Welcome back to the Tropical Romance Book Club! The idea for this series is – for me, and hopefully you readers too – to explore some books which tell love stories set in places we in the Western publishing world don’t usually see much, told in the voices of people who live there. Our first book is One Night at the Palace Hotel, set in Manila, capital of the Philippines. The book’s author, Bianca Mori, has graciously agreed to join us to talk about reading and writing romance in the Philippines.
CR: Thanks for taking time to talk with me! I enjoyed One Night at the Palace Hotel. Let’s begin with your beginning – How did you first discover romance?
BM: In my teens my first exposure to the genre were Sweet Valley and Sweet Dreams books. I used to collect Sweet Valley Twins titles, and then in high school I discovered vintage, 80s era Sweet Dreams titles at our school library (I was in high school in the 90s.) Kiss Me, Creep was my favorite!
Then I went to college and took a creative writing major and got exposed to a very anti-romance way of thinking, so for a time I bought into the whole idea of capital L literature. But in my twenties, I started reading chick lit (Bridget Jones FTW) and started writing that. My chick lit series led to my first publishing deal in the Philippines, so take that, I guess, snooty professors.
CR: Put me in the shoes of a typical romance reader in the Philippines getting a new book. Where do I buy, and what is available?
BM: The Philippines has a robust reading audience in the mid and upper middle classes, plus we have one of the highest rates of social media usage in the world. So there is a funny mix where mainstream readers who go to bookstores (we have three huge bookstore chains here) will be faced with a lot of gatekeeping and kind of nudged towards award-winning foreign/local titles, or if it’s genre, towards horror, science fiction and fantasy. The mainstream publishing industry is quite small so these are people who move in the same circles and kind of enforce that “capital L literature” attitude when it comes to Filipino fiction. At bookstores, local titles are usually bunched together in one shelf and it’s a mix of social realism fiction all the way to Filipino romances in Tagalog. Filipino language romances are also widely sold at convenience stores, which is pretty cool!
What happens then is that a lot of readers who enjoy romance and get this not-exactly-welcoming subliminal message from bookstores go online for their fix. We have a very strong Wattpad community. There’s also another serialized reading app called Radish which is popular.
I’m part of a community of Filipino writers who write in English called #romanceclass, and while some of us have publishing deals, we mostly self-publish on Amazon and print small batches of our books for events. That said, online and ebooks don’t get that much of traction since credit card usage isn’t very high and some segments of our readers have trouble with the concept of, “if it’s a PDF I still need to pay for it?” Haha.
CR: What kind of romances are popular in the Philippines? Who would you say are the most popular romance authors?
BM: We publish a lot of romances, the majority of which are contemporaries, with heat levels ranging from just kissing to level 4 (this graphic made by Miles Tan explains more!). Over the past three years our LGBT authors have also been publishing LGBTQIA romances. In terms of sub genres such as mystery, historical and paranormal, there’s not a lot of that yet for romances in English. Filipino language romances do a lot more of the subgenres and the two main players there are Precious Hearts and My Special Valentine. They do Gothic romances, military, paranormal.
Re popular authors – Locally the romance community owes a huge debt to Mina V. Esguerra, who founded #romanceclass and mentored a lot of us and is super prolific to boot. Six de los Reyes writes STEM romances and counts Courtney Milan as a fan. When it comes to foreign authors, Nora Roberts and Jude Deveraux are incredibly popular – many authors discovered romance thanks to books of these two women in their moms’ collections! – while Tessa Dare, Beverley Jenkins and Julia Quinn are also faves for the younger generation of romance fans.
CR: What is it like being a romance author in the Philippines? Can you make a living or is it a side gig?
BM: It’s a side gig, honestly. Because of the gatekeeping and the insular nature of the publishing industry, some of us who’ve done the mainstream publishing bit have gotten burned due to lack of support, lack of marketing know-how, shoddy contracts – not that literary or horror or SF writers have it any better. So we mostly go the indie route, which I mentioned isn’t exactly profitable given the low rate of credit card usage and some readers, while enthusiastic, expecting online and ebooks to be free. We’ve also tried writing Western characters in international settings to appeal to international readers too (e.g. my Takedown trilogy). So yeah.. .we all have day jobs. :) I’m a marketing executive and in the #romanceclass community we’ve got a doctor, a marine biologist, an economics professor, an architect – pretty cool!).
CR: The Manila society setting (and its contrast with the Chicago flashbacks) are essential to the world of One Night at the Palace Hotel. Can you talk a bit about how setting is important to your books, and what it means to you to write local stories?
BM: Setting is a huge part of my process and really informs who the characters are and what they do. “Write what you know” is important advice that’s served me well, but there are times when I just want to break free from the corporate, middle-class Manila setting that’s most familiar to me. Taking something familiar and extrapolating from there – like with ONATPH, which mixes what I know of Manila society but is also influenced by To Marry An English Lord – is a lot of fun.
CR: For any of our readers who want to continue exploring the Philippines, can you recommend some works, and tell us a bit about them?
BM: Check out #romanceclass books, which currently has 170 books, most of which fit the local characters/settings/authors criteria! My recommendations:
Mina V. Esguerra – Iris After The Incident, which tackles a pretty heavy subject–the fallout of online bullying and shaming, especially as it relates to women. Powerful stuff.
Carla de Guzman – If The Dress Fits, a plus-size, body positive, sexy romance with just the best male lead.
Agay Llanera – Another Word For Happy – a YA coming-out-story which is just incredibly, incredibly sweet and swoony.
Jay E. Tria – You Out Of Nowhere – Older woman who’s done with dating, younger guy who follows his heart. This one has the most accurate depiction of the traffic hell in Manila so bonus points for that too.
CR: This has been fascinating! Thank you so much!
BM: Thanks for reading me and please explore more Filipino romances! :)
And now over to you, readers. Did you read One Night at the Palace Hotel with me? Will you give one of Bianca’s recommendations a try?
Also, please join me for my next Tropical Romance read. I will be traveling to (drumroll….) the Caribbean island of Trinidad, with a book by Simona Taylor! I hope you will join me!
Bianca Mori is the author of One Night at the Palace Hotel and Tame The Kitten. She is interested in exploring power in romance and enjoys reading about demimondaines, pin-up girls and Jazz Age personalities and hopes to reinterpret these in her stories. Currently, she writes romantic suspense with the Takedown trilogy. She lives with her family and a hyperactive pug.