After I finished reading Before Ever After, I immediately requested an interview with author Samantha Sotto, because I enjoyed the novel so much.
I’m glad her crazy week had room for me, because it was such a pleasure to meet her!
It was a candid interview, filled with lots of laughter and asides. Turns out Sam and I graduated from the same university (Ateneo), and my Western History teacher was her batchmate. And a fellow fan of Harry Potter, The Time Traveler’s Wife (but NOT Her Fearful Symmetry — we spent a lot of time discussing our mutual dislike for it, hahaha!), and The Historian (and not The Swan Thieves — I didn’t even bother), too!
Here’s the bulk of the interview (and yes, I removed the spoiler bits):
Q: What was your background before writing this novel? Did you have previous writing experience?
A: The most writing experience I had was in college – I was features editor of the Guidon. Then I worked in marketing for Unilever and Johnson & Johnson. I decided I could take on a little more, maybe work from home, so we put up a business — Cold Rock — and after a while that started running on remote control as well.
Q: Tell us the story of how you wrote the book.
A: I was caught up in Time Traveler’s Wife, and Max just popped into my car when I was stuck in traffic, and I just wanted to write it down.
It took me one year to write. I would bring my son to Ateneo and I would park myself at Starbucks. I didn’t want to go home because I wanted to save gas. The stars aligned –I had the time, I had the idea, I had the motivation – I wanted to get over Time Traveler’s wife. I figured that was the best use of my time.
Q: So aside from Audrey Niffenegger, who are your literary influences?
I Love Neil Gaiman. I love his books. I was introduced to his novels, rather than the Sandman — I’m more a book reader than graphic novel reader. I fell in love with Neverwhere, Stardust, Anansi boys. I love the worlds he creates – still real, but with a touch of magic and fantasy. And I love the humor. He’s my number 1 influence.
Q: Did you set out to get published?
A: When I started writing, I didn’t think of getting published. I wrote it for fun — it was a way to amuse myself without paying for wifi. And I did it for the love of it – it was like taking a vacation.
The only time I started thinking about it was when I finished the book and I said ok, now I have a book, what am I gonna do with it? I thought, okay, maybe it can get published; there’s no harm in trying.
Q: How did the novel get picked up by a major international publisher?
A: I found this book — The Idiot’s Guide to Publishing, that’s where I got my information, step by step. After that I found everything online — I joined forums, scoured the web, found sites with agents and their genres, and I made a short list of who I wanted then learned how to write a query letter.
I started sending the novel out to agents. When I found an agent, things happened fast. The agent asked for a few revisions, and then she pitched it to publishers. In about a month, we got the offer. It was crazy.
Q: Have you been to all the places on the route covered in the novel? What sort of research did you go through in writing this book?
A: Research was a combination of desk and online. The first thing I consulted were my college books from Ateneo, those on medieval history.
I wrote an outline and mapped out countries. Basically what I would do, per country I would research strange chicken facts and build a story around it. I wanted to find places and periods in time that had gaps, in my mind, in history books. Places and times that got overlooked
I’ve been to all the places in the novel except Slovenia, but it was one of the nicest things to write — I felt freer there. Slovenia is among the darkest parts of the book; there was room to imagine and create.
Q: Do you have a personal affinity for chickens or eggs? What inspired Max’s chicken quirk?
A: No! I like eating them! (laughs). Max came as a package deal, he presented himself to me as a complete, quirky character. It was like he came forward and introduced himself to me. He was the most complete; everyone else I had to think about.
Max is inspired by Dr. Who from the TV series. I can say that Max is my Dr. Who.
Q: What about Shelley and the other characters? Are they modeled after anyone?
A: I tried to create a person who would make a good wife for Max; somebody strong but quirky. Someone who sees the world differently but would appreciate the quirks Max had.
The other characters, I thought, who would be fun to have along? This is my ideal tour group. You’d want to go on vacation with them.
Q: Of all the places in the Philippines, why did you choose to showcase Boracay?
A: I wanted to bring the Philippines in the book, and even if the rest of the book was set in Europe, I wanted best foot forward for the Philippines. If Max wanted to find an island for soul-searching, I imagine Boracay would be at the top of the list.
My agent had not heard of Boracay, and I told her it was a real place, and showed her pictures, and she was so impressed. That’s what I wanted to do, to give a good impression of the Philippines.
Q: Does the baked eggs and cheese recipe exist, and is there really a secret ingredient?
A: My husband makes it. There is a secret ingredient, but I don’t think I’ll ever reveal it; it would lose its magic. I want to leave the secret ingredient to the readers – I want it to be what they imagine it to be.
Q: Is there anything in the pipeline? Can we look forward to a second novel?
A: Yes, I’m actually working on it. It’s a separate novel, still set in Europe, also a love story with a fantasy element. It involves a love triangle between two people.
Wasn’t that last sentence intriguing? I can’t wait for her second novel!
She signed both my books, too — both the uncorrected proof and the trade paperback (exclusively available at National Book Store):
(Spot the difference? I thought the flower locket definitely suited the book.
I wish the flowers were purple, though — go read the book, and you’ll find out why.
That was one of my favorite moments in the novel.)
I also dropped by the book launch, because I promised to get a friend’s copy signed — there were so many people and I had to inch my way to the middle of the throng — not even within shooting range of a nice photo, groan! But I do think it’s nice that Filipino authors getting published internationally are launching their books here; there’s nothing like the support on home turf :)
My review’s coming up next, stay tuned.
And Sam ( because I know you’ll read this sooner or later), it was one of the author interviews I enjoyed the most! :) I’ll let you know if I have any luck with the baked eggs and cheese.