In about a year or so, those who haven’t picked up a copy of Felisa H. Batacan’s Palanca award-winning thriller, Smaller and Smaller Circles, are bound to watch its newly expanded plot unfold on movie screens, with the novel’s film adaptation in the works. Here, the writer talks about using the pen as a sword in modern times and fortuitously producing what critics are now calling the Philippines’ first crime novel.
What inspired Smaller and Smaller Circles?
I used to work in a government intelligence agency, and while the first four years there were among the best of my professional life, things went downhill after that. And the atmosphere of patronage, of complacency and corruption, was really getting to me. There was a night in when I just couldn’t sleep—I was so frustrated. That’s when I started writing that scene where a corpse is found at the Payatas dumpsite. On hindsight it was probably a reflection of the rot I was seeing in real life. So every day I would go back to work and every night I would escape into my computer, just writing and writing. Before I knew it I had 10,000; 15,000; 20,000 words. And I just kept going. It was an outlet and it helped keep me sane.
Why did you think it important to tell this particular story?
I think aside from hopefully being entertaining, it tells a story about the kind of attitudes, the mindset among many civil servants, about their work and their relationship with the public. At the same time I wanted it to show that there are many good people in civil service, people who try to do right by the country.
The two protagonists in Smaller and Smaller Circles are priests, but the book is also quite critical of the Catholic Church.
I was raised Catholic, and I will never be anything else. But I was raised by parents who taught me to question everything. Blind faith, especially in any human institution, is never good. That principle was even more important for a child growing up under Martial Law. As for choosing priests as protagonists, the Jesuits have a long history of scientific research and exploration. Somehow it felt right that that commitment to learning and understanding should extend to problematic situations within the Church. After all, shouldn’t men of God also be men of conscience?
The plot came from a deep place of frustration. What else frustrates you about the state of our country? Do you think that will find its way into one of your future novels?
I find it frustrating that our politicians are more concerned with their political futures than with the nation’s future, the future of the people they serve. I find it frustrating that we’re unable to hold the corrupt and negligent to account for their misconduct. I find it frustrating that so many Filipinos have become so dismissive of facts, that they see internet memes and blogs by people who have zero credibility as authoritative sources of information. I find it frustrating that so many go hungry in a country that is so rich in resources, that so many are unable to send their children to school or get a real shot at moving up in life. And I find it frustrating that all these things are actually linked together, that we aren’t finding solutions to the massive systemic challenges—the political patronage, the rent ethic, the callousness of big corporates and institutions—that have kept us spinning in place for so many decades. I have tried and continue to try to write about these things.
What's next for you?
I’m working on a second novel that takes place a few years before the events of Circles. It will feature some of the same characters.
A few of F.H. Bataclan's favorite books: Some Are Smarter Than Others by Ricardo Manapat, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Your book is being turned into a movie. How do you feel about that?
I always say it feels surreal. I’ll probably still feel that way, even after the credits have rolled and I’m the only person left in the cinema, clutching my
empty carton of popcorn and crying happy tears!
Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Press) is available at National Book Store.