Interview by Angelo G. Garcia
When Filipino author Samantha Sotto made headlines after internationally publishing her book in 2011, all eyes were on her. The mother of two, who wrote Before Ever After at a coffee shop while waiting for her children, became an instant inspiration to young Filipino writers. Proof that Filipino authors have a place in the very competitive world of books.
She was happy, thinking that she was “in” the publishing crowd, a certified author who will have no problem at getting her next works published. But she was wrong. “I thought I was in. I thought my luck would continue. But getting published is so different from staying published,” she admits.
Her second book was rejected by her new editor at Random House, one of the biggest publishers in the world. To say that she was devastated was an understatement, she was “depressed,” as she describes it. After two years of hard work, that book will never come to light.
Six years after her first book, she’s proud to say that she is returning in the book world with her second published work (third, technically), Love and Gravity. Toying on the alternative history genre, she tells the story of a young girl who travels back in time and falls in love with young Isaac Newton. Defying the laws of physics, they forge a seemingly impossible connection.
In this Manila Bulletin Lifestyle interview, Samantha shares her new love story and what she learned in the industry so far and the realities that come with it.
Did it really take you six years to write Love and Gravity?
No. Even though this is the book that came after Before Ever After, it’s really my third book. After Before Ever After, I wrote another book which took two years of my life and it was rejected by my publisher. What happened was, by the time I finished the book, there had been a reorganization at Random House and I was assigned a new editor. She wasn’t the editor I worked with. She didn’t like the book and I understand why. (Laughs)
What was the book about?
I don’t really want to talk about it. It’s in the past. (Laughs) Needless to say it wasn’t good. So my agent gave me a choice, do I want to revise this based on the kilometric comment or do I want to start fresh? So I felt I needed to start fresh even though I had no idea what I was going to write, knowing that I would be committing another two years of my life.
Being published is not a guarantee?
I thought I was in. I thought my luck would continue. But it was completely different. Getting published is so different from staying published. Getting published, anything is possible. But if your second book gets rejected, then you already have a baggage. Trying to get in is harder because you’re not really in. That was the feeling. Definitely, I’m not taking this for granted this time. It challenges you also to make your next works better.
How difficult is it writing another book after a rejection?
I wanted to challenge myself because I felt that if I was going to devote another two years of my life, if this book was never ever going to be published, at least I wanted to feel a sense of achievement in the process of writing it. Even if those things were hard, at the end of the day, if I was able to tell the story whether the book got published or not, it was something I could look at and be proud of.
Even overcoming, I was so insecure, the self doubt, I felt like one of those one-hit wonders ’80s bands. I was so depressed, I not only felt that I was letting the kids down, but also all the writers who attended my talks, who had written to me. I felt it was such a public failure because everybody knew about Before Ever After. I get greeted everywhere I go, “How’s your next book?” I’d rather them comment on my weight. It’s like my version of that dreaded tita question. For me, I had to change my relationship with the book and even my goal. The goal has to be, I need to tell this story to get over my insecurity. That’s what I set for myself so I would overcome my own mental monsters.
What is this new book all about?
Fortunately, my husband and I watched this movie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it’s alternative history, the secret life of Abraham Lincoln. That gave me an idea, I wanted to write an alternative history, too. It had to be a character that people would never think of romantically. That’s how the concept works, it should really change your mind about that person you are writing about. I wanted somebody famous, a legend almost. That’s how Love and Gravity came to be.
I zeroed in on Issac Newton because I found out, during his Annus mirabilis or miracle years when he discovered a lot of things, he was only 24 years old. I thought, cool, a young Isaac Newton, nobody ever thinks of him that way, I certainly didn’t. It just so happens, that during that year Cambridge got closed because of the plague so he had to go home to Woolsthrope Manor. No one knows what he did there, they only know the output of that year. I thought, this is the gap that I can insert my story in and come up with an alternative story of why he came up with all these ideas, laws, and all of his achievements. I wanted to write the woman who motivated him to pursue those things.
Was it difficult researching about him?
Yeah, I’m not good in Math or Science. If you look at my Kindle now, it’s full of Isaac Newton stuff. I watched all the documentaries. I wanted it to really be based on the truth. It’s such a huge leap to think about Isaac Newton in terms of time travel and all of the fantastic things about the book. I wanted the historical part to be really solid so that if people fact checked, that part could be a culmination for them to suspend their disbelief and take that leap into the story with me. Everything that is happening in his real time line is fact, I just correlate it with what’s happening in the story.
How did you pitch this story?
First my agent, she liked it. We revised it a lot for a few months. Then we went on submission, she was the one doing the pitching. This was to different publishers because my original contract with Random House was that they had the “right of first refusal with my second work.” So, I was like a free agent.
What happened was, one by one it got rejected by publishers. I thought, oh my God, it’s happening again. The editors would be interested but their sales team will get scared. Isaac Newton? It’s such a hard sell.
Eventually, there was a publisher that made an offer, smaller than Random House. My agent asked me, are we going to accept the offer? I told her, okay. That night I prayed the rosary, I asked “Dear God, please let me be okay with whatever this is.” What happened next morning, my agent emailed me. She was on the phone with another editor from Random House, she asked about Love and Gravity. My agent told her that we are currently negotiating. She said, “Wait. I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. Let me go back to my bosses and convince them.” She did. So I was back with Random House.
Are you leaning toward this genre?
I don’t like to repeat myself, although I like the genre. I like historical fiction, I like magical realism, I like romance, I like anything with a good mystery box at the center of it. Just like Before Ever After, it’s not alternative history in that sense but I inserted my characters in real historical events. Here, I took a real historical figure and inserted him in my story. For the next, one, it’s also that genre but different. Just to keep myself also interested and invested in the story. I don’t want to keep on doing it. But who knows maybe I’ll do something about Rizal. You’ll never know!
How about another genre?
I finished my third book, if it’s okay with my agent, I just had to revise it now. But after that, I’m toying with the idea of going darker, just to challenge myself again. It’s a risk because the readers expect you to write a certain thing.
Advice to young writers.
For writers, and this is a piece of advice to me also, people always ask me, how do you get published? The question is, have you written a book? Focus on the story, on the writing. Forget the publishing part because that will follow if you produce a good material. Focus on what’s in front of you. Write what’s in your heart rather than focusing on something far. If you have a good story, it will find its way to the world, by hook or by crook.
Love and Gravity is available at all National Book Stores nationwide / Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube @nbsalert