Of all of the world’s bestseller lists, the single most prestigious list is the New York Times Fiction Print Hardcover, which enumerates the most sold copies of any novel, regardless of genre. Anyone who cracks this list is the very definition of a “New York Times Bestselling Author” such as perennials Stephen King, Danielle Steele and James Patterson.
On Oct. 21, Thea Guanzon became the first Filipino author to crack this upper echelon. Her fantasy romance novel “The Hurricane Wars” (HarperCollins, New York, 2023, 473 pages) was ranked no. 12 on the list, just behind King’s “Holly” (no. 3), Steele’s “Second Act” (no. 6), Patterson’s “12 Months to Live” (no.7), Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake” (no. 9), Ken Follett’s “The Armor of Light” (no. 10) and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead” (no. 11). “The Hurricane Wars” was also ranked no. 75 on USA Today’s bestseller list and named one of Barnes & Noble’s Best Books of 2023.
Filipino authors have been covered and their titles named Notable Books by the Times, but Guanzon’s feat is by far the most noteworthy in terms of mainstream sales success in the lucrative North American market. This is also perhaps the crowning moment for a true emergence of contemporary Filipino authors being recognized as their works are being published by international companies and read by foreign readers.
The 34-year-old Guanzon lives in Metro Manila but was born in Bacolod. “Growing up in the Visayas, I was a very bookish child,” she tells Inquirer Lifestyle. “My grandfather kept a huge library at our ancestral house and I was given free rein to read whatever book I wanted. I would also sneakily help myself to my mom’s extensive collection of adult romance paperbacks and therefore developed very unrealistic expectations for relationships.” She would move to Metro Manila in the early 2000s to earn her B.A. in International Studies from Miriam College.
But writing was something that came naturally to her: “Writing was always an all-consuming passion for me. I wrote my first short story in third grade and I just never stopped. It was a way for me to express myself, to capture all that I was feeling and could never say out loud.”
She is a self-admitted addict of everything from K-dramas to teleseryes, and learned immensely about world-building from her experience with the roleplaying game “Dungeons & Dragons.” “I’m the Dungeon Master—essentially the narrator who gives the players scenarios to react to and who describes what they experience–and it has been so incredibly helpful in my craft, to set the world, to make it immersive and something that your players will be invested in and the same principle applies to writing.”
What also honed her craft was her passion for writing fan fiction, specifically “Reylo” fanfiction which takes its name from the enemies-to-lovers trope of Rey and Kylo Ren of the “Star Wars” Sequel Trilogy. In fact, Guanzon’s short story “Dune Sea Songs of Salt and Moonlight” was published in Penguin Random House’s “Star Wars—Return of the Jedi: From a Certain Point of View Anthology,” an anthology celebrating the 40th anniversary of the film.
Guanzon actually began writing what would become her first novel during the 2020 lockdown and took two years to finish the first draft: “I’m slow, but I get there in the end!”
The Force is strong with this one, as she was soon signed up by one of the top agents in the business, Thao Le, who also represents Ali Hazelwood, among others.
The rights to “The Hurricane Wars” was put up for auction, with HarperCollins coming up with the winning number. The deal was announced in Publishers Marketplace Deal Report on April 4, 2022. Foreign-language translations will be available in Europe in 2024.
“The Hurricane Wars” is the first of a fantasy trilogy set in the Southeast Asia-inspired world of Lir, where natural forces themselves are harnessed to wage war. The Night Empire is tearing across the land, conquering everything it encounters. Its greatest weapon is Prince Alaric, who wields the dreaded Shadow magic. But among the brave if outgunned resistance is a girl warrior with a secret: Talasyn, who holds the light magic the Night Empire has long feared. Inevitably, the two will meet, but will they destroy or fall for each other?
The world-building of “The Hurricane Wars” is excellent, as Lir is so real and so detailed you can touch it. The different factions have their own agendas and schemes. Similarly good are the characters. For a would-be conqueror, Alaric has the best lines, and Talasyn’s annoyance for him is a welcome trait. The supporting characters, such as Khaede and Gaheris, are memorable in different ways. “The Hurricane Wars” works because it whips the reader well into its world even if you’ve read this genre before, with Guanzon’s little homages to her heritage shining through. And just when you think you’ve figured it out, the book turns in such a way that will make you urgently want to know what will happen to Talasyn and Alaric next.
Inquirer Lifestyle interviewed Guanzon over email. Here are excerpts:
This is your first novel. Why choose a fantasy romance for it?
For me, fantasy romance is one of the most immersive forms of escapism. As a reader, it allows you to disappear into a whole new world while you get to swoon over a love story at the same time. As a writer, it serves as an outlet for my hyperactive imagination while still letting me capture all the chaos of the human heart.
You stated in the foreword, “Behind The Hurricane Wars,” that you wanted to create a world without a colonial past, but it turned out that you would still “have to contend with other fractures in our society and the natural calamities that routinely befall our corner of the globe.” Can you expound on this?
In setting out to create a fantasy world based on the Philippines, I wanted it to be a pure celebration of our indigenous cultures and traditions. But I soon realized that it didn’t feel authentic, because our sorrows are as much a part of the Filipino experience as our joys. So, we have the stormships that wreak devastation on the land and the people who band together to fight them and help one another in the aftermath, because everyone here in the Philippines has a typhoon story, has a flood story, has an earthquake story and we also have a sense of bayanihan that encourages us to mobilize for humanitarian aid and to push for stronger disaster mitigation policies. “The Hurricane Wars” trilogy also tackles class issues and regionalism, and I would like to think that it is a call to respect and nurture our natural environment, as well.
What was the best and most difficult parts of creating the world of Lir?
The best part and the most difficult part are intertwined. I had to do a lot of research to bring as many Southeast Asian and particularly Filipino elements into it as possible, in the process learning that there were so many things I didn’t know about the culture that I’m part of, about the country that I live in. But that was what I enjoyed, too—being able to get closer to my heritage, developing a new appreciation for it and how complex and colorful it is.
How did you wind up being represented by the amazing Thao Le of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency?
Thao was already following me on Twitter due to the fan fiction that I was posting online. I tweeted that I was working on an original manuscript and she slid into my DMs to offer representation.
Can you guide us through the process of how you signed with HarperCollins?
After I signed with her, Thao submitted what I’d written so far to a few publishing houses. They were all interested in it, and so we went to a four-way auction for world rights for the trilogy. HarperCollins had the best offer.
What was it like working with the editors of HarperCollins, and how different is the final version of “The Hurricane Wars” from your final draft? How long did it take from the time your first started writing it to the time it finally came off the press?
My editors, Julia Elliott and Natasha Bardon, were simply amazing! They improved the story so much by suggesting ways to raise the stakes and heat up the slow-burn romance. It did go through several rounds of edits and we went to press in mid-2023.
How did it feel to be published by such a big international publisher such as HarperCollins?
It’s surreal, honestly! I’m so grateful they took a chance on me. It wasn’t something that I ever even dreamed would happen.
Do we have an estimated calendar or working titles for the next two books for those who want to know what’s going to happen to Talasyn and Alaric?
The next book is tentatively scheduled for Fall 2024, and the last book of the trilogy will hopefully come out Fall 2025.
This is the first time a Filipino author has ever appeared so high on the New York Times Print Fiction Hardcover list. How did this make you feel?
This would never have happened without the support of my online friends and the book community who tirelessly hyped it, as well as the Filipino diaspora in the US. I’m so grateful and honored!
How and when did you find out about it? What were you doing?
My editor emailed me the night before to say that our first-week sales were within the threshold for the New York Times list, but we can never be certain if a book will actually hit the list. So, I didn’t sleep at all the whole night, no matter how hard I tried. In the early morning, I got an e-mail from my agent asking if I was free for a Zoom call, but someone already tagged me on Twitter with the screenshot, so I knew what it was about. My agent and I cried over Zoom, then my editor called me and we also cried. It was a very emotional morning! Afterwards, I went to get a mani-pedi so I could relax and decompress.
How does it feel that finally Filipinos are being published by international publishers and being read by foreign audiences, with you as a prime example? And what advice would you give Filipino authors who are trying to find an international publisher?
I’m only here because of the groundwork laid by other internationally published Filipino authors before me. There’s Gail D. Villanueva, Mae Coyiuto, Caris Avendaño Cruz and Danton Remoto, to name a few. Their hard work opened doors in the international publishing industry for the rest of us, made the big publishers start to take notice of our little archipelago in Southeast Asia and the talent that it brims with. I would advise other aspiring Filipino authors to surround themselves with people who will advocate for their best interests. When talking with prospective editors and agents, don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to make sure that they are the best choice—that they understand your book and will fight for it—and don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s daunting to turn down offers, but you’ll only thank yourself in the long run because you need to have people on your team who are just as passionate as you are about your story and who will do everything to market it and make it the best possible version of itself.
What is next for you? Are you working on book two? Working on something else? Will you be going on an international tour to promote “The Hurricane Wars?”
I’m currently working on Book Two, yes! And this November I’m going on a short tour in the United Kingdom, as well as guesting on The Hating Game panel at London Comic Con Winter’s Young Adult Literary Convention.
What has been the best part of this whole experience for you, personally?
I’ve received so many messages from Filipinos from all over the world thanking me for writing main characters they can imagine themselves as, and for creating a world that reminds them of home. It’s made me realize how important representation is in literature, and it’s something that I will always advocate for.
Available in hardcover at Fully Booked.