Through the Wringer With VAMPIRES OF PORTLANDIA's Jason Tanamor
Lately, heritage and folklore-laced Fantasy is on the rise in the YA and NA spectrum. These largely include diverse works from #OwnVoices authors, one of them being Filipino-American author Jason Tanamor's darkly funny tale of Percival Leones—a young Aswang trying to manage life as a vampire and eldest grandchild. Following matriarch Marcella Leones' decision to move the family from the Philippines to Oregon to dodge the persecution of the local vampire hunters, a slew of mysterious deaths rocks the city, resulting in shocking discovery: they aren't the only preternatural beasts inhabiting Portland. There are other Aswang—werebeasts, witches, viscera, and ghouls—living in secrecy.
Can monsters and humans, all different breeds, coexist in THE weirdest city in the world? We'll find out in Vampires of Portlandia on September 29th!
Today, Jason shares his thoughts on writing Vampires of Portlandia, reading book reviews, and literary representation in Filipino lore.
Be sure to add VOP to your Goodreads TBR! This is an enticing Fall read you won't want to miss!
Hi Jason! Thanks so much for your time and letting us in on the world of Vampires of Portlandia. Your highly-anticipated Urban Fantasy releases in September with The Parliament House Press--Firstly, congratulations! As a Filipino American author, what was your experience writing a novel so close--in a way--to your heritage?
A. It was the first time I saw myself in the main characters, so it hit a little closer to home in the sense that I could see a lot of myself in the traits of the family members. My son, my niece, and other Filipinos that I’ve grown up with or have come across, somehow, or at some point, appear in the characters, whether it’s in their gestures or speech cadence.
If I’m not mistaken, Aswang are mythical beings in Filipino folklore; they’re our version of ghouls, right? Vampires, werebeasts, and the like. This novel follows the story of a family of vampires who migrate from the Philippines to Portland, Oregon. How intriguing! What vision of Aswang did you have while writing VOP? What kind of vampire is Percival Leones, your protagonist? How does his vampirism differ from other vampires in, say, Eurocentric folklore?
A. There are a lot of different traits and features in aswang lore, and many of the articles that I’d read contradicted each other, or were completely random, so it led me to believe that the lore was not concrete, or it was based on a foundation made of silly putty. You can massage this lore, or stretch this lore, etc. And some of the stuff involving aswangs sounded downright ridiculous. But, it’s lore after all, and a lot of lore is just, well, ridiculous. So, the best think I could do was combine some traits with ones that I’d invented myself. So, in reality, this is my interpretation of aswangs.
One of the main vampire stereotypes I’d avoided was vampires and sunlight. The aswang vampires have the ability to blend into society, which includes walking around in daylight. Having them susceptible to sunlight didn’t add value to the story. And they had to blend into the world as regular people in order to further the narrative along. The thing with aswang folklore is that there aren’t a lot of “standards” outside their physical traits. There are so many different interpretations, different ways to become an aswang, or kill them, unlike what we see in Hollywood renditions. My hope is to introduce the folklore to the mainstream and encourage other stories about Filipino folklore and culture. Whether or not they stick to the lore.
How is Percival like you?
A. The biggest trait that Percival and I have is reflected in his confidence level throughout the story. There are times when he’s uncertain of his abilities and times when he’s got all the confidence in the world. He acts on emotion and second guess himself.
In spite of his nature, would you consider Percival a good person? Why or why not?
A. He tries to be a good person—he abides by rules his grandmother enforces—but at times, his inexperience forces him to make questionable decisions. These decisions play out in his relationship with his brother, Roger, and how he treats his youngest siblings, the twins Geena and Marco. Keep in mind, he inherits a great deal of power and responsibility, so he is overly cautious and ignorant when it comes to being the vampire leader. But he tries his best.
As a fellow Fil-Am writer, I feel like our cultural society is a very matriarchal one, which is cool. The eldest female, usually the grandmother or great grandmother, is “head honcho”. Marcella Leones is the matriarch of the Leones family; like a lot of our ancestors, she sounds weathered, but in a way that’s strengthened her. Will you share with us a little about her and her background?
A. Marcella is a strong woman who is very specific when it comes to raising her grandchildren. It’s done to protect them from hunters and the Philippine government. When the family arrives in Portland, she continues raising them the same way; mainly because she wants what is best for them. And also because they’re vampires.
Are there any parts of your own home life and upbringing that helped you flesh out your world and characters?
A. Aside from the characters’ traits, the only other things from my upbringing are the instances of Filipino food in the vampires’ home and the Capiz shelled accessories. There was always something cooking in our household, and it isn’t different in the book. Geena, in particular, loves to cook. As for the Capiz shelled accessories, name one Filipino person that didn’t or doesn’t have a hanging light fixture made from Capiz shells?
Vampires of Portlandia is an #ownvoices piece; is this your first experience integrating Filipino culture in your work? How has it differed from non-ownvoices works you’ve authored? Do you feel like there was more or less research involved this time around because of the subject matter?
A. It is my first #ownvoices. I’ve got two more novels that are written but not published that are also #ownvoices works. It’s important for young Filipinos and other brown skinned kids to see people like themselves in books. I didn’t get that luxury growing up, which is why I wrote white characters. It’s different writing a person of color because I think minorities are more scrutinized, from how we are treated at times or how we are perceived. I can’t tell you how many times people have started sentences with me that begin: “I don’t mean to be racist…” or “Do you speak English?” So I wanted to spend a little more time with the Filipino characters because there isn’t a whole lot of Filipino representation in fiction.
So readers know, is VOP a planned series? Any possibility of a sequel or spinoff?
A. I will say that I wrote a saga’s length of story, but I wrote this as a standalone novel. However, I have started outlining a story that could, COULD, be a sequel. I just don’t know enough of the plot yet. So maybe another book… or maybe not.
If you could tell your writing-self ten years ago anything, what would it be?
A. Just because a book is well written or well received, it doesn’t mean it will do well in sales. You never know what is trending or what the next big thing is. When “Anonymous” got a starred review from Publishers Weekly in 2013, I thought it could be something. I got excited about it. But then it didn’t become something.
For “Vampires of Portlandia,” I never wanted to write a vampire book because I thought they were overdone. I mean, seriously, another vampire story? So when I started writing an aswang book that happened to include vampires, I was thinking that it would be a cool folklore story. But then Stephenie Meyer decided to release another “Twilight” book. Around. The. Same. Time. Then, all of a sudden, this little aswang book became a “vampire” story. Which it is, sort of. And that’s a good thing, because if vampires are coming back, it means that Filipino folklore can reach a wider audience and can potentially be a part of something bigger.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is to write the book that you want to write. If anything, if nothing comes from it, at least you had fun writing it.
How did publishing your first book change your literary process to what it is today?
A. I think books are more accessible today than 15-years-ago. Digital books weren’t really a thing back then, so the thought that you could sell a book to a person outside your local area was unheard of. Now, you can be in Zimbabwe and buy a Filipino aswang, I mean, vampire book.
How old were you when you first learned that language wielded power? What did that moment look like?
A. I remember reading “The Chronicles of Prydain” series as a kid, something like 12-years-old. I was just fascinated with how books could take you a different world. My favorite book of the series was “The Black Cauldron” and I remember how excited I was to talk about it, and to be honest, I can’t recall what the series is about now. Something about a pig keeper?
Sometimes, authors base characters on actors or artists; are there any characters in this novel inspired by real people? Does VOP have a dream cast? Who are they?
A. I don’t base characters on any actor or artist per se, but I will tell you that a dream cast would include Lou Diamond Phillips as Arturo and Bruno Mars as Percival.
If anything, what did you edit out of VOP that you regret nixing?
A. There were actually a third cousin and a dog named Ay Nako. No, no, I’m just kidding. I think the book was edited to deliver the best story possible, and I hope that people enjoy it. Kudos to the editors who worked on this book. They definitely did all the heavy lifting.
Do you read your own book reviews? How do you deal with the “bad” ones, if any?
A. I do, both good and bad. And with both, my goal is to glean the feedback that offers value. But after that, I don’t pay too much attention. For my book, “Anonymous,” Publishers Weekly gave it a Starred Review. About a month later, a writer from HuffPost hated it so much he emailed me and said, “If I could give it a zero star, I would, so I’ve decided not to review it.” There’s a line in Stephen King’s writing book, “On Writing,” where he says (I’m paraphrasing): “When you write the book, it belongs to you. When you publish the book, it belongs to everyone.”
May is Asian Heritage Month, and every day I’m learning more and more about mainstream authors who are of Asian ancestry. Sometimes I go, oh, I didn’t know they (lately, YA/ NA authors) were Filipino or Chinese or Malaysian, etc., what a pleasant surprise… Other times, I’m like, well I wish I didn’t feel like I had to fish for or randomly happen upon these authors. I wish there were more, and authors like you greatly inspire me and other aspiring writers of our background. How do you feel about our current cultural representation in the literary industry?
A. I think Asian authors get love. I don’t, however, think Filipino-American authors get love. The fact is there are a LOT of great Filipino-American and Filipino authors: Randy Ribay, Elaine Castillo, Gina Apostol, Erin Entrada Kelly, Janella Angeles, and Jessica Hagedorn, just to name some.
Google yourself. What’s the first thing that pops up?
A. It says, “Did you mean, Jason Momoa?”
What is one theme of VOP you hope young readers take away from Marcella and Percival’s story?
A. Marcella moves her family to Portland to blend in, mainly because Portland is known for being weird, which in a lot of cases equals different. They’re different, not only because they are Filipino, but also because they are vampires, so if there is anything to take away from “Vampires of Portlandia,” it’s that it’s OK to be different, or weird, or unusual.
Thank you so much for your time, Jason. In closing, can you share with us what you’re working on now? And where can readers find you?
A. I’m currently drafting the outline to another Filipino folklore story, which may or may not be a “Vampires of Portlandia” sequel.
You can find me at www.tanamor.com. All my social media links can be found there. Thanks for the interview!
About the Author:
Jason Tanamor is the critically acclaimed author of the novels "Anonymous" and "Drama Dolls." His new novel "Vampires of Portlandia" is a NA urban fantasy about Filipino folklore - aswang.
His writings have appeared in more than 250 publications. He's interviewed personalities such as Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Pete Rose, and Dane Cook, and has covered U.S. President Barack Obama.
Tanamor currently lives and works in the Portland, Oregon area.