My current favorite book of 2012 is a Kindle-only, self-published novel by a first-time writer named John Falch.
The Yellow Bar is an epic tale told from multiple perspectives by a group of characters whom the reader grows to love. Briefly, it’s the story of the Reynaldo family, who (mostly) live through both the occupation of Manila by the Japanese in World War II and the battle to recover it by American forces led by Douglas Macarthur. On a broader scale, though, it’s the story of a nation–the Philippines–undergoing an ordeal by fire that no country, or people should have to endure.
When I read it, at the recommendation of my friend Philip Coggan, I kept thinking it couldn’t really be fiction; it was too true, there was too much unique detail. And, as it turns out, Falch heard much of it from the family of his Filipina wife, semi-fictionalized in the book as the Reynaldos. I just finished writing about this part of Falch’s process–where the stories come from, and his relationship to them–over on MURDER IS EVERYWHERE, and you really ought to read that post if this topic interests you. It’s at http://bit.ly/P6myrA
After I read the book, with my jaw dropping open on page after page, I contacted John Falch, who lives in Jakarta, and asked him to talk with me about how someone who has never written a novel before tackled such an epic topic, and in such a complex fashion. He answered all my questions, but the one thing he never mentioned is the thing that most sets The Yellow Bar apart: Falch is an enormous talent.
Did you plot the book in advance or find your way through as you wrote it?
I did an outline with pencil and paper. It had three columns: Before the War, the Occupation, and MacArthur Returns. I placed “events” inside them, hoping to link it all up. But not everything was plotted in advance, some of it just came out of nowhere. For example, Eric Lawson, the gay hotel manager, was originally going to be a cameo, an inside joke based on a friend of mine. Well damn, he kept popping up and making himself useful. Imelda the wayward maid also just fell from the sky.
The book goes back and forth among first- and third-person viewpoint: first for little Pepot, a boy of ten when the story opens, who grew up to be your father-in-law; then to an omniscient third to describe historical events, and much closer third-person narratives centered on Pepot’s Aunt Pinky; Eric Lawson, and the eight-year old orphan girl, Imang, who goes through hell and (thank God) survives to become your mother in-law. When did you decide to use multiple viewpoints? What were the benefits and challenges (if there were any)?
Imang, grown up
Yes, the story bounces around several narratives, which is exactly what I didn’t want to do. It can be dangerous. I first started the novel with Pepot’s voice alone and almost immediately ran into problems when I wanted to create the background of the main characters and the history of colonial Manila. I didn’t want to say, “My Auntie did this… My Mother told me that…” It was a waste of words and conflicted with the flow of the story. Also, Pepot’s narrative wouldn’t allow me to go into important detail of the war itself. Who was Pepot, a genius boy scholar?
My secret solution was to go into other viewpoints but (in my head, at least) they would really come from Pepot himself. You see, Pepot, my late father in-law, passed away in 1993. As far as I’m concerned, he is now omniscient and knows everything. By doing this, I feel the novel keeps the same language, the same nuance and style. I do not recommend multiple narratives to other authors, but if you have to, here is my cheat: Limit the first person narrative to one character only and make the other viewpoints as unobtrusive as possible.
I have to say that you never stumble with this technique; I never had the slightest doubt where I was or why I was there. Obviously, I had no idea that the third-person was actually Pepot, from beyond, so to speak. But now that I know it, it explains the harmony and consistency that’s part of the charm of the book.
Did the scope of the story give you anxious moments? If so, how did you deal with the anxiety?
First I had to make a choice. True story or a work of fiction? I chose fiction for several reasons, the main one being that it gave me artistic license to change a few things. Secondly, by making it fiction, I wouldn’t accidently offend a family member. (Remember, they have butterfly knives there!) Other than Pepot and Imang, I made sure not to use any other relative’s name. Besides, if this was going to be a war novel, then somebody was going to die!
Call me a pacifist or call me a sissy, I didn’t relish killing anyone. I avoided choosing who for as long as I could. This was a mistake because the longer I worked on the book, the more real the characters became to me. Who wants to kill off good friends?
Another problem reared its head when I was about a third of the way into the book. The Tagalog words. At first they had seemed quaint and exotic and I used them liberally, but then they started to get in the way, making the Reynaldos seem a bit removed from you and me. That was the last thing I wanted, so Kuya Dading became Uncle Dading, etc. Rewrite and rewrite again.
The biggest bump in the road was that The Yellow Bar is an historical novel. I got anal retentive about the war facts being absolutely correct. It meant some serious research, which slowed down the writing of the story. I wasted days just searching for how parachutes were made in Manila. (Hint: Google. Buried very, very deep in cyberspace.) I read diaries and army reports. I nailed a 1935 map of Manila up over my computer. Slowly I became an expert on World War Two Philippines and the Battle of Manila. I had to. My next novel will not be historical.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Well, I hope they were entertained. I hope they learned a few things. There is no hidden message in this story, which is obviously against war. Perhaps one thing we should remember is that no matter what part of the planet you’re from, we humans have so many small, silly things in common. For example, I am from the American south and Filipinos share many of our southern traits: We drink, we over-eat, take afternoon naps, and leave the Christmas decorations hanging up until February. What is there to hate?
Well, there’s nothing to hate about The Yellow Bar. I not only enjoyed it, I was thrilled by it–and it broke my heart.
I hope everyone who sees this–and can read a Kindle file–will download the book here http://amzn.to/MMV5JH At $2.99, it’s the deal of the century.