By Ana Valenzuela
At first, Jennifer Hallock was apprehensive about writing a story set in the Philippines.
“When I was working here, I began writing romance,” she said. “I started writing romance set in the United States, in the town where I grew up. My husband looked at me and said ‘you are an idiot! Why are you wasting this opportunity? You are living in the Philippines, you are a history teacher, there’s history here, and you should be doing that.’”
Not only did her husband criticize her first draft, he also gave her the idea for one of her novels, specifically the second book in her series, Under the Sugar Sun. She tells us, “My husband said, ‘I don’t know. Why don’t you write something about those Thomasites, those American teachers, she comes in and falls in love with a sugar baron, doesn’t that sound Jane Austen-y enough for you. You could make that work.’”
It sounded hard at first for Jennifer, but she thought about it and said to herself, “yeah, why isn’t everyone writing in the Philippines, about Philippine history. There are so many wonderful stories to be told here. I can only tell so many, there are so many yet to be told. I look forward to other people telling some good stories.”
So she did some research. It included driving from Laguna (where she used to live) to Ateneo de Manila to look at the university’s historical collection, going to the Manila Times office to browse through old newspapers and advertisements through the microfische, and spending days in front of Google—more of Google books and news. She says she gets a lot of story ideas from research.
In fact, while researching for the first book of her Sugar Sun series, Hotel Oriente, she stumbled upon some interesting accounts about the then premier hotel in Manila. “In that book, there’s sort of a joke about an egg shortage, there’s sort of a thing about a mattress being missing,” she shares. “There are tidbits of the plot that are true. That actually came from an American’s experience. That was actually their experience at the Hotel Oriente.”
She also had to make sure that the language is real. In the third in the Sugar Sun series, Tempting Hymn, which was recently released on Amazon, Hallock discloses that “all the horrible things that missionaries said, they actually said that stuff. It’s depressing.”
Also, for Tempting Hymn, it was not a lot of dramatic plot twists. There are no trips to Catbalogan unlike in Under the Sugar Sun. There are no scandals, unlike in Hotel Oriente. “It is more character-driven than political,” she says. “There is a little bit of politics. It’s church politics, because Dumaguete is a town of Presbyterian missionary. I have a Presbyterian missionary hero and a Filipina Catholic heroine, so there’s a little of politics. But the politics I think are definitely a side show. The real key is between these two characters.”
She continues, “It is about two people in an intercultural marriage who can create a place for themselves. His community has expectations, her community has expectations. How do they find common ground so they can both feel like they both found a home for both of them?”
Rosa, the heroine in Tempting Hymn is also the first Filipina heroine that Hallock has ever written, which she admits scared the living daylights out of her. “I still feel a lot of anxiety about that aspect of it, because it’s easier to write a character like Javier (the hero in Under the Sugar Sun) who was this English educated, world traveling Filipino, he had worked and lived in Europe. He was closer to my experience in that way. A lot of what he cared about like politics and economics, I cared about. So in that way I was closer to him and I can write him.”
“Rosa, she is a nurse, I don’t know anything about nursing—nothing,” she says.
The other scary part she discloses is that she does not have anyone to base Rosa on, unlike her other characters. Although, she acknowledges that a certain Filipina gave some bit of inspiration. “When I lived in the Philippines, I had a helper. She was a single mother of a boy with Down Syndrome. Her name is Meliza, and she works so hard to support her son, to make sure that he was taken care of. The father of her child left them. The baby was born, and he wasn’t well, and the guy just took off. I felt like, I was so mad about that, so I think that was a little bit of the inspiration of the outline of the story in that sense.”
Hallock reveals, “I ended up dedicating the book to her and some other people who are sort of models, who I think we should be in terms of work ethic.”
Apart from that, she concedes, “I do think that readers are hard on heroines. It’s frightening. That’s the risk. I hope people like her (Rosa), she has worked so hard to support herself, to support her son.”
When Hallock began writing her books, she had a specific market in mind and it did not include the audience in which her stories were set, and that was here in the Philippines.
The first book in the series Hotel Oriente (which was published after Under the Sugar Sun) was meant to bring more Americans to the series. “I think Americans are intimidated by history that they don’t know,” she says. “When they read romance they want to relax, they don’t want to learn too much.”
“Hotel Oriente is the only book with two American characters, an American hero and an American heroine, that was meant to say ‘there’s just a little bit of history here, and it’s in a city you’ve heard of (Manila), come on over or give it a shot,’ that was the plan. But most of the other books will be in the South.”
“I originally wrote my books thinking they would be read by an American audience because my point was I wanted Americans to know about this part of American and Philippine history,” she says. “I would have been too scared to give this to Filipino readers, Oh no you wouldn’t like this. Oh no you already know this, I am so sorry!”
But she was surprised with the reception of the Filipino reading audience that she seems to be getting on Amazon alone and her recent visit in Manila (which included talks at Alabang Town Center and Ayala Museum). “I am touched. I am just honored by the fact that people enjoy them.”