The college years are an adventurous time in a student’s life. While discovering what the future may hold, special friendships evolve merely by happenstance. As the years go by, we reflect on these past relationships often wishing we could take a step back in time. But, what if one of your college chums contacted you asking for help? Would you be willing to risk it all in order to save a friend?
This month’s Jen’s Jewels Marisa de los Santos touches upon this very topic in her latest release FALLING TOGETHER. It’s the heartwarming story of three college friends who have gone their separate ways only to find themselves reuniting in order to save one of their own. With a spectacular backdrop of the Philippines, Marisa captures the sheer power of true love and friendship in this spellbinding novel.
As part of this interview, William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins, has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to the look for the trivia question at the end. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your autumn reading list.
Jen: A New York Times bestselling novelist, your stellar career has touched many readers around the globe. So that we may catch a glimpse into the life of the woman behind the words, please share with us your educational and professional background.
Marisa: I was an English major at the University of Virginia, and in my last year of college, I took my first poetry writing workshop. It was a revelation, and I knew I needed to continue my studies, so I went first for an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College and then got a PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. All along, my focus was poetry. I never took a fiction workshop, never wrote a short story (at least not as an adult!). I taught for a few years at the University of Delaware before I stopped in order to write full time.
Jen: Your writing career initially began in poetry. Please describe for us your journey and how you became a published poet.
Marisa: I think I became a poet first because I spent my life—and I’m talking about beginning as far back as I can remember—in love with the sound of words, the rhythms and the music that happens when words bump up against each other. Poetry places the music in the foreground, and I found that magical. In graduate school, I got the chance to work with some astonishingly gifted poets and teachers, teachers who made me read and read as well as write. I sent a lot of poems to literary magazines and got my share of rejections, but also got some published. My first book was actually a collection of poems called FROM THE BONES OUT, published by the University of South Carolina Press.
Jen: Please share with us your “Aha!” moment when you decided to switch gears and try your hand as a novelist.
Marisa: I don’t think there was a single, identifiable “Aha!” moment, which is probably for the best because I think the sudden understanding that I had a novel to write would have scared me to death. All those pages! Instead, the understanding sneaked up on me little by little. It started with a voice in my head that turned into a character named Cornelia Brown, and eventually, after living with her for a long time, I began to see hints of her story. So one summer, I decided to write it down. I had a pretty substantial chunk of novel before I would admit to anyone, myself included, that that’s what I was doing: writing a novel. But once I’d begun, I was hooked. I’m addicted to novel writing. I love getting to know the characters, having them come alive. And I love that total immersion in another world.
Jen: In terms of nuts and bolts, approximately how long does it take for you to write a novel? And, do you plot first, or simply just allow the novel to take on a life of its own?
Marisa: I start with the characters and, if I’m lucky, with a wisp of plot, and I hold the characters in my head for a long time, months, and just try to get to know them. I collect details, small ones like what kinds of Halloween costumes they’ve worn or how they like their pizza, and big ones, like the thing their fathers said to them that they never forgot. On some level, I know I’m creating them, but it feels like I’m discovering them, as though they exist and I have to learn them. And as I learn more and more, the shape of the plot gets more defined. During all of this, I don’t write, except maybe to jot a note or two, but, for me, this is as vital a part of the process as the writing itself, and it can take more than six months before I feel ready to put down the first word. I’d say that from the moment I have the characters to the moment I write the last word, I work for two to three years.
Jen: Why do you choose to incorporate the Philippines into the storyline? Does this fascinating country hold a special place in your heart?
Marisa: My dad was born in Cebu City and lived there until he was about thirty, when he came to the U.S. to do his surgical residency and fellowship. My mom is Anglo-American, from Maryland, and my sister and I were born in Baltimore and raised in Virginia, and I didn’t visit the Philippines until I was in my early twenties. But it was a transformative experience in so many ways. I got to explore a vibrant, complicated, sometimes startlingly beautiful country; I got to meet a whole branch of my family I’d only seen in glimpses before; and I got to discover so much about my father. Since then, I’ve gone back many times (my husband and I have already taken the kids three times, and we have a trip planned for March), and each time, I become a little less tourist, a little more balikbayan, which means a person who comes home. I can’t tell you how honored and excited I felt when I realized that I’d get to take my characters to the Philippines with this book. But I also felt pressure because I wanted so much to do a good job at bringing it to life. I worked very, very hard on the language, trying to capture some of what makes the place so rich and odd and contradictory (flowers pouring out of every crevice, spilling over every wall right in the midst of profound poverty) and so entirely itself.
Jen: Your new release FALLING TOGETHER is an unforgettable novel exploring the depths of friendship and how relationships evolve over time. (I absolutely fell in love with your characters!) How did you arrive at the premise?
Marisa: First off, thank you, thank you for saying that about the characters because I think that’s the best compliment of all! As a reader, I can admire the plot and the language, but if the characters don’t feel real and important to me, I just can’t love a book. So thanks, on my behalf, but mostly on behalf of Pen, Cat, Will, and the rest!
This book started with an image, a silhouette, really, no distinct details. Three people walking, a tall man, a tall woman, and a small woman in between them. Pretty early on, I recognized their relationship for what it was: the deepest, most sustaining kind of friendship. This led me to think about college because I don’t know if there’s a time and place when friendships are quite as intense. All those late nights full of conversation, so few real, grown-up world distractions. I can remember being in college with my friends and thinking, “This will never end. We will never let this change.” But of course, it does change, and it should change. People grow up and deepen and work and let their worlds get bigger, but it’s hard. It’s always a kind of loss. I think the story grew out of that, the question of what would happen when the three friends figure out that this friendship they hold sacred has to change.
Jen: The story begins with Cat’s urgent request for help from her college chums, Pen and Will. Let’s start with Pen. Why does she choose to answer the call despite the perplexity of her present situation?
Marisa: Pen is the one who was left behind, and she’s never stopped resenting her friends for leaving and never stopped wanting them to come back to her. She’s in a fragile state, still reeling from the death of her father, and, the only thing that’s keeping her from feeling entirely isolated is her five year old daughter. Motherhood keeps her connected to the world, but without fully understanding that she’s lonely, Pen is lonely. When she gets the email from Cat asking her to meet her at the reunion, she only pretends to mull it over; there’s never any doubt that she’ll go. And she goes with a great deal of nervousness but also with extremely high, heartbreakingly high hopes.
Jen: In years past, Will purposely choose to remove himself from his friendship/relationship with both girls. Why then does he resolve to reconnect with Cat… and Pen?
Marisa: Part of the fundamental structure of Pen, Will, and Cat’s friendship was that Pen and Will took care of Cat, so when Cat says she needs him, Will finds himself unable to refuse her. The prospect of seeing Pen again is more complicated for him, but I think that, over the years, he has come to suspect that leaving Pen the way he did, cutting off all ties to her, was a mistake. Or at least possibly a mistake, and that possibility is enough to carry him to the reunion. And let’s face it, these were people he loved; they were his family for years. In the time he’s been away from them, Will has found that that kind of feeling doesn’t disappear, even if your life would be simpler if it did. Plus, I have to think that both Pen and Will are just plain curious about who the others have become. How could they not be? I know I would be!
Jen: Why do Pen and Will agree to allow Jason, Cat’s husband, to come along on their search?
Marisa: Well, I think their reasons evolve as they get to know more about his and Cat’s marriage, but at first, I think they have a “keep your enemies close” philosophy. It would be bad to have him with them but worse to have him searching the world for Cat all by himself. They tell each other that they want to keep an eye on him. But on a deeper level, I think they both believe that, as insufferable and boneheaded as he is, he truly loves Cat. He’s loved her faithfully for a very long time, and that earns him a place on the journey.
Jen: As Will and Pen rekindle their friendship, how do distant memories hinder them from moving forward?
Marisa: You know, despite all of Pen’s big talk about love being an imperative, something you are obligated to follow through with; she’s actually much more resistant to moving forward than Will is. Pen’s caught: she wants to keep Will in her life, but she’s afraid to let their relationship change shape. She’s very, very attached to the way they used to be, both because she loved it, but also because it was familiar, known and knowable. At one point, earlier on, Cat says, “We’re all or nothing.” At the time, Pen isn’t sure she agrees, but she ends up realizing that, when it comes to her relationship with Will, this is absolutely true, and it scares her. It means taking a huge risk, and, especially after losing her father, Pen is so nervous about investing deeply, in taking chances on people who could disappear that she’s almost paralyzed by it.
Jen: How does Pen’s relationship with Patrick, the father of her child, change the way in which she views marriage, love, and life?
Marisa: Patrick let Pen down in very real ways, not the least of which was relinquishing any kind of custody of Augusta because his wife demanded it. Certainly, Pen is more cautious and wary than she had been because of her experiences with Patrick, but I think even more than being wary of commitment or love, she’s wary of her own tendency to take the path of least resistance. She ended up with Patrick in the first place because he caught her at a particularly vulnerable moment. Will and Cat had just walked out of her life, and she was adrift. Later, after she had ended their relationship once, she took Patrick back because she had just given birth to Augusta and was vulnerable again. And then, after her father died, she ended up with Patrick again. After all this, I think it’s not easy for Pen to trust her own judgment about what she wants and why. She has to learn to trust other people, but she also has to learn to trust herself.
Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your promotional plans. Please take us on a tour of your website highlighting points of interest.
Marisa: Um, unfortunately, my website is still in the process of being rebuilt, but I’m happy to tell you about my promotional plans. I’ll be traveling quite a bit, although I’m not one of those writers who can leave for several weeks in a row to tour because I have two very busy children, who need two parents at home to drive them places and, truth be told, from whom I can’t stand to be away for very long. So I go away and come back, go away and come back. I’ll be doing bookstore visits here in Delaware, and in New York and Maryland, and I’ll be attending festivals and library events and author talks and retreats in places like Nashville, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Boston, and Austin, and St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. I’ll also be guest blogging and doing a satellite radio tour. I’m really excited about all of it. Nothing is more fun than connecting with readers.
Jen: Do you participate in Social Media?
Marisa: Yes, I’m on Facebook, which gets a bad rap sometimes, but which I like a lot. Such a good opportunity to interact with readers and other writers. My page is http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/marisa.delossantos.writer.
Jen: Are you currently at work on your next project? (Any chance there will be a sequel?)
Marisa: So far, no sequel, although I would never rule that out for the future! I would feel lucky to check in with Pen, Will, Cat, and Jason in a few years to see what they’re up to. I can never tell whether I’ll get to or not, but I would love it.
I’m working on a fourth novel that I’m so excited about, even though it’s fairly early on in the process. It’s about a sixteen-year old girl named Willow who is the product of her father’s second marriage. He views his first family as having been a colossal failure and is especially disappointed in his children from that marriage, twins named Marcus and Estella, who are now in their early thirties, and who are understandably angry at him. The father views his second marriage and his youngest child as his second—and last--chance at doing it right. Consequently, he and his much younger wife have raised Willow in an incredibly sheltered and controlled environment and have studiously kept her away from most of her peers and especially from her siblings, whom she hardly knows. When her father suffers a heart attack, though, Willow’s world turns upside down. With her father unable to homeschool her, she finds herself in the school system for the first time. To make matters more complicated, her father summons her brother and sister to come for a visit and, reluctantly, they comply. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of the two sisters.
Jen: Thank you so much for stopping by to chat with my readers. I highly recommend FALLING TOGETHER, especially for book groups. It is a magical novel that will surely find its place on the top of the bestseller lists. I wish you all the best.
Marisa: Thank you so much, Jen. It’s been a pleasure!
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Marisa. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of FALLING TOGETHER today. Better yet, how would you like to win a copy instead?
Okay, be one of the first five readers to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the correct answer to the following trivia question and you’ll win!
What was the name of Marisa’s first book published?
Later this month, I will be bringing to you my interview with Rosalind Lauer, author of A SIMPLE WINTER. You won’t want to miss it!