Maya fell in love with the written word when she was nine. She remembers “leaving poems scribbled on scraps of paper on my mom’s bedside table.” Even as a kid, her imagination was always in overdrive: “I wrote short stories on pad paper, one of them was called The Talking Egg which was about a girl on an Easter egg hunt who gets chatted up by—you guessed it—an Easter egg.”
But the light bulb moment for Calica came when she was 14. “I was in bed, in my pyjamas on a weekend morning, and I had just finished reading Og Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World. I remember saying, ‘I want to write to inspire people.’”
And inspire she did: first, with a stint as Cosmopolitan’s managing editor from 1997 to 1999. She then launched Candy as its editor-in-chief in 1999 before heading Seventeen in 2000. In 2003, she published her first novel, The Break-Up Diaries, under Summit Books. The book became a bestseller and is currently on its second printing in the Philippines. As icing on the cake, Unitel produced The Break-Up Diaries in a five-episode TV special (under “Love Books Presents,” a weekly drama series) aired on TV5 in October 2008 starring Nikki Gil and Jake Cuenca.
In 2004, Calica felt it was time for a change. Though her life in Manila was happily humming along, something was missing. “I was happy, content where I was at Seventeen. I loved the brand and the people I worked with. It was a major feat—I was launching editor for the first international edition of an American magazine. My life was pleasant but predictable. It was a good life, mind you. But I wanted more—I wanted new adventures and excitement. I knew I needed to do something big, and different. So I prayed for God to swing open a door in either Singapore or Auckland, two cities where I had family. The next day, one of my sisters asked me to fly to Singapore for free. Within hours of landing, I was called for a job interview. Within three weeks, I was offered a job as lifestyle editor for Female fashion magazine. So I went with the flow, and never looked back!”
“I believe that for life to change, you have to change or make changes,” she says. “Since then, my life has been an adventure.”
Calica has a long list of the things she’s come to love about her adopted city. “Singapore—or any place you choose to live in—is what you make it. You’re the main star of your life, after all; if it’s boring, it says a lot about you!”
She adds, “There’s something about living away from your home country that instills a greater pride about your heritage. I’ve been mistaken to be Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Taiwanese, Vietnamese here, and each time I say ‘I’m Filipina.’ I [let people know] that Pinays in Singapore are not just domestic helpers, nurses, or GROs. A cab driver actually asked me ‘Are you on your day off?’ when he heard I was Pinay. I say, ‘I am a novelist’ or ‘I am a writer’. Some of them don’t know any better, so I’ve learned not to get defensive. And some of them appreciate the lesson. I feel like an ambassador in a way,” she ends with a laugh.
LAUNCHING ASIAN CHIC LIT
After being Female’s lifestyle editor, Maya moved up to be its beauty and wellness editor in 2007, then became editor of Smile, Cebu Pacific’s in-flight magazine last year. Smile is published by INK Publishing, a UK-based company with offices in London, Singapore, New York, and Hong Kong. For Calica, her current job gives her the best of both worlds. “I am very fortunate to be able to fly to the Philippines for Smile, which is why I took the job in the first place. But I also like returning to Singapore.”
In late 2004, Calica met Chris Newson of British publishing company Marshall Cavendish at a press event in Singapore. “I was lifestyle editor of Female then. When we got to talking, I blurted out that I had written a book back in Manila, and it just so happened that I had Break-Up Diaries, Drama Queen by Abi Aquino and Almost Married by Tara FT Sering in my bag. Newson wanted to publish the books in Singapore, but that didn’t fly,” she says.
Calica heard from Newson again three years later, in 2007: “He was keen on [publishing] Asian chick lit, and remembered me because he had passed Break-Up Diaries to his editors, who liked it. We talked about it, and I basically said ‘Yes.’ It all flowed from there!”
Along with fellow Pinay writers and friends, former Cosmopolitan editors Tara FT Sering and Noelle de Jesus, Calica feverishly wrote the first draft of Undercover Tai Tai, about a film student-turned-reluctant undercover sleuth, at Em by the River, her favorite café by the Singapore River. She finished the first draft in 30 days, “thanks to Chris Baty’s book, No Plot? No Problem!,” plenty of Café Americano, and the predominantly Pinoy wait staff at Em who respected Calica’s drive to write.
The success of Asian Chic came as a surprise to Calica. “Before the Asian Chic launch, another author had his book signing. He’s been a bestseller many times over, but this time it was a bit quiet, according to the publishers. They said that the retail climate was quiet for the past three weeks, and that we Asian Chic authors shouldn’t take it personally if not too many people showed up. They were managing our expectations. Being the staunch optimist, I just smiled and went out to say a short prayer. I knew a lot of people would show up. And when I returned, the book signing area was packed! A lot of our friends turned up, and we were so touched. During the signing, one of the distributors said, ‘I think your books are going to get sold out!’ And that week, all three books made it to the top five of Kinokuniya’s bestseller list [note: Kinokuniya is one of the biggest bookstore chains in Singapore]. Number one was Twilight, and we couldn’t argue with that! In fact, the people at Kino were shocked with the success of the books given that we were still virtually unknown in Singapore.”
Calica is a firm believer in the powers of God and the universe, and proof of this was manifested prior to the formal launch of Asian Chic. “I had the first copy of Undercover Tai Tai in my bag. When the cab driver asked what I did, I proudly said: ‘I am a novelist. In fact, my book is in my bag!’ and he insisted on buying it. That was the first copy I sold, I believe it was a week before the book launch. He asked me to sign it—his name is Thomas. Two days later, my friend Migs got into his cab and when he found out Migs was Pinoy, he said, ‘I met a novelist. She wrote Undercover Tai Tai. Do you know her?’” It was amazing and hilarious!
Calica won’t stop at the success of Asian Chic. Eventually, she says “I would love to venture into non-fiction and inspirational writing. That, I feel, is really the call of my heart.” Calica believes in visualizing one’s future coupled with carpe diem. She says, “When you’re passionate about something, you will carve out the time to do it. I like to draw my dreams on paper, but I balance my goals for the future by really taking in the moment. I am learning that mindfulness in the present time impacts what happens in my future. And if I don’t stay aware of what’s happening to me now, sayang!”
(First published in Marie Claire, March 2009; photos used with permission from Maya Calica)