Marisa de los Santos Talks Characters, Hobbies and Being Married to a Writer
May 15, 2015
by Christine Koubek
Marisa de los Santos, author of New York Times bestsellers “Love Walked In,” “Belong to Me” and “Falling Together,” is also an award-winning poet with a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing. Her latest novel, “The Precious One,” is an insightful story about two sisters who share a father, but have never shared a life. When the two are thrown together after their father’s illness, they each grapple with family secrets and what it means to give and receive a second chance.
Below, Marisa offers a glimpse at what it’s like to be married to a fellow author and the power of secret questions, including a favorite one she often asks her characters. Come to the festival this Saturday, May 16, to learn more about her writing process and moving stories. (Marisa will be speaking on a panel with Sarah Pekannen at 2:15 p.m. in the Edgar Allen Poe pavilion.)
In your newest novel, “The Precious One,” one of the main characters, Taisy, is a ghostwriter with a knack for asking her subjects the “secret question” that helps unlock a person’s story. What is the best “secret question” you’ve asked one of your characters and what did it reveal?
I ask my characters questions about their childhoods all the time, and the answers can add so much to my understanding of who they are as adults. One of my favorite questions is: When you were a kid, what were some of the Halloween costumes you remember wearing? Kids can be so wonderfully obsessive about the subjects or people who interest them, and they jump at the chance to quite literally wear those obsessions and parade them around. When I was a kid, I probably took this to an extreme, since my costume list includes Joan of Arc, Laura Ingalls and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, but I think most people’s costume choices reflect some aspect of their personality. Do they try to get laughs? Reveal a hidden dark side? Scare people? You can learn so much about a person by who she is when she has a chance to be someone other than herself, if that makes sense.
You’re married to children’s book author, David Teague. What are the blessings and challenges of being married to a fellow writer?
I know it might sound unbelievable to some people, but I really don’t see a downside to being married to a fellow writer. David is the first and best reader of everything I write, and I think he’d say the same of me. We admire and love each other’s writing, and we also trust each other’s instincts and opinions. When I hit a rough patch or encounter a thorny problem with my work in progress, he talks it all through with me, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, and, together, we get it figured out. We’ve written two books together so far, “Saving Lucas Biggs” and the forthcoming “Connect the Stars,” and, both times, we had tremendous fun and also learned a lot from each other. I think one big reason we have a harmonious writing relationship is that neither of us jumps into the other’s process uninvited. We don’t give unsolicited advice, ever. And while we have our separate offices now, we used to sit at the same table with our computers, so we learned early on how to give each other space. I guess you could say we’ve become experts at ignoring each other!
With two writers in the house, how do you divvy up homework guidance in language arts, math and other subjects for your two children?
Luckily, David is one of those people who uses both sides of his brain. He started off as an electrical engineering major at Rice University and, while he ended up eventually switching majors and schools, he still loves math and is definitely the go-to guy for that. I can help with everything else, although our son, a sophomore in high school, lets us review his English and History papers far less frequently than he used to, probably because, no matter how strong his work is (and he’s a crackerjack writer), we find things he could improve. At some point, he just wants to turn it in and move on!
Are there any hobbies you’ve taken up because one of your characters had that interest and you wanted to learn more?
In my second novel “Belong to Me,” there’s a character named Dev Tremain who is fascinated by all science, including physics. While I’m a closet science nerd (I don’t do experiments, just read a lot), I gravitate toward genetic science, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, disciplines that directly involve living creatures. After a miserable high school experience with physics, I’d spent my life pretty much avoiding the subject, so when I found myself with a character who loves it (and he would not be talked out of it!), I had to grit my teeth and study it. And in spite of myself, I got interested. You can’t help but admire people who are trying to explain the universe! I’m not sure I’d say physics has become a hobby, but I read about it eagerly and do my best to make sense of it, which, for me, requires enormous patience and concentration. This interest is a gift Dev gave me, and I’m grateful.