Alex Gilvarry is embarrassed. He’s at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and he’s wearing sweat pants. He’s not alone—other travelers have shown up for their long-haul flights wearing sweats. But when you’re the author who created Boyet Hernandez, a fashion designer so blindingly devoted to his craft that he landed in Guantanamo Bay, you have to have higher standards.
“I always liked good clothes,” he told me days earlier at the Copper Room of Best Western Premier F1 Hotel in Taguig. National Book Store brought Alex to the Philippines for a reading and signing at Powerbooks Greenbelt 4 and to make an appearance at the Manila International Book Fair.
Alex’s debut novel, “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant,” tells the story of Boy, a Filipino immigrant in New York, whose big fashion dreams lead him to become a suspected terrorist.
Readers have devoured it, and critics—from the New York Times, Boston Globe, Glamour, People and Daily Beast—have lavished it with praise. For good reason.
Funny and troubling, dark and playful, “From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant” takes readers on a unique ride from New York’s glitzy runways to the bowels of prison.
In this interview with Super, Alex talks about his book, Guantanamo Bay, Bryanboy and his Filipino mother.
Where did you get the idea to combine the two very different worlds of fashion and terrorism in one story?
I had wanted to write my first novel about the post-9/11 New York I was living in. At that time, I was working in SoHo, the very fashionable district in Manhattan. My girlfriend at the time was a model. I was always going to fashion parties and runway shows. I thought of this character Boy Hernandez, and I made him a fashion designer. Somewhere in my mind, the two subjects just met. They don’t have anything in common but in my crazy world, they did.
How much did you know about fashion when you started writing the book?
I had a very basic understanding of fashion. But I had to make Boy sound real. Fashion’s an easy target for humor but if people were going to take the character seriously, it had to be believable. I did a lot of research. I learned to write about women’s clothing by reading women’s magazines like Vogue and W. I read Coco Chanel’s biography. I tried to read what I thought he would read.
How much research did you do on Guantanamo Bay?
I read actual court cases, court transcripts from the tribunals. I read every book I possibly could about Guantanamo. And through those, I was able to grab details and create a sense of the place. When I started the book, there weren’t as many photos of Guantanamo as we have now. What we did have were horrifying photos of men on their knees with masks on. I took details, like the ones about the showers, the sizes of the cells, and let my imagination take care of the rest.
What was the hardest thing about writing the book?
It has nothing to do with any of the subjects in the book. I think anything can be written in a novel. Anything can be fictionalized or imagined. It was really learning to be a novelist for me, to show up five, six days a week and to do it every single day for three years. The discipline is the hardest thing. You really have to change your life. You have to go away for a while. You have to tell people no, you can’t go out. That was the most difficult thing.
That’s really a natural step. My first drafts aren’t very good but I can move on because I know I’m going to rewrite every single sentence. I am hard on myself, definitely. But because it’s part of my work I don’t really think about it. Editing is quite natural. My editor was hard on me. That was interesting.
I heard you had to take sex scenes out. Is that true?
I took sex scenes out, yeah. (laughs) They didn’t make a lot of sense. I thought they were pretty good. I can release the sex scenes, the uncut version. (laughs)
How much fun did you have working on the footnotes? They were so funny.
I had a lot of fun. I would make myself laugh sometimes. At times they were real—I would get the quote wrong or attribute it to the wrong person and I’d realize that, and that would become a footnote.
You were in your 20s the first time you went to the Philippines, but you wrote about a character who grew up here. Did that make things hard for you?
I think I came to the Philippines first before I invented the character. My trip sort of fed my imagination of somebody who is from here. There was a lot of pressure to also make that real. I did research on the Philippines too, the history of the country, what he would know.
Did you ask your mom for inputs?
I ran some of the Tagalog in the book by her. I don’t speak Tagalog so I would confer with her.
How Filipino was your upbringing?
Filipino food is like comfort food for me—I ate it growing up. Tagalog was spoken in the house. It was my mom and her friends and my grandma and her family. She was always there, she was the one who brought me up. I looked at it as a very Filipino household. But not until I got to the Philippines and saw real Filipino households did I see how American it actually was.
Is it true that your mom inspired the way Boy talks sometimes, and his use of idioms?
Yeah. I love the rhythms and the surprises you can get from immigrant speech. It was my mother who taught me language in addition to my father—it was kind of a mixed household. A lot of the mistakes in the book, I had made because that’s how I learned language from a Filipino mother. A lot of that is a part of me, too.
How tired are you of people asking if Boy was based on Bryanboy?
(Laughs) I’m not that tired. I’ve been trying to ride BryanBoy’s coattails since the book came out. That was the biggest coincidence. I started writing this book, I was about halfway through, and my friend Liz Moore, this author who reads my work for me, told me, “Hey, have you ever heard of this guy BryanBoy? He looks exactly like your main character.” So I checked him out online.
Have you ever met him?
No, I haven’t. Writing the book, I read the blog a lot. I actually wrote Bryanboy in the book. But I don’t know him, no.
You’re the founding editor of Tottenville Review, a book review collaborative website. What was it like to be on the other end of the stick? How did it feel to be reviewed?
It helped me realize what we were doing by reviewing. I understood now how hard it was to create one of these things and to easily dismiss it. I became very aware of that. I think it made me a better editor. As an author, being reviewed could be torture. You could drive yourself nuts. If you’re getting reviewed, if you’re getting bad reviews, or if you’re not getting reviewed, you become obsessed. That’s why a lot of authors don’t read the reviews. That’s probably a good thing to do.
But you do?
Yeah, I read every single review that comes out. I can’t help myself.
Do you Google yourself?
I have a Google alert on my name. I’m obsessed with it. Hopefully I’ll get better, and it won’t be that bad in the future.
What’s the best thing somebody’s said about your book?
The New York Times called it Bellowesque. I’m a huge fan of Saul Bellow, so that was the best thing I had heard because for many years I was trying to channel Saul Bellow into the work.
Did you expect the book to get the attention it did?
No. Everything’s been really new to me and really surprising. I didn’t expect to have a New York Times profile and a great review in the same paper and then to have worldwide reviews. All of this has been completely surprising. And it’s surprising when I get a bad review. (Laughs) I’m like, “What?”
Do you get affected by bad reviews?
Take a walk
How do you shake it off?
I take a long walk. I smoke a cigarette. And then I’m better.
Is it true that your next book is going to be about a war correspondent?
Yeah. It’s going to take place in Vietnam, a little in the Philippines. I’m a little bit into it. I’m looking forward to writing it. Hopefully within a year I can finish it.
Do you have any quirks as a writer?
I have different quirks. I used to work really really well in the mornings. I work from nine to one. Or I would work well from this one coffee shop, in this one seat, and I would go there for six months straight. If somebody was in my seat, the day’s ruined. It would be good if I could get my seat. But then things changed. With the new book, I’ve been writing a lot in italics. I don’t know why. It’s been helping me. I don’t think in the actual book it will be in italics but right now I’m writing in italics. Whatever you can do to get yourself going.
Do you still subscribe to Vogue?
I still do. I read it from time to time. They’ve been good to me. They asked me to write a short story for them online one time. I read the Sunday Style section of the New York Times. I’m still kind of excited by what’s going on in fashion.
Most first novels are autobiographical. Do you see yourself in Boy in any way?
I do. His passion for his art is the same as mine. A lot of what happens to him—just with relationships and women—that stuff has been happening to me for years. I take a lot from my own life but at the same time it’s not autobiographical because in this book I found a way to write about myself, but also write about somebody completely new and create somebody from the ground up.
Have people been reaching out to you to tell you that they can relate to Boy?
A lot of Filipinos who were born here but who now live in the United States would tell me that I got it right. A lot of people have reached out to me, even people who used to work with Guantanamo detainees, have written me letters and thanked me. It’s been an amazing ride.
The idea of that you could be plucked from your life without you doing anything wrong was scary to me. Was that something that scared you as well?
It did. It was a big fear of mine, the way the US policy takes away many freedoms that we have when dealing with terrorists–something that used to be protected. I don’t think I was actually afraid of being taken and swept up in the middle of the night but it was certainly a road we were going down that I wanted to make a big statement about.
How do you feel about people comparing the book to “Zoolander”?
(Laughs) I think that’s funny. A friend of mine told me that. “You know, this is a great story. But if you look at ‘Zoolander,’ it’s pretty close.” And I was like, “You’re right. The plot is actually really similar.” It hit me after. I thought it was funny.
Have you had crazy experiences with fans?
No. My readers seem to be pretty normal and well adjusted. They’ll send me tweets and they thank me for writing a good book, and that makes me happy.
“From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant” is available for P995 at National Book Store, Powerbooks and Bestsellers branches. Visit www.nationalbookstore.com. Tweet Alex at @Gilvarry.