Spotlight: K.S. Villoso on her Filipino-led fantasy, The Wolf of Oren-yaro

I generally love boosting and promoting authors on my platform, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I tend to go extra hard for Filipino authors! As a Filipino myself (please don’t ever use Filipina to refer to me), I am well aware of the plight our skilled authors experience both within our local publishing industry and in the larger international publishing industry. Far too few Filipino authors receive local recognition and support, much less at an international level. And I think it’s about time for that to change!

With that said, I am extremely honored to have an upcoming Filipino debut author on my blog today. It was a huge, huge pleasure on my part to interview K.S. Villoso, the genius behind The Wolf of Oren-yaro, which is a thrilling epic fantasy that’s led by a Filipino main character. Without further ado, let’s get to it!

SHEALEA: Hi, Kay! Thank you for taking the time to (virtually) sit down with us for an interview! It’s always an amazing honor and pleasure to have a Filipino author on my blog. There are just a handful of us in the publishing industry, so we kababayans really have to stick together!

KAY: It’s my absolute pleasure as well, Shealea. As I told you before, I’m absolutely in awe at how much work and advocacy you’ve done for Asian authors, and for our kababayans in particular. It’s fantastic that you’re keeping the bayanihan spirit of our ancestors alive.

SHEALEA: Anyway, I am extremely excited to know more about your upcoming book, The Wolf of Oren-yaro, and I’m sure that plenty of readers are curious about it, too. But before that, let’s kick off this interview with a couple of unconventional, opening questions for you to answer.

IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT IS THE BEST ASIAN SOUP?

SHEALEA: Fair warning, this is a mandatory question that I ask all Asian authors I interview. A few months ago, Eugene Lee Yang from the Try Guys (a group of four male YouTubers) tweeted that one way to start a fight is by asking Asians which Asian culture has the best soup. Inspired by that tweet, here’s my question: in your opinion, what is the best Asian soup?

KAY: I like gamjatang and pho but I feel like I’m compelled to say Filipino sinigang. Umm, I don’t want to start a fight. Umm. Sinigang…


Photo credit: Recipe ni Juan (via Pinterest)

WHAT DESSERT BEST DESCRIBES EACH OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS IN THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO?

KAY:

🌻 Talyien — Really hot overly salted turon from the vendor down by the street that burns your tongue and makes you regret your life choices but for some reason you eat it anyway.

🌻 Rayyel — Buko pandan by your cousin who just made buko pandan for the first time. “The recipe said add cheese and I couldn’t find a block of Eden Cheese,” she says, “so I used Kraft Singles.”

🌻 Khine — Leche flan. You know, the kind that comes in a big tupperware that your aunt made for your dad’s birthday party even after you warned her you were on a diet because let’s face it, she doesn’t really care if you gain weight, she’s just there for the lolz. And of course you say you’ll take just a little piece of this giant slab, and before you know it you’ve eaten half the container because your aunt has upped her leche flan game and now you hate yourself but tangina this…

🌻 Agos — Your mom’s biko that got left on the table for two days and breaks your teeth when you take a bite.

🌻 Nor — The ibus that got left beside that biko, and is just as tough. Don’t worry about it, it’s still edible. In fact, you should eat it, because your mom taught you not to waste food and she’s right there in the corner glaring at you…

SAME QUESTION BUT WITH SONGS OR MUSIC GENRES!

KAY:

🌻 Talyien — Take Me to Church by Hozier / Salarin by Gloc 9 feat. Bamboo

🌻 Rayyel — Let Her Go by Passenger

🌻 Khine — Bukas Na Lang Kita Mamamahalin by Lani Misalucha

🌻 Agos — Pansamantala by Callalily

🌻 Nor — Us by Ruby Ibarra

IF YOU COULD EAT JUST ONE FILIPINO DESSERT FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, WHICH ONE WOULD YOU PICK?

KAY: Halo-halo. Yes, I know that’s cheating because it has everything on it.


Photo credit: Spot.ph

CAN YOU TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR TRANSITION FROM BEING SELF-PUBLISHED TO GETTING INTO TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING?

SHEALEA: Yay, thank you for playing along! For the next portion of this interview, let’s start discussing your journey as an author, as well as some more insights on your book.

Before your book deal, you were a self-published author and The Wolf of Oren-yaro was actually one of the titles you released on your own. Can you tell us a bit more about your transition from being self-published to getting into traditional publishing?

KAY: First off, I started out like most young writers and began querying when I was 18 or 19 years old. In the beginning, I felt like I was off to a great start. My first rejection came from my first query from Tor Books, which was a handwritten note from the head editor saying “Try us again.” This was, I was told, a very good sign.

After that, though, it was form rejection after form rejection. At the time (mid 2000s to early 2010s), not a lot of Asian writers were getting published, particularly not in the SFF genre. I couldn’t tell if it was my writing or what I was writing about that was the problem. There was just no feedback, no guidance; I think in that time I only got one partial request from an agent and it was so unenthusiastic that I decided not to bother sending the manuscript in. It was a bit like running in the dark, with no light at the end of the tunnel. People would talk about how publishers didn’t want Asian novels or Asian authors, and of course my younger self couldn’t tell what was true or not. (How many Filipinos, after all, were getting published? Maybe the world just doesn’t want my Filipino self). In all honesty, if I had tried a “little” harder maybe I would’ve gotten something in, but…

Juggling this deflating experience with real life responsibilities took its toll. I was in my mid-20s, married, as poor as church mice. We were living paycheck to paycheck in a leaky mobile home, and I was still finishing college while taking care of my 2-year-old daughter. I lost the will to keep trying to make it in the traditional publishing world. Keep in mind, my dreams were that time weren’t even that big—I just wanted to be picked up by a small press and get my books in the library, not even a store shelf. (Years later, looking back at this now, it makes it clear how important representation is. I felt like I was wasting my time writing, that I was failing my family by putting so much energy into a fruitless endeavour. I had no signs at all that my dreams were possible, because I didn’t see people ‘like me’ making it. How many young writers of colour were nipped in the bud because they didn’t see themselves out there?)

But my love for writing never went away; it still burned like a fire inside of me, even when I felt like I didn’t want it to anymore. I just decided I wasn’t going to let the outside world taint that love. I wasn’t going to let my writing carry my life, or bear my responsibilities. I told myself I could still write—I just had to be realistic about it.

I went to work as a Civil Designer for a few years while writing novels that were designed to be self-published. They weren’t failed queries, they were just novels I decided to write because I’d had about done it with dancing to the tune of the industry. I wrote the way I wanted to, and with whatever I was passionate about. My first trilogy, The Agartes Epilogues, is this massive experimental exercise in structure that shows an epic fantasy plot being told from the POV of <minor characters. Its very design makes it unsellable; but I loved writing it, and the readers who read through to the end seemed to love it just as much.

Some of those readers went on to offer me support and a much-needed boost of self-confidence, so I went on to publish The Wolf of Oren-yaro about a year later to critical acclaim. The support from the SFF community was amazing, and really quite more than I expected. For the first couple of months, it sold through word-of-mouth alone. I didn’t have the backing of anyone with a significant platform (my book wasn’t in any contests and didn’t get into the hands of blogs with big audiences), but the efforts of bloggers, readers, and friends gave it a massive boost of popularity, which then somehow put the book in the hands of Bradley Englert, an editor over at Orbit Books.

I still remember the day he followed me on Twitter. This was about a couple of weeks after I’d released the sequel to The Wolf of Oren-yaro, The Ikessar Falcon, again to much critical acclaim. A few Orbit editors were already following me at the time, and I joked to some of my friends that my Twitter shitposting is finally getting some attention at the Orbit office. (One of my running gags is messing up my friend BookWol’s cocktail recipes over at The Fantasy Inn, and then drinking the resulting poison concoction). “They’re like circling sharks,” I joked, and my friend said, “What if they’re dolphins, bringing happiness and good news?”

Not even a minute later, my editor sends me a message asking if there is a better way to contact me, as he’s sent me an email a few days ago on my website contact form which leads to an email full of spam, and so I barely check it. I quickly Googled his name to see if he was legit, and then went to open the email. He told me he’d read my book and wanted to know if I could send it over for his team to look at, as a kind of formal submission. I said yes, and then…

…spent the next couple of weeks making a great show of pretending to be calm and cool when really I was panicking so, so much inside. Some friends suggested I find an agent soon, and it just so happened that this agent whose work I’ve been admiring for a while now (the amazing Hannah Bowman) just came back from maternity leave and was open for queries again. My friends harassed me several times until I found the courage to send her a query, knowing it would be months until I hear back. I figured that even if Orbit ended up rejecting me, I could leverage that interest into something for my future projects. After being kicked down in life too many times, I didn’t expect much from it anymore—I just want to take what it gives me and make the best out of it.

An offer for a three-book deal came the very next day.

Everything was happening so fast. I sent Hannah another email, waited in agony for 48 hours, and then realized I’d sent it to her query email, which she probably doesn’t check very often. So I did some Googling and managed to find her personal email account. I sent her a third email, all while hoping she didn’t think I was this crazy woman harassing her with this fake book deal. She came back asking for the full manuscript, and nothing else.

I nervously sent her the manuscript. She read it within the day, and loved it. And then, only then, did she ask about the book deal details. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Even though I’ve spent the last year sort of moving between panic and disbelief, the transition so far has been very interesting, and a lot easier than I thought it would be.

One of the things about being a self-published author is that you are running your own publishing company. So you are responsible for everything, from conception to beyond the final publishing stage. You have to have everything lined up—beta-readers, editors, proofreaders, cover art, ARC readers, the works. What you can’t do, you pay someone to do, and if you’ve got no budget (like me), then you do almost everything yourself. I was lucky enough to have a friend do the cover design for me, but I traded editing duties and was responsible for making sure everything was clean from my end. At the end of the line, I was doing my own proofreading, running my manuscripts on text-to-speech hoping to catch errors I’ve missed. Not counting early, structural revisions, I probably go through my manuscripts at least a dozen times, if not more. I also then went on to do the formatting and getting everything ready for printing and ebook distribution.

Writing by itself is very challenging already, and my experience has been a lot of stress and a lot of pressure to maintain a semblance of quality in my work. Self-publishing also requires a near-insane schedule to maintain (a book every year is considered very slow; once every six months is only somewhat better, and this has all to do with getting in the good graces of Amazon’s algorithm machine). I basically hit a point where I was working on four books at once, and doing all the networking/marketing on top of that.

Traditional publishing is still a lot of work, and in many cases it requires more work. This isn’t a case of suddenly becoming lazier and letting my publishing team pick up the slack—these are my books, and I’m not going to do that to my team. Being in this position is a gift and a privilege that exceeded all my wildest dreams, and I’m committed to working even harder than before. But the inherent structure in place is a lifesaver. It’s not that I’m doing “less”—I’m still working on several books in various stages of revision, but it feels refreshing to have the load of getting the book ready off my mind. I don’t have to waste my weekends yelling at Amazon over formatting issues! I don’t have to draw my own maps anymore, either! I’ve also been blessed with an amazing, considerate editor who gets my work, and sees my vision for my books. The revisions we’ve done has given me peace of mind that each is as close to perfect as we can make them.

The support from my editor, agent, and publishing team has also been phenomenal—their wisdom and guidance is invaluable. There are a lot of things I’ve been ready to do myself from the beginning, but knowing they’ve now got my back gives me so much comfort and reassurance. It’s like the difference between climbing a mountain alone, and then suddenly having this party with ropes and snacks and encouragement ready for you. It fills me with a deep sense of gratitude.

WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK AND PUBLISHING INDUSTRIES?

SHEALEA: As an author of color from a deeply underrepresented country, what are your hopes for the future of the book and publishing industries?

KAY: I definitely want to see more publishers taking chances on authors of colour writing whatever they feel passionate about, as opposed to only using their marginalization as a marketing tactic. I want to see more publishers usher in diversity and representation by opening their doors to authors of colour (and offering the necessary support to offset the challenges these authors face in order to put them on even footing with everyone else), instead of filling the demand in other ways and calling it done. We need our stories being told by our own, simply because we’re still combating years of damage done by our stories being told by others. I want to see the publishing industry do its best to make the future generation’s lives a little brighter—one where the burden of representation is no longer on them, one where they are no longer hurt by the stereotypes created by the bad representation and stereotyping of the past because the world is now full of these strong, authentic voices. I want a future where kids of colour can see themselves in books growing up, so that they feel less alone, so that they have role models that guide them through challenges and show them more possibilities than ever before.

My daughter, in particular, is a budding artist and writer herself, and I don’t want her to go through the doubt and anger and frustration I went through just to get started. How far can she go without the struggles? How high can she fly without chains wearing her down? I can only imagine the amazing work her generation will produce if ours can do its part.

COULD YOU SHARE THE STORY BEHIND THE NEW COVER FOR THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO?

SHEALEA: If I recall correctly, the new cover for The Wolf of Oren-yaro was revealed a few days ago. Congratulations! Could you maybe share the story behind the cover? And what was your initial impression when you saw it for the first time?

KAY: Even before I got a publishing deal, I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories about covers and was warned about getting my hopes up to the point that my expectations dropped to zero. “They know more about covers,” people say, “and they best know what will sell or not.” I’ve heard that in the past, publishers didn’t want to put people of colour on a cover because it affects sales.

My publisher, Orbit Books, told me they intended to go in a character-focused direction with the cover. They asked for a lot of details about the main character, and I gave them as best of a description as I could, including details about the kampilan she’s wielding (it’s her father’s sword, and plays an important role later on in the series). Later, they told me that Simon Goinard will be doing the cover and that just about made my whole month. Even though I knew by then that my publisher was serious because holy hell, look at that portfolio, I kept my excitement at bay.

So when I saw the final cover for my book, my mouth fell open. I was literally speechless for a few moments. I couldn’t even think. I mean, look at it!


Check out the official cover reveal at Orbit Books.

After I could breathe again I kind of freaked out and sent incoherent emails to my editor, and my husband, and then Twitter. I just couldn’t believe it. There is a Filipino woman on this cover! This is going in book stores! (If you can’t tell, I’m still freaking out and it’s been a couple of weeks…)

WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN WRITING THIS BOOK, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?

KAY: The hardest part probably, for this specific book (and series) in particular, is trying to show an epic storyline and plot from the point-of-view of one character. In multiple POV epic stories, you have the freedom to move around and show the politics unfolding, the villains making plans without the heroes’ knowledge, and so on. Pacing is also somewhat easier because you can easily cut out the chaff and just drop in on the action in the next POV. Not so much with this story. I needed to give the impression of larger things looming in the background, while keeping Talyien in the dark, while keeping everything moving.

I accomplished this by having two plans from the onset: a character-driven arc, and a plot-driven arc that runs in the background. The focus is always on the character—what she feels about events is more important than what’s actually happening. Subsequently, the structure of the whole trilogy is designed to drip-feed the plot as you go along. The first book is arguably the fastest paced, and is more of a sword-and-sorcery type of narrative where the hero doesn’t know much and has to learn everything along the way while she attempts to accomplish her goals. The sequels build up on that. I leave the epic stuff closer to the end, when I know that Queen Talyien (and by extension, the reader) knows what’s happening, what’s at stake, and the hard decisions she has to make.

WHAT WERE THE MOST REWARDING ASPECTS OF WRITING THIS BOOK?

SHEALEA: In contrast to the previous question, what were the most rewarding aspects of writing this book?

KAY: It’s all very rewarding; taking a character like Talyien through her story was an absolute honour. Which is kind of weird to say, considering I created her, but she kind of took a life of her own, and for the most part I was barely keeping up. To have seen this story through to the end (because I’ve finished writing all of it already!) is quite probably one of the most frustrating — and amazing — experiences of my life.

AT ITS HEART, WHAT IS THE WOLF OF OREN-YARO ABOUT?

SHEALEA: We’re down to the last question! At its heart, what is The Wolf of Oren-yaro about? What can readers expect from your book?

KAY: It’s really just a simple story about a woman trying to find her place in the world and learning that true strength lies within. Readers can expect a roller-coaster of adventure and character relationships, with all the epic fantasy tropes you can imagine (including dragons!). But most of all, readers can expect sincere emotions and unabashed honesty. I hope you all find Talyien’s journey as compelling as I did.

K.S. Villoso was born in a dank hospital on an afternoon in Albay, Philippines, and things have generally been okay since then. After spending most of her childhood in a slum area in Taguig (where she dodged death-defying traffic, ate questionable food, and fell into open-pit sewers more often than one ought to), she and her family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where they spent the better part of two decades trying to chase the North American Dream.

She now writes fantasy with themes shaped by her childhood–stories of struggle, hope, and resilience amidst grim and grit. Her debut, The Wolf of Oren-yaro, will be released by Orbit in early 2020. Click here to find out more.

I’d love to hear from you!

🌻 What do you think about this interview? Have you followed Kay on Twitter? She makes very insightful threads!

🌻 Did your jaw drop after seeing that gorgeous book cover? I know I did!

🌻 Are you excited for The Wolf of Oren-yaro to be released next year?


Twitter: @shutupshealeaPinterestGoodreadsBloglovin’

17 thoughts on “Spotlight: K.S. Villoso on her Filipino-led fantasy, The Wolf of Oren-yaro

  1. THIS INTERVIEW IS FANTASTIC!! Thank you so much!! As a fellow Filipino reader AND aspiring author, K. S. Villoso’s journey is incredibly inspiring to me too. So much of what she said really resonated with me.
    “I definitely want to see more publishers taking chances on authors of colour writing whatever they feel passionate about, as opposed to only using their marginalization as a marketing tactic.” ABSOLUTELY THIS. The interview reminded me to never give up. Seriously.
    Thanks for the amazing interview, Shealea! And thanks for always supporting fellow Asian authors. I’m excited to grab a copy of this series when it comes out in paperback 🙂

    Like

  2. I MAY HAVE CRIED ONCE OR A HUNDRED TIMES WHILE READING THIS INTERVIEW. I get so happy when I see more Filipino authors in the traditional publishing scene and this book is unapologetically Pinoy (THE MC HAS A KAMPILAN HOW ICONIC IS THAT) so I am really really excited to read this. I am just…so happy to see my kababayans soar. I will give this book all the love and support. That’s for sure.

    Like

  3. “Maybe the world just doesn’t want my Filipino self.” I’ve been in the Interwebs for nearly a decade and this is the one thought that accompanied me since I became aware of the online community’s existence. Reading a fellow Filipino express it clearly teared me up (but I can’t cry because I’m at work right nowww huhuhu)
    I’ve never heard of Kay until now but reading this interview, and learning about her journey, was an experience. Especially that tug-of-war happening between her love of writing and her then financial situation. It felt freeing, knowing that someone has been through that. Excellent interview, Shealea!

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  4. This was a FANTASTIC interview! I loved the questions you asked, Shealea. And I didn’t think I could get more excited about this book than I already was, but this interview has made me even more stoked to read this!!!

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  5. Great interview Shealea! I loved The Wolf of Oren-Yaro when I first read it and I can’t wait to get my hands on it again- especially after seeing that cover! I follow Kay on twitter and I always appreciate her wonderful threads on Filipino and Bicolano culture.

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