Books

Beatles, Imelda, Strange But Real Characters in 'Monstress'

Inside the head of brilliant Filipino author Lysley Tenorio.
IMAGE KAI HUANG
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Author Lysley Tenorio was born in the Philippines and currently lives in San Francisco. His book Monstress, a collection of stories that explore topics on cross-cultural upbringing and the meeting of American and Filipino culture, is a well-lauded work published in 2012. His works have also appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, Ploughshares, Manoa, and The Best New American Voices and Pushcart Prize anthologies

Occupation
Author, Monstress.

You left the Philippines when you were seven months old, yet you seem so familiar with Filipino culture. Why is this so?
My family is Filipino, so it's more than familiarity—it’s life. Plus, lots of research, imagination, and empathy.

You’ve made very short trips to Manila as an adult. How is the real Philippines compared to what you imagined it to be?
Brighter. Bigger. Louder. More chaotic. More beautiful. More complex.

It took over a decade to come up with the stories in Monstress. Why?
I’m slow.

When do you finally put the last period on a story?
When it’s published.

A B-movie actress. A faith healer. A leper. How do you come up with the quirky characters in your stories?
My characters arise from situation and plot, which are often inspired by strange-but-true cultural and historical intersections of America and the Philippines.

Are any of them real people?
Except for a few cultural figures—the Beatles, Imelda Marcos—no.

Do you write yourself into any of your stories?
Never.

What inspired you to be a writer?
Books. Comics. TV. My family. School. A love of sentences.

What did your parents have to say about your decision to be a writer?
I don't know if it was ever an actual decision, so I never told them. But my mother was very, very happy when she saw my book at the bookstore, so I think she’s good with it.

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How do you deal with writer's block?
I’ll take a walk. Nap. Have a drink and the occasional cigarette. Sometimes, I don’t deal with it all.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Never.


What were your favorite reads as a child?
Beverly Cleary’s books, the Choose Your Own Adventure series, and, above all else, comic books.

What was the first book you read?
A reader in kindergarten. Something about a lion named Sam, I think? And a mouse named Matt? There was a snake named Sis, I’m positive about that.

What do you do to unwind?
Martini. Gin. Very dry and very cold. Or Dewar’s on the rocks.

Are you in love?
I have never understood what that means, but if I have to answer, then yes.

What does it feel like?
Like breathing, eating, sleeping, waking up. It feels ordinary and everyday, which is perfect.

How does it affect your writing?
I have a reader for life.

Pet peeves?
DJs in restaurants. We’re there to eat, not dance.

What’s one thing you wish most people would do more often?
Travel alone.

Biggest achievement?
Being a good son, brother, uncle, partner. I don’t know if I have achieved those things yet, but I'll keep trying.

Biggest fear?
Alligators.

Best advice you’ve received?
“Ditch the vermouth.”

Complete this sentence: I like my job, but I’d rather be...
Finished.

This story was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Town&Country. Minor edits were made to update some details. 

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