Happy Tuesday and Happy Cinco de Mayo!!
Recently I was contacted about doing a give-away in honor of the paperback release of Marisa de los Santos’s novel Belong to Me — and had the added honor of interviewing the author.
I so enjoyed both novels (feel free to check out my reviews of both — Love Walked In and Belong to Me) and had so many questions for the author! I hope you enjoy the following interview as much as I did.
If you would be interested in receiving a free copy of Belong to Me, simply leave me a comment below!
I was not surprised to read that you are also a poet. Your attention to diction and imagery is simply superb! Which genre (poetry or fiction) did you start writing first?
Thank you. I was definitely a poet first. I studied poetry writing in college and then got a couple of graduate degrees in poetry writing, and my first book was actually a collection of poems. I’ve always had a very intimate relationship with words. As a kid, I would make lists of words that I loved simply for their music, and I still love words for their textures and rhythms and the things that happen when they bump up against each other. Poetry puts tremendous pressure on language, with every word, every syllable, contributing to the vitality of the poem. It’s language at its most intense, and I think that’s why I turned toward it first. Before I wrote my first novel Love Walked In, I had never written a short story, at least not in my adult life.
Do you prefer one genre over the other? What do you like and dislike about each?
I value both genres, couldn’t do without either, but as a reader, I have to admit that I love novels best. I thrive on that total immersion experience of novel reading. The same seems to be true for me as a writer. When I wrote poems, and I haven’t written one in a long time, I lived for the moment when I got it right—the right words in the right order—and the poem came alive. That was exhilarating for sure. But getting to that moment was, frankly, not a lot of fun. It was super-intense and obsessive, and often the process felt claustrophobic to me. Novel writing is tough going, too, and I still obsess about finding the right word, but if it’s not coming, there are so many other things to work on. Also, I find novel writing far less lonely than poetry writing because I get to spend my time in the company of my characters, who feel very real to me.
I love the concentrated, concise nature of poetry, as well as its ability to somehow express the inexpressible in so few words – yet also appreciate how well readers are able to get to know fictional characters within a novel. Does one genre come more easily for you?
Writing is just hard, no matter what genre you work in. There are certainly days when I get frustrated and have to walk away from my computer for a while. But the characters always pull me back. As deeply as I experience language and as interested as I am in plot, for me, everything begins and ends with the characters. One of the things I’ve learned, and it’s been a hard lesson, is to trust in my characters, to take my cues from them. As a person, I’m a planner and can be a bit of a control freak, but as a writer, I find that when I try to micromanage, to make things happen, the story stalls out or falls apart. It’s very much a trust-your-instincts enterprise, at least for me, and it’s difficult. Having said all of that, overall, I get a lot of joy out of writing novels. It’s a genre I feel at home in, as I never really felt at home in poetry.
Why do you choose to write your fiction from the perspective of multiple characters?
“Choose” is a tricky word. Of course, intellectually, I understand that writing is a process of decision-making, but the way it feels to me is that every story has an organic shape and my job is not so much to impose or create that shape but to discover it. For instance, I began working on the novel I’m writing now under the assumption that I would tell the story in third person, but from the perspective of a single main character. It wasn’t until I was pretty well into writing that I began to feel that this wasn’t quite right, that there was another perspective out there, needing its own chapters. So now I’ve got chapters from another character’s point of view.
Although these decisions emerge in this organic, intuitive way, I can look back on them afterward and sort out why they I like them or why they work. I’m interested in the contrast between the interior and exterior lives of people, and multiple perspectives is a handy way of exploring this kind of thing. For instance, in Belong to Me, we get to see Piper as Cornelia sees her, but then we get to travel into Piper’s inner world. We get to experience her anger and grief and confusion, and we get to see how she sees herself and how she sees Cornelia. Anything that makes characters deeper, more true, and also messier interests me.
The first line of Love Walked In implies that the novel will fit comfortably within the genre of “Chick Lit” (“My life, my real life, started when a man walked into it.”) However, the reader quickly realizes that your novels are much more than simply romances. What is your relationship with “Chick Lit”? Are you comfortable being classified in this manner?
I don’t have a real handle on what the category “chick lit” means. I think that may be because when a term is applied so liberally, it loses whatever meaning it may have originally had. Yes, I am female. Yes, I write about relationships (parent/child relationships, friendships, sibling relationships, and romantic relationships). So if that’s what chick lit means, then I suppose that’s what I write. I think, though, that the term can be a means of dismissing a book, specifically a book written by a woman, as inauthentic or fluffy or purely commercial. It’s a way of saying that a book lacks integrity. I don’t think these things are true of my books, and I don’t think they’re true of many, many of the books written by women about relationships. Luckily, thinking about categories is not my job!
When you are developing a character and a plot-line, how do you decide which actions are “in character” as you imagine the character?
Before I start to write, I need to feel that I know the characters, at least the main characters, very well. They live and develop inside my head for months and months before I write anything down, and by the time I write, the characters feel human and real to me. This doesn’t mean that they don’t surprise me all the time once I am writing. They act and react in ways that I hadn’t anticipated and this can be exciting, but also frustrating because it means I have rethink so much about what has already happened and what will happen in the book. So I don’t know everything about the characters when I start to write, but I have to experience them as real and I have to have a deep understanding of their core personalities. I guess I have to know enough to be able to trust them when they start behaving in ways I hadn’t planned!
I was so relieved that you continued with the same characters from Love Walked In with Belong to Me. Why did you decide to do this? Can we hope for a trilogy? J
Again, as crazy as it sounds, I didn’t really decide to write a sequel. It just sort of emerged as the book that was there for me to write. Honestly, since I began Belong to Me a year or so before Love Walked In came out, it wasn’t the best choice from a career standpoint. There’s something unwise about writing a sequel to a book that no one has read because if readers hate your characters, you’re in trouble. But there really was just the one story for me to tell, and it evolved over a long period of time, and so I wrote it. I think this is just how I work because the same is true for the book I’m writing now. When it might make career sense to write a third Cornelia book, I’m writing one that has nothing to do with the first two books! And I’m as fascinated by the process and as absorbed in the characters as I was the first two times.
Still, I don’t rule out writing about some of the characters from Belong to Me again. If it were up to me, I would check in with Clare and Dev when they’re a bit older, maybe in their twenties. I would love to write their adult story, but I have no idea whether it will be there for me to write. We’ll see!
Interested in finding out what de los Santos’s novels are like? Drop me a comment for a free copy of Belong to Me!
Thank you, Marisa!