Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Marisa de los Santos talks about The Precious One, why her dogs are in the book, and so much more

Family secrets, obsessions (my middle name), and lost love. The Precious One, the latest stunner from Marisa de los Santos is already racking up raves.  (Booklist, in a starred review, called it "Emotionally potent, painfully honest, and delightfully funny.")  Marisa  began as a poet (From The Bones Out), and is the author of the novels Love Walked in, Belong To Me and Falling Together. I'm so delighted to have her here. Thank you, Marisa!

 You write so beautifully about families--in all your books--that I wanted to ask you, what is it about families that is so compelling to you?  And why do you think that when women write about families, it is often called “domestic drama,” but when men do it, they are Jonathan Franzen?

Thank you, Caroline! That means the world, especially coming from you; I return the compliment over and over. You know, I think of myself as a person with a lot of interests, but nothing fascinates me as much as human interaction: conversation, touches, looks, inside jokes, what people say to each other, what they withhold, the little cruelties, the moments of wild generosity and love, the lies they tell and why. I’m particularly fascinated by the why of it all. And family interaction is human interaction turned to full volume. There’s so much at stake. There’s so much complicated, tangled history behind every word and gesture. People in families can be breathtakingly kind to each other and also breathtakingly awful, sometimes in the same day. In my experience, the stories that arise from these relationships are almost always strange and funny and moving and full of twists.

As for the “domestic drama” thing, well, I have tried to let go of my anger about it and just write my books, but if I’m honest, it bothers me. For one thing, why should the domestic sphere, the sphere nearly all of us, female and male, spend so much of our time in, be trivialized or branded as saccharine or quiet or bland? Anyone who has lived in a neighborhood or in a family knows that as much high drama, tragedy, violence, heroism can take place inside a house as on the Australian outback or Wall Street or anywhere. And why do women always have to be seen through the lens of our gender? Why “women’s fiction” when men just write “fiction”? So maddening. So so so maddening.

I loved that this book is told in the voices of the two sisters. How difficult was it to give each a unique voice?

All of my books are told from multiple perspectives, but this is the first with more than one first-person voice, and I was pretty nervous about it. In the end, though, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I lived with the Taisy and Willow inside my head for a very long time—months and months—before I wrote a single word. So by the time I had to speak in their voices, I knew them both incredibly well. I knew all kinds of details about them that don’t appear in the book, the tiny things that add up to individual personality, to character, and their voices just rose naturally out of that intimacy.

What I loved most in The Precious Ones was the dynamic between the sisters, how they misread each other, and came to reconfigure their relationship. When you started writing, what did you know about their relationship? What surprised you about it as you continued to write?

I knew that they were strangers, that every single thing they thought they knew about each other was either something someone had told them or was a product of their own imaginations. And I knew that they were threatened by each other, Taisy because she’s lived her life wanting her father’s love and never getting it and Willow because she’s gotten so much of it that she cannot imagine a world in which she isn’t the absolute and only center of his life. What I didn’t expect was that Taisy would feel an odd and immediate tenderness toward Willow, and I don’t think Taisy expected it either! Once that happened, the surge of tender protectiveness, there was no going back from it. It was a kind of seismic shift. Yes, she was jealous and sometimes petty, but her immediate empathy for Willow caused me to shift gears and rethink all of Taisy’s behavior and emotions from that point on. It happens all the time, doesn’t it? You think you’ve got it figured out and then your characters throw you for a loop and you have to re-envision the rest of the book!

For most writers I know, every book presents a new challenge. The writing process is almost never the same. How did that process differ for you in writing The Precious Ones?

Fewer than 100 pages into the book, I found myself in an odd position, not so much blocked as enervated. I’d lost my joy in the process and also had sort of lost my nerve, neither of which had ever happened before. This made me crazy because I believed in the story and the characters wholeheartedly; I wanted to write the book, yet I was feeling tired and bogged down. As this was going on, my husband and I started to casually discuss what we’d write if we ever wrote a book together, just toying with the idea in our spare time, and eventually it became very clear that we had a book to write, so we put together a proposal and a couple of sample chapters, and—boom—we sold it. And suddenly, we were on a very tight deadline. Because it was a co-written book, with each of writing alternating chapters in alternating voices, and because it was a pretty complicated plot, the first thing we did was put together a highly detailed, chapter by chapter outline, something I had never tried before. Unexpectedly, I loved writing with an outline, and I had so much fun doing that book with David. I remembered all the things I had always loved about writing. Once we were finished, I went back to THE PRECIOUS ONE with renewed energy and passion and with my new devotion to outlining, and I wrote like a person on fire. It was a good thing, too, because I hadn’t left myself much time to finish!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m starting a new book, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I am giddy with excitement about it. It continues with some of the characters from my first two books, LOVE WALKED IN and BELONG TO ME, and particularly focuses on Clare Hobbes, who is all grown up and has just graduated from college. Cornelia, Teo, Dev, Viviana—they’re all in there—and I am cherishing being in their company again. I’d hoped for a long time that it would happen, but you just never know. Half the book is in Clare’s voice in the present, and half is set in the 1950s, so I’m just beginning to be consumed with researching that decade.

What questions didn’t I ask that I should have?

Here’s the big, burning, all-important question: So, Marisa, are your dogs in THE PRECIOUS ONE?

Why, yes, Caroline, yes they are! This is my first book with dogs in it—I didn’t have dogs while I was writing the others—and while their names have been changed (from Finn and Huxley to Roo and Pidwit), they are my own sweet Yorkies, from their ears to their tick-tocking tails. People always ask if my characters are based on real people and the answer has always been no—until now. Since most of the book was written with Huxley on my lap and Finny in his little bed next to my desk, it seemed only fair to put them in the book!

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