Portrait of an American novelist writing about Mindanao 

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Story & photo by Henrylito D. Tacio

IF you are an American who  graduated from West Point, spent six years as an Army officer in Europe and Asia, and stayed in the Philippines for several years, what is the best thing you can do?

Write a novel of your experiences, of course.

In Photo: Henry Tacio with novelist Tom Anthony

And that was what Thomas “Tom”  Anthony  did.   For three years, he lived  in the war-torn Mindanao, where he had close contact with military and political leaders of the highest stature.   His personal observations of the struggles that continue to this day became the basis for this novel,  Rebels of Mindanao.

The synopsis of the story, according to the press release, goes: “Haunted by the failure of his last mission and the lost lives of his team, Thomas Thornton had hoped to escape his former life as an undercover operative, seeking the calm beauty of tropical Mindanao.

When two West Point friends, now high-ranking officials in the government and military, asks him to run one last clandestine operation, he finds himself in the fray once again. Thornton recruits a hunter-killer team of Manobo tribesmen, and the tough but beautiful Elaiza, to thwart the insurgency.

The mission: eliminate the Turk carrying millions in cash into Mindanao to finance an Islamic revolution. The deal: Make the foreigner in question, and the money, disappear. No questions asked.”

The novel was not only a bestseller; it also earned for him the Book of the Year Award from New York’s Forward magazine. But what most people didn’t know that it was rejected several times—just like what most neophyte novelists experience.

“I wrote it while living in Mindanao from 2003 to 2005,” he recalled. “[When I submitted my first novel], publishers rejected it.”

It was not because the novel was not engrossing enough. The reason: “They had never heard of Mindanao,” he said.

Fortunately, Mark Victor Hansen, author of the  Chicken Soup  series, and a personal acquaintance in California, introduced  Anthony  to Eric Kampman of Beaufort Books in New York. Kampman liked the novel after reading it, so he decided to publish it.

Although Beaufort Books has the copyright, being the publisher of the novel,  Anthony  said he has the right to print it in the Philippines. He will do it in conjunction with the movie. “I think  Rebels of Mindanao  is a better movie than book,” he pointed out, adding that he has already the screenplay.

Prolific writer

Another novel  Anthony  had written is Sabine, whose story took place in Davao City, where this author met him.  “I am a writer and I write. I write what I see and feel,” he replies when asked what inspired him to write the novel.

When he first came to the Philippines, he and his wife Mailyn and their two daughters settled in the country’s biggest city.   They have a beautiful house, located near a beach. Currently, however, the family is in California, where the daughters are going to school.

But Tom will be back in Davao soon, when he will start filming another movie. But that’s going ahead of the story, though.

Now, going back to Sabine, which was already made into a movie. While driving back and forth from Dumoy, a part of Toril district, to downtown every day,  Anthony  wrote down what he saw.   One that caught his attention was the MacArthur Highway in Matina.

“General [Douglas] MacArthur was a personal boyhood hero and inspired me to go to West Point,” he admitted. “I found it ironic that I now live along a highway named after him. I began to wonder how he would feel if he drove along this highway, today, and I started to write a report called ‘MacArthur Highway’.”

It was not a novel, but just a location. So  Anthony created fictional characters: Sabine (from which the title of the novel was taken), a lost waif who wanders in from the boondocks; Leopatro, a cockfighter who cuts of Sabine’s ears when she refuses to do what he asks; Manuelo, Leopatro’s gay assistant; Richard, an American school teacher who runs into Sabine while driving along MacArthur Highway, his first day in town; Adriana, an honorable whore who rescues Sabine; Juanito an ex-cop who rapes Adriana; Hans, the owner of the Dutch Bar; Philip, a married missionary who is uncertain of his sexuality; and the Kristo, the ruler of the cockfight gallera who believes he was cheated by Leopatro.

On why he chose Davao City as the setting of  Sabine, he answered: “I think it is interesting to see a place you know through the eyes of a foreigner; it makes one see it differently.”

Varied perspectives

Well,  Anthony  does see things from a different vantage point.   He has a bachelor of science in engineering from the West Point, a Master in Business Administration from the University of Akron, and a doctoral work at the University of Vienna in Austria.   He studied screenwriting at the University of California.

Currently, he has written three more movie screenplays:  Warsaw Triple Cross, Mindanao  and  The Twelfth Angel.   Another in the making is  Field Rep, which is a sort of “Death of a Salesman, updated,” he said.

Yes, he loves to write scripts.   When asked if he were a scriptwriter from the past, he replied: “I think it is important to be original and egotistical, so only myself, but I wish I had the skill to take Christopher Koch’s story of  The Year of Living Dangerously, the script of  Indochine, crush them together, set the scene today in Mindanao, and have Quentin Tarantino’s courage.”

Anthony, indeed, has gone a long, long way.   He started writing when he was about 6 years old, and has never stopped since then. “I wrote to convince other people of my ideas and to achieve something,” he said. “I wrote to my congressman to appoint me to West Point and later to Firestone to get a job, to customers to sell something. I just write.”

But now that he is older,  Anthony believes he has already something to say.   “I think a writer has to have experienced pain, joy, desolation, elation and other emotions over time before he can write anything interesting,” he said.

“Be careful! You could be a character in my next story!”  Anthony joked when I asked him where he gets his ideas when writing.   “I make notes wherever I am. I also read novels and watch movies. There are only so many stories to be told, but infinite ways of telling them.”

Although he loves to read, he said not one, but many authors, influence his method of writing.    “However, I have tried to define my own style,” he explained.   He cites the case of  Sabine, where he changes the so-called point of view in chapters: from telling the story in the first person to that of the narrator, and then snap back again to the other.

“I hope it helps the reader see perspective; but it might be seen as confusing,” he said.

According to him, he has five favorite books of all time written by his favorite authors.   These are  Chesapeake  by James Michener,  The World According to Garp  by John Irving,  The Executioner’s Song by Normal Mailer,  The Unbearable Lightness of Being  by Milan Kundera, and  Fountainhead  by Ayn Rand.

Anthony  gets up early and writes every day from about 5 a.m. until breakfast.   He takes a break, then, writes some more and so by lunch, he has the rest of the day free. “Inspired or not, I pick up a pencil and force it to move around the page,” he informed this writer. “When it evolves into a sentence or two, I start to peck around on my computer.”

Unlike others,  Anthony  does not experience the so-called writer’s block.   “I make myself write every day,” he said. “I do not worry about whether it is good or not. Then when I cannot think of anything to write, I edit!”

The best thing

Anthony may be American by birth, but he seems to be a Filipino by heart—thanks to his wife.   But there is an interesting story on how they met, and it was not in the Philippines.

“In the 1990’s, I was working for an American corporation licensing new technology to major electronics manufacturers in Asia,” he recalled. “She was working in Singapore and I met her there. We corresponded through snail mail: hard copy and handwritten.   Those were the days before the internet.”

Mailyn had been in Singapore for three years and when they picked a wedding date, Anthony encouraged her to tie the nuptial knot in the Philippines for her to spend some time with her family before they would move to California. “We were married in Manila, but after, we spent most of the time in Davao,” he said.

“The best thing that ever happened to me,” he replied when asked what it is to have a Filipina as lifetime partner.   “We have been married 17 years, but we joke that we have spent more time together than most couples married for 48 years—because we spend 24 hours a day together. We are partners in everything, and that takes all day, every day.”

Anthony  said he has friends in Manila and all over the world.   “We visit and travel but return here [in Davao City]. My American friends seem a little bit envious, and wish they could trade places with me.”

But one this is sure: he will keep on writing.

His piece of advice to those who wish to follow his footsteps: “Pick up a pencil, start pushing it across a piece of paper, and do not stop.”

Image Credits: Jimbo Albano