Q&A: Chicago novelist Mia P. Manansala on ‘Homicide and Halo-Halo,’ her latest ‘cozy’ mystery

Mia P. Manansala (Jamilla Yipp Photography)

By Cheryn Shin
Medill Reports

Chicago-based novelist Mia P. Manansala brainstorms story ideas in Google Docs and jots notes on her iPhone. When she drafts, she uses an Alphasmart Neo 2 Word Processor – basically, a digital typewriter that connects to a computer. It’s old-fashioned, but it works.

Last month the 35-year-old Filipino American author released the second novel in a planned five-book series, Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries. Like her award-winning debut novel, “Arsenic and Adobo,” released last May, “Homicide and Halo-Halo” follows a murder-solving local baker, Lila Macapagal. In these so-called cozy mysteries, a subgenre of crime fiction, amateur sleuths star as the mystery solvers, the details of sex and violence are excluded, and the crime takes place in a small neighborhood.

The third installment of the saga, “Blackmail and Bibingka,” is set for release in October. Manansala also tweeted on Jan. 19 that Berkley Publishing Group of Penguin Random House has bought the next three books. The deal report revealed the title of a fourth book: “Murder and Mamon.” Like the others, it’s named after a Filipino dessert – in this case, a sponge cake.  

Manansala, who lives with her husband, an aspiring TV writer, and two dogs, Max Power and Gumiho, Zoomed from her purple-walled home office.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about yourself.

I grew up in a multi-generational Filipino immigrant family in Chicago. (My entire family) lived in my maternal grandparents’ house. It was like that typical immigrant experience where we were the stopping place for people who would come to the United States before they were fully settled. I studied English at Northeastern Illinois University. I also spent about three and a half years teaching English in South Korea because I really enjoyed K-pop and K-dramas and needed to complete a language requirement.

Mia P. Manansala (Jamilla Yipp Photography)

How did you get your career started as a writer?

When I came back to the States, I got a part-time job as an English language instructor. But about a year later, I started to feel like, “Oh, is this it?” Now I’m back at home doing the same thing at 29. Which, don’t get me wrong, I’m 35 now, and it’s pretty great. There’s a lot more stability in my 30s than there was in my 20s. But at the time, I was like, “Is this all I’m gonna do?”

That’s when I remembered how much I loved writing. I wrote as a kid, I dabbled in high school. I never really finished anything and stopped in college, you know? As an English major, you’re not reading and writing for fun. So, I was like, “Why don’t I try doing something for myself?” I literally just Googled “Chicago writing class” or “Chicago writing workshop.” And I found a one-day mystery writing workshop taught by award-winning author Lori Rader-Day near Ravenswood.

In that class I wrote the beginning of the first book I’ve ever finished in my life. Lori, who was then president of the Midwest chapter of Mystery Writers of America, asked, “Is this your first time?” I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “I think you’re a mystery writer.”

Could you tell me more about that first story?

It’s titled “Death Comes to Comic Con,” and it follows a queer Filipino American woman solving a murder mystery at a comic book convention. That book did a lot of things for me. First, it showed that I could actually finish a book. Second, that book is what really got me to be part of the writer’s community. It won a couple of awards. It got me into a mentorship program called Pitch Wars. It got me my first agent. But it didn’t sell.

So, while that was going on for a year and a half, I wrote “Arsenic and Adobo,” which is a more cozy mystery. You don’t just sit and wait. You work on the next thing.

What was it like — getting all those rejections but forcing yourself to push forward?

It’s rare to get your agent with your first book. It’s even rarer to sell your first book. Lots of people that I know are debuting with their third, fourth, even fifth book. So, I had hope, but I had a healthy amount of skepticism. Luckily for “Arsenic and Adobo,” it won a big grant from Sisters in Crime, a community for crime writing and publication.

How are you feeling about “Homicide and Halo-Halo”?

A lot of debut novels tend to get a big push. So, the month before the release of “Arsenic and Adobo” was so intense with all the publicity. For “Homicide and Halo-Halo,” there’s so much less of that because you now have a readership.

It’s nice because I can breathe. I mean, I obviously want people to continue reading my series. But at the same time, I don’t have to constantly perform. I can just focus on writing my books, which is what I really love. Being a writer is not just about the writing. Half of it is like, “Buy my book! Buy my book!”

Tell me about “Homicide and Halo-Halo.”

It’s about Lila, my protagonist, and her connection to her deceased mother and her rivalry with her “cousin” Bernadette. Their moms were best friends who were very competitive. I’m sure you know people who like to brag about their kids, like, “Oh, she’s on the honor roll. Again.”

This second book is heavier. It’s still a cozy mystery with humor and a happy ending. But I mention in my author’s note that I wrote this book entirely in 2020, while I was in a dark time of my life because of the pandemic. And Lila is also in a dark time of her life. They’re echoes of the heaviness of those days.

How do you balance your time between writing and your daytime job as a youth services desk assistant at your local library?

I’m embracing my Google Calendar and that planner life.

In “Arsenic and Adobo,” there’s a huge focus on food. Why?

For (millennials), food is fun to play around with. But for the older generation, it’s their memories. My father was the cook in the family before he passed. So when (my mom) wants to eat Filipino food, she wants it the way that my father did it because those are her memories.

How many books are you thinking so far for the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery Series?

I will keep writing as long as I have ideas. As a writer, you want the security of an established series going. But at the same time, I want to give my best and not churn out the exact same book with a different dead body every time. Plus, how many random dead bodies are in that small town that your small-town baker can possibly be solving anyway?

Who or what is your greatest inspiration?

I write the stuff that I want to see. When it comes to other Filipino literary writers and poets, their books are heavily on trauma and the immigrant experience. They are beautiful books, wonderfully written, and are very, very important. But I don’t think those should be the only books out there with our experience because we’re so much more than that.

I want to be able to pick up a fluffy, entertaining book, and the protagonist just happens to be Filipino. Like, look at this person solving a mystery, or working at a bakery or, you know, went on a ski trip and fell in love.

I’m also big on community. I’m part of many groups — poets and novelists and short story writers and even musicians. I’m part of Crime Writers of Color because the mystery genre in particular is very slow to change and not as diverse as it should be. Without all these groups, I don’t know how long I would have kept on pushing. It’s a lot of work for not a lot of pay and quite a bit of heartbreak.

Do you ever go back to “Arsenic and Adobo” and wish you wrote it differently?

Yeah, I can’t read that book. I keep telling myself that I did the best that I could with the skills and the time that I had. And as long as I can assure myself that I couldn’t have done any better, I have no regrets.

Cheryn Shin is a magazine specialization graduate student at Medill.