The timeless appeal of the youthful love story

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In Samantha Sotto's “Love and Gravity,” time is the antagonist, and Andrea (the female protagonist) takes advantage of its cracks to reach out to Isaac — a reimagined Isaac Newton, that is — in a page-turner that looks at history in the sense of what is, and what could be. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Samantha Sotto seems in total control of time. The author of the novels “Before Ever After” and the recently-launched “Love and Gravity” sits across me in the Writer’s Bar at Raffles in Makati, and laughs and giggles like an old friend. We were both Communication majors and editors in our college newspaper, and shared the same pipe dream: to be a journalist, in the likes of Sotto’s idol, Tina Monzon-Palma. She then tells me about another mutual connection: the writer Ruey de Vera. He was my professor in my writing about culture class. He is her batchmate. While she may not look like a day older than 25, she is, in fact, 43 years old.

This is how I found out that Sotto, for all intents and purposes, never seems to age. Like the main protagonists in her books (Shelley in “Before Ever After” and Andrea in "Love and Gravity”), Sotto seems to have a hold on time, the center from which all plot movements in her novels occur. In “Love and Gravity,” time is the antagonist, and Andrea takes advantage of its cracks to reach out to Isaac — a reimagined Isaac Newton, that is — in a page-turner that looks at history in the sense of what is, and what could be. “Before Ever After” similarly plays around with time, but for Sotto, it took more than creativity to get “Love and Gravity” off her thoughts and into pages.

“Getting published is easy, staying published is difficult,” says Sotto. “Love and Gravity” is not the second novel she wrote; that novel, which she submitted to her publisher [then the Crown imprint of Penguin Random House], was rejected by a new editor. The rejection moved her to reevaluate her relationship with her work. While writing “Love and Gravity,” Sotto recalls: “I fought for every word. Kasi with every word, I was doubting myself pa.” She was dealing with the pressure of putting out another novel after the success of “Before Ever After,” and was wondering if “Before Ever After” was it. “Eventually, my relationship with the book changed,” she says. She stopped doubting, and drew from own experiences to keep herself writing. “I draw on who I was before. I try to remember what I was like during that age. How they felt when they were new to me.”

Portrait.jpg While "Love and Gravity" draws from history and fact, the novel is also highly personal, says Samantha Sotto. Photo courtesy of NATIONAL BOOKSTORE

One does get the feeling of the highly personal while reading “Love and Gravity.” If for “Before Ever After,” Sotto drew from her own experiences traveling around Europe, in her new novel, she draws inspiration from her daughter, Andrea, who is similarly into music as her protagonist in “Love and Gravity” is. She draws from her own teenage son’s budding experiences with young love. Her children, who were the impetus for writing “Before Ever After,” a novel essentially written while she was waiting for her kids at school, are also stimuli for “Love and Gravity.” They keep her young, she says. “You see the world through their eyes. It’s like writing, it freshens up the moment.”

CNN Philippines Life sat with Sotto the day before she launched “Love and Gravity,” and talked about her writing “process,” time travel, and tasting music. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How do you start writing a book?

The process — I use the word loosely — is very different for both. For “Before Ever After,” I didn’t even have an outline. It happened in a road trip across Europe. I basically plotted it out using Google Maps. From London to Italy, what are the countries in between na logically magvi-visit ka, and I have visited? The main character in “Before Ever After” believes you can get through anything if you have a chicken, so every story in the book meron siyang chicken or egg story na patawa. So I would Google Paris: strange chicken fact. And whatever pops out, ‘yun ‘yung inspiration ko, isusulat ko siya. It was just so random.

With “Love and Gravity,” I had to be a little bit more disciplined, kasi time travel siya and well-known si Isaac Newton. With my books, it’s so — it’s magical realism diba — I’m asking readers to take a huge leap with me in terms of suspending their disbelief. So I want the historical and factual side to be the foundation. It had to be built around that. Since it’s time travel, I had two timelines. I had to plot the story out into little index cards and a corkboard. It would map out real Isaac’s life with my Isaac’s life in relation to what was happening with him with the girl. They had to align also. It’s a completely different experience.

So it was harder writing “Love and Gravity.”

Yeah, kasi the first one, it was just for fun. This one, I felt it was defining me. Na parang if I don’t do this, para akong nagpatalo with self-doubt. Everything that I was telling people before — you could do it, I could do it — parang binawi ko lahat. For me, it was to prove na kaya kong gawin ulit. That it wasn’t a fluke or anything.

Book.jpg "Love and Gravity" leaves readers in suspense over a romantic affair between Andrea Louviere and Isaac Newton, as the two share letters through a crack in a wall, allowing them to share worlds across different timelines.

We’re curious about the title of the book — what’s the relationship between love and gravity?

Oh wow. With love, I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to that. I feel there’s an element of fate, of magnetism, that when you do find that person, you will gravitate towards each other. There’s this quote from the book [laughs] which explains why it’s called “Love and Gravity.” This quote, I feel, pretty much says what their story is all about:

Their connection was a law, greater than Isaac could ever author. Unbreakable, timeless, and absolute. It had bound their hearts, just as gravity married the earth to the moon.

I feel in that sense that’s what love is. When you find the one, there is that thing pulling you towards that person. But to stay together, that’s a choice everyday. Love is a choice. It doesn’t work if you don’t work on it. That I know from being 43 years old and being with my husband for 20 years. There is that gravity that helped us find each other in this giant world — in that case I just applied it to time and space.

I feel like time is almost like a character in my books, because time is the least we have control of in life. In time, we’re a passenger, we’re in the river of time, we cannot rewind, we cannot make it go faster. We’re just there, we have to live in the moment. But in the books, I’m the boss of time. I can slow it down, make it go faster, twist it around.

How does writing or reading a book help you control your own time?

When you read a book, you’re there, in the story. You’re not aware of the pages, what’s written: you’re in that world. As a mom of two, those snippets or stolen moments where you can escape, it’s like a reboot. So when you’re back, all in din. That’s what reading does. I hope readers also find that kind of escape in the things I write.

Is it hard to write about young love at this point in your life?

You mean now that I’m old? [Laughs] No, I don’t think so. Love is a timeless thing. It’s a universal thing. Obviously the kind of love I have with my husband now is different from the kind of love we had when we were dating, but a part of that carries through pa rin. You still carry that kilig. There are moments of it. I don’t feel as if I’m writing about a memory or something I don’t feel now. It’s still part of the relationship today, so I don’t feel as if I have to draw so far away.

"Getting published is easy, staying published is difficult."

Love is so immeasurable and abstract, so it’s a challenge to make it come out in a book. How do you do that?

Love is abstract; but the characters are not. So if you have real characters, if people believe those characters, they will sense the relationship. I can’t say they love each other. I have to show it. I have to put the characters into situations where love will naturally blossom. I don’t approach it as something abstract, but as something invisible — but you can feel it — because of these two tangible characters.

One of Andrea’s defining characteristics is synesthesia — she tastes food when she hears or plays music.

There’s a lot of food in “Before Ever After,” and people responded well to that. They were posting their versions of the food. I wanted to change the approach in “Love and Gravity.” I wanted it to be a book you can read in 3D, appeal to other senses. And I felt the most challenging sense was hearing. Sight, I can describe what I see; but how do you describe music? In the sense that when you’re reading the book, you can hear what I’m saying, feel that way. I felt the approach to that was appealing to the other senses. That’s why I made Andrea have that character quirk — so the reader can hear the music through her eyes and feel the way she does about the music. Pinahirapan ko nga sarili ko eh. [Laughs] If all else fails, there’s a Spotify playlist the publisher made for the book.

Is that the end-all, be-all for a writer, getting published?

No, no, no. And that was what I learned from “Before Ever After.” Wala namang lesson dun kasi. [Laughs] It just fell into my lap. But with “Love and Gravity,” I had to see the goal as telling the story. Because there was so much uncertainty. I couldn’t make my goal getting published at the end of it. My goal in reality was to confront the page in front of me everyday and getting that story out from my brain and into my laptop. The goal is to tell a story. Whether one person reads it, or a million people read it, lahat na lang ‘yun, bonus. Your job as a writer is to write the best story you could write, your truth. And if it’s really good, it’ll find its way into the world.