An Interview with Marisa de Los Santos
Marisa de Los Santos is a New York Times bestselling author of three novels — Love Walked in, Belong to Me, and Falling Together — as well as a collection of poetry, From the Bones Out (James Dickey Contemporary Poetry). She lives in Delaware with her husband, David Teague (a children’s book author), and their son and daughter.
Author Julianna Baggott spoke with de Los Santos about her characters, her words, her process, her husband, her home away from home, and her balancing act with her two children.
Julianna Baggott: Falling Together is a departure in some ways. We’re meeting new characters in this novel. Tell us how the novel first took root.
Marisa de los Santos: Somewhere toward the end of writing Belong to Me, I got the seed of an idea for Falling Together. Where the seed came from, I don’t know, and for reasons also unknown, the seed took the form of a mental image, a rare thing for me, since I am much more of a word person than a visual person. But suddenly there was this picture in my mind of three people, specifically three people walking down a beach with their shadows thrown out in front of them. They were just silhouettes really; I couldn’t see their faces, but I could tell that they were a tall man and a tall woman with a much smaller woman walking between them. I carried this image around inside my head for a while, just letting it sit and waiting for it to get percolating, which eventually it did. I understood that this wasn’t a love triangle or a family but a friendship, an intense one, as closely bonded as a romantic relationship or a family, and I think it was probably this knowledge that led me to think of college, a place that just seems to foster very fiercely intimate friendships. Once I knew where they had met, the characters began to come alive, slowly, detail by detail, inside my head, and as they did, I began to get more and more of their story, the story of what happens to a college friendship when it hits the real world and the friends start to change.
JB: Falling Together brings you closer to some of your familial roots, in a way. Tell us about your connection to the Philippines and how the process of writing about that landscape affected you.
MdlS: I can’t tell you how grateful and excited and nervous I was when I realized I was going to have the chance to write about the Philippines. My dad grew up in Cebu City and lived there until he was about thirty, when he came to the U.S. for his medical residency. My sister and I were born here, and it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I traveled to Cebu for the first time. Since then, though, I’ve been back many times. My parents ended up moving there after my dad retired, so we take the kids every other year, and every time we go, the place becomes a little bit more a part of my internal landscape, the one I carry around with me, my own private home. It’s a country of extremes: extreme gorgeousness, rampant blossoming, warm generosity, fruit and bread and fish so delicious you wish you could eat nothing else for the rest of your life, and also extreme poverty, heartbreaking poverty. Neither of the other two books led me to write about the Philippines, and I didn’t know from the beginning that Falling Together would. At some point, though, it became clear to me that my characters needed to travel, to go on a kind of quest, and that the quest needed to pull them out of their familiar worlds. They needed to be lost together and discovering things for the first time together. It felt like a huge honor to be able to write about the Philippines, but it also felt like a lot of pressure. I wanted so much to do the place justice, to have my language snap it all into being. Obviously that’s not possible, but I loved trying. I hope people read the book and think: “Okay, I have to go there!”
JB: Friendship is an important theme is this novel — as well as in your earlier works. As a friend of yours from way back, I know that friendships are crucially important to you. Were some aspects of the friendships in Falling Together based on formative friendships that have been dear to you over the course of your adult life?
MdlS: Pen, Cat, and Will weren’t modeled on specific people I know, and I have never had a trio like they had, but the friendships of my late teens and early twenties rank among the most intense of my life. There’s just not a lot else to think about, especially when you’re in school (which I was for a long time). One of the working titles of Falling Together was I Would Know You Anywhere, and there’s a point in the book in which Pen tells Will that she has given him and Cat everything, “My childhood, my parents, the things that scare me, the books I love, the sentences I love from the books I love.” Friendship is always important; I can’t imagine my present life without my friends (you included!), but when you get older and your world gets bigger, there’s just more in your life: more responsibility, more work, more distractions, but also more avenues to joy, more people to love. In young adulthood, for many of us, friendship and school are just about all there is. And you’re just so young, so you throw open your vault; you hand everything over. You want so much to be truly known and to know your friends in the same way. When you achieve that with a person or a group of people, it feels vital, even sacred.
JB: You spent two novels (Love Walked in and Belong to Me) writing the life of Cornelia Brown. Do you miss her? What was it like to dive into new voices and lives?
MdlS: Oh, I do miss her. I started missing her the second I wrote the last sentence of Belong to Me and have never stopped, but I also feel a sense of completion. With that last sentence, Cornelia’s story felt whole to me, rounded out. I felt like I had done her justice. When I started writing Love Walked in, I had no intention of writing a sequel to it, and, in so many ways, writing Belong to Me didn’t feel like writing a sequel. It felt very much like a separate, freestanding book. But even before Love Walked in was off my desk, I felt Cornelia there, knocking at my door, and I knew that we weren’t finished with each other. By the time I finished Belong to Me, though, I was already getting to know Pen, Cat, and Will. I had a strong understanding that their story was the one I had to tell. I’ve never been one of those writers — and I’m talking about for my whole career, even back when I was a poet — who has more than one idea at a time, and I live with my characters for months and months before I write a single word, so by the time I wrote the first sentence of Falling Together, I was totally committed to Pen, Cat, and Will. They felt human to me, and I loved them. I still do. I missed them as soon as I finished Falling Together, but here I am, getting to know a whole new set of characters and feeling grateful for the privilege.
JB: Your first published book was a collection of poetry. I still find you — in prose — to be a beautifully lyrical writer with an incredible ear. Do you think your deep early commitment to poetry helped form you as a prose writer? Or did it simply delay you from becoming the novelist you were meant to be? Or both?
MdlS: First off, thank you. I’ve spent my life — literally as far back as I can remember — in love with the sounds and rhythms of language, so it’s wonderful to hear that you, who know as much about words as anyone I’ve ever known, hear music in my prose. Secondly, I think you and I have sort of reverse histories: You studied fiction writing in grad school and then started writing poetry later; I studied poetry in grad school and never wrote a piece of fiction (in my adult life) until I wrote Love Walked in. Of course, the difference is that you now do both — and so many other kinds of writing — and I seem to only be able to write novels. I don’t exactly know how this happened to me, this switching teams thing. I do know that from the moment I started working on Love Walked in, I felt at home. The wide-open space of the novel just suited me in a way that the compression and distillation of poetry never had. I treasure my years as a poet, and I learned so much from them, but the truth is that (and I feel guilty even thinking this) most of the time, I don’t miss writing poetry. I’ve found that most of the things that thrilled me about it are part of the novel-writing process because that big, open space incorporates smaller spaces — moments, sentences, paragraphs — the kind of small spaces and small moments that put pressure on every single word. When I was writing about the Philippines in Falling Together, for instance, I would find myself wanting to evoke something intense about a rice field or a child in a boat or a piece of fruit or a tarsier, and I would have to try to create these shapely paragraphs that felt a lot like poems to me: distilled, dense, music-rich, image-rich. They didn’t have rhyme schemes and probably didn’t quite fall into iambic pentameter (and I do miss writing in strict form), but I suppose that they felt to me close enough to poetry to scratch my poetry-writing itch.
JB: What novel of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)
MdlS: I suppose it’s possible that one day I’ll have another writing experience that is as pure and as purely joyous as writing Love Walked in was, but I sort of doubt it. I didn’t identify myself as a novelist. I didn’t even identify what I was writing as a novel until I was pretty well into it. I was just loving the newness of it; I was drunk on the newness of it and felt so much love for the characters and for the privilege of writing their story that it didn’t even scare me that I knew breathtakingly little about writing fiction. Even the simplest thing, like getting someone from one room to another, I had to learn, and I was so eager to learn it all. I hoped people would read the book when it was finished, but I had absolutely no certainty that that would happen. It was just all about the process, words on the page. Writing Belong to Me was a bit different because I had a publisher and an editor and a contract, but I began writing it well before (maybe a year before?) the first book came out, so by the time I had a readership or any kind of track record, I was already deeply committed to the story and the characters. Falling Together was the first book I began with an awareness of an audience, of expectations. I had lovely people emailing me all the time to tell me what they thought of the first two books. Don’t get me wrong: I was and am incredibly grateful to have readers and to hear from them. But in the beginning, every day I sat down to write, I would hear all these voices, most of them kind and complimentary, and I would worry so much about writing a good book, a book people would like, that I couldn’t write anything that even had a shot at being good. Once I figured out that the only hope I had of pleasing readers was to forget about pleasing them and listen only to my story and my characters, I was okay. But figuring that out was hard.
JB: You’re married to a fellow writer, David Teague. What are the upsides (and possible downsides) to living with a writer?
MdlS: My David is my first, best reader. The second I write a chapter, I hand it to him. When I impress him, when he laughs at something or tells me I got something right, I spend the rest of the day high-fiving myself. And when he gives me advice or criticism, I bristle for about four seconds, and then I listen as hard as I can to what he’s saying. Honestly, it’s tough to imagine writing anything without him. With every book, including the one I’m working on now, there are at least three moments when I’ve gotten stuck and I say to him, “Okay, we need to have one of our lunches.” We sit and eat and wave our forks around adamantly and talk out whatever the problem is and every single time he’s helped me unknot it, usually by asking me a question that either I never thought of asking or was too chicken to ask. I’m concerned that this all sounds too sweet, so I’m struggling to think of a downside. So far, though, no dice.
JB: You’re a mother of two. Have you learned to strike a kind of balance between your writing life and motherhood? Any tips?
MdlS: I think I’ve figured out a system that works for me, although I don’t think it would work for everyone. In fact, some writers have even gotten sort of mad at me about it, and I can understand why they might. Here’s what I do: I write while my kids are at school. The evenings and weekends belong to my family. I almost never miss a ballet recital or a swim meet. Shoot, I almost never miss a ballet lesson or a swim practice. I treasure the nightly drives in the minivan because that’s when we talk or when I listen to them talk. I would write at night while they’re asleep, but whenever I’ve tried, I can’t turn off my brain when it’s time to go to bed, and then I’m useless the next day, as a writer and as a mother. Do I break these patterns? Sure, but not very often. Does this way of “balancing” slow down my writing? Without question. If this makes me sounds self-sacrificing, don’t believe it. I live this way because I want to; I’d rather write than do just about anything, except hang out with my kids and watch them do the things they love. And somehow I think everything feeds everything else. I’m a better mother because I’m a writer and a better writer because I’m a mother. There is a direct and positive relationship between the books I write and the hours I spend at swim meets. I can’t explain that relationship, but I believe in it.
JB: You’re an avid reader. What’s your current reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?
MdlS: When I’m working on a book, I find myself avoiding certain books or kinds of books and gravitating toward others, usually for reasons I can’t explain. Right now, I seem to be craving really smart, beautifully written, character-driven mysteries. I don’t know why this is, but I trust that it’s somehow feeding the writing process. Even if it’s not, I’m having a blast and have fallen head over heels for Tana French’s Dublin murder squad novels. She is just a dazzling writer in every way. Truly spellbinding. Her characters are so fully human, and her plots are wonderfully put together, and there are sentences that are so achingly gorgeous you just want to make necklaces out of them and wear them. I wish she had a hundred books so I could read them all.
JB: Are you at work on something new? Care to share any juicy bits about where your next book may lead readers?
MdlS: I’m working on a fourth novel, tentatively titled The Precious One. It’s told from the perspectives of two sisters who, at the start of the book, barely know each other. Estella (called Telle) is in her early thirties. When she and her twin brother Marcus were seventeen, their parents’ marriage split up and, soon thereafter, the twins and their mother moved away. Their father left their mother for a much younger woman who was pregnant with his child, but maybe more of a factor in his leaving was his disappointment in Telle and Marcus, both of whom had fairly tumultuous adolescences. Their father considered his first family a failure and is determined not to make the same mistakes with his second. Consequently, he is raising the child of his second marriage, a daughter named Willow who is sixteen when the book opens, in a deeply sheltered environment. She is homeschooled (by her father), has few friends, does not know her siblings, and has almost no access to pop culture; she is both sophisticated beyond her years and incredibly naÃ¯ve. She’s also lonely, of course. When Telle, Marcus, and Willow’s father suffers a massive heart attack, however, all of their worlds are turned upside down. Willow enters the bewildering, thrilling world of high school, and when Telle and Marcus receive phone calls from their father, asking them to come, the three siblings are thrown into each other’s lives. I don’t know yet what happens to them, exactly how they impact each other’s lives, but I can’t wait to find out.