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Interview: March 20, 2015

Marisa de los Santos is the New York Times bestselling author of three adult novels, including LOVE WALKED IN and BELONG TO ME, as well as the co-author of SAVING LUCAS BIGGS, a middle grade book she wrote with her husband, David Teague. Her latest novel, THE PRECIOUS ONE, is the heartfelt story of Taisy and Willow Cleary --- two daughters of the same man, one abandoned and one “precious” --- as each navigates new and old loves in her life. In this interview with The Book Report Network's Bronwyn Miller, Marisa discusses her fascination with second chances and the beauty and danger of holding another person too dear. She also talks about getting to know her own characters, the pros of collaborative writing, and the one surefire sign that you are --- as she so artfully put it --- a “homesick sap.”

The Book Report Network: THE PRECIOUS ONE is your fourth novel. How was the experience of writing this latest novel different from your previous books: LOVE WALKED IN, BELONG TO ME and FALLING TOGETHER?

Marisa de los Santos: Every book is different because the characters are different, and they force you out of your own life and into theirs in such different ways. Taisy is this hopeful, buoyant, self-assured, successful woman, who has also spent so much of her life longing for what she lost or what she never had. In some ways, she’s stuck at age 18, when her father cut her out of his life and when she left behind the boy she loved. Honestly, I got exasperated with her sometimes; I wanted her to stop needing Wilson and also to stop blaming him, but she had to do it in her own way, at her own pace. And Willow --- oh, how I love her, but it was work to know her, to fully get inside the life of someone who had been so adored but also so sheltered. She is so smart and also so wildly naïve. That challenge --- discovering who my characters are, embodying them almost --- never gets easier, no matter how many books I write…but, then, I wouldn’t really want it to.

TBRN: THE PRECIOUS ONE deals with two generations of a dysfunctional family. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

MDLS: As with most of my book ideas, I don’t exactly know. But one thing I’d been thinking about a lot was second chances, a person seizing the opportunity to remake her or his life. Those stories are fascinating, but what occurred to me is that they are often told from the perspective of the person who makes the change. I began thinking about what it would be like to be someone else’s second chance, which led me to Willow, and also what it would be like to be the first, abandoned chance, which led me to Taisy. Then I thought, “What would happen if the two lives collided?” and the story took shape from there.

TBRN: In researching his past for Wilson’s book, Taisy discovers that her father did a “Don Draper” from “Mad Men” by totally obliterating his past and reinventing himself. Why do you think he has such sway over the people, especially the women, in his life? Why did you decide not to bring in Marcus until the fateful Thanksgiving dinner toward the end?

MDLS: In my experience, alas, people often most crave love and approval from the people who are the stingiest with them. Taisy has spent years and years trying to win over Wilson and treasuring whatever scraps of kindness he deigns to toss her way, and the worst part is that she sees how little he deserves it and still can’t stop herself. And, you know, I’m not sure Marcus is as indifferent to his father as he seems; his job, his money, his glossy lifestyle strike me as just his version of responding to Wilson’s failure to love him. As for why I didn’t have more Marcus in the book, for me, there’s always a point in the writing process when I realize what’s at the heart of the book, whose story I’m telling. And even though I love Marcus as a character, I just wasn’t telling his story.

TBRN: How did you make the decision to tell the story from two points of view? Each character is dealing with major issues of her own: Taisy is trying to put behind her resentment toward Wilson, as well as trying to put her relationship with her true love, Ben, back together; Willow is dealing with adapting to high school after being homeschooled, as well as discovering first love. Was it hard trying to juggle multiple storylines?

MDLS: For me, multiple points of view feel natural. I’ve done it in every book so far, and it just seems to be the way I approach storytelling. But this was the first time I wrote in two first-person voices. At first, it was tough trying to shift gears between chapters. I’d have to take a day or two to get one voice out of my head in order to replace it with the other one. But once I really got rolling, I was so deeply familiar with both characters that it got easier.

TBRN: Did any one character prove more challenging to write? If so, which one? Both Wilson and Mr. Insley are somewhat unsavory characters. Is it harder or easier to write characters like those? As inappropriate as Mr. Insley is behaving with Willow, she still tries to see his humanity. Was this a conscious choice on your part, to show both sides of the character?

MDLS: For me, the key to writing any character is to get to know him or her very, very well before I even put the first word down. Both Wilson and Mr. Insley lived a long time inside my head, and I got to know things about them that might not appear in the book, but that I had to understand and absorb in order to start writing them. And, of course, as happens with real people, once you get to know them well, it’s hard not to see them as multidimensional and vulnerable. As a writer, I feel an obligation to honor the humanity in my characters, even the most unlikable ones.

TBRN: Taisy refers to Willow as “the precious one.” How did you decide to use this as the title?

MDLS: I liked the ambiguity of it. On its face, it’s a good and enviable thing to be precious to someone. You get valued, protected, adored, but I think it’s possible for people to love something so much that they want to keep it too safe and too much to themselves. They also want to stop it from ever changing. Wilson loves Willow this way; he wants to protect her from the beautiful, awful, necessary mess of real life, which is no good for her. But I don’t think Willow is the only “precious one” in the book. Taisy needs to become precious enough to herself to forget about needing Wilson’s love. And if she wants to be with Ben, her precious one, she needs to stop idealizing their past relationship and to accept the mistakes they’ve both made and how much both of them have changed.

TBRN: What would you like readers to take away from THE PRECIOUS ONE?

MDLS: I hope this book is saying something about seeing the people we’ve been given to love in a clear light, as whole, complicated and flawed, and loving them anyway. But what’s most important to me isn’t a theme or a message, but the characters themselves. If people read the book and experience the characters as real, walk around with them in their heads for a long time afterward, even miss them, I’ll be happy.

TBRN: Would you ever revisit the characters from your first two novels, LOVE WALKED IN and BELONG TO ME, or even the characters from this latest one?

MDLS: Right now, I’m developing an idea for a new novel with Clare and Dev, from BELONG TO ME, as central characters. They will be in their early 20s, and I have to say, I’m so excited to learn who they are as adults!

TBRN: When you first sit down to write a new novel, do you outline and plan out where the story is going to go, or do you start out with a general idea and let it grow organically?

MDLS: For years, I would do the latter. I’d start with the main characters and the bare bones of a plot and take it from there. But over the past couple of years, I had the amazing experience of writing two books for middle grade readers with my husband, and we found that, in order to pull it off, we had to have a solid, detailed outline to work from. This experience made an outline convert out of me! I wrote THE PRECIOUS ONE with a chapter-by-chapter outline, and, while it meant a lot of work up front, it offered me a kind of clarity and structure that I think I’d been craving without really knowing it. I’m pretty sure I’ll write my future books the same way. Having said that, I’ll add that I still have to stay exquisitely tuned in to my story, to listen to my characters and to take my cues from them, which can mean adjusting my outline along the way or even scrapping whole chunks of it. That’s okay, though, because I’ve always thought the surprises writing brings are the best part of the process.

TBRN: In addition to being a writer, you’re a wife and mother of two. When you’re working on a new novel, what’s your writing schedule like?

MDLS: I try very hard to stick to the schedule I established with the very first book, back when the kids were little: I write while they’re at school and give weekends and evenings over to them, and I try very hard to be fully present in both those parts of my life. I just hate the idea of missing anything: a swim meet, a field hockey game, a family dinner. But I have to admit that, when I’m in that living-and-breathing mode of writing a book or really up against a deadline, I break those rules.

TBRN: You’ve also recently collaborated with your husband, David Teague, on the time-travel young adult novel, SAVING LUCAS BIGGS. How does that experience compare to writing your adult novels? What are some of the challenges of working with a collaborator?

MDLS: We had so much fun writing that book. Even with characters as company, writing can be lonely work. You live with characters no one else knows; you have arguments with yourself inside your head; you untangle knotty problems alone. What was great about working with David is that all of those things were externalized, and we were in on it together. Also, I respect David so much as a writer that I wanted to step up my game, make every word perfect, so that I wouldn’t let him down. Even though we work so well together, it was important that we had our own chapters, our own first-person voices. I can’t imagine a collaboration in which you negotiate every sentence or choice. Yikes!

TBRN: You started out writing poetry. What led you to make the switch to novels?

MDLS: I started with poetry because I have always, as far back as I can remember, loved the music of language, what happens when words or vowel and consonant sounds bump up against each other, all the chiming, growling and singing, and poetry foregrounds that. But as a reader, I’ve always devoured novels. I love that total immersion in a different world. The truth is that I would have written a novel at any time, except that I didn’t have an idea for one. And then, quite suddenly, I had a voice in my head that wasn’t mine and didn’t seem to fit into a poem. The voice became a character, Cornelia Brown, and the more time I spent with her, the more of her story I began to know. So I wrote it down. And that was it: Novels were home to me.

TBRN: Once the book is written, you’re hardly finished. Close to the publication date begins the tour, readings, interviews and appearances. What part of this process do you find most rewarding? What part proves to be daunting?

MDLS: I love meeting booksellers and readers. You know, I’ve written six books now, and there’s a big part of me that is still astonished by the fact that I have readers. Interacting with them never, ever gets old. But I’m such a creature of habit. I like my pillow and the food in my refrigerator and my cluttered, unbeautiful third-floor office. And I’m terrible at being away from my family and my two sweet dogs. People will say, “Oh, you’re so lucky to just get away from it all and to sleep in nice hotels and order room service,” and, while I understand that, I just don’t feel it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an honor to be sent on tour. It’s a privilege and a thrill to be in the company of people who love books. But I miss walking my dogs and driving my kids around in our minivan full of Clif bar wrappers and petrified apple cores. Wow. You know you’re a homesick sap when you miss petrified apple cores!

TBRN: What are you working on currently?

MDLS: The book I mentioned earlier about Clare and Dev is starting to take shape, and I’m so excited about it. I’m a person who loves to read literary murder mysteries and detective fiction, and if things work out the way I hope they will, this book just might involve a bit of crime-solving. Knowing me, and more importantly, Clare and Dev, that mystery will be all tangled up with thorny, funny, sad, complicated family/friendship/romance stuff, which will suit me --- and I hope also my readers --- just fine.