The words and the visions come to her and Karen Francisco welcomes them.
“I work best when I’m alone and when the world is still. Sometimes I’m up at 6 a.m., and I write or draw whatever I dreamed about, or whatever thought woke me up. Then at night, I let the words flow, picking up from whatever adventure I had that day.”
That flow of ideas and characters took form in the 25-year-old author’s first novel, “Naermyth,” published by Visprint in late 2010. The unusual, edgy novel starts with Manila in ruins after a worldwide apocalypse at the hands of creatures we usually consider imaginary – aswangs, duwendes and their ilk – but are all too real. They are called “Naermyths,” which means “never myths.”
The book follows the brave protagonist Athena Abigail Dizon, better known as Aegis, one of the armed Shepherds who are tasked with protecting humans and bringing them to safety. But Aegis meets a mysterious man named Dorian, and along the way finds her world turned upside down because of dangerous and hidden enemies and the long-lost secrets of the Naermyths themselves.
From a heady blend of old country folklore, modern science and time spent escaping the classroom to dream about otherworldly places, Karen massaged into existence a tale of survival and discovery in a world that has gone quite mad. It also was a journey of self-discovery and finding her own place. “The world of Naermyth is an awful place to be, but it was my paradise.”
Karen Nicole Francisco was born on April 3, 1986, the second of four daughters of businessman Dennis Francisco and wife Cristina, whom Karen says, “has the best job in the world: molding four young girls into powerful, influential women.” She grew up in Glendale, California and read a lot.
“My sister and I were addicted to the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine,” she recalls. “Our dad would take us to the bookstore once a week to pick up the latest copies.”
Though they were living in the United States, Karen heard about the mythical creatures of her homeland through visiting relatives “who told us a ton of stories.” She even credits the Filipino video rental stores nearby for her familiarity with things that go bump in the Filipino night.
“If we didn’t hear about the duwende and tikabalang from our older relatives, we learned about them in ’80s horror films – the ones that put fake green goo on everything,” Karen says. “I craved for ‘Shake Rattle and Roll.’”
Karen knew even then that there was something extraordinarily fearful and inventive about the Filipino creatures, something that made them so different from the werewolves and vampires of western lore. “Filipino monsters are just so primeval – so animalistic it wasn’t hard to believe that they could have existed once upon a time.”
She did not fear them so much however, because she posited that the tikbalangs were too far away in the Philippines and “couldn’t afford airfare to California.”
She did learn of other places – magical, marvelous places – through books, such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. Indeed, she counts Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces” as her favorite. Her first taste of high fantasy came when she was 12 and read Tamora Pierce’s “Alanna” for the first time.
“I was captivated by the strong female lead who wielded a sword and fought alongside boys, defying society, culture and the law,” she recalls. She would later move on to thicker books like Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, as well as epics such as “Beowulf” and the “Iliad.”
Along with the reading, she began writing in sixth grade. “I didn’t think I could write. I knew I loved reading. I knew I loved making up stories in my head, but I never thought I could write them down. But puberty was kicking in and that pre-teen angst needed an outlet. At first I painted. I painted my dreams, my wishes and my fantasy world where I’d set out on adventures every day. But soon painting wasn’t enough, so I wrote out stories to go with my pictures. I discovered I loved the tandem of drawing and writing, so I paid more attention in class to hone this new form of art.”
By now returned to the Philippines, Karen followed her parents’ wishes that she should pursue law, and graduated from the Ateneo with a degree in political science. She followed that up with a stint at the Ateneo School of Law.
“It was a great experience and I don’t regret my time there,” she explains. She discovered more about herself: “I’ve always wanted to create things for a living –write and draw – and I couldn’t fully realize those dreams as a lawyer.”
During this time of transition came her big story. What would become “Naermyth” arrived in her head. “I needed an escape, so I wrote about a girl who had it much worse than me.” She wrote virtually every day and soon her notebooks sprouted notes about her story. In class, she would wonder about a Philippines ravaged by these creatures. She had spent a summer interning at a public law office, and it was there that the pieces of “Naermyth” began to come together. She imagined something like a third world war, when everything would just come to an end.
Originally, she had planned “Naermyth” as a graphic novel, harnessing her skill in both writing and drawing. She actually produced the first few pages. “The graphic novel would have taken me forever to finish. ‘Naermyth’ ended up as a novel with more than 300 pages, and if I had pursued ‘Naermyth’ as a graphic novel, it would have taken me a decade to complete.”
Now sure about what she wanted to do, Karen left law school and enrolled at the University of the Philippines where she took up a BA in visual communications. “Naermyth” continued to gain shape and substance.
She already knew what the big twist would be. “Stories always end with how the hero wins the war and everything will be happily ever after. But what if they didn’t win? I wanted to tell a story of a war lost. I wanted to place humanity in a position where they weren’t in control and test the boundaries of human action. Our people in particular, the Filipinos, how would we handle such a great devastation?”
From there came the idea of the weapon-wielding Shepherds and their mission of gathering the surviving human population, battling the Naermyth every step of the way. “Naermyth” produced its heroine, the headstrong, battle-weary Aegis, who came with her brave companions and enemies both expected and unexpected.
It would take her a year and a half to produce the massive manuscript. The research proved most challenging, as she studied everything from the myths of other countries, quantum physics and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, among many other topics. She wanted the creatures to be more than just bugaboos that nannies tell their wards.
She melded the supernatural with science: “I didn’t want the Naermyth to simply exist as we know them in our myths. The whole premise of the story is that these creatures were never myth in the first place, so I had to make them rational somehow. Rationalize the myth, so to speak.”
Karen would imbue the book with her sophisticated idea of a world of layers; things weren’t what they seemed at first glance. Action would mix with exposition. She sometimes felt like the book would never be finished. But from that struggle “Naermyth” emerged in its fullness. A friend happened to be a fan of Visprint author Bob Ong and suggested that Karen send the manuscript their way.
At that time, Karen wondered if she had done the right thing. “I’m a very private person and publishing a book I wrote at the peak of depression could be social suicide. But I figured: I have a story. It’s a good story and perhaps others could relate to it the way I did. Plus, I had nothing to lose.”
She needn’t have worried. Visprint (the nascent publishing house’s full name is Visual Print Enterprises) happily took the book in and “Naermyth” took another year to edit. Then one day, Karen beheld the actual book in her hands. “As I glided my hand down that shiny orange cover and smelled that minty paper scent, I felt like things were turning around for me. I was finally happy. I felt like I could die right then and there and people would remember my name. This was around mid-October. Halloween season, so it was a fitting moment to be graced with a paperback about dark creatures of the night.”
Since then, Karen has been very happy meeting people who have read “Naermyth.” She has been tinkering with the Naermyth website even as she tries to find time to run at the gym. She spends the rest of her time writing, drawing or reading. “I’m going to upload more illustrations, freebies, and the long awaited ‘Tito Bing’s Notebook’ within the upcoming months, so readers should stay tuned for that. And if I have time, I just might do an online comic. No promises, but I’m plotting out a spin-off story set in the Naermyth universe.”
Now come dreams of more writing. “Above all else, I want to encourage others to write. Those Philippine Publication shelves better be filled with novels in 10 years, and I want the demand for Filipino fiction to grow too. Awareness has to spread: We have good writers and Filipino works of art are just as good as any other.”
She’s ready to do her part. Of course, she is now planning the sequel for “Naermyth.” After all, she did plan it as a trilogy: “The story’s already set in my head—as well as the illustration for the covers. I hope it all works out.”
As always, Karen Francisco can read the words and see the images. She can almost feel them. It’s just a matter of catching them and building more worlds of her own making – and reaching out to her newfound readers. “They make it all worth it. When somebody tells me that they can relate to the character, or they’ve felt something similar to Athena’s woes, I know I’ve done my job as a storyteller.” •
For more information, log on to www.naermyth.co.cc. “Naermyth” is available at leading bookstores.