As readers eagerly await the film adaptation of the critically acclaimed crime novel Smaller and Smaller Circles, author F.H. Batacan talks about how it began more than one decade ago. Here, she chats with Kara Ortiga about why human beings are a scary species, what to expect from her next novel, and her true passion for classical guitar.
ESQUIRE: I just want to say that I read Smaller and Smaller Circles back in high school—it was recommended to me by my sister who was at that time a student at the University of the Philippines. That was more than 10 years ago when it first came out, so I was quite pleasantly surprised to see it come to people’s attention now.
F.H. BATACAN: Thank you. I think it was mainly read in schools, I understand teachers have been requiring it in their classes.
ESQ: Back in 2002, when you first wrote the book, did you ever expect that it would reach the popularity it has today?
FB: 2002 was when UP Press released the first version; I started writing it in 1996. I never had any great expectations for the book to be honest. Even when I sent it to the Palanca awards, I had no great hopes for it.
ESQ: Is there anything in particular that inspired you to come up with the plot?
FB: I was working in a government intelligence agency at the time...very frustrating environment, soul-sapping. One night I just couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stand it anymore. But I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know whether to stay on the job, or to leave. And I couldn’t leave the house [that night] because it was so late. So I fired up the computer and started banging away. That first scene in the dump, where they find the body—that was the first thing I wrote that night. I couldn’t write about my workplace, but I could write about the mindset, the attitudes, and the complacency.
ESQ: When you say you worked in a government intelligence agency, what type of work did you do?
FB: Without going into too much detail, it was policy- and research-related. Which sounds relatively bloodless when you say it, but often it’s in the area of policy where you find out whose interests are being served.
ESQ: After you wrote that first chapter, did you already think of turning it into a novel?
FB: No, I didn’t think about it. It became something to escape to every night. A diversion. Before I knew it I had 20,000 words and I just kept going. It was something to keep my mind occupied. I started doing research for it because it gave me something to do that wasn’t related to work. It became, for want of a better word, an outlet, you know? You pour out all your frustration and anger on the page because there was no valve to release it in the real world.
ESQ: When did you eventually decide to leave the job?
FB: Around the late 1990s—I started freelancing as a television news and current affairs producer, then moved to Singapore.
ESQ: When you finished the story, what was the feeling like for you? Because the process seemed very personal...
FB: I was still very angry. Angry enough that I thought I might want to get it published someday. But who would want to publish a nobody like me? I’d sent a little story to the Palanca Awards in, I think 1997 or 1998, on a friend’s suggestion. So I thought, maybe I’ll send this thing too. That was in 1999. I sent it off and then I went back to my life. Forgot all about it.
ESQ: What happened between now and then that has taken Smaller and Smaller Circles from being a book I would have to go all the way to the UP Press to buy, to one that’s published by Soho Press in New York, and is now also a movie?
FB: A lot has happened, much of it with no help from me. I lived and worked quietly in Singapore for more than 10 years. Wrote a bit every now and then, some fiction, some creative non-fiction. Then in 2009 or 2010, a very good friend recommended my book to a Singapore-based agency called Jacaranda. They signed me on in 2010, if memory serves me right. And they looked for a suitable publisher. My wonderful editor at Soho, Juliet Grames, picked it up
There was a lot of revision to be done, and I said I was okay with that. It’s worth noting that I received the phone call that Soho had picked it up in 2012. Right at the moment my agents were calling me, my phone was in my hospital room. I couldn’t pick it up because I was busy giving birth to my son. I was on the operating table (laughs). “Sorry, I couldn’t take your call, I was getting a C-section.” A lot of good things have happened to the book when I was off doing something else.
ESQ: Are you personally fascinated with crime or suspense?
FB: I think I’m most fascinated by how the human mind works. How we can justify cruelty and corruption. How capable we are of evil. And at the same time, how capable we are of good. That’s the real mystery, isn’t it? And on a broader canvas, how our institutions fail us, how we fail each other. Like, for example, this thing about lowering the age of criminal liability to nine years old…where does that kind of thinking come from? These people proposing it are supposedly educated. They have power, authority. How do they find it in themselves to justify that? I am repelled, but also fascinated by it. It’s a mystery to me.
ESQ: Do you think that people are inherently “evil”? Or is that something that can be “fixed”?
FB: My mother used to tell us, “The only imperfect thing in nature is Man.” To some extent I feel that’s true. Every organism wants to survive. But humans are capable of great evil even when their survival isn’t threatened. Do I think people are inherently evil, no…but I think we are the only species that can justify the evil that we do, before and after the fact.
ESQ: You once said: “We kill for passion, we kill for greed, we kill for so many motivations that are uniquely human. Animals kill for survival, but humans are unique in that they kill out of malice, or out of passion.” A friend was just asking me last night: how can there still be so much hate at a time when things are okay in society in general?
FB: That’s the thing though; so many things are not okay. We are conditioned to think everything is going well. There is an abundance of things to buy, to see, to entertain us. But scratch the surface and things are not okay, far from it.
ESQ: I’m sure that is something that you would really know considering your previous work. Do you still have that resentment today?
FB: Oh yes, probably even more so. Now that I am a mother, I feel so much more anger. Not at specific people, not like before. But at the world in general—at the way things are in the Philippines, for example. So many opportunities to get things right, and still we squander them. Anger is a good thing.
ESQ: The piece you are working on now, The Weight of Sin, is a prequel. What can readers expect from this?
FB: I am hoping to examine the culture of impunity and entitlement in our country’s politics. It will also take a closer look at the back stories of Saenz and Joanna Bonifacio—who they are and why they do what they do. I have been working on it for some time, but life gets in the way. And it’s life that fuels the writing.
ESQ: It’s good that you allow yourself to live.
FB: We don’t have a choice!
ESQ: But that you take your time with your writing...that’s rare.
FB: Writing doesn’t come easily to me. Someone asked me, “Did you always want to be a writer?” I said, “No, not at all.” I dreamed of being a musician, a classical guitarist. Studied for it, practiced hours for it. Didn’t become it, which is one of the big regrets of my life.
ESQ: There’s still time.
FB: I will never be as good a player as I was when I was 19.
ESQ: Which piece on the guitar can you do best?
FB: I really love Barrios-Mangore, Benites, Villalobos. But the fingers are stiff now. Maybe someday, who knows?
ESQ: Do you have a favorite crime story?
FB: Oh my, so many to choose from. Two of my favorites are very quiet stories: Paleta Man by Laurie R. King, and A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell. They are short stories, and they don’t follow the formula of crime plus investigation equals resolution. Instead they’re examinations of the mind, of motive, of humanity. It’s only the reader who is in on the resolution.
ESQ: The capabilities of the human mind are scary.
FB: We are a very scary species.
ESQ: What is it like to revisit this story that all began one late night in 1996? Were there or are there any hesitations?
FB: Well, for one thing, you’re a very different writer in your mid-20s than you are in your mid-40s. Things are a lot less black-and-white to you. You find, as you grow older, that you have more questions than answers. Clichéd, but true. So when you revise something you wrote so long ago, you sometimes see things differently. In the novella version, for example, Saenz is almost saintly in his patience. Which is no longer true in the 2015 version. He has become much more nuanced, I think.
ESQ: So the characters, you think, have grown with you as well?
FB: Yes, very much so. Crankier, too! Just like me (laughs)
This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.