A Conversation with Renee Macalino Rutledge
Born in the Philippines and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Renee Macalino Rutledge is a long-time local journalist whose articles and essays have appeared in Colorlines, Filipinas Magazine, Literary Hub, Ford City Anthology, and others. She lives in Alameda, California, with her husband and two daughters. Her debut novel, The Hour of Daydreams, is a contemporary re-imagining of a Filipino folktale about a woman who abandons her wings to live among mortals and marry the man she loves. As secrets are revealed, conflict rises, enmeshing the reader in the themes of trust, identity, and the delicate balance between myth and truth. During a conversation with Janet Irvin, Macalino Rutledge shared a favorite quote by Ursula LeGuin, one that has a direct correlation to the novel: “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”
Janet Irvin: Having worked as a newspaper stringer, I understand the difference between writing for a newspaper and crafting a novel. Was it difficult to transpose your journalist training into the fictional realm?
Renee Macalino Rutledge: Journalist and author Daniel Alarcon answered this question well at a book talk for his novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, which I was fortunate to attend a few years ago. He said something to the tune of, “As a journalist, I’m the person in the room no one is supposed to see. I’m there with my notebook, taking notes, being invisible. When I’m working on a novel, I’m still the person taking notes that no one sees, except this time, the people in the room are my characters.” I remember this response well because I can relate to it. In writing The Hour of Daydreams, I felt that it was not about anyone I knew or about myself, but strangers I had to get to know and listen to carefully in order to understand them.
JI: In the novel, Doctor Manolo Lualhati is convinced that his bride, Tala, is hiding her past from him. When he seeks to uncover her secret, truth and fantasy collide. Will Tala remain in his world or reclaim her wings and return to her past life? I am fascinated by the cultural background of your novel. Can you share with us a brief recounting of the Filipino folktale that inspired you?
RMR: The folktale is called “The Star Maidens,” about a man and his father who witness seven maidens swimming in a river, then flying to the stars. The father convinces his son, who has fallen in love with all seven maidens, to steal one pair of wings, so that he can marry whichever maiden cannot fly away. The son follows his father’s advice, and the marriage takes place as planned. Later, the couple have a daughter, who finds the wings, and when she does, the mother takes them and flies away. I’ve encountered a few different versions of this folktale in the Filipino tradition, as well as several versions stemming from other cultures.
JI: The novel recounts the story of Tala and Manolo from various points of view. As you crafted the novel based on the folktale, how did you decide whose voices to include?
RMR: The husband and the wife, because it is the story of their marriage, and both their perspectives were essential to me. Hers, especially, because it is silenced in the folktale. The daughter, Malaya, because she is the story seeker, the one who wants to know why, who leads the reader, in the end, to the answers. The witnesses, such as the parents/in-laws and the maid, because much of a marriage takes place behind closed doors, and being behind those doors as well, these characters offer a unique insight. There is also an omniscient narrator that comes in, the “once upon a time” voice of a fairytale.
JI: Many reviewers refer to the love story as the central theme in The Hour of Daydreams. Other themes include the keeping of secrets, what it means to be married, how we can never know another person completely. Did these themes emerge organically or did you set out from the beginning to explore them?
RMR: I set out to explore, from the beginning, what the marriage was like between these two characters. To me, that was the story behind the folktale. A theme that emerged organically is that of the private self. The box is symbolic in the novel of that space that is within and yours alone. When you are married, what should be shared and what shouldn’t, and what are the ways that we try to be let in? It feels like a lot of Tala and Manolo’s issues revolve around figuring out how to navigate those questions.
JI: Family as the linchpin of society is absolutely important in so many cultures, including the Filipino culture. Can you address this point as it appears in the novel?
RMR: Malaya, Manolo and Tala’s daughter, is seeking her parents’ legacy. We learn about ourselves through our past and our histories. This learning process has become more important to me as I’ve gotten older. And it goes both ways, in seeking, reading, and listening, and in sharing and not keeping that information to ourselves. It’s so important for me to talk with my family around the table, to put away the devices and be together. Many of those conversation pieces you don’t think twice about as a child will come back to you, and only then will you realize how important they are and how much you’ve absorbed them.
JI: In seeking her parents’ legacy, Malaya is also seeking to understand why her mother left. Despite her mother’s abandonment, Malaya stills feels the bond between them. Did you intend to explore this aspect of their relationship in the novel?
RMR: Yes, that mother-daughter bond, because it is so strong, is what drew me to this story even beyond the love story of the star maiden and the man. What circumstances would lead a mother to leave her child behind? That was perhaps the more important question I set out to answer in relation to these characters.
JI: Your work reminds me of the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this ability to blend the real and the fantastic. Where does this talent come from? How do you nurture it? Can you give us an example from your own experience of this blending?
RMR: Thank you so much. This was my first novel and first attempt at the technique so I can’t say where it comes from; if it is a talent then it was wrestled out in the process of this writing. I did write a short story, called “Flight,” inspired by something that happened to my husband. When he was 18, he lived with his grandmother for a year. The day he moved out, a bird flew into her window. The way that circumstances come together, these little, everyday moments are so powerful and evocative—they seem to speak of something far greater at play. In the story I wrote, there is a bird who stays with a woman after her grandson leaves, and it’s unclear if it’s real or a figment of her imagination.
I’ll give you another example. I recently went hiking, alone, for the first time. I got lost, following a path to a dead end on a steep uphill. On the way back down, I tripped and slid. I was also holding hot tea, which I spilled on myself. At that moment, I felt pretty stupid, like I’d failed at hiking alone, but as I picked myself back up, a single white feather floated down right in front of me. I followed its movement, and everything slowed. I looked up at the trees, listened to the birds, and heard their song for the rest of the hike. The real and the fantastic come together in life, all the time. As in writing, it’s about being watchful and receptive.
JI: As a reader and as a writer, have you always been drawn to tales that integrate the fabulous with the real world?
RMR: Definitely. The Chronicles of Narnia were an early favorite. I read a book a day until I finished the series. I love Toni Morrison, Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Aimee Bender. It’s amazing how their stories can bend and reinvent in ways never imagined before, yet they remain relatable and relevant to the human experience.
JI: Food is an important element and the preparing of meals is an integral activity in the novel. Tala’s creative efforts to contribute to family life become a bonding mechanism with her in-laws. Do you enjoy cooking? What is your favorite dish to prepare? To eat?
RMR: My favorite foods are boring comfort foods, like loaded baked potatoes, but often they do have a Filipino spin, like spaghetti made with hot dogs in the sauce and crab eaten with white rice and a vinegar dip. I do love to cook, but because my husband is vegan, the dishes I cook are changing. I still make pasta, but with different types of veggies instead of meat, paella without the seafood, but with artichokes and peas and mushrooms, and other Spanish dishes without the meat (hey, rice and beans make a complete protein). I love vegetables—roasting them, marinating them, cooking them in soup. I still eat meat on occasion. I like baking and making stews, like fish stew and chicken adobo.
JI: So many writers, especially mothers, struggle with time management issues. How do you separate your creative life from your personal life? Do you follow a rigid writing schedule?
RMR: The family is first. I’m on a halftime schedule, which doesn’t enable me to afford a mortgage, but I pick up my girls after school and that time we are able to spend is worth more than anything money can buy. Work is second, because rent and food and even play have a price tag. Then writing (if sleep or play don’t bump it down even further), which takes longer because it isn’t number one. But that’s okay. I wish people read books as much as they watch TV—then maybe authors could get paid enough to write for a living. Until then, I edit other people’s books and average about an hour a day writing my own.
JI: What is your next big project?
RMR: I’m working on a literary fiction novel about navigating identity and independence while being immersed in a Filipino family. I also have several short stories halfway done, that I’ve left lingering because I find short stories much more challenging to write, but I will return to them. We’ll see which gets finished first.