lara-antonio-interview-profileLara L. Antonio writes for a living. When she’s not hanging out with her dogs, reading (or writing) comics, producing plays or performing in them, she works full-time at MVNDO Media Inc. as the Editor-in-Chief. Her work has appeared in various publications like MVNDO Magazine, Mabuhay Magazine, The Inquirer, Heights, and Human Parts, among others. She also authored Love in the Dog Pound (illustrated by Che Bantayan), which was nominated for Best Art in 2016’s Komiket awards, and Tahanan, a nonfiction zine about growing up (to be re-released also this 2016). You can see more of her work at storiesbylara.com. For updates on comics, check out their comics’ Facebook Page.

 

 

 

Q: Everyone has an origin story. Could you share with us the exact moment (or moments) wherein you realized that you wanted to become an artist?

It’s difficult to pinpoint it to one particular moment. There has always been an inclination towards the arts. My mom is an artist. She was part of the first few batches of Philippine High School for the Arts, and even at a young age, she encouraged my siblings and I to pursue the arts.

Growing up, my mom’s paintings and letters and sculptures were all over the house. When she was stressed, she would paint or draw. She would sing me to sleep. Bedtime stories were theatrical renditions of The Three Little Pigs. I think I carried all of that with me growing up. I took lessons: voice, theater, guitar, piano, violin even, and of course, creative writing. In one way or another, I’m fortunate that my mom grew up surrounded by the arts, and raised us in the same way. I’m fortunate that even if my dad isn’t much of an artist, he’s never asked me to be anything else; to pursue anything else. Aside from that one point in my life where I wanted to be a lawyer (I was later discouraged, I was told I was too emotional—that I cry too much. It’s true!), I’ve always known that I was going to pursue the arts. There was no question. It was just about okay which one do I pursue? What is it really that I want to become? Do I want to make films? Do I want to write plays? Do I want to be a photographer (yeah, that was in the pipe line at one point in my life)? Do I want to act?

Writing, and doing that for a living, never crossed my mind. In fact, I was terrified of it. I still am. I suppose that decision to really pursue writing came much later in my life. And would honestly not have happened if I had not ended up in an English class with one of our university’s legendary professors. It was his class that made me fall in love with writing again. His class that pushed me to pursue a minor in Creative Writing. The rest is history.

Pursuing comics is a different story. I was nine when I received the first graphic novel I ever owned. It was the graphic novel version of Tolkein’s The Hobbit and my parents got it for me for Christmas.

The next time I (formally) encountered graphic novels again was much later in my life. I was dating someone who was a huge comic-geek. He insisted I read comics with him, and because of that, I grew to love them too. Except I never got into the superhero stories he loved to read. He lent me his copy of The Umbrella Academy and I thought finally, a graphic novel not about Batman or Superman, not DC or Marvel (Nothing against them! I had a very limited knowledge of comics at the time) and that was it. I got hooked. I started hoarding and reading all that I can from Sandman, to V for Vendetta, Runaways, Blankets, Daytripper (!!) I just couldn’t stop.

Before I knew it, my collection was growing, and I was reading more comics/graphic novels than books. Then last June (2015), I took a comic book creating class by Meganon Comics (with Tepai Pascual and Paolo Herrera as our teachers) with Che Bantayan, my co-founder at Luna Comics, and Love in the Dog Pound co-creator; then we sold comics at Komiket and that was that.

 

Q: From that moment, and throughout your journey as an artist, what has been your biggest struggle?

This will always boil down to my insecurities as a writer. Am I good enough to even call myself a “writer?” Is this article okay? Is this story okay? Are the characters annoying? Am I giving away too much? Do people even think this is relevant? WHY DID I DECIDE TO BE A WRITER? It’s a cycle of despair!

Back in college, as part of my creative writing classes, we would have workshops. We’d sit in a group, discuss an author’s piece, and talk about how to make it better, which of our darlings we had to kill. I had a love-hate relationship with those classes. I used to love going to them because I learned so much, but if I could cut all the days we had to workshop my work, I would.

It’s the same way until now. When I have a piece of work—especially when they’re personal essays, or non-commissioned work (like our comics, or short stories)—I get so tense when I have to put them out. I think art makes people vulnerable. I hate it. When you create a piece of art, of course you bare your soul a little bit every single time. Norman Mailer once said that every one of his books has killed him. You take pieces of yourself every single time, and then you offer them up to the world for them to look and think, “Hey maybe this is good.” Or “Hey this is crap.” But it’s part of it. I don’t think I’d ever be pleased with something I made. I reread and reread and reread and I always find something wrong with it. I guess the one thing I’ve learned is that you just have to let go. Let go of your work.

It’s terrifying: “Being a writer.” Just embracing the fact that maybe I want to write for a living. When people ask me what I do, I prefer to describe myself as a storyteller in general. Because aside from the fact that I attempt to practice it every day, the idea of “being a writer”, of claiming it, scares me.

 

Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?

No idea. I have this joke that maybe I’m anxious because I’m a writer. Maybe my anxiety fuels my writing. Why is that when I’m happy I can never write? I’m never going to be sure of myself, or my writing. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what’ll keep me on my toes. In theater, one of my mentors had said, “If you’re not nervous before a show, then you don’t care enough.” You’re not invested enough. It’s the same thing for writing, or with any art form. You’re nervous because you care. You want it to be great. You want it to matter.

 

Q: What would you consider is the ONE thing that REALLY helped you level up your skills?

Workshops. In fact, I miss attending workshops. I miss attending class. I’ve been itching to go back and study, if only to whip my writing back into shape. I love to learn—I’m a student by heart. I miss the classroom setting. The pressures of a deadline. Of course, now it’s work, and if you miss a deadline, you delay everything. There’s more pressure. There’s less time. So I don’t demand as much from myself as I used to back in school. I miss it though, attending workshops and class. Doing workshops also helps you sit on your ego and suck up criticism. Constructive criticism makes you better. Of course it’s gonna hurt a bit if/when people say your work sucks, but that’s good. That should fuel you to do better.

 

Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?

That it’s going to make me vulnerable! Haha. Again, I hate it. But it’s part of it. When we were doing Love in the Dog Pound, I was so nervous to put it out. What if people didn’t like it? What if they thought it was shallow? Do comic book readers even read about dogs? What if they hate it?

I’m also naturally competitive. I don’t like to do anything if I know I’m going to suck. I don’t think that helps, especially in the nature of my work. You always want to be the best, but you know you can’t. That’s impossible. Someone somewhere is always going to be better than you, and you have to accept that. Learn from it and want to better yourself. It’s that constant back and forth between knowing you can’t be perfect, and still wanting to be regardless. My endless cycle of despair.

 

 

Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making art or comics?

The love for it. I don’t think anyone can do anything that they don’t like. I wouldn’t put myself through all this if I didn’t love writing in general. Second, I think it’s the fact that making art, or comics allows you to create stories. You get to live out other lives. Whatever art it is I’m creating at the moment, whether I’m acting on stage, or writing stories for a play, comic, or film, I’m living out someone else’s life. When it comes to writing personal essays, I’m reliving moments in my life that happened. Moments I want to revisit. When it comes to writing articles, I get to put someone else’s story on paper. I get to have that memorialized.

Creating comics is a marriage of writing and the visuals. I’ve always thought of myself as a very visual learner. I mean, I did take film production as my undergrad. It’s different, to see the story before you and then have to put it into words, but that’s usually how I write. And that’s why I love creating comics, because that’s exactly what it is. Creating something where the visuals supplement the words, and vice versa.

 

Q: What does your average day look like? (And when do you fit in the time to create art?)

I work in the publishing industry and hours are never set. An average day varies on what the work calls for that day.

If it’s a Tuesday, Thursday/Friday or Sunday then my day starts earlier than it usually does. I’m up by 6:00, ready to leave the house by 6:30, drop my siblings off at school, and by 8:00 I’m at the tennis court in UP. After which, I go home, play with my dogs, get ready for work. By lunch, I’m at work. I leave depending on the workload. If the magazine is closing, or we have events to attend, I get home pretty late. Those are the days I don’t have much time to create art.

Other days are more relaxed. I’m up by 8:30, sometimes 9:00. I play with my dogs. I go to work. I read on the way to work. I write, most of the time for work, sometimes for myself. If it’s a pretty “chill” day, then I’m home by 6:30 or 7:00.

Some days, I get bursts of inspiration and I end up writing even when I’m tired. I’ve made a habit to keep a notebook in my bag so I can scribble an idea whenever it comes. I think it was Joan Didion who said to do that, and I’ve done that since. Sometimes, when I’m in the bathroom and an idea comes, I take my phone and place it on the sink and talk about my idea so I can record it (while taking a bath haha!). That really helps especially for ideas that come out of nowhere.

As for fitting in time to create art, I don’t normally do it unless I have to. That’s terrible, I know. I used to have a write every day challenge and it really helped me but I haven’t been able to do that since. I’ve been planning to do it again though. Just to keep myself sharp.

 

Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?

MAN. This is a tough one. I need to be cut off from the world to really be able to sit down and write. I wrote Love in the Dog Pound while I was living with my lolo in the province. No Internet. I’m not much of a TV person, so not much of that either. Just me, a bunch of comics I brought for the trip, my yoga matt, my laptop, and the agenda to write. Now that I don’t have the time to just fall off the face of the earth and live with my lolo, I write from home. When I have “serious” writing that I need to get done, I do it in the morning. On the same chair I always write on, with coffee and pandesal. I don’t go online. If I need a break, I walk around the living room or play with my dogs. Sometimes, I go for a run with them to clear my head. Then I go back to writing.

The Internet is a double-edged sword for creatives. It gives us all the access to all of this art, all this information; but it takes up so much of our time. And you know, you can’t help but get sucked in it. Sometimes, I catch myself going on Facebook just because I have nothing better to do. I could have been using that time to do other things.

 

Q: What do you do when you feel just completely uninspired or burnt out? How do you motivate yourself to start working again?

I watch spoken word poems on YouTube! Andrea Gibson is the go to if I’m feeling bad about myself. I read. Play video games. Open up a comic book and look at its art. I take a break. That’s really important. I can’t stress that enough. Sometimes, you have to step away from a piece of work to be able to write it. Put some distance, and then come back with a fresh perspective. Running helps me. I don’t like to run. I’m not much of a runner; but it always helps me clear my head. I only do it when I have to. And only if I’m with my dogs (and pretending it’s really part of my Zombie Apocalypse prep).

 

Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?

Love in the Dog Pound getting featured on the Inquirer. That was one of the highlights of last year! Actually, the reception of Love in the Dog Pound in general. I was so nervous putting this out because I didn’t know it would be received well, but I’m so happy it has been. It even got nominated for Best Art so I’m really proud of that <3

But in general, getting published is always a great win. For anything that I write—but especially for the essays, or the more “personal” stuff. I guess it all comes down to people recognizing your work. Being asked to write articles. Not having to look for your next big project–instead, it being offered to you. Those are small wins. But they mean a lot. In a way, they’re affirmation that I must be on the right track. I must be doing something right.

Oh—being told that your story has moved someone. After reading an essay that I wrote, I got a letter from someone I didn’t know saying “thank you for writing this.” Just recently someone told me that she still re-members one of my essays clearly, that it made her cry. That she could relate. Someone had read Love in the Dog Pound on a friend’s recommendation and came looking for part 2 even before we released it. They loved it. They cried. That’s the best feeling. Knowing your work matters to someone. That it moves people.

 

Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?

A lot. Hahahaha! But I’ve never considered them “failures.” I don’t like the term ‘failure.’ It creates this unwanted negativity or toxicity, and you just can’t thrive with that. How do you expect to create great work if you keep thinking, “Ah di naman nila magugustuhan,” [They won’t like it anyway] or that it’ll turn out ugly? Of course there are times that you’ll get disheartened and discouraged, especially if you went for something you really wanted and didn’t get it.

One time, I applied for a prestigious writing fellowship abroad. Fellowship na siya. Paid internship pa. But I didn’t get it. That hurt a lot. When I read the letter of rejection, I wanted to cry, haha (but I didn’t. I just hugged my dog, and I told him, “Well at least hindi na kita iiwan,” [I won’t be leaving you anymore] then we did yoga to get rid of the bad vibes, and the nerves and that was that—true story). I prefer to call them roadblocks. Hurdles. ‘Lessons.’

Other than that, not getting published is one. Sometimes you work really hard on an essay or a story, and then you submit it, and then it reaches the “next stage” or next phase. And then nothing. It’s not going to get published. That’s the worst, kasi umasa ka [you weren’t counting on it]. And then you see your peers getting published, and you start to doubt yourself again, whether you’re good enough to be a “writer.” Whether your work is any good. That sucks. Masakit talaga. [It’s really painful.]

I’ve gotten rejected a lot. And sometimes it gets you to the point that it makes you question why you’re doing this in the first place. But every single time that happens, you can feel bad for yourself, but don’t give up. Soldier on. Write again. Edit the work. Why didn’t they think it was publishable? What can I improve on? Work and work and work on improving yourself and your craft.

I guess that’s why I don’t consider them ‘failures’, more than anything they’re lessons. Sabi nga nila [It’s like they say], fall 8 times, get up 9. Ganun rin yun. [It’s the same thing.] And this doesn’t just apply to writing. This applies to everything in life. That’s just how it is. You move on. Let go of the attachment to the work. Learn. And then do better.

 

Q: What, for you, has been the best way to promote yourself and your work to potential fans, clients, or publishers?

I’m not very good at self-promotion. We tried to make a Facebook page this year to promote our work. I even employed my younger sister to manage it for us, but she gave up because we never give her anything to work with it! We’re not very good at keeping an online presence! I also made a website that I haven’t updated since God knows when. But if you want to get updates (albeit sporadically) about Luna Comics and what Che and I are up to, please like our page. We sometimes post new work. Keyword: sometimes. On my end, you can drop by storiesbylara.com—I update as often as I can. Meaning, barely.

 

Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?

I want my work to speak for me, and to be able to sustain me so that I don’t have to hold a full-time day job and just focus on writing. Creating the kind of work that I want to create.

The long term goal is to have enough money to sustain my dreams of living FAAARRR from the city, on a farm with my dogs, writing. Or on a beach, with my dogs, writing. I want my work to be able to fund all my change the world dreams—a shelter for dogs. A bed and breakfast for my mom. A home on the beach. Traveling to the poor provinces in the Philippines and teaching them art. How to make comics. How to put their thoughts and dreams into writing. How to act, even. My dreams are simple. But you know, of course, getting there is going to take a lot of funding. And I just want to be able to do that. I just want my work to be able to fund that. That’s the end goal.

 

Q: What, for you personally, has been the source of your ideas, creativity and talent?

This is a hard question! I’m not sure where my ideas come from. Sometimes they’re inspired by the most mundane things. I’m thinking of working on a new comic now, and I got the idea from a random news report I saw online. Love in the Dog Pound was a tribute to my dog, Tiny, who passed away last year. My essays, since they’re nonfiction, usually begin with “feelings” that I need to write about. Feelings that eventually turn into actual essays. Short stories are inspired by events that happen in real life. I think I’ve never created a story from scratch, except when I was younger, and maybe for this next one I’m trying to work on—also why it’s taking up more time, because I’ve not been able to immerse myself as much as I want to yet. I need to do more research.

In terms of talent, I don’t know? MY MOM. Good genes? Where does one usually get talent, haha! As I mentioned, my mom is artistic. I got my inclination towards the arts from her. I sing because she sings. I act because she used to act. I write, because growing up, my mom was the best writer I knew. My love affair with the arts stems from the fact that she’s an artist. Because we were exposed to it early and never discouraged to pursue it.

 

Q: What is your big “WHY”?

My old officemate once told me, “Create something true everyday.” Ever since she said this, I have never forgotten that. Why do we do what we do in the first place if there is no truth to it?

And by truth, no I don’t mean, nonfiction, journalism, hard facts and truth-it-must-have-happened-truth, but the kind of truth that is universal. Create something true everyday is the same as saying create something that matters. That matters to someone. That can move someone.

That’s the most important thing for me. To tell stories that matter. And it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a commissioned children’s story book. Or if you’re doing a comic about an invisible city. Or a boy too scared to wonder. Or falling in love for the first time. For as long as it’s true—it’s universal, it’s something people will look at and say yes, this is important. Yes, I can so relate to this. Then I’ve done my job.

That’s what’s great about being able to tell stories in general—you just know that somewhere, someone out there can relate to it. And maybe they were having a terrible day that day. Maybe they’ve been hiding in the bathroom, unable to wear a dress from a year ago, so ashamed of the weight that they’ve gained. Maybe they wanted to kill themselves that night. Maybe they were going to hide the fact that they were gay. Maybe they were going to walk past that dog that was abandoned by their village. And then maybe they read something that you wrote, and decided that they were not going to kill themselves that day. Decided it was okay to feel bad about themselves, for as long as they got back up. Decided to take that dog home, and care for it, love it and was loved back. Maybe, in your own little way, something you write or create is going to make a difference. A ripple in an ocean. But no matter how small, how seemingly meaningless, for as long as you create something true, it will touch someone’s life.

The other night, I took to Facebook to write a belated self-love post, about my journey into accepting the body that I have today. It wasn’t written well. I didn’t even edit it, but I have gotten so many messages, and some comments saying that night, they almost cried because they saw a photo of themselves years back, or that they’ve been struggling with trying to lose weight or struggling to cope with gaining weight and they needed to read what I wrote that night. And you know what? I posted that ‘cause I was feeling bad about myself. I posted that because I found a photo of myself three years ago, where I was 105 lbs., had abs, and was a size 2. I’m none of those now, and I posted that as a reminder to myself that the body changes. That it’s okay that you’ve gained weight, for as long as you’re not starving yourself—something I used to resort to just to stay “in shape”. And in less than a day, I was so overwhelmed by everyone’s responses. Apparently, it had hit home.

That wasn’t even a formal essay, it was just something I was feeling that seemed to resonate with people.

And that’s exactly why I do what I do. Because maybe someone somewhere feels like crap, and they read what I had wrote and then realized they weren’t alone. The world is cruel and unfair. But somewhere out there, someone is feeling the exact same way and together you can soldier on.

That’s why I do what I do. Create something true every single day. 🙂

 

 

 

Quick-Fire Questions

Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?

Saga. Brian Vaughn. Fiona Staples.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz—in terms of writing style (vignettes), and being able to weave in and out of two languages without translating the work, and still providing enough context for the readers to understand it.

The Graveyard Book, Pts. 1 and 2, Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell, illustrated by sooo many great illustrators.

 

Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills?

On Writing by Stephen King. This I read at a point in my life where I just quit my job at a publishing company that I felt didn’t help my growth as a writer, and I went back to it several times. I’ve not read the second half, which are mostly rules about writing and stuff like that, but the first half is his nonfiction account about how he got into writing, and I loved it. It was funny, but you learned from it as well. In one way, it was also inspiring. He struggled with substance abuse, and relied on it heavily for his writing. It became a crutch. The latter part was how he overcame that, and still got to write without having to depend on anything but hard work and dedication.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser. I’ve just started reading this. I’ve been itching to learn more about writing non-fiction, especially because I was only able to pursue it as a minor, but because I can’t afford to take classes (or a Master’s degree—yet, that’s definitely part of my short term goals), I try to read and buy as many books about writing, or as many anthologies as I can. This one is like a great refresher course. A lot of it I’ve already put into practice in my job as an editor for a magazine, but reading it, from someone who’s much more practiced and already made a name for himself is a great feeling. Yes, I’m definitely on the right track. And it’s nice to read it to remind yourself of ways to make your writing better.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Definitely a must-read for any who wants to venture into creating comics. Has a brief history of the craft, discusses styles, paneling, scripting, tips and tricks. It’s an illustrated crash course on sequential art, and yes it was my bible back when I first started (still is).

Why I Write by Joan Didion. Every artist has their ‘why’—this one is Joan Didion’s—one of the most respected nonfiction writers in the industry. I’ve loved this piece since I first read it for class, and I go back to every time I feel stuck and need to remind myself why I love what I do in the first place. Plus. Joan Didion.

 

Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?

Beach, for sure! I love the ocean. I never feel more at home than when I’m out at sea. Sometimes, I feel like in another life, I would’ve been a mermaid. I can swim for hours and never feel tired. There’s a scene, at the end of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. (Spoiler): they moved to the beach. They live in a bungalow on the beach. They have a dog!! And a boat. And when I was playing it, I couldn’t help but feel, Man, that’s the life. It’s everything I want. To live on a beach, writing. My dogs running free. Sitting on the sand all day, or sailing on my boat. That’s my end game. I’ve mentioned this to people before and some of them get surprised I’d give up the city life to live in the province/at the beach, but I grew up going home to our house in Los Baños every weekend, so may-pagkaprobinsyana ako [there’s a provincial side to me]. The city drains me. And I prefer being far away from civilization. I’m an introvert (surprise) so I like being alone.

 

Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?

I’m gonna cheat a little and categorize haha!

For the international scene, Neil Gaiman, Fiona Staples, and Gabriel Ba.

For the local scene, definitely Arnold Arre.

 

Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills? (Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally)

Sobrang hirap [It’s so hard] huhu! Can I name three? I will.

Martin Villanueva—amazing writer and friend, and my Creative Writing prof back in college. He was my thesis adviser and a lot of his comments, and his tips/tricks on writing have stayed with me since I graduated. Life advice narin.

Macky Santiago—a friend, and my old director/playwriting mentor. He taught me how to kill my darlings (best advice ever!), and to this day (even if he lives in the city of dreams and is sooo far away) is one of my biggest supporters (and empowerers??).

Laurel Fantauzzo—my Creative Writing professor (also back in college), who taught me to write stories that are brave.