Author Samantha Sotto is out with a new novel, Love and Gravity, which she wrote in a span of two years at home, in Parañaque. Seven years ago, she published her first book, Before Ever After, which was picked up by Random House publishing in New York — while she’s based in Manila. Here’s her inspiring story on becoming a writer, getting published, and writing her new book, about a young Isaac Newton, inventor, scientist, and love interest of a girl named Andrea.
How did you get into writing?
My first novel Before Ever After was my first attempt at writing anything like that. Prior to that, I was in marketing, selling soap and very glamorous things like feminine napkins. When I had my son, I eventually became a full-time mom, and I would bring him to school. Because of the traffic in Manila, I decided I wasn’t going to drive home and then drive back again to pick him up, so I’d park myself in Starbucks. And I decided to write a book to amuse myself. It was like my armchair vacation. By the end of that school year, I had a book. My husband asked, “What are you gonna do with it?” I had no plans of publishing it, but the universe nudged me that direction. I was walking around in SM Baguio, I was in Booksale, and I saw this yellow and white book, The Idiot’s Guide to Publishing. So I read that and that read me in the path of finding a literary agent.
So you didn’t have an outline or a plan for the book.
No. I didn’t know to do an outline. My outline was Google Maps. Before Ever After is like a roadtrip across Europe and time. I knew where it was going to begin and end, only because these are the countries that I liked, and I looked at all the countries in between that I visited already. Para may basis! I’d research and then write. I’d research at home, and at Starbucks, I’d write. In Before Ever After, the main character believes that he could get through anything if he had a chicken, so I would Google “strange chicken fact,” and that would be the basis of the mini story I would tell. It sounds like I’m drunk, but I promise you that’s how it happened.
At what point did you decide that you were going to take publishing it seriously?
After I read the Idiots guide! (Laughs) A lot of people ask me, why did you publish abroad? And I just say, “Yun yung sinabi nung book, eh.” I was just following what the book said. Agents choose you, it’s like you’re applying for a job. I didn’t even edit the book when I started sending it out. It was 120,000 words long, for my genre, dapat 85,000 lang. I would get rejections. And then one agent said to me, “I like the concept of the book but it’s not polished yet.” So I Googled again, and my dad sent me tips he found on the web — really basic stuff. In the edit it was 89,000 words, and then agents started requesting for it. Soon I had five agents reading the full book. I had a good feeling about this one agent, Stephanie Kip Rostan. I had lived in Holland and knew some Dutch, and “kip” means chicken! (Laughs) It was a sign. She’s also the agent of Gillian Flynn. I sent it to her in New York. I pasted the entire 15 pages of the manuscript in the email, and then she asked for the full book the next day. And she said again the next day, “I’d like to represent you.” That’s insane, right?
That’s amazing because making contact with an agent abroad feels impossible.
It’s not impossible! It’s far out but not impossible. The only thing that’s stopping us is we don’t think to do it. It doesn’t really matter where you live, as long as you have WiFi. I mean, I live in Parañaque and they’re in New York!
So where did you write Love and Gravity?
When I wrote Love and Gravity, both my kids were whole-day in school. Hindi na ko pwede sa Starbucks, they would kick me out! So I wrote this at home.
Where did your interest in time travel begin?
I’m a Doctor Who fan, so there’s a lot of influence there in Before Ever After. But for this one — again I’m going to sound like I’m high, but — my husband and I watched Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, which is like an alternative history on Abraham Lincoln, which I thought was cool. I wanted to challenge myself and get a really really well-known person that you would never think of in a romantic way, and change what people think about him. If that person created stuff, I wanted to say “this was actually why he did it.” I decided on Isaac Newton, because I wanted to write about a young person, and Isaac Newton made all his discoveries when he was 24 years old. It was called his Miracle Year. There was a great plague in London and Cambridge was closed, so he had to go home to Wilsthorpe Manor and no one knows what happened to him personally. What he did in the manor. So there’s a gap and there’s where I come in. People knew Newton as the person who saw the apple and explained why it fell — I wanted to tell the story of the woman who dropped it.
When you’re writing about a person you’re supposed to know really well, but don’t, how do you make that believable?
You really need to get into the character’s head. It’s them writing the book, you’re just eavesdropping on their conversations. Definitely, starting is the most difficult. I always find that the first chapter is the hardest to write. It’s like a blind date — I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but I have to write your thoughts and motives down, how you speak, your mannerisms and all. That takes the longest time. I find myself always going back after I’ve written everything to change the first chapter completely, because I know so much more about these characters already. At the end of the book, you get them. For me it’s a process of discovering a character as I write. They’re not fully formed from the start.
So you don’t have these cork boards of timelines when you write.
(Laughs) For Love and Gravity, I had some semblance of an outline. I had index cards. Because it’s time travel, there are many timelines, so I wanted them to jive and make sure there weren’t any loopholes as far as time travel is concerned. Isaac’s timeline is factual, I cannot change what happened in his life. So I wanted to make sure that matched what was happening in their relationship, because the story goes from when he was seven years old, up to his 20s. But I believe there is no such thing as perfect writing, just perfect rewriting.
What is your picture of a young Isaac Newton?
Syempre hot! I never tell people what I think of my characters because what is handsome to me may not be handsome to another person. So I stick to descriptions where a person can fill in their own ideas. Even as a reader, I don’t want to be told what handsome is. So I don’t want to deprive readers of that.
I saw your book trailer. It’s a thing now!
Yeah! People are very visual. The nice thing about the trailer we did for Love and Gravity is it’s in the real Andrea’s room. I named Andrea after my daughter, so it was my daughter’s room which the production company made more grown up (because she’s 11 years old). She was my consultant for the music part (Andrea in the book plays the cello, the real Andrea plays the violin and the piano). My husband is my consultant for the math and science. So I would ask my daughter, “Would she say something like this?” So I would try to match that up with what fictional Andrea would say.
Is Andrea inspired by your daughter?
Oh my gosh. If it were inspired by my daughter it would be a COMPLETELY different story. (Laughs)
What are you discovering now that you didn’t know about publishing before?
From zero, I discovered that in many ways, it’s easier to get published than to stay published. Before Ever After was like a fairytale. It was a whirlwind and it came so easily for me. But the time between Before Ever After, which came out in 2011, now it’s 2017 — that gap was a difficult period. I actually wrote another book in between, and no one will ever read it because no one wanted it. So this is actually my third book. It was hard because the publishing industry is not as strong as it used to be because there’s so much competition for people’s attention. When a book is rejected, that’s two years of your life, gone. So my agent gave me the option of revising or starting fresh. I was like, bad vibes na ‘to. I woke up to the reality that it’s not a cakewalk. Love and Gravity is blood, sweat and tears. It’s perseverance personified. I just fell into writing anyway, I could’ve just disappeared. Looking back, I’m glad that book didn’t come out because this is so much better and I feel like this is the book that should come out.
How long did you write Love and Gravity?
Two years din. It’s a huge time investment. When people would ask, “When is your next book coming out?” I would just cringe and wish they would just say, “Parang tumaba ka?” People were inspired by Before Ever After, but I find that this is a more inspiring story. Because that was a series of fortunate events, and this one is more purposeful. This one, I really worked for it, and it found its home again at Random House.
What book have you read the most number of times?
My favorite inspirational book is Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. The lesson of that book is you shouldn’t say no to things you haven’t tried. That’s our rule in the house. From jumping out of planes to backpacking through Europe, its inspired the things that I’ve done. But in terms of a book that’s close to my heart, it’s The Belgariad series by David Eddings, which I read in college. It’s high fantasy. It was so geeky of me and that’s how my husband and I got together because we liked the same book.
What’s next on your reading list?
I’m not reading right now because I don’t like to read while I write. I just finished my third book! I’m currently revising it based on my agent’s feedback. So I don’t like to read. I just want to focus.
What would you tell your 24-year-old self?
I’d say “Kapit lang!” (Laughs). At that time I was living out of a suitcase for work. That was so stressful. So I would say to myself, just relax, do your best. Things will work out in the end.
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Love and Gravity is now available at National Book Store.