SamanthaSotto_inside_1.jpg“I don’t even feel like a real writer. I’m a mom who wrote a book,” says Samantha Sotto of joining the select ranks of internationally published Filipino authors. Her debut novel, titled Before Ever After, has recently been released by Random House, making Samantha the first Filipina to be represented by the famous publishing company.

Before Ever After follows the story of Shelley, a young widow who receives a visit from a young man named Paolo. Paolo is Shelly’s age, only he says he is her deceased husband’s grandson. But what’s even more bizarre is Paolo’s claim that Shelly’s husband Max is alive. As she and Paolo track Max down, she recounts how they met--through a tour of Europe several years before--and begins to piece together the story of who Max really is (or was).

Samantha's writing style is fluid and engaging, and her novel is made all the more interesting by the fact that she starts it where you'd expect most stories to end, then proceeds to peel away the layers of her characters' lives, drawing her readers deeper and deeper into her story.


MOTHERHOOD FIRST, WRITING SECOND

Since leaving her corporate job, motherhood has become Samantha's first priority. Before becoming an author, jetting off to New York and meeting with her agent, her editor, and the press wouldn't have been something Samantha would work into her routine--far from it! In fact, a typical day revolved around her home life.

“I called myself a school bus driver because I was shuttling kids back and forth--that was life then.” She recounts how she started writing Before Ever After in a coffee shop while she was waiting for her son's classes to end. These days, she may be juggling her more domestic responsibilities with her writing, but despite the welcome upheavals her success has brought to her life, one thing remains the same: the kids always come first.

According to her husband, Tembong Yambao (Samantha is using her maiden name for the book), even when she is in the middle of writing, when the kids come to her, the laptop screen goes down.

Despite not having a regular job, Samantha was still working to meet a deadline for her first novel. Because she was committed to being a parent first, she knew she had the school year to finish writing so she could spend time with her kids during their summer break. She says that the last time she wrote this much was when she was the features editor of her university’s paper.


SamanthaSotto_inside_2.jpgA SERIES OF FORTUNATE, UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

Samantha credits her brother for getting her on the path to writing her novel. Sitting with him while he was in the hospital for an appendectomy a few years ago, she read The Time Traveler’s Wife to pass the time. But instead of lifting her spirits, the story's ending made her feel worse. “I was already not in the best of moods. I should have read something happy!” she says.

The ending of Audrey Niffenegger’s story continued to bother her until, one day, while she was stuck in traffic, Sotto decided that, if she were to write a book, her hero would not die. “Ding, ding, ding! I’d call him Max, and he was going to like chickens and the Bee Gees.”

According to Samantha, in that moment, it seemed as though Before Ever After’s Max had practically hopped into her car to introduce himself and ask, “Why don’t you write about me?” She then began to chase a series of “what ifs.” What if Max had a wife? What would happen then? This string of what Sotto describes as “fortunate, unfortunate events”--a burst appendix, a sad story, and an experience with Manila traffic--led her to start the writing process. “I [knew I had] better write this down. Good thing I had time in Starbucks,” she says.

Another lucky coincidence gave her time to write. Her family lives in Parañaque, a long way from Ateneo, where her son goes to school. After dropping him off, Sotto did not want to drive back home and spend on gas and E-pass payments, so she went into Starbucks, bought a cup of coffee (which she placed in her own thermos), and wrote while she waited for her son’s classes to end. Her daily routine soon had her bringing her laptop and sitting at the same table every day as she developed her story. “I'd bring my own snacks and set up shop. It was like my little desk, kulang na lang flower vase and picture frame!”

For a few hours each day, Samantha says, she felt like she was in her own world, one in which she was allowed to do whatever she wanted. “It was like taking a European vacation for three hours a day before real life started,” she shares.


AN ADVENTUROUS LIFE MAKES FOR AN ADVENTUROUS STORY

Samantha formed her characters by combining quirky trivia found online and her own experiences, drawing from her travels in Europe to add a real and personal touch to the story of Shelly's own journey.

Years ago, she and a friend went backpacking through Europe after watching the movie Before Sunrise. She sold her car, borrowed a backpack, and hopped on a plane. Without an itinerary, she found herself on a huge adventure: she was mistaken for a vagrant, hid from drunk German tourists, and accepted a hotel receptionist’s offer to stay at his place to avoid freezing outdoors. All of these experiences gave her the basis for the characters in Before Ever After.

With no formal training in writing, Samantha looked to her TV and literary favorites for guidance. “That’s where I learned about mystery boxes, pacing, and cliffhangers. What I learned about writing, I learned from Lost and Dr. Who,” she says. She also incorporated a little Neil Gaiman in her book. “I like his humor and the mix of fantasy in his books. I like the almost-believable quality of his stuff. Even though there are fantasy elements, it’s like ‘Hey, that can happen!’” she says.

And she is quick to say that, while she drew on personal experiences to complete Shelly's story, this isn't a case of an author writing herself into her characters. “I’m not like Shelly anymore. I’m not that impulsive, but what I try to preserve in myself is that sense of wonder, exploring the ‘what ifs’ and continuing to believe that there might be something more.”

Samantha’s mother and husband were her first critics, reading and commenting on the chapters as she finished them. Tembong even joked that he has read the story so many times that he can’t be persuaded to pick it up again.


SamanthaSotto_inside_3.jpgGETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS

Samantha completed the draft of the book in a year. “I wrote it for myself, but I published it for my children,” says the author who dedicated the novel to her two kids. She hopes that they see it as inspiration and that they come to realize that, if their parents can do it, so can they. And she admits that she marketed the book with more passion than she wrote it with. “Let’s get down to business! Let’s get this out into the world!” Samantha set off on her journey to getting her book in print with the help of a copy of Idiot's Guide to Publishing, which she picked up on sale, and it was from there that she learned that she needed a literary agent to make sure her novel reached a wider audience.

While she considers signing with an agent and getting the book deal as highlights of her publishing journey, Samantha says that the whole process was "nerve-wracking.” A day after finishing the draft, she sent a query letter and her first official response from the publishing world wasn't very encouraging: she was told her book was “not polished enough.”

Samantha responded to this challenge by revising her draft. “I killed adverbs; I killed adjectives. I sliced from 120,000 words and finally queried with 85,000 words.” The mood of her days were determined by whether she got a positive or negative response from the agents she wrote to. On top of all of this, she continued to carry out her responsibilities as a mom. “I [had] to drive my kids to school. You have to push [the disappointments] out of your head and move on with your life,” she says.

The first e-mails were rejections, but requests to see a partial manuscript soon arrived. “Okay, I might be on to something,” she says. Three months later, her top pick for a book agent agreed to represent her, and a month after that, they sold the book to Random House.

“I thought the worst was over when [you were] done querying agents, but it's 10 billion times worse when you’re in submission!” she shares. Her editor, Kate Kennedy, sent her a three-page letter containing suggested edits, and the back-and-forth e-mails continued for six months. The proofreading and fact-checking process was just as tough.

She worried about the progress of the book because she had already come so far. “Luckily things worked out. I was scared,” she says of the process. Now that the book has been launched, Samantha continues to be anxious but remains positive. “I want to preserve the feeling that I accomplished something. I hope that I can find the strength to go through this,” she says.


STRIVING FOR A WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Busy as she may be with the promotions for her book, Samantha tries to find time for everything, including playing with her kids and going on the occasional date night with her husband. She seems prepared to go through all the challenges again and has even started working on a follow-up novel, which she describes as a love story set in Amsterdam.

When asked how she manages to juggle all of her responsibilities, she says, “I wake up earlier and stay up later. It’s about being more efficient with your time and finding the gaps. It’s always a choice and if you make the right choices, hopefully you can get something done.” This experience, says Samantha, helped her discover how much she can achieve and how far she can push herself. “You set your own limits. You can go as far as you want to go.”

Samantha has some words of advice for other writers who dream of seeing their work in print. “Dreams are great, but if they just remain dreams and you don’t do anything about it, you’re just going to torture yourself. It’s better to try and fail miserably than be 80 and go, ‘What if?’” The author reveals having other dreams that did not pan out, such as her past business ventures. “I have my failures, I have my successes, but I have no regrets. Everything I wanted to do, I did.”

Her book may be fresh off the press, but she's already received praise for it. Still, this is something Samantha downplays. “Now people are saying it’s so inspiring. Cool. I didn’t open any door. I wish I did,” she says candidly. “The door has been open for a long time, may welcome mat pa. It’s just a matter of trying it. You just have to believe that you can.” 

And as for her book’s commercial success, Samantha has this to say: “I’m also realistic that not everybody will like the book, and that’s fine. I’ve already achieved what I wanted to do with the book. It made me happy at Starbucks. It’s something I can leave for my children. Everything else--those who have been inspired or think ‘I can do better than that’--that’s gravy.”

And how does she feel about Before Ever After’s ending (and perhaps her foray into writing)? Samantha says, “The person’s interpretation of the ending will depend on whether she’s an optimist or a pessimist. I’m an optimist.”

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