Nova — same thing. This is a woman who slept her way to the top of society. She’s used what she has, and in some people’s perspective, that’s a good thing: you use what you’ve got, whatever you have: she had her body, her looks, her talents, her showmanship, and that’s what she used to become one of the most popular actresses in the Philippines. Some people will see that as cheap, but a lot of people will see that as laudable. Again, I come from a country where corruption, at least certain levels of it, is applauded. People will say, “Oh, that congressman is stealing, but you know what? That’s okay. I would have done the same thing.” We think, “We’re poor” — if Vita Nova has her body and she has her looks, and uses what she has to parlay some sort of success and stability, that’s okay. So you have different facets of celebrity, and I hoped that I could touch on the different frustrations that the country has. So you have the reluctant hero, the religious leader, and the movie star.
THE VARSITYYour next book is about Vita?
MIGUEL SYJUCOYeah. She’s such a minor character in this book, but the next book is going to be about her life and how she slept her way to the top. In doing that, when I look at all the men she slept with, as she discusses them, you get a cross-section of Philippine society. I want it to be an examination of corruption and how it works in third-world society. Because I do believe that the only way we can posit solutions is we first have to understand the problem, and fiction is a very powerful tool to do that. You can write non-fiction, investigative journalism, but if nobody’s going to be reading that, or just a few people are reading that, it won’t create a general understanding. Fiction has a broader reach.
THE VARSITYIt’s also this social lab, fiction. You can throw together whoever you want, and see what happens, as long as it’s believable.
MIGUEL SYJUCOThat’s a really good point. Yeah, that’s true. I guess I was just doing that intuitively, without thinking about it. I think about The Wire. Have you seen The Wire?
THE VARSITYI’m in Season Two right now.
MIGUEL SYJUCOAlright. So I won’t give anything away. But you know the premise, how they investigate different aspects of Baltimore and how the system does or doesn’t work. And they do it really well. Essentially, it’s a crime drama, it’s a cop drama, that’s all it is, but it’s so much more. And that’s the sort of book I want to write: on the surface, Ilustrado is a murder mystery or my next book, I Was the President’s Mistress, is a celebrity tell-all memoir, but it’s much more than that. If I told you I’m writing a book about corruption, you’d think, “Okay. That’s interesting.” But if I’m writing a celebrity tell-all memoir, then you learn about corruption.I don’t want to write the same thing, so even though I am using Vita Nova, even though I am setting it in the Philippines, to me it’s entirely different. The form will be different, the focus will be entirely different. That’s another thing that bothers me about a lot of contemporary writing. Some people get away with it — Philip Roth, Cheever — they write about the same thing because they want to refine it until it’s a masterpiece, but I don’t want to do it that way. Setting isn’t subject, characters aren’t subject. I look at Stanley Kubrick — that’s what I want to do. I want to be able write different things with the same depth, the same verve, the same style, always. So that’s why I’m writing about Vita Nova.