Listen to the words:
“That first full summer at Cornelia’s house returns to me in sparkling scraps, sensory flashes: backyard nights needle-pricked with fireflies; clonk of a basketball; my hands sliding under Dev’s T-shirt and up his back; chit-chit-chit of a sprinkler; the fragrance of sunscreen, citronella, chlorine on Dev’s skin; slap of playing cards on porch boards; the little matching valleys above Dev’s collarbone; shaving of moon resting on a rooftop…”
Marisa de los Santos is a Wilmington-based, internationally recognized fiction writer. The passage is from her fifth novel, “I’ll Be Your Blue Sky,” released in March.
It isn’t that de los Santos doesn’t draw fabulous characters (she does) or that she can’t intrigue us with her plotting (she can), but it is the finely crafted, sensual language that draws us deep into her stories and makes us want to feel our fingertips turning the next page, even if we are reading electronically.
From her first novel, “Love Walked In,” listen to Cornelia, the protagonist:
“If you haven’t seen ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ stop what you are doing, rent it, and watch it. It is probably overstating the point to say that until you watch it, you will have been living a partial and colorless life. However, it is definitely on the list of perfect things. You know what I mean, the list that includes the starry sky over the desert, grilled cheese sandwiches, ‘The Great Gatsby,’ the Chrysler building, Ella Fitzgerald singing, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),’ white peonies, and those little sketches of hands by Leonardo da Vinci.”
Chatting with de los Santos about her literary career—her books appear on the New York Times fiction best-sellers list—and about the writer’s life is a somewhat disarming experience. She fits none of the stereotypes we have been taught to expect of our accomplished writers. As she sips her tea on a sunny afternoon at a front-of-the-house table in the Greenville Brew HaHa! she is charming, intriguing, thoughtful and outgoing.
She has flowing black hair, parted to the side, and looks almost melancholy as she considers, then answers, questions. The corners of her mouth are ready to curl up in mirth at any second, as they do when friends from the neighborhood or her daughter’s school pause at her table to exchange pleasantries.
De los Santos discusses her writing as analytically and calmly as she might discuss her son’s recent choice of a college or her husband’s teaching schedule at the University of Delaware. It’s not that de los Santos doesn’t take her role as an arguably great American writer seriously. It’s just that she doesn’t seem obsessed by it, as though determined, as one of her characters might be, not to let her art rob her of the routine of daily living.
Now in her 40s, de los Santos and her sister were born in Baltimore, her father having come to the United States from the Philippines for his medical residency at the age of 30. Her mother was a nurse. “I mainly grew up in Northern Virginia, in the Quantico area,” she says, but she must now travel to the Philippines to visit her parents, who moved there after her father’s retirement from a career as a general surgeon.
As a teen, de los Santos says she never considered being a novelist, though she did consider journalism. Though she was an avid reader, “As strange as it seems, I never thought about where books came from. The idea of writing books never really occurred to me.” But she was attracted to poetry.
De los Santos received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, then earned a master of fine arts in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and a doctorate from the University of Houston. While at Sarah Lawrence, she returned to Virginia to visit her sister, who introduced de los Santos to a friend who turned out to become her future husband, David Teague, then a doctoral candidate at the university.
In the mid-1990s, they arrived at the University of Delaware, where both took teaching positions. De los Santos left the university in 2005 to pursue a writing career while Teague remained at UD, where today he is a full professor.
During her university years, both as a student and a teacher, de los Santos concentrated on a career as a poet, publishing a book of poems, “From the Bones Out,” in 2000. But when asked to write a personal essay for a book titled “The May Queen: Women on Life, Love, Work and Pulling It All Together in Your 30s,” her career changed immediately.
“The woman who became my agent happened to read it and asked me to let her know if I ever wanted to write fiction,” de los Santos says. “As it happened, I had already written 60 to 80 pages of what I hoped would be my first novel.” The agent, Jennifer Carlson, loved it and sold it to Dutton. “She acts calm, but she can drive a hard bargain,” de los Santos says of Carlson, now a close friend to whom her current book is dedicated.
That first novel, “Love Walked In,” caused quite a stir even before it was published—actress Sarah Jessica Parker quickly optioned it for film rights almost before it was published in January 2006. As often happens in Hollywood, the film was never made, but the book itself, which has now been translated into 14 languages, put de los Santos on the map of emerging American fiction writers.
It also signaled an abrupt change in her life. “I’ve never written poetry again,” she says. “After the kids were born [Charles in 1999, Annabel in 2002], I was finding it difficult to get hyper-focused to get something distilled for poetry.” Once the opportunity presented itself, writing novels suddenly seemed more workable, and it was something she enjoyed doing more. Nevertheless, she says her poet colleagues still ask, “When are you coming back?”
Over the dozen years after that first novel, de los Santos has written a new novel every two to three years. Her second, “Belong to Me,” published in April 2008, was an instant New York Times Best Seller, and she was on her way. “Falling Together” followed in 2012, then “The Precious One” in 2015. “I’ll Be Your Blue Sky” fulfills her contract with Dutton, an imprint of HarperCollins.
De los Santos has also co-written two books with her husband, a prolific writer who specializes in children’s fiction. Not surprisingly, Teague also serves as his wife’s first reader once a novel has been completed but before it is submitted to her agent. “We write differently,” he says. “I want to put something on paper quickly, then work on it. I get a lot of false starts, while Marisa wants to work on it in her head first.”
De los Santos agrees. “Once I have the idea,” she says, “it’s sink or swim.”
De los Santos’ approach to writing novels is somewhat rare. “Usually, what happens is that the idea for my next book is being formulated while I’m finishing up the current one,” she says. When the current book is out of the way and awaiting editing and publication, de los Santos writes a 20- to 30-page proposal for the next. “Generally, that takes about two weeks to write, but a lot has been going on in my head a long time before that.”
Once the agent and the publisher have vetted the outline for the new project, de los Santos begins writing in her home office. “When I first started writing,” she says, “it was a little like, ‘Let’s take a walk in the woods and see where this path goes.’ But working on the books with David, we had to figure out the plot first, then do chapter-by-chapter synopses. So I became a convert to the plot outline, although I can still get surprised at where a character may take me.”
Unlike Teague’s style of writing and revision, de los Santos says, “I work sentence by sentence and don’t do a lot of revising.” She also is very structured in her work plans. “I schedule things week by week, and I know at the beginning of the week where I will be at the end of the week.” If she runs into plot problems, she may decide to discuss it with Teague, who will give a neutral perspective.
One feature of her novels is that de los Santos often likes to advance the narrative by shifting focus between two primary characters by giving them alternating chapters—nothing unusual. What is unusual is that one character may tell the reader what is happening, or has happened, in the first person as she encounters things. The other character does not talk directly to the reader. As things happen to her, her thoughts and actions are described in the third person. In one character, we get the close-up view and an insight into her thinking. We learn less about what the other character may think, but we are exposed to the larger picture.
“In my first book [‘Love Walked In’], I started writing Clare’s voice in first person, but it kept falling into the third person,” de los Santos says. “The characters live in my head for so long before I start writing that their voices seem to emerge naturally.” In her third book, “Falling Together,” “I wrote everything in third person and used flashbacks,” de los Santos says. “I found it a challenge to weave everything in, and the transitions were harder to make.”
As many fiction writers do, de los Santos says her characters tend to take on lives of their own. “The characters always call the shot,” she says. “You have to listen to your characters.” Though it’s not accurate to think of her novels as sequels, she sometimes revisits characters in a subsequent book, almost as if she, as much as her readers, is intrigued by the question, “OK, what happened next?”
And where does de los Santos see her writing fit in the scheme of things? “Bookstores like to make a distinction between literary novels and genre novels,” she says. She is happy to be considered a writer in the genre of women’s fiction, in the sense that she doesn’t want her books to be solely plot driven or introverted, as literary novels often are. “Plot is not enough for me,” she says, “I need the characters.” But, she warns, “People who like chick lit probably wouldn’t like my books. They would get impatient with my writing.”
In the de los Santos-Teague household, there is always some book or some book in the works—hers, his or theirs—to talk about. At the pre-publication stage, authors are provided with several copies of advance reader’s editions or uncorrected proofs, books that look like quality paperback editions of the finished book but are still awaiting comments of other novelists and reviewers who will provide short comments for the cover and the front of the book. Next to the door leading to their living room is a small book shelf crammed with reader’s editions that they have gathered over the years. Current editions of their most recent works lie between them on a table. Teague also had a new book about to be launched, a youth title, “How Oscar Indigo Broke the Universe (and Put It Back Together Again).”
The cover of “I’ll Be Your Blue Sky” features a blue but murky sky, a moth in flight and what looks like the upward leaves of a poinsettia. De los Santos’ name is in large capital letters above the title so bookstore browsers won’t be able to miss it. On the back cover, where an endorsement will be printed, there is a list of the marketing activities that publisher William Morrow had planned. There is also a message from someone in the marketing department: “If you’ve read this galley, I’d love to hear what you think. Please contact me.”
“I always do a book tour,” de los Santos says. Her ideal stops are independent book stores that she can visit in a day.
She is already at work on her sixth novel, tentatively titled “I’d Give Anything.” For the first time, she had two, not one, nascent book ideas competing for space in her brain as she was going through the months between finishing the final draft of “Blue Sky” and the appearance of the reader’s edition. In addition to what is becoming “I’d Give Anything,” there was also in her mind a young adult novel she is still excited about, but, as she has become a take-the-money-to-the-bank novelist valued by her publisher as a best-seller, the young adult novel has been shelved for now.
As de los Santos and Teague discuss their writing processes and how two writers can live together under the same roof, she listens intently. One suddenly gets the idea that one of the reasons de los Santos is so good with words is that she listens to them so well.
“When I was in college and I first started writing, I loved playing with words,” she says. “I still love playing with them—double meanings, playfulness. I love symmetry and form.” De los Santos, always the wordsmith, smiles. “I just have to be careful I don’t try to get too clever.”