Interview Miguel Llona
Images Jose Dalisay, Jr.
It could be said that a writer pursues beauty through words. Would you say that is an accurate description of the act of writing, and if so, what is the beauty you strive to capture in your work?
The beauty of writing lies, for me, in evoking an image, an idea, or an emotion through words in a way that values order, proportion, purpose, and precision. I want the simplest words to produce the deepest effect.
How do you define “beauty?” Has your idea of it been shaped by your experiences over the years, or has it remained the same ever since you embarked on a writing career?
Beauty happens when form and content come together in perfect proportion, making you want to see or know more, but leaving it to your imagination to do so.
Other than being one of the great Filipino writers, you’re also known for being a voracious collector of fountain pens, typewriters, and old books. Can you share what inspired your “strange romance” with these objects, as you’ve recently called it in one of your columns?
I value almost anything older than myself—especially things having to do with writing—because they assure me that the past happened and that some things from the past will survive into the future. When I look at old things—books, pens, etc.—I imagine what they went through to get to me, who held them, what stories and fancy lies they wrote, and so on.
Take us through your process of finding these items. Do you follow some inner criteria regarding the objects you want to include in your collection? Do you place a lot of importance on the story behind each item?
I generally read up first, look at pictures, and go after things that appeal to me in some way—their design, their mechanism, their age, what they represent or remind people of. I enjoy the hunt, the connoisseurship, but also the inevitable surprises. I’ve been on eBay for 24 years, but I’ve found a rare mid-1920s Swan Eternal No. 48 pen in the Greenhills tiangge, and a book of English essays from 1551 in Cubao. Whenever we go abroad, my wife Beng and I seek out the flea markets and thrift shops. No fine dining or glitzy stores for us—junk is more fun, and cheaper, too.
One of your most famous stories is “Penmanship,” whose main character is a fountain pen enthusiast like yourself. In it, his pen is an heirloom that reminds him of a simpler time in his youth, of “breezy mornings perfumed by hot chocolate and talcum powder.” Is your desire to collect fountain pens, and other antiquated items, fueled by that same sense of nostalgia? Is the act of collecting your way of forging an “inescapable intimacy” with the past?
Contrary to what we might expect, we are not headed toward the future, but to the past; that’s where we will all belong, and I’m getting myself used to it. As I mentioned above, I find these objects reassuring, especially the old books, even those that come in languages I can’t read. They speak to me, as I hope to be able to speak to readers many generations from now, and spark the same kind of wonderment I get from reading accounts of voyages in the 1600s or an encyclopedia entry for “electricity” from 1797 (yes, I have them in my library). The magic is in holding the book itself in my hands, the physicality of memory.
Every fountain pen in your collection has its value, but I’m sure you still have your favorites among them. What is it about a specific item that makes you cherish it more than the others? Can you cite some examples, and the reason why you prize it more than the rest?
Well, there’s the “Penmanship” pen, of course, a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize that I bought while on a writing fellowship in Scotland, and had such awful buyers’ remorse over that I wrote a story to feel better (and it won a prize, and I got my money back). I have pens that had been used by other writers, and books signed by authors I admire. Years ago I found a first edition of America Is in the Heart that had been inscribed by Carlos Bulosan to his friend Fred Ruiz Castro. I gave that to our daughter as our wedding gift (she will inherit nothing from me but old books, pens, and creaky machines); when he heard about it, Greg Brillantes gave me his own first-edition copy of the book. Sometimes the backstories are more precious than the things themselves.
Where do you store your collection, and what are the measures you take to keep them in good shape? What are the problems you watch out for when it comes to preserving your collected items, especially those that date back decades or even centuries?
I keep the fragile papers in mylar sleeves and have dehumidifiers in my library for the books. The pens go into custom cases, away from sunlight. Thankfully my wife is a conservator and restorer, although it’s another friend of hers, a specialist in paper, who restores my old books.
Your collection must have grown to the point that you can now open your own museum about the writing trade. Do you plan on sharing your collection with the public in the future? If so, what do you hope it can impart not only to both aspiring and accomplished writers but to ordinary people as well?
If my alma mater UP can spare a room in the library for my books, I would gladly donate everything to them, except for a few books that my daughter will keep. I’d like for all the books to be kept in one place, so there’s a coherence to the collection. This makes it easy for me to keep buying things (and I’m not a rich man!)—knowing that they’re just passing through my hands and will be lodged eventually where they can bring delight to more people, for free.
Let’s talk about manuscripts since you also collect books or volumes that date back centuries. What beauty do you find in these books and leafing through their century-old pages? Does it provide you any new perspective as a writer?
There’s a word that some smart person created, “biblichor,” that describes the smell of old books, as “petrichor” describes that smell that lifts off dry earth and stone when it rains. When I open the door of my aparador that contains the oldest books, I get a blast of biblichor, and it gives me a high. I also enjoy old magazines, Filipino ones, from the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike books, they were meant to be fun, and they still are, although now they exude charm more than anything.
With our increasingly digital world, most (if not all) writers are writing by hand less and less, even though it’s been said that handwriting engages our brains better. Is that something you lament? Do you still write by hand these days, and if so, for what occasions?
Sadly, no; I just use my pens when I’m inscribing a greeting card or some such throwback, or when I’m signing a letter I enjoyed writing (for checks I use ballpoints, because every check I write leaves me poorer). I do all of my writing (like this article) on a MacBook Air. I have a digital flipside to my analog; I’m a Mac and Apple freak and at one time had more than 25 computers in the house, in their own collection; my wife was happy when I gave them away because we had run out of storage space. Computers were invented for a reason, and they’re terrific writing machines—you can revise very easily, do research online, send off multiple copies, and publish your work instantly. No pen or typewriter can do that.
As one of the most prolific writers out there, can you share something about your writing process? Have you always followed a strict schedule? And how do you continue to sustain your writing energy, or “juice” as Ernest Hemingway calls it?
I’ve described myself as the “Swiss Army Knife” of writing because I’m a professional who has to write to live. So I write commissioned biographies, political speeches, potboiler movie scripts, etc.—anything that will sell. These will pay not only for food and rent but for my toys (and the sustenance of those I care for). Knowing that keeps me typing away. I give myself incentives to write—another pen, another trip, and so on.
You’ve often said that you have a growing folder of unfinished stories on your computer, which I assume is common for serious writers. How often do you go back to these drafts, and what compels you to start working on one again?
I’m a shameless cannibalizer of old material. I have drafts of stories that went nowhere, going back 20 years or more, and now and then I revisit that folder to see what I can use—a line, a paragraph, an image—much like a junkyard. Good lines and images shouldn’t go to waste.
Some writers tend to get caught in an endless loop of revisions, in their desire to perfect the story. Based on your experience, how do you know if a story is “finished?” Has there ever been a time when you declared a story as “finished,” even though some dissatisfaction lingers?
A story is finished when you can predict what the next line or scene is going to be, at which point it’s best to leave it unsaid and let the moment linger. On the other hand, was it Paul Valery who said that “A poem is never finished, merely abandoned?” Ending a story (or a poem) is an art in itself. You have to know—to feel it in your bones—when to stop and walk away and play poker or enjoy a halo-halo.
What non-writing activities would you say help you the most, in terms of stimulating and sustaining your creative energy?
Pre-Covid, it was all-night poker. Now it’s just surfing and checking the online listings for my objects of desire. I enjoy playing with my four-year-old apu-apuhan Buboy, and taking an afternoon nap. I have to work myself up to a state of stress to write, so I also need relief aplenty.
If you didn’t decide to become a writer early in life, what would you be doing now?
Maybe I’d be a rich, fat lawyer driving around in a Lexus (and a Range Rover on weekends). Life could be worse. •
The musings of a Pinoy penman at penmanila.ph