Interview with Marisa de los SantosMay, 2008
Goodreads: Goodreads member Megan describes you as "a gorgeous writer, coming from the world of poetry where she must have picked up the craft of writing sparkling, jewel-like sentences." How do you incorporate your skills as a poet when writing fiction?
Marisa de los Santos: I began writing poetry because I love the texture of words: the sound, the rhythm, the way they feel in my mouth and the back of my throat. And I consider all of those things when I write novels. If a paragraph feels off to me, the first thing I look at is rhythm, the next is sound. I might clonk myself on the forehead and say, "Of course this isn't working! There are way too many long vowels!"
Also, I write fiction in much the same manner I wrote poetry. I write one sentence, work with it until it feels right to me, and then move on to the next. It's slow work, but I don't seem to know how to do it any other way. In theory, I love the idea of banging out a draft, just getting the story out there, and then having something to work with. It's a smart way to work, and I still hold out a slim hope that I'll be able to do it that way one of these days. But for now, it's not happening.
Poetry isn't happening either. The truth is that I love the process of novel-writing. After poetry, it feels like an airy, wide-open space to move around in, and I get tremendous joy out of being with my characters. I hope to write poems again, but novels feel like home to the person I am now.
GR: Your new book, Belong to Me, is a continuation of the story and characters of your first book, Love Walked In. Did you plan from the beginning for more than one book?
MS: Not at all, but even before I'd quite finished writing Love Walked In and before I was really thinking about a second book, I could hear Cornelia and Company knocking at my door. I'm not sure how much business sense it makes to write a follow-up to a book that hasn't come out yet (and I began Belong to Me long before Love Walked In launched), but I never seem to have any choice in the matter. I write the book that's there for me to write, and those characters were just not finished with me!
GR: Your books carry strong ideas about motherhood and the maintenance of families, both the families we are born into and the families we create. How has your own experience as a mother, daughter, and wife influenced the content of your writing?
MS: My best answer to this is: in every possible way. My connections to people affect my writing because they affect every single thing I do. When it comes to human relationships, I'm a true believer. I find nothing more compelling than the bonds between people and their commitments to each other. Someone asked me if I were a romantic, and it was a great question to ponder. I thought about it for a long time, and what I came to is that I believe love is what saves us. If that makes me a romantic, so be it, but I don't find that idea romantic in the sense of dreamy or unrealistic. I find it extreme, pragmatic, not particularly sweet, and not at all easy. I put my characters into hard situations, and they have to decide whether to walk away or whether to look around and say to themselves, "OK, this is not what you'd planned, but these are the people you've been given to love. Now, do it."
GR: What motivated you to make the transition from poetry to fiction, two extremely different disciplines of writing? Was it a long-standing goal to write a book or a sudden inspiration?
MS: Even though I was a poet for so long, as a reader, I've always loved novels best. I would have jumped at the chance to write a novel at any point in my writing life, but the chance just didn't arrive until a few years ago when Cornelia Brown showed up in my head. I'm not sure why it happened when it did. I don't know how to explain it except to say that I wrote poems because I had poems to write; when I had a novel to write, when I had characters and a story, I wrote a novel. I like to understand things, but I've found that imagination is mysterious, even to — or maybe especially to — the person doing the imagining.
GR: Your protagonist Cornelia has an obsession with classic movies, beginning with Katharine Hepburn's tour de force, The Philadelphia Story. I suspect this is also your own obsession. If so, what are some of your favorite films? What is it about these classic films and their heroines that hooks you?
MS: You suspect correctly! I love movies like The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, The Lady Eve, and The Awful Truth for their wordplay and wit and for their smart, sly, intriguing women (Hepburn, Irene Dunn, Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert). And I'm crazy for pretty much everything that Capra, Hitchcock, Sturges, Hawkes, and Cukor have ever done.
GR: Was your second book easier or harder to write?
MS: Writing a novel is a really good way to learn how to write a novel, so in some ways, the second was easier. Things I had to learn through trial and error when I wrote Love Walked In came more naturally when I wrote Belong to Me, mostly nuts and bolts things like how to move people around in time and space and how, when you write a conversation, you don't include, verbatim, all that is said, or that the description of the tree out the window should not go on for an entire page. But the most important thing I learned from writing the first book was how little I get to know or control; how often what's needed is for me to listen to the characters and trust the story, to get out of the way and let things unfold organically. Still, Belong to Me is a bigger book than Love Walked In, more plotlines, more characters, more balls to keep in the air, and, much of the time, I found all of that very, very challenging!
GR: You've mentioned that you are working on a new novel with new characters. Is there anything you would like to reveal?
MS: It's still very early in the process, so a lot could change, but I can tell you that there are three main characters, a man and two women, who are friends for a very long time and then abruptly stop being friends. The man and one of the women come together after years to help find the third friend, who has walked out on her life. Their search will take them, among other places, to the Philippines.
GR: I'm sure your readers would love to see a third book about Cornelia, Clare, and the rest. Will there be a third book or more?
MS: I think so and hope so. I get many lovely emails from readers who say that they finish the books and immediately begin to miss the characters, and I know just how they feel. I would love to revisit Cornelia, Clare, and the rest, and I'm especially interested to see who Clare and Dev will be when they're a bit older, maybe five years or so from when we last see them in Belong to Me. So it won't be the next book, but it's possible that it will be the book after that.
GR: Describe your working style during a typical day spent writing.
MS: Usually, I get up to my desk as quickly as I can after the kids are off to school, and I re-read the section I wrote the day before (it might be a few pages or a few paragraphs). I tinker with that and then begin the next section. Often, I have some sketchy sense of what I want to accomplish, what I want to write, but many times the characters insist on surprising me and heading off into another direction altogether. As a general rule, I don't write on weekends or in the evenings; both of those belong to my family, although I'd be lying if I said I didn't break that rule on occasion!
GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books or writers?
MS: Right now, I'm reading Lee Martin's River of Heaven. I so enjoyed The Bright Forever, and this is shaping up to be just as wonderful. Recently, I've loved The Girls by Lori Lansens and The Used World by Haven Kimmel, whose The Solace of Leaving Early has a prominent spot on my all-time favorites, read-'em-every-year list. Also on that list are Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, Mary and O'Neil by Justin Cronin, and all of Barbara Kingsolver's novels. I worship E.M. Forster. Some soon-to-be-released books that I've been lucky enough to get my hands on early are The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer.