Samantha Sotto on Rejection, Lessons, and Making Isaac Newton Hot
Meet the author as she launches her latest novel, Love and Gravity, in Manila!
(SPOT.ph) What’s a great meet-cute? A girl and a boy, each in their respective rooms, spotting one another through a crack in the wall. Doesn’t sound that special, does it? But what if that crack is actually a tear in the delicate fabric of time? What if the girl is a budding musician in modern-day San Francisco? And what if the boy is a young Isaac Newton? Such is the intriguing premise of Samantha Sotto’s Love and Gravity, which will be launched on February 11 at 3 p.m. in National Book Store, Glorietta 1 (registration starts at 11 a.m.). The author takes us behind the scenes of her latest novel as she shares her journey from the best-selling Before Ever After to her new book, Love and Gravity.
What’s a typical day like? At what part of the day do you start writing?
I always say that I write when I’m not writing. Writing is when I’m in the shower or when I’m staring out of the window during traffic. That’s when the words and the scenes come together, and the rest of the time I’m at my desk I’m typing na lang. My work days are when the kids are in school. As soon as they leave the house, I work out for an hour or an hour-and-a-half because it gets my brain in the right place. After that, that’s when I write, up until the kids come home. Of course I also have a lunch break—it’s basically like a day at the office.
Would you call yourself a full-time writer?
I used to not be able to say that word, full-time or otherwise. I just say writer... writer nga ba? Before, I didn’t feel like a writer, because Before Ever After kind of just happened. But now I feel like I have to say it to the universe, just claim it, because the struggle is real. Because getting from Before Ever After to Love and Gravity was a rollercoaster ride with more downs than ups. So I feel that now I can say yes, I am a full-time writer, dahil kinayod ko ‘yan!
What are the elements of a perfect writing nook?
My writing nook I just put together with stuff that I have in the house, like my narra writing desk which I found in the garage of my father-in-law. So I don’t know what a perfect writing nook is because it’s evolving. The main requirement for writing is it should be quiet. I can’t write with music or any other things, that’s why I can’t write when the kids are home.
That’s quite different from when you wrote Before Ever After in Starbucks, Katipunan.
Yes! I would write in the farthest corner, away from students doing group work. I would stay closest to the restroom. That was my spot, the quietest spot possible in a Starbucks. Now it’s more ideal, it’s just me and my sleeping dog.
What’s your go-to snack when you’re writing?
Definitely there’s coffee, it’s always there. If you cut me, I’m gonna bleed coffee. I don’t like to snack while I’m writing kasi madudumihan ang keyboard, I get so OC! If I write a particularly hard chapter, I reward myself with chocolate. There’s always a perfect excuse for chocolate, 'di ba? We actually have a ref dedicated to chocolate!
How do you deal with writer’s block?
I don’t believe in writer’s block only because I worked in corporate for so long. At work you can’t say, “I have a job block today.” It’s a job, you have to produce whether you’re feeling good or inspired or whatever, that’s my mentality. So the best way to deal with writer’s block is just to write something. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to get more of the story on the page. You can always fix it later. I think what blocks people is if you’re looking for the perfect way to say something. I don’t know who said it, but there’s no such thing as perfect writing, only perfect rewriting. Don’t strive for perfection the first time around; go lang ng go! If it’s just 10 words today, at least it’s 10 words more than yesterday.
Who do you confide in first when an inspiration for a story strikes?
My husband, kahit anong oras. Kawawa nga eh, kahit 1 or 4 a.m. I’ll say, “What do you think of this?” And he’ll just answer with a “yeah.” And I’ll say that “yeah” is not an opinion! I always feel that his name should be on the book, him and my mom, because they’re the first two readers.
What inspired you to write Love and Gravity? How long did it take you to write it?
This book is seven years in the making; it’s actually my third book. The second one, which I wrote immediately after Before Ever After—two years of my life—was rejected. So my agent gave me a choice at that time, to revise or start afresh. And I said that bad vibes na ako sa book, so let’s start afresh, not knowing what I would write. I just wanted to commit to it, thinking here we go again, not knowing if it will be bought. Tamang tama, we watched Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, na hot pala si Abraham Lincoln. So I thought, alternative history is the way to go! That’s what started me going in the direction of Love and Gravity.
How did you cope with the rejection?
In the last interview I gave after Before Ever After, the last question was, “What advice would you give about rejection?” And I said, “Can I have another question?” I wasn’t being cocky or anything, it’s just that I didn’t have much experience in rejection. So I was telling myself, karma ‘yan! That was my big lesson. When you’re up and stuff, you’re happy. But you also have to be happy with yourself when you’re down. That’s when you find out what you’re made of. That’s when you decide, am I gonna go forward, am I gonna be paralyzed with fear, or am I gonna climb out of this hole? I said to myself, I don’t care what the reviews are, I don’t care if this book [Love and Gravity] is on any list. The fact that it’s there is for me a victory. So that was my therapy because I was super depressed.
How different was your experience with Before Ever After from the situation with this book?
Before Ever After was a fairytale, this is what happens when the fairytale ends. I feel that maybe people got the wrong impression after Before Ever After. Like it’s easy [getting published], and they get disappointed when they learn otherwise. So if they encounter that, tapos sasabihin nila, bakit kay Sam, ang dali dali. This is the real life. Kumbaga that was the fairytale. This is what happens, it’s harder to stay published than to get published in many ways. I want people to know about this journey because it’s relatable. This is what haunted me in the seven years after Before Ever After.
How did you handle the challenge of writing another book?
For Love and Gravity, I chose the hardest topics. I told myself, get the person you least think of as a romantic lead, which is Isaac Newton, and make people fall in love with him! This time I’m going to write about things I don’t know anything about, like math, science, and music. I told myself that if this will be the last book I will ever write, if I want to be proud of it, ika-career ko na siya!
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a writer?
Lesson number one: I think the goal of writing should not be to get published. Because if the first thing you think about, the first thing you ask is how to get published, my question would be, “Have you written the book?” It has to be the writing first. It’s cause and effect. The effect is you get published, the cause is you’ve written a good story. That’s what you should focus on, and that’s what should give you joy.
Number two would be overcoming the paralysis of self-doubt. And the only way is to move! It’s a weird thing, because if you allow yourself to wallow, it’s like cement. It will dry around your feet and you’ll be stuck. So you just have to keep on moving. It will feel hard at first, it will be sticking to your feet and sometimes it will feel like it’s up to your neck, but the only way to not get stuck is to move, just one word at a time.
The last lesson is more of a personal thing: to know that I’m enough. I cannot be defined by either my success or failure. Those are moments in time that everyone will experience, but that’s not you. You are the person undergoing that experience, you can choose how it will affect you: will it make you go far or will it push you back? But that is not you. Those are events. So when people call me a best-selling author, that’s not me, that’s a label attached to what I did. I’m just me, today, in this moment, and I may not have a best-selling book tomorrow, but that does not affect—should not affect—what I think of who I am.
How is Love and Gravity similar to Before Ever After? How is it different?
It’s a standalone book. It has different characters. But if there’s anything that ties them together, it’s time as a character. Time is used in a different way in Before Ever After because the story is about an immortal man. In this case time is both something that keeps them apart and connects Andrea and Isaac. So time is a character in my books, and in my upcoming book as well. Time is probably the main character in all my books! The male and female leads, they all change. But I like to write about time because it’s what you have least control of in real life. Here, ako ang boss, I can do anything I want with time. Ako ang diyosa ng oras.
Tell us about the research that went into Love and Gravity.
You should see our Kindle, it’s full of Isaac Newton books. I read and watched everything I could get my hands on about him. I educated myself because I write such fantastical stories which have to be grounded in facts. The irony of fiction is it has to be grounded in facts, because it won’t be believable otherwise. This book has math, science, and music, and since I’m not a science or math person, I thank my consultant, my husband who’s a graduate of Management Engineering in Ateneo. For the musical part, I am not a musical person, I cannot sing to save my life, so my daughter was my consultant because she plays the violin and the piano.
Why choose Isaac Newton?
I wanted someone famous, someone who had achievements everybody knew about, and someone who was an unlikely romantic lead because I wanted to change people’s thoughts about that person. I narrowed it down to Isaac Newton because I found out that when he was 24 years old he experienced his annus mirabilis or miracle year. During that time, Cambridge was closed because of the plague, so he went home to Woolsthorpe Manor, and his output that year was all his discoveries: gravity, laws of motion, calculus. No one knew what happened to him personally in that time. What did he do all day in Woolsthorpe Manor? What did he do in his personal time during that year? So that’s my gap, that’s my story. I have that space to play around with, for me to create my own version of the truth. You have the man who described and explained how the apple fell, I wanted to tell the story of the woman who dropped it.
Do your book characters share any traits with people you know?
Well, not really people I know, but Max of Before Ever After is my version of Dr. Who, specifically the 10th doctor. For this one, I can’t really say because I wanted a reimagining of Isaac Newton. Although I was watching a lot of Sleepy Hollow at that time, so maybe Ichabod’s awkwardness seeped into the character, but I can’t really say that he’s like a character in Sleepy Hollow.
How did you come up with your latest heroine’s name?
Because I kept on consulting my daughter a lot about music, I figured that I should name the female lead after her. As for the family name, I like going through lists of names, and when I saw Louviere, I thought, ang ganda.
What’s your favorite part of Love and Gravity?
It’s the first sentence or the first chapter of the book, because that’s the hardest part. It’s like going on a blind date. You don’t know the characters, they don’t know you, it’s so awkward, you don’t know how they talk or act, and it’s like you’re writing about strangers. It’s only as you write along that you figure things out. Then you’ll have to go back and rewrite the first chapter to be more in line with the rest of the book, with the rest of the characters that you’ve gotten to know. So that first part is always the last thing you write. So my favorite part of this book is actually its first line, “history is what men choose to remember. Truth is what a man cannot forget.” This is essentially what the book is.
If a portal to another time, space, or dimension opens up in your room, what would you do?
Go! I guess my assumption is it would bring you back—I didn’t think that you might not be able to come back. How naïve! So I would check if I can come back then go!
What books do you recommend for your readers?
I love Neil Gaiman. Neverwhere is a super duper favorite of mine. Old school Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express. I love books that you can’t predict. I also like books where the author is invisible, like Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. For me, that was a masterpiece. Reading the story, I never thought that it was a white man writing it. That’s the author’s role eh, you’re supposed to be invisible.
Describe Love and Gravity in three words.
I can describe it in two words: what if?
Photo courtesy of National Book Store