Mia Alvar: Within an inch of truth

The short story writer looks slant at real life to create compelling fiction.
By Megan Kaplon | Published: February 2, 2016


mia alvarMia Alvar’s debut short story collection In the Country is plump. The nine stories clock in at a robust 347 pages, and Alvar admits her short stories have always been a bit big-boned. They chronicle the fragmented Filipino immigrant community and bring to life complex characters with a skill that matches some of the best in the business, including two of Alvar’s favorite short story wizards Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Alvar’s characters are inspired by her family and others she met growing up in the Philippines, Bahrain and New York City, but her imagination makes the stories work, weaving tales of crushing misery, loss and alienation. In this middle ground between truth and invention, Alvar has found her niche. Her stories contemplate the very real issues of race, class, migration, death and love, but she is a writer of fiction, so she does her best to keep some distance from historical events and real people.

In our exchange, Alvar explored the pros and cons of writing workshops, explained how taking a step away from reality helped set her prose free and celebrated humor’s ability to buoy even the most tragic of tales.

Q&A with Mia Alvar

Did you always think that you would be a fiction writer?
I always really enjoyed writing. When I was a kid, I was always trying to imitate books. It was a form of entertainment pre-Internet. It was just a way to extend the life of a book. But I only started seriously writing fiction in college. I thought I would be a poet in high school.

What was the most important thing about writing you learned in college and graduate school?
My MFA taught me a lot about mental and creative independence. You’re in workshop after workshop with 12-15 people weighing in on your stuff, and then when I finished my degree and was out on my own, it was hard to turn off those voices every time I sat down to write. It took a year or two to get back to separating the feedback and the editorial pressure from the actual sitting alone at my desk and making things up. But because I had been in those workshops, I could, when I had to, turn it on again and be objective and critical about my own work.

You mentioned that after graduating from college, you taught middle school in Dorchester, Massachusetts. What else did you do to make a living before you landed this book contract?
I did every cliché of what a writer does to support herself. Immediately after teaching, I went to grad school and was working an office job at a university, and I then got a teaching fellowship at Columbia so I was teaching the undergrad composition class. Between then and now, everything – worked in publishing for a while, worked at a restaurant for like six months, though it felt like six years. I was under this whole illusion that I’d work at night and write during the day, and that’s generally not how it works.

My long-term day job was at a nonprofit as their communications person. I was writing and editing public relations and marketing stuff for the First Presbyterian Church in New York. Then a couple years ago, I felt like I was very close to finishing the book but I wasn’t going to finish it by continuing to get up at 5 in the morning – or saying that I would get up at 5 in the morning but really getting up at 7 and then having an hour before work – so I cobbled together a fellowship here, residency here, and made writing my thing. A year after leaving my job, I was able to sell the book, and I’ve been freelancing and writing since then.

What were some of the first things that you felt inspired to write about?
Some of the same stuff that’s in the book. During my junior year of college, I went back to the Philippines for the first time in 10 years because my grandmother was passing away, and I was keeping a notebook while I was there because everything was so new and arresting to me because I had been away for so long.

Around that same time – this was the late ’90s – there were these really great collections coming out about different immigrant communities, including Junot Diaz’s Drown and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and it was that convergence of what I was reading and being back in my birth country for the first time that made me think about writing stories and in particular using – we’re such users, writers, we really are – my family’s experiences and stories as “material” for the first time. The first story “The Kontrabida” actually came out of that trip and was revised within an inch of its life since then and not at all recognizable from what it was. I’ve been writing about this stuff for as long as I’ve been writing fiction.

What do you like about the short story form?
I love the form, which is strange coming from me, because I was always the person in workshop that everybody hated because I was turning in 30-page stories. I would always get the feedback, “Are you sure this isn’t a novel?” “This feels like it wants to be a novel; it’s straining at the buttons of the short story form.” I like being able to not commit to one idea. I had these ideas, and there was never one that rose to prominence and made me feel like: I don’t feel like writing about these other things anymore. I wanted to explore each of them fully but then to be able to jump from one place to another. I wanted to explore this really disparate, scattered community, and the most interesting way that I found to do that was through individual characters, rather than having one Forrest Gump figure travel through time and space.

Did you have to cut the stories in the collection down a lot?
It’s not even so much cutting the stories down to be shorter, but there were some stories that I wrote 60 pages of a certain version of that turned out to be the wrong direction. So that all went down the drain, like nine months of work.

Is it hard for you to throw away so much of your writing?
I’ve sort of made peace with it. I was always envious of people in the performing arts and athletes because I felt like they go to practice or they go to class for a certain number of hours, they do these drills or exercises or arpeggios – I’m really showing my amazing knowledge of these fields – it’s this very regimented training process and at the end of that they know, or there’s a teacher or a coach to tell them, they’re ready to advance to the next level or they’re ready to perform. Writing fiction feels very nebulous and not structured in that way. If only there was a writing version of doing pliés. But then I noticed that my process was to write these pages and pages of drafts that ended up being thrown out, so I make myself feel better about that by thinking that that’s my version of doing scales or drills. It’s not meant to be seen but is hopefully some kind of preparation and way to improve.

mia alvar in the countryWhich was the most challenging story in the collection to write?
Definitely the novella “In the Country,” and I say that not knowing if it’s the best story in the collection, but it was the most satisfying to finish because it kicked my ass so much. It was extremely hard to write about that place and time [the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in 1972 through the People Power Revolution in 1986] and handle this very heavy political and historical material and still make it feel like a story of a family, which was really important to me. Until the very end, I was still making really significant changes. I don’t think my publisher was very happy with me.

Do you feel satisfied with it now?
I do. I feel like this about the collection – I feel like I couldn’t have worked harder on it, so in that way, I’m done with it and that feels satisfying, but I haven’t gone back and read it.

Your upcoming novel will be inspired by the novella. After you struggled so much with the short story, is tackling the same character in the novel intimidating?
I’m just intimidated by the idea of the novel and the commitment to one idea and one character. I don’t know how to write a novel; I guess I must learn by the deadline that is printed in my contract. Part of me is really intimidated, and part of me is still in that honeymoon phase with a new idea where this is so exciting, I can’t wait to start writing about it. The disillusion hasn’t set in yet.

The third story in the collection “Legends of the White Lady” is the only one where the main character is an American in the Philippines instead of a Filipino immigrant in another country. How was writing that story different for you?
That story was inspired by this thing that happened in Manila. Claire Danes had just filmed the movie Brokedown Palace there. It’s not a very good movie, and I don’t think most people have seen it, but it’s actually set in Bangkok. They filmed it in Manila and changed the street signs and the side that people were driving on. This happens to Manila a lot. I don’t know if because of the American influence there’s some Hollywood connection that makes it cheaper to film in Manila, but it becomes this stand-in for other Asian capitals a lot.

So Claire Danes filmed there and in an interview afterwards, she was asked about her experience. She really hated it in Manila, and she said something like: It’s ghastly there. It smells like cockroaches, and there are people walking around without arms and legs. She had this intense description of Manila, and people were very offended and there was a ban on showing her movies in Manila. If you read the quote you can understand why people were mad, but there was something really interesting to me about the language that she used. It was very surreal and dream-like, and these were qualities that I had also associated with Manila, so I was interested in what she was actually seeing and perceiving during that time. So that story actually started out as a thinly veiled Claire Danes filming a movie in Manila, but it sort of evolved and she became this struggling model there for a slightly different purpose.

Why did you feel that choice was better for the story?
I just found that it wasn’t very interesting for me. I felt too tied to making up [Claire Danes’] experience, whereas if I remove the character, not that far from her industry but just slightly, then my imagination felt freer. And that was true for me throughout the book with real cities or real places. The second I was obsessing over how long it would take to drive from this place to this place, I knew I had to change a name or something because I was just not writing fiction anymore.

What did you hope to accomplish by writing about the Filipino experience?
It’s not that different from what I think a lot of fiction writers hope to accomplish, no matter where their stories are set or who their characters are, which is to inspire curiosity and then maybe as a result of that, empathy or a connection. There is a moment in “The Miracle Worker” where the narrator Sally hears a story about cashiers going on strike and then she goes about her life and pays closer attention to the people serving her food and catering to her needs. That’s a parallel to what I hope the stories will do and what I’ve felt the best stories have done for me: make you look more closely at people you thought of as minor characters in the story of your life.

Your stories can be pretty dark at times. Did you ever try to pull yourself out of that and find the light in a story?
I did not know that I was a particularly dark person but I realized – spoiler alert – that there’s not really a happy ending in this collection. I did think about balance a little, and I felt like humor gave me opportunities to lighten the mood a little bit, whether it was cases of mistaken identity, which tell their own story about race and class relations but are also just kind of funny sometimes, or moments when characters find something to laugh about with each other. I felt like those naturally presented themselves to me, as they do in life, even in the most tragic circumstances.

Megan Kaplon is a contributing editor to The Writer.

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