De los Santos in the rainboots that “symbolize the perfect family of four” that the characters in her latest book, Belong To Me, try to become.
Sarah Jessica Parker liked the manuscript of Marisa de los Santos’ first novel Love Walked In even before the book got published that she got Paramount Pictures to purchase the movie rights. Parker called De los Santos’ debut, “exquisite and stylish.”
The book’s central character is a 30-year-old romantic named Cornelia Brown, who nurtures a deep friendship with a little girl. Love Walked In was a surprise hit and made the bestseller lists of The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times to name a few. It was also named the Best Book of 2006 by Library Journal, a publication of professional US librarians. The book has been translated into 11 languages.
De los Santos followed the success of her first with Belong To Me, released in April 2008, and also another bestseller (it’s also one of FN’s 10 recommended summer reads). The book finds the same protagonist, Cornelia, now married to the love of her life—a handsome, gallant and seemingly too-good-to-be-true doctor of half Filipino-half Swedish descent, Mateo Sandoval and living in suburbia, where the drama can just be as intriguing as city life. “De los Santos keeps us totally engaged with these fragile creatures, who get under our skin and, ultimately, into our hearts. Highly recommended,” writes Library Journal.
Getting a novel to the attention of a major imprint can sometimes be the holy grail for aspiring writers. “I know there are writers who tread a rockier road,” De los Santos says. “My story is such a smooth road that sometimes I’m embarrassed to talk about it. It seems magical. I got a call from an agent who had seen an essay I had written in a collection of essays. She sent me an email saying she liked what I wrote and that she would love to represent me. So I sent her 60 pages of Love Walked In. My editor is another godsend. We have amazing communication and it’s been pretty smooth sailing,” she says.
FOR THE LOVE OF WRITING
It was poetry De los Santos enjoyed writing at first. In 1997, she was honored with the Rona Jaffe Writers’ award, America’s only national literary award dedicated to supporting emerging women writers of exceptional talent, for her book of poems, From the Bones Out. “The poems are about diverse topics, including family relationships,” she says.
“With poetry, you’re obsessively intense with words. But after I had children, something in my writing changed. I think it had to do with the level of attention I paid to language. I felt I needed to write more and felt more at home in the wide open space that novels allow you,” she says.
The heroine of her two novels, Cornelia Brown, whom she identifies with, was like a voice inside her head. “These characters lived with me inside my head. And I just started to tell the story.” De los Santos started Love Walked In while raising the kids (who were a lot younger then) and fulfilling a teaching stint at the University of Delaware. Then came the email from the agent who had read her essay. She credits her husband, writer David Teague, for enabling her to finish the book. “My husband was hugely helpful. We were like a tag team, raising the kids.”
The prospect of delivering a saleable book may faze writers, who can find their creative springs running dry at times, but not De los Santos. “The inspiration for the books is mysterious even to me,” she says. In developing a plot for the first book, “Cornelia gets curveballs thrown at her but she has these amazing friends who support her. In Belong To Me, I just asked the question: ‘What if Cornelia found herself in a situation where nobody really liked her?’”
De los Santos is at work on her third novel, yet untitled; a story of three close friends in Philadelphia. At some point, their story brings them to Cebu, the hometown De los Santos’ father hails from.
For second and third generation Filipino-Americans, what’s not to love about the Philippines the first time they visit? De los Santos, 41, born and raised in the US, recalls the first time she came to the country—Cebu in particular—20 years ago.
“My impression about the Philippines is that it’s got a lot to do with family. I noticed that the extended family has a significance that you don’t see in America,” she says, adding that her dad was the youngest of seven children.
De los Santos’ father, Arturo, came to Baltimore, Maryland as a medical resident and established his career as a general surgeon. He married an American nurse, Mary. Their two daughters, Marisa and Kristina, grew up in northern Virginia along with other kids from families who were doctor-friends of her father. She received her master’s degree of Fine Arts in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College in the posh Bronxville city of New York state, and did her doctorate in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
Filipino influences were few in De los Santos’ life. But it was the milieu she was raised in and the trips to Cebu that formed part of the wellspring from which she would draw ideas for her future novels.
“Whenever I visited the Philippines, I wasn’t there as a tourist. Before my parents moved back to Cebu to retire, we would stay with my aunt. We visit Cebu every other year,” she says, her last visit having been in 2007. “My children have been to the Philippines twice already,” she says.
“My sister and I live in the US so we don’t get to see extended family as much. But for my parents, it’s good that they’re [in Cebu] because they have a surrogate family,” she says. “The people are so incredibly generous. And the food, the eating; we did that a lot. I love the mangoes, oh, I ate a lot of those and the sticky rice,” she recalls.
Apart from the experience of close family ties, it was also during those visits that she realized what to her were “quirks” about her father, were actually grounded in culture. “It was when I traveled to Cebu that I realized his attitudes or quirks came from a cultural context. For example, he eats with a big spoon. I didn’t realize that in the Philippines, everybody does this,” she laughs.
“My dad is very generous but he can be very blunt too. There was a certain kind of directness when he would tell me things when I was younger, like: ‘That skirt is too short.’ Of course, hearing that from him, I would be offended but then I realized he wasn’t being mean,” she recalls. Chalk up that incident to a bit of Filipino conservatism, and the penchant for elders’ speaking their minds, especially where their kids are concerned.
Her parents were always supportive of what she wanted to do. “We’re very close. I email them all the time. They pay really close attention to what’s been going on in my life and they’re excited about it,” she says.
De los Santos is also amazed at the warmth she’s felt from the Filipinos who’ve turned up at her book signings. “The Filipinos are so supportive. In LA, all these Filipinos came, and they brought their children. I don’t think that all of them had read the book, but it was just amazing to see how the word got around and they all came. It was more of, ‘Hey, here’s a Filipina who wrote a book, let’s go and support her.’ I appreciated that.”
And what of making Love Walked In into a movie? Paramount still holds the rights to the book, though it seems to have stalled production-wise. Sarah Jessica Parker may have gotten caught up in the making of Sex And The City, who knows? “I don’t think it’ll ever get made into film; but it’s okay,” says De los Santos.
De los Santos is proof that when you pursue your passion, the money will follow. “When you tell your father who’s a doctor that you want to become a poet, you can imagine what he’s thinking,” she laughs. “The fact that I get to write for a living, that’s the most palpable change.”
Corollary to the money-following-passion maxim is, we might add: write like you don’t need the money. Says De los Santos: “Write the book that you want to write. You need to be true to the characters in your story. Don’t write thinking if it will be popular or a bestseller, or made into a movie. Just tell the story in the best way you can.” We eagerly await her next opus.
(First published in Marie Claire, September 2008; photos used with permission from Marisa De Los Santos, main photo by David Teague)