Marga Ortigas never dreamt of becoming a reporter, a job she kept for more than 25 years. The work, however, opened her up to the world, introduced her to all kinds of people, exposed her to the nature of anguish and humanity, as if preparing her for the one job she’s always dreamt of pursuing: writing a book.
Which she’s finally accomplished recently. Her debut novel, “The House on Calle Sombra,” was released in November by Penguin Random House SEA. Expected to hit local shelves this month, the book tells the story of three generations of a Philippine clan—the Castillo de Montijos—a privileged lot struggling to abide by the credo “Family first” amidst upheavals in and outside of its storied estate. It’s described as “Sardonic, witty, and brutally frank,” and “a compelling exploration of how greed, love, and trauma are passed down through generations.”
From the scope alone, it’s easily an ambitious first novel. But Ortigas, who’s worked for two of the world’s largest news organizations, CNN and Al Jazeera, was able to recall the characters she’s met on ground while covering war and climate disasters over the years, helping give heft and authenticity to her prose. “When I say characters, I don’t mean people who have positions in organizations. I just meant very strong, powerful people in and of themselves,” she tells ANCX.
Getting to know the Philippines while doing journalistic work afforded Ortigas an intimate perspective on her novel’s milieu—albeit she says it’s a fictionalized Philippines that she’s imagined in the book—having made close contacts with everyone from the country’s politicians to street vendors to health workers. “You go everywhere and you are exposed to so much tragedy because you go to the villages that have either been bombed out because there was a conflict or you go to the areas devastated by typhoons,” she says. “Experiencing the nation’s trauma is something I have been so exposed to because of the job.”
But don’t let that lead you into believing “The House on Calle Sombra” is such a heavy, serious book. “The tone of it is in a sense very whimsical, very tongue-in-cheek,” says the debuting author, “but I hope it also drives home certain truths that we as Filipinos might not be wanting to see in ourselves.”
We spoke to Ortigas over the holidays about the inspiration for her novel, the challenges in writing it, and why as an eight-year old storyteller, she hardly thought of herself a Nancy Drew.
Why this narrative on this privileged family?
It was born out of the fact that when you drive around Manila, you see many of these homesteads, these big houses on McKinley Road in Forbes, mansions that had been clearly there for decades slowly falling into disrepair. That whole concept of this family basing its identity or tying its roots to this big mansion, I find it a very uniquely Filipino experience.
And as generations are added, by the time you reach the third generation, what ends up happening is infighting. I thought it was a very powerful metaphor for just how society works in the Philippines, because we are strongly attached to family. I mean you even see it in politics. Politics in the country is a family business. So I just thought to use that and that metaphor of the house to symbolize all of that.
Do you have a personal attachment to any part of its story or any of its characters?
It’s not a personal story. It’s not the story of my family. But I try to bring in anything that I might have seen from people that I have encountered, from the stories that you hear. In the process of researching what went into this book, I heard so many stories of what families do for each other and to each other. The book is rather tame compared to some of the stories I’ve heard after I had finished the manuscript. (Laughs.)
So there’s a lot of chismis also?
In a sense it’s almost like that’s the tone in many chapters of the book. Because it also looks at the nature of truth. What becomes a legend. For many of us, do we really know the stories of our ancestors? There are certain stories that are larger than life, that you’re like, ‘That can’t even be true.’ Like everyone will have an ancestor who was a war hero. All of that and even the nature of what we believe about ourselves I hope is reflected in this book.
How long have you had this idea for the novel?
I think I was playing with it maybe longer than five years for sure. I was having lunch with some cousins or friends and we were just talking. ‘Did you see this big house? It looks like it’s abandoned now.’ We’re just thinking about what had happened to that family. In short, it was like a chismis session. And I thought, one day I’d like to explore it.
When I sat down to actually write it? I’d say it was five years ago. I had just left news. I had worked in news for quite a while, more than 25 years, and when I finally decided it was time for a change, I sat down and gave myself space to just focus on what I want to do next. ‘I’ve always wanted to write this book. I’m gonna try to do it.’ I wasn’t sure how to get into it. But three years later, and over 90,000 words later, I was like, Oh my gosh, I finished it! Let’s see if anybody wants to publish it.
I didn’t think it would become that epic a story. I knew where to start and I kinda knew where I wanted it to end. The bits in between, I worked out a sort of outline. But I wasn’t sure if it would turn out exactly as I had planned. As you know when you’re writing, things somehow take on their own flow and you have to go with it. It turned out much longer than I had originally anticipated—both the writing and the book.
Somewhere along chapter 3 or 4, the characters became so alive. I was casting actors I see on Netflix in my head. I literally made a casting sheet. ‘This is what so and so looks like.’ They became real to me. I even had a playlist on Spotify and it’s for people who want to have a full experience of the book. Because I really set a whole world in my head to the point where I could hear the characters talking. In many chapters it’s almost like I was taking dictation from these imaginary people in my head with faces of actors. (Laughs). Buhay na ang pelikula sa utak ko and so I just followed them until it got to the natural end of the story.
Were there struggles while writing it?
Oh yes! Lots of them. In many portions, I’d go, ‘What am I doing? This is insane. Who’s going to read this?’ It’s not your usual ‘once upon a time,’ ‘a + b we’re on a journey’ kind of thing. It’s not told in a linear way. It’s not told in an expected literary sense as well. It’s a bit more playful. It’s not your usual novel. And also because of my background in TV, it’s written like that. I don’t mean that it’s written like a TV script but it’s very visual on certain points. It’s written to be read out loud. I don’t have long-winded sentences. I brought that kind of TV background and experience to the way the book was written.
I have been told by people who have started to read it that it goes very quickly. Like you don’t realize the length of it, which for me is ‘Thank goodness!’ The last thing you want is a book that people had to slog through.
Who would you say are the novelists who have influenced your writing?
I found that the novelists I really like the older I got are those that wrote in very short, concise sentences and who are also very playful with their words. I like Jeanette Winterson, Italo Calvino. If you look at their sentences—very short, very brisk prose—and yet they say so much in so little. And the way they juxtapose words—a simple matter of changing a comma or putting a pause somewhere and it changes the entire meaning of the sentence. I love that kind of literary play. It’s also something that I’ve noticed in “Riverrun” of Danton Remoto. He says so much with so little. That economy of language I think takes such a mastery.
I’m not claiming any mastery of language or anything of the sort but I like that kind of exercise, so I’m hoping to say a lot in a very short line. And that is something that TV has definitely helped with. I’m hoping it’s something that would resonate with people now because apparently, attention spans are much shorter because of social media and the way we live our lives, our dependence on digital technology. I hope to be able to retain people’s attention thru 99,000 words with very short sentences. Even the scenes are done in such a way that I hope are playful enough to keep people’s attention.
First time novelist and already published by Penguin. Tell us how it happened.
I don’t know either. I was looking where to send it. I had no agent. I had seen that Penguin had opened a Southeast Asian division looking particularly for Southeast Asian authors who write in English. I went to check out their website and they were calling for open submissions. So I wrote them and I submitted it thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s Penguin… as if. But, bahala na.’ You’ll never have anything work out unless you take a chance. And I’ve always just taken a chance on everything. I’d rather have tried and not have it work out than not have tried at all. So I did. I wrote to them, I heard nothing for almost six months. I thought, okay, that’s it. I’m just going to keep looking elsewhere as well. Suddenly, I got an email.
One day I opened my inbox and there was an email from them saying we’d like to publish this book. ‘What?! Oh gosh.’ And of course in that space of six months, I had already played around with the manuscript, changed a few things again so I had to resubmit it. They were happy to publish it and the whole process took two years. Because after they said they wanted it, nothing happened for almost a year and a half. Because apparently, who knew that in the publishing industry they really plan ahead by that much? It was two years before we actually sat down with the editors and refined things that they want me to refine.
They’ve been very good about working with me and from what I understand from other Penguin authors, they’ve been very good working with authors in general. So I feel very lucky because I don’t know if it would have been the same experience with another publisher. They pretty much let my voice ring throughout the entire manuscript.
Did you write the book with a certain audience in mind?
Not initially. I kind of wrote the book for me in one sense. I wrote the book that I wanted to read. There’s a saying, ‘Write what you wish you could read.’ And I had not seen a book that I might have appreciated and would have reflected a different kind of sense of humor about the country.
I didn’t start to worry about an audience until maybe halfway through when I thought, ‘Oh gosh. What are people going to think about this?’ If you let your worries become so loud that they paralyze you, then you defeat the entire process. So halfway through, I just told myself: ‘Don’t worry about that. Just keep going.’
You just kind of hope that the right readers, or those that would want to read something like this, will appreciate it. That it will find its readership hopefully. It’s not meant to offend. It’s not meant to cause damage. It’s really just a mirror that I’d like to hold up to everybody and hopefully people would recognize themselves and think, ‘How do I heal this part of my psyche?’
Ano ang milieu na ginagalawan ng family sa story?
It’s society. Pero you know naman here, di ba? There’s no isolated world eh. Everything is interconnected. It’s a family that thinks they are a private family but there’s all these tendrils and tentacles that reach out. Yun pala kung saan-saan na nakasuot. And I tried to pick a family that wasn’t so obviously political. It was a seemingly private family doing its own enterprise and they’re mixed race because that’s the Philippines for you. But they’re business owners, because everything in this country at the end of the day becomes an enterprise, including politics and religion. At its core is a family of entrepreneurs. The wealthier you get, the more difficult it becomes for them to divide that wealth among their descendants.
Have you always wanted to write a book?
Always. Not to put down the work of a journalist, I never planned to become a reporter. That just happened for me. Twenty five years later I thought, ‘I’ve been doing this for quite a while.’ But ever since I was a kid, I had always wanted to write a book. Ever since I was five. I used to make up my own stories. I have a small notebook and I would write short stories to myself. Then when I had a cassette recorder, I did audio stories. Parang radio drama. Walang katuturan na story but I really just enjoyed doing it. I had a story that reached 10 chapters via cassette. It was a silly story about a child detective. I was no Nancy Drew. I must have been eight.
Most memorable coverages as a reporter.
That’s always an easy one to answer. I spent nearly a year going in and out of Iraq for CNN. That was at the height of the war when Saddam Hussein had just been removed from power and the US had come in. There was no infrastructure, no administrative order to anything. We had no power, no water. It was complete chaos. It was a country with a vacuum in the center of it. I think that experience was one of the first ones that will affect you.
You can’t help but be changed by suddenly seeing yourself in a warzone like that, which at that time was the biggest international news story. And I was working for the most watched network, with people that I grew up watching—it was mindblowing for me. Suddenly you’re first name basis with people you grew up watching, thinking, ‘Wow, they’re really good at what they do.’ You’d never think you’re gonna be in a position to call them your colleagues. That taught me that I should have dreamt bigger as a kid. I was so surprised I could end up there.
How did that experience in Iraq affect you?
I lost quite a number of people that I knew there, who were killed. It also pointed out to me, in moments like that, in great tragedy, how immediately people come together. You have to keep going despite the grief. And that ultimately I am much stronger than what I gave myself credit for. That enabled me to trust in myself a bit more and believe in myself a bit more. But also see that people, in the most dire of circumstances, the beauty in them will come out.
After I was at CNN, I joined Al Jazeera, put up a bureau here in Manila. I traveled around Asia and I covered the Asia Pacific Region. All of the typhoons, the volcanic calamities, the earthquakes, it was one after the other in the Philippines. So that exposure to national trauma and tragedy that had kind of really first hit me in Iraq became a constant almost being based in the Philippines. Because of that background, I was better able to handle all of the tragedy that the country has been exposed to over the last few years. As reporters, unfortunately, you see it constantly. It’s one after the other. Sometimes you don’t get to have the space to breathe in between all of that. You’re not a victim of it, you’re just a witness to other people’s pain and that’s not a very easy thing to carry with you all the time.
Are you back in journalism? Is being a novelist your next chapter?
I am no longer attached to a network. I would like to carry on writing books. What I would do every now and then is take writing jobs if anybody needs help. I’ve been training a lot of young people who want to become journalists. I take consulting gigs, where we sit down and train young people. I work with startup news outlets or schools abroad—but anybody here in the Philippines who wants to work with me, I’m happy to work with them as well. I occasionally would speak to journalism classes here. Anybody who wants to ask, I’m available. I’m happy to share the experience and the knowledge that I might have gained.
Did you enjoy writing your first book?
Very much so. It sounds weird but it almost felt like a coming home to who I am. I felt like myself. When I was a journalist, there was a part of me that always felt like I’d rather be writing a book. (Laughs) When I was actually writing a book, it felt like, wow, you wake up every morning and you just feel like I’m gonna sit down and I’m just gonna write. I didn’t feel like I was putting off something. When I was working as a reporter, there was a part of me that felt like I was wanting to write a book but I was so afraid of sitting down and doing it, and I just didn’t do it. This time I just went for it. Bahala na.
Photos courtesy of Marga Ortigas