History in Love: Jennifer Hallock on History, Writing and Love in American-Occupied Philippines

Written by: Carla De Guzman/Friday, Mar 10, 2017 03:25 AM

I first read Jennifer Hallock’s ‘Under the Sugar Sun’ after my reader friends were talking about their swooning love for her love interest, sugar baron Javier Altarejos. I was used to reading historical romance in the context of Victorian England, with things like balls and dances and marriage seasons. I picked up the book, excited but not really knowing what to expect. 

I was blown away. From the familiar setting of the Philippines to the more unfamiliar relationships between the Filipinos and Colonial America, a charged, romantic and history-rich love story was everything I wanted it to be. 


When Ayala Museum announced that she was coming to give a lecture on history and writing a romance novel, there was no way I could say no. I had a great time learning about America’s side of colonizing the Philippines—why they came, what it meant for them. She called this a micro History lecture, where her sources were all primary, journals and diaries and the like that specifically help shape her characters’ experience. The history between America and the Philippines is rich and long-reaching, and I think that if there’s anyone more equipped to write about that, it’s Jennifer Hallock. She’s a teacher and farmer by profession, but her love for history and research skills show beautifully in her writing. 


Also at the same event, I picked up a copy of her newest novella, Tempting Hymn. Based on the stories of the first Filipina nurses and Presbyterian missionaries in Visayas, I found myself kilig and enthralled while reading. 

And how excited am I that she’s planning a whole World War Two series for the Sugar Sun characters? 

I got to pick Jen’s brain a little over a quick interview, but her books are a definite must read for both romance lovers and history buffs alike. Warning: one of the questions has spoilers. You have been warned. 

Have you always been a history buff? How did you get started getting into the American occupation of the Philippines?

I’ve taught world history for twenty years, and the excitement has not worn off yet. At university, I studied the history of international affairs, including Southeast Asian history. I studied abroad in Thailand for a semester—but I stopped by the Philippines on the way out to see my boyfriend, now husband. He was “studying abroad”—really traveling the islands by ferry, from Batanes to the Visayas, and learning photography. He later worked as a photojournalist in Manila. (I was in Connecticut. It was a very long-distance relationship for a few years.)

Our marriage pulled him out of the Philippines, but we returned nine years later. I taught at an international school in the Manila area, and it was while designing a semester course on Southeast Asian history for 9th graders that I really dug into the Philippine Revolution and Philippine-American War. About the same time, I began writing romance, leading me to research at Ateneo de Manila’s American Heritage Library in my free time. The first six or so drafts of Under the Sugar Sun were written then, but I did not finish revising and editing until I moved back to the States. These days I teach a trimester course to high school seniors (18-year olds) on America in the Philippines, from the Battle of Manila Bay through the Cold War. I get to put my passion for research to use in my day job, which makes me tremendously lucky.

Can you tell us how the idea of the Sugar Sun series came about?

The original concept was my husband’s idea. I started writing contemporary sports romance set in the American Midwest, where I’m from. I was sticking very closely to the “write what you know” dictum. But my husband pointed out that I also know history, I know teaching, and I know—or was getting to know—the Philippines very well by living there. “Why don’t you write about an American schoolteacher in the Philippines, one of the Thomasites in the 1900s?” he said. “She could come from Boston and fall in love with a sugar baron. Is that Jane Austen-y enough for you?” Once I decided that he was right—and it took a while—I threw myself into the research. The story developed from there. For example, when I found an old Manila Times article about a sister searching for her missing brother, a former soldier. That inspired the Ben Potter storyline. I often let real events “write” my fiction.

What’s the most challenging part of doing your research?

Getting sucked in. I spend an unnecessary number of hours researching things that I could easily make up. For example, I used microfiche of the Manila Times to find the S.S. Elcano, the steamer that takes Georgina from Manila to Dumaguete. It’s a real ship that plied that route in 1902. Why couldn’t I make up a name? Who would care? Apparently, I would. I’m addicted to research, often to the point of being counterproductive.

Research is easier these days than ever, especially for sources printed before 1923 in the United States. The memoirs of Americans living in the Philippines—along with government documents and magazines and more—are all out of copyright and scanned into Google Books. And many American newspapers are digitally available, usually for free. Unfortunately, old Manila newspapers (Manila Times, Manila Freedom, The Daily Bulletin, and more) still have to be searched in person in the microfiche rooms of either Ateneo de Manila or the US Library of Congress.

I traveled a lot in the Philippines to see the places I wrote about, and the most challenging trip was to Samar—but only because of when I went. Filipinos know that different parts of the islands have different rainy seasons. But, genius that I am, I planned our trip to southern Samar in December. Yeah, I know. It was so beautiful, but it rained and rained and rained. In fact, it rained so hard that mudslides blocked some of the roads. Unable to reschedule our flight out of Tacloban, we took a bus back to Manila. For 26 hours. In the worst seats in the back of the bus. My husband still has not forgiven me for it. Samar was amazing; the bus, not so much.


I know you’ve talked about this before, but why a historical romance?

I’ve always loved reading good historical fiction, even without the romance element. I love the idea of “reliving” challenging and changing times from the eye of a person on the ground. What was day-to-day life like? Without the hindsight of history, how did people interpret each day’s headlines? What did people argue about? What were their concerns, their loves, their fears? Only by empathizing with those who lived in the past can we truly learn from history.

Three pieces of historical literature that had an impact on my writing are Burmese Days by George Orwell; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. These books taught me more about the social impact of imperialism than any history textbook. And I wondered, how do these lessons apply to the Americans do in the Philippines? Did the Americans learn anything from history? (Spoiler: yes and no.)

Why romance? Because I love romance. It is great storytelling. Some romance is the highest quality literature—but it doesn’t have to be. I know I’m not an Orwell, Achebe, or Cather. Or Twain, another of my favorites. All I want to do is tell a good, character-driven story. If my reader learns something along the way, all the better. With history that can get pretty dark—war, injustice, pestilence, and death—I think we need a happily-ever-after more than ever. Author Alisha Rai tweeted that our basic genre requirement was: “There’s no black moment that love can’t overcome.”

If I was reading the Sugar Sun series for the first time, which of the books would you recommend first?

All the novels and novellas are standalone happily-ever-afters for different couples, so you can read them in any order you want. However, if I had to choose, I would suggest starting with the prequel novella, Hotel Oriente. It was written to be an introduction to the period. The opening chapter shows the American heroine arriving in Manila by steamer. Though it is the only book in the series without a Filipino lead, the city is really a character in itself. It is a tribute to Downtown Manila and Binondo, which were so beautiful, cosmopolitan, and lively back then—truly the “Pearl of the Orient.” Once you “know” Manila, it enriches the opening of Under the Sugar Sun. And, by the way, the Hotel de Oriente really existed, and so did all the complaints about the new Yankee ownership.

Let’s say I wanted to write my own historical novel, romance or no. Where do you recommend that I start?

I would encourage you to immerse myself in as many primary sources as possible—sources authentic to the time period, like memoirs, newspapers, magazines, illustrations, photographs (if available), clothing, objects, and more. In microhistory, a historian focuses on the small units of history: an individual, a village, a family, a school, and so on. If you want to write a story about a gladiator in Rome, for example, examine the weapons and armor in museums, read stories of the gladiatorial schools, and find descriptions of the games by both enthusiasts and critics. In fact, find a particular gladiator to study. Figure out what he or she wanted, what he or she fought for. And, yes, there were a few female gladiators! It was very rare, but you do not need to worry about representing everyone’s experience. Your main characters should not be average. (How boring!) A hero or heroine should be an outlier. Anything that actually happened is possible, even if it not probable. Like I do, let the crazy reality of history help you write your fiction.

Was there any particular primary source that you found useful to researching for Tempting Hymn?

For the music, I used the 1895 Hymnal of the Presbyterian Church, the source of all the chapter titles and almost all of the hymns in the book. For church politics, I used memoirs and reports written by missionaries, including Arthur Judson Brown’s The New Era in the Philippines and the annual reports of the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Foreign Missions. I also used articles published in Presbyterian magazines of the era, like The Assembly Herald, The Presbyterian Banner, and Women’s Work for Women. And, finally, I found some great original photos in SD Portal Xtra, an online magazine published by the Silliman University Alumni and Friends at San Diego network. Their series on American missionaries was a great secondary source because it was based on primary sources only available in Silliman’s collection.


It’s a difficult subject to tackle, Jonas and Rosa’s relationship, and I really think you did it so well. I feel like there are so many things going against them. What challenges would they have faced in the future? 

Whew! Thank you. It was the riskiest thing I’ve ever written. I understand the dangers of this relationship’s demographic, believe me. And beyond nationality or age, Jonas is the last man Rosa should fall for. She is a single mother who was abandoned her first American lover. He is another American, he’s a missionary, he’s a Protestant, and he is scarred by the loss of his own children. This romance should not work.

And, yet, both Rosa and Jonas are stoic, determined people. They both seek respect. They are both people of faith, even if different faiths. They both sing gloriously. They both gave their hearts to their previous partners and were scorned in return. Both have to learn to trust again. And they have to find an environment that will allow them to start over together.

(Warning: Spoilers follow.) Of course, Jonas and Rosa live happily ever after! But theirs is a cross-cultural marriage, and I imagine they will face some challenges in the future. Living at Hacienda Altarejos helps because it is a welcoming environment for both of them, but as a couple they will always draw attention, more so than even Javier and Georgina. One day they will have to tell Miguel about his real father, Rosa will have to meet Jonas’s sisters, and they will have to provide a good education for all their children. (They will have six, including Miguel.) And, of course, in less than forty years, World War II will happen. This is true for everyone in the Philippines, including all my couples, which is why I plan to follow the next generation in a second series. 

If there was one thing you wished Filipinos and Americans knew about the Colonial period, what would it be? 

I would want people to know how important an event the Philippine-American War was in shaping the entire twentieth century, often called the “American Century.” It was the first crack in the icy isolationist heart of America, the first attempt of America to exert its authority abroad, its first Asian war, and its first foreign counter-insurgency. Unfortunately, America forgot all this, including the mistakes we made, and therefore we were condemned to repeat them—in Vietnam, in Iraq, and maybe next in Syria? For Americans, today’s debates over immigration, trade, nation-building, and the use of military force are reprises of the 1900s.

Under the Sugar Sun, Hotel Oriente and Tempting Hymn are all available on Amazon. The author may be contacted through her website, www.jenniferhallock.com or on Twitter (@jen_hallock), Facebook (facebook.com/jenniferhallockbooks) and email ([email protected]).


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About Carla De Guzman
Carla de Guzman is the author of self-published books Cities, Marry Me Charlotte B! and We Go Together. She loves to travel, coming home to her dog Kimchi and spending her weekends having dinner with her crazy family by day. By night, she’s writer and an artist, spending her midnights at her desk. Follow her on Instagram (@somemidnights) for more!
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