Across the universe
MANILA, Philippines - The short version is this: Samantha Sotto walked into a secondhand bookshop one day and became an international best-selling writer. The long version, as the Filipino author herself tells it, is much more interesting. “It was like the universe was leading me to it,” she says. “I was in Booksale and I saw an Idiot’s Guide to publishing. It was like P50, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a sign!’”
Her first book, Before Ever After, was a product of daily writing sessions at Starbucks while she waited to pick up her son from school. After making her impulse purchase, Sotto, who didn’t consider herself a “real writer” at the time, started considering submitting her novel for publication.
Before Ever After was a huge hit, but when it came time for a follow-up, Sotto at first couldn’t deliver. “I experienced rejection, so my agent basically told me, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to revise this, or do you want to start over?’ And that was the point I had to decide. Do I really want to be a writer? So it was in that moment that I decided, yes, I will be a real writer. I’m going to do this.” And so she started over. The result, Love and Gravity, finds a girl from modern-day San Francisco crossing the boundaries of time and space to fall in love with a young Isaac Newton.
Sitting in the Writers Bar of Raffles Makati, Sotto spoke to Young STAR about her influences, Newton as a romantic lead, and what it means to kill your darlings.
YOUNG STAR: So far, both of your novels have dealt with the concept of time, historical themes and magical realism. Have you always gravitated — no pun intended — towards these tropes?
SAMANTHA SOTTO: Yeah, I think so, ‘cause I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and everything. I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie, and I’m also a Doctor Who fan, so they’ve been huge influences. I like books or even movies and TV shows that have a good mystery, that keep you turning the pages because you want to know what happens next. I guess my time in Europe (influenced me) as well. Every time I write, I feel like it’s my little armchair vacation, back to the time I was living and studying there, or even the time I used to backpack and things like that.
I assume you did quite a bit of research on Newton’s life; how did it help you see him as a romantic being, and what was your favorite discovery about him?
Love spacetime continuum: The book combines magical realism and time travel.
My husband and I watched Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and I got inspired. I wanted to write an alternative history also, and I wanted to write about somebody super-famous that you would never, ever, ever think about in a romantic way.
What I found out about Newton was that all his great discoveries happened in his annus mirabilis, his “miracle year,” when he was 24 years old. So there was a plague in London and nagsara ‘yung Cambridge so he had to go home. And in that year, he produced all of his great works. When he was a kid he was at the bottom of his class, so biglang what? What happened? And nobody really knows what happened in his personal life during that period other than his discoveries, so I thought to myself, “Okay, this is the gap. This is my opportunity to create that.” People know that Newton saw and explained why the apple fell. So my challenge was to create the story about the woman who dropped it.
In the novel, Andrea faces a number of difficult decisions. Without spoiling anything, was it hard for you to reach the kind of resolution that the novel ended up with?
My book has magical realism and time travel. Because I’m asking readers to take such a big leap with me to suspend their disbelief, everything else I provide has to be true so the facts have to hold up. So when you’re reading it, you kind of know that Isaac dies.
I’m working with that, and I’m trying to make readers go on this journey with me knowing that that’s at the end of the tunnel. So how do I take him on this journey knowing that that’s what’s in there? Is there going to be a twist? Is there a way that I will find to work around that historical fact? But, yeah, it’s a bittersweet story. There’s a lot of tragic things that happen. I like to make people cry.
If you were to write Love and Gravity from a Filipino mindset, which historical icon would you focus on and why?
I mean, the easy answer would be Jose Rizal, but you know, everybody knows everything about him. Somebody mysterious that people know, but there’s an element that we don’t know about him: who would fit that bill? Maybe Juan Luna? Maybe there’s a story behind the paintings, or something like that. We all know it in a certain way, but maybe there’s an alternate mystery to that. I don’t know if it’s a romance but maybe it means something else.
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Love and Gravity is available in all National Book Stores nationwide.