Ronreads interview: Samantha Sotto

The insane amount of people at the launch of 'Before Ever After'.

This interview should have gone up last Saturday, when my article on her finally went up. But since FAILDT had other plans for my internet connection, I’m only getting to put this up today.

I actually got to interview Samantha Sotto about a week before, and I have to say that it was one of the more stress-free author interviews I’ve ever done in a while. She is just a big nerd in the best sense of the word and is totally down-to-earth to boot.

I still haven’t finished reading “Before Ever After” I’ve had a busy week!, but so far I’m still having fun with it. Almost as much fun as I had interviewing Samantha!

RonReads (RR): Are you the first writer in your family? Are there any other writers in the family?

Samantha Sotto (SS): My great-grandfather was Senator Vicente Sotto, so apart from being a senator, he also put up a Cebuano newspaper and he also wrote some short stories as well. My mom also wrote in college, she was the editor for her college newspaper. But in terms of fiction writing, I suppose you can say that I’m the first.

RR: Did you start writing at a young age? Or is this the first time you’re doing it?

SS: I did not write fiction at a young age. I was the features editor of The Guidon but that was a different kind of writing. Features is different from fiction. I really only started now. This is my first real attempt. Even when I was a kid I wasn’t really writing stories. My parents say that I used to sell them newspapers, so I guess fiction na rin ‘yun kasi (that was also fiction because) I was inventing stories to tell them, but not like short stories or things like that.

RR: The main character isn’t Filipino. Was that a conscious decision on your part?

SS: Not at all. I would say that the characters and the concept chose me and not the other way around.

I think it was because of the things that I was reading and watching at the time. I was reading “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “The Historian”. Those were the things that were swimming in my head at the time. However, I found “The Time Traveler’s Wife” depressing, but not because I didn’t like it, I loved it, but just because of what happened in the plot. I started thinking about how I would tell the story. And then the character came into my head, probably because I was watching “Doctor Who”. The Doctor’s humor is really funny, sometimes dark and campy. Those were the influences swimming in my head when Max, the main character, popped into my head. I was literally stuck in EDSA, near Trinoma (laughs). It was almost as if he introduced himself to me, like he said “Hello, I’m Max. I have a penchant for not dying and I love chickens.” (laughs) That’s how it happened. I started imagining the kinds of lives that he would have, and because of the nature of his character, it had to be set in Europe.

Having set the premise down, I wanted to make sure to represent the Philippines kahit papaano. The entire novel is actually set on a flight to Boracay, because I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to talk about the good parts of the country.

In case you guys haven't been to Boracay yet.

I wrote the novel on the same table in the same Starbucks for an entire year. My son was in Prep. I would bring him to school and I would wait for him para hindi sayang ‘yung (so I wouldn’t waste) gas. I’d write there for three hours kasi three hours lang ang klase niya (because his class was only three hours). I did that everyday. It was like going to the office.

RR: Any writing rituals, aside from having to be on the same table?

SS: I drank the same drink for the entire year. I drank a non-fat green tea latte. That was my pinaka-ritual. On weekends, when I was home and free ‘yung internet, that was when I would do my research on the book. It covers a lot of historical periods, from Revolutionary France to the Roman times. I do my research at home and then I would write at Starbucks. My research was a combination of research with real books. I dug up my books from college, but a lot of it was done online, as well as drawing from my own experiences.

RR: Yes, I read that yo actually spent some time in Europe.

SS: My first experience in Europe was when my family moved there when my dad was expatriated when I was 16 or 17. We lived in The Netherlands and I studied at an American university there. When I came back, I didn’t lose my love for Europe because it was such an enjoyable time of our life. When I had the chance to go back, I was already working, and I was already so sick of working that I decided to take a break. What I did was to toss a coin in the bathroom to decide whether I would go to Europe or go to Mongolia. Obviously, Europe won and I sold my car to pay for the trip. We went backpacking for one month. The most memorable experience about that trip was that we just got lost a lot of times because we were all so useless at reading maps.

If you get lost and you’re wandering around, you see all these places that normal tourists won’t see because they’re sticking to a particular route. That made me think that maybe there are parts of history that are lost or there are gaps in history and I felt that was a good springboard for a book. There are secrets hidden in every corner so you’re free to imagine what happened in this point in time. That was the seed for the book.

RR: Was there a particular European country that was memorable to you?

SS: Ironically, it’s not in the book (laughs). But it will be in my next book! The Netherlands of course is close to my heart. It was a very good time for us as a family because we didn’t have anybody else but ourselves, so we became really, really close.

After The Netherlands, I would say France, particularly Paris because I’ve been there several times and we even had our honeymoon there. It’s one of the stops on the tour in the book as well. There are two flashbacks in the book that take place in Paris.

RR: What was the inspiration for The Shell?

SS: It’s an actual place in Boracay. Sa kadulo-dulohan ng (At the edge of) Station 1, around the coast. I’ve never been around the coast, and we asked the waiter kung anong nasa dulo (what’s at the edge). Meron daw maliit na (There’s a little) backpacking restaurant, so I thought about that, but I had not seen it. I wrote about it from imagining what it would be like. When the book was finished, that was the only time I got to see it a little closer, but I still haven’t been to it.

RR: How long did it take to get the novel published?

SS: I finished it in 2009 and it sold in December 23, 2009 (laughs). It was an early Christmas gift.

It really takes a long time to be published in the States. I got told in December, and then we had to edit the book for half a year. Then after that there’s a lot of copy editing, proof reading, then they did the cover design. It was a really long process (laughs)!

RR: It took a year to make the first draft?

SS: Yes, and half the time I was researching because it was very, very heavy on research. Every chapter is a different historical period and I’m not a historian (laughs)! I knew the countries but I really had to dig for the facts about these places and these historical periods. And I had to work the chickens in (laughs)! While I was researching the countries I was also researching strange chicken facts. Sometimes it started from there – I would find something about a country or I would find something about chickens or eggs (laughs). I’d explore from there.

Yes, chickens are important to the story!

RR: Why chickens?

SS: Super random. Wala lang (Just because) (laughs)! When Max popped into my head, he came complete with quirks. Immediately I knew that he had a penchant for not dying, and he thought that he could get through anything with a chicken. Literally, on the first draft, those were the first words. It was just a random, random quirk that I built the whole book around (laughs).

RR: Could you talk about the first time you got word that you would be published?

SS: Naloka ako (I went crazy) (laughs). We were in Hong Kong with my husband’s family, we were on Christmas vacation. I got an email form my agent asking if she could call me, and it was 4 a.m. (laughs) Feeling ko, serious ‘yun! She called the hotel room at nahirapan pa siyang tawagin (and she had a difficult time getting through) because it was under the name of my husband’s family. When it was finally connected to the room, she told me that I have an offer. I screamed. My husband was already awake with me and we had champagne for breakfast. Naloka ako, it was so funny!

When it was time to go home, it felt like the longest flight of my life, thinking na baka umatras sila (they may have backed out). By the time I got home, the publisher had agreed to my agent’s deal. It was beyond everything.  I talked to my parents and I was freaking out.

RR: Would it be fair to say that you still haven’t gotten used to the feeling?

SS: It still feels like a dream, hanggang ngayon (until now). I feel like this is such an out of body experience. When I was writing this in Starbucks, none of this crossed my mind! Everything that’s happening now, how fast it is, I feel like I’m in a hurry. When you’re writing it, you feel all by yourself. When it’s with your editor, you feel all by yourself. But now that people are finding out about it, it’s a bit unnerving, of the good kind (laughs). It’s a bit freaky and scary and I am scared shitless (laughs)! I’m not over it, at all.

Samantha signing books at the recent book launch at National Book Store.

RR: How difficult were those six months revising the book, especially with your editor being in another country?

SS: It was difficult because you have a certain story in your mind, characters in your mind, everything’s set already. Then the editor comes and tells you maybe you should do this. Of course, the first reaction is “No!” (laughs) Then I took a step back and realized that these people have been doing this far longer than me and they are professionals and that I have to respect their opinion because they know what they’re doing. When I came to that realization, the editing process became easier. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was easier.

Everything was done long distance, so the first thing I received was a three-page editorial letter. Broad strokes, the things they wanted changed. I had to ask my agent if this was normal and she said that her other client got a 20-page letter (laughs). After the broad strokes changes, we had to go into line by line editing. The copy editor checked all the historical facts, the little details, the blocking of the characters, little things like that. She would even tell me that I couldn’t use certain words because those words didn’t exist in the time period I was using them. It was a learning process for me, again, because I’m not really a writer by profession. I learned a lot at that point and I feel like I’ve grown a lot since writing this book.

RR: How much was changed during that half a year of editing? What changes from the first draft would surprise the readers if they knew about it?

SS: One was the title (laughs). The original title was “Ever After, Happily”. That was changed because it gave the impression na “Happily”, finished na. “Before Ever After”, they felt, was more hopeful. Shelly was also originally British, but since it was going to be released in the US first, they felt that it would connect better with readers if I made her American. That was a big change for me! In my head she was British, and all of a sudden you have to make her American? Oh no! But I realized that there are practicalities you have to consider, so I did that.

There was also a character in the novel that wasn’t part of the tour, and he only appears near the end of the book. But my editor liked him so much that she made him join the tour. The thing is you’re pegged to a certain word count when they buy a book and they make an offer based on the word count. Pages cost money to print, so you can only vary about five percent from your original word count. Whatever the change they want, you have to make it work. You have to redistribute words (laughs).

RR: Were there some preconceived notions about being a writing and getting published that were changed because of this experience?

SS: I didn’t have any notions because I didn’t think I would be a writer (laughs)! My background is marketing. The last thing I wrote was in college. It was very fresh for me. It was like using your right hand when you’re left-handed. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what it was going to be like. I didn’t even have an outline. I was winging it! It was just one surprise after the next, especially discovering what the process was like in terms of publishing. I needed to have an agent pala, and the agent had to sell it to publishing houses, then the editor has to give you comments to polish your books. Everything was brand new and it didn’t shatter any notions because I didn’t have any (laughs). I don’t know if that’s good or bad (laughs)!

Before 'Before Ever After', Ilustrado was the latest Filipino penned book to hit international shelves.

RR: Most people think that the only way a Filipino can get published outside of the Philippines is if you win an award or you’re a Fil-Am.

SS: It’s really hard to win an award (laughs)! And I’m not a Fil-Am, I’m born and raised here. But I wasn’t thinking about getting published when I wrote the book. I really wrote it for pleasure because I’m not a writer eh. It was just the farthest thing from my mind and I didn’t think about practicalities like that. I didn’t think about what kind of book would get published abroad. It wasn’t like that at all. I thought about what book would be fun for me to write while I’m at a Starbucks (laughs). What can I do to amuse myself. When Max introduced himself, it was like taking a vacation for three hours everyday instead of doing nothing while waiting there. It was something I felt could be a good use of my time. The publishing thing came much later na. It was only much later when I started thinking na puwede ito i-publish (that this could be published).

RR: What made you choose to be published internationally than trying out locally first?

SS: I figured that once I finished the book, it’s there na rin, why not aim for the stars (laughs)? If it wasn’t meant to be then it wasn’t meant to be. It’s a cliché but you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. I believe that. I figured that I wouldn’t lose anything by trying (laughs).

RR: If you hadn’t been picked, would you have tried to have published this locally?

SS: Sure! You spend a year of your life writing, sana naman (hopefully) somebody reads the story (laughs)! I just wanted to show our kids that whatever they dream is possible. This book is proof of it, they can hold it in their arms. They shouldn’t be afraid to dream big.

One of our biggest inspirations was the great Dr. Onofre Pagsanghan, and we were watching one of his talks on “Why Not?” and he was saying “Mangahas mangarap.” Dare to dream. Those weren’t just words to me, it was a command (laughs). You need to pursue your dreams talaga with a passion. It’s not just about dreaming or being passionate about it, it’s a combination of both. If it didn’t happen in the States, I certainly would have tried here. I’m very happy that National brought the book in.

RR: Do you think if Shelly had been a Filipino heroine, it would have been impossible for you to be published?

SS: I don’t think so. In fact, I intend to write more about Filipinos. In this case, it just got out of hadn because the concept came to me. I wasn’t actively seeking a concept. But now that I’m pursuing this as a career, I hope that as I build my audience I have more freedom to introduce the Philippines to the world. Be an ambassador, why not? If there’s an opportunity, in the future.

Being a Filipino did not hamper me from getting this publishing deal. It was never an issue that I was living on the other side of the world, or that I wasn’t American. It was never an issue with my agent or my publisher. In this day and age of the internet, the world is so small. What you can do in New York, you can do from Manila. That shouldn’t be a factor for people who aspire to write. It should never stop them from doing it. If anything, it’s a plus because it makes you different. They’re interested about picking up this story because it’s an Asian writing this kind of story. I feel it’s more of a plus rather than something that’s holding me back.

RR: Do you feel any pressure seeing that you’ve broken through the market without winning an award, being a Fil-Am, or an expatriate?

SS: My hope is that whether people will like the book or not – people have different tastes, di ba? (right) – what I hope is that they’ll see it positively. It can be done. I want them to say, “Kung kaya niyang gawin, kaya natin!” (If she can do it, we can too) That’s already an achievement for me. The doors have been opened and it’s only about stepping through it. Nothing is stopping us from being recognized for our creative talents, and that it is at par with any author in the world. I wouldn’t have tried to be publish if I didn’t feel that the Philippines didn’t have something to offer. I hope that whatever people feel about the book, they just see it as inspiration for them, whether they want to be published here or abroad.

RR: But why has it been difficult then for our authors to be published abroad?

SS: I really don’t know because that hasn’t been my experience, and I cannot comment on their experience.

I’ve talked to a lot of writers from the States. I would get information from different writers from the States and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be (laughs)! I heard the same things as everybody else, that there are so many writers. But I also feel that it’s being in the right place at the right time, the stars aligning, the moon shining down (laughs)!

Another thing was something my agent told me. Before we met for submission, my agent was preparing me psychologically, that the process was going to be either very fast or very slow. Some books sell just like that, and some books take years to sell, and you have to pitch over and over to editors until somebody picks it up, and that has a lot to do with luck. Sometimes, you can have the best book in the world, but if the editor is reading a book or is publishing a book that is exactly like yours, then wala, sorry ka na lang. You have to try again with another editor. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.

Samantha says her agent told her she had a unique 'voice'.

One thing that I remember that my agent said. She didn’t know that I was Filipino in the beginning. All you can say in the letter is what the book is about, why you wrote it, and why you think it would sell. That’s all your query letter contains. That’s all she knew of me and what I wrote. When we finally talked, she asked me where in the world I was, and I told her I was in Manila. She asks me why and I tell her it’s because I’m Filipino, I live here (laughs)! She couldn’t tell, from how I wrote, what I was. At first she thought I was British, because the characters in the book were British. But she knew for sure that I wasn’t American. The voice of the book was different. There was just something in the way I wrote that she thought was fresh. I feel that what might be what Filipino writers bring to the table. We’re not American, we’re not British, but we can speak the language. We think of things and see things in a different way. I guess that comes out in the way that we write as well. That’s a plus for us. We shouldn’t try to write like Americans. They can inspire us, but we have something different, and they can detect that and can see it in my writing. They saw something new, and I guess that helped why the book was picked up right away. At least, that’s my theory (laughs).

When I wrote this, I wasn’t even thinking of getting published. I’m not a professional writer. Maybe it’s a different experience for people who pursue writing as a career, whose goal is to be published. I was determined not to think about that. I didn’t want it to affect the story that I was writing and my enjoyment of it. It was really just my way of passing the time for three hours (laughs). If you’re going to sit in a cafe for three hours, you might as well do something you like. I hope people don’t think that I wrote this to be published. I have an Idiot’s Guide to Publishing book at a secondhand bookshop because I really knew nothing about it! I just saw it on a table and I thought, what’s the harm in trying? I didn’t write it to win an award, I didn’t write to be published, I didn’t write it in the language that it’s written because of any dream to break into a market, it’s just a story that came to me. Like a wand, it chose me (laughs).

RR: What’s the second book going to be about?

SS: It’s been almost done for a while (laughs). It’s set in Amsterdam. That’s the instruction that I got from my agent. The next book has to drop off from the first in terms of the elements because I’m still building a readership base. My second book musn’t depart too much from the first. Even if I wanted to set it in the Philippines, practicality dictates that I stick to what people know me for first. That’s not to say that I won’t do it in the future. But in this book, I wanted it to have some fantasy elements as well. Right now we call it a love triangle between two people, set in Amsterdam. I hope to finish that as soon as things quiet down.

RR: For young people who dream of getting published, what would you tell them?

SS: Stop dreaming, do it! You’re only limited by your creativity, and your willingness to take risk. If you tried and failed, eh di ok. If you didn’t try, you failed pa rin (laughs)! It’s better to fail than always wonder what could have happened. Push yourself to answer the question, “Why not?” If you don’t have a good answer for it, then do it. Tell the story that you want to tell, whether it’s in Binondo or Paranaque, because the story will come through if you’re authentic. People will want to read your story.

“Before Ever After” is available in all National Book Stores and will be front and center at Barnes and Nobles stores for two weeks this August.

(Photos from the National Book Store Facebook fan page)

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