Marisa de los Santos’ critically acclaimed novels, Love Walked In and Belong to Me (reaching No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list) have become book club favorites. Here, the author discusses her next novel, Falling Together, and what goes into creating the lovable, multidimensional characters she’s known for.

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Novels often begin as the result of an image, or a character, or a voice. What was the beginning of Falling Together for you?

The very first thing I knew about this book was that it would be about a friendship among three people—two women and a man. I could picture them…walking, a tall man, a tall woman and between them a much smaller woman. I carried this image around inside my head for quite some time before the character of Pen began to take shape.

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Early on, I knew she was a mother. Also, I knew that she was sad and lonely in a way that Cornelia, the protagonist of my first two books, never was. The interesting thing to me is that I knew Pen was sad, but for a long time, I thought she was sad only about losing her friends. It kept nagging at me, though, this sense that her sadness was deeper and more complicated than that.

Then, one day, while I was on the elliptical trainer going full-tilt, I understood that her father had died and, right there in the middle of the YMCA, a wave of sadness that I recognized as Pen’s particular sadness hit me. Once I had that, I had Pen, and the story emerged more steadily after that.

This story’s plot weaves back and forth in time. Did you have a very clear outline, or did the pieces “fall together” this way for you?

I have this fantasy wherein I am a writer who uses a very clear outline! But my process seems to be that I need to know the characters really, really well before I start writing—although I never know them nearly as well as I think I do; they surprise me constantly, and I need to know a few simple things about the plot.

After that it’s a matter of staying as absolutely tuned in to my characters as I can and taking my cues from them. In Falling Together, the chapters grew out of one another. I’d finish one, then start the next in a time and place that felt most necessary to the story, which sometimes meant sending my characters backward…I love being so completely immersed, and I love the surprises. So maybe I’m glad that I’m not an outliner after all!

Pen’s intense friendship with Will and Cat is a revelation to her. Did you experience similarly intense friendships in college?

My friendships in college and graduate school rank among the most intense of my life. I think this is because I’m a person who needs to have family around me all the time. If my actual blood relatives aren’t there, I need to grow a new family…There’s a point in the book in which Pen tells Will that she has given him and Cat everything, “My childhood, my parents, the things that scare me, the books I love, the sentences I love from the books I love.” And I think young adulthood is like that—you throw open your vault, you hand everything over. You want so much to be known and to know your friends in a real, lasting way. My best friend in college was a guy named Victor, and even though we don’t see each other all that often, I am always instantly at ease, instantly at home in his presence.

You’ve said that you miss your characters when a book is done. Does it help to have a relationship with new characters on the horizon?

Yes, that does help. I’m early on in the process, but I know the fourth book will be the story of siblings, a set of twins in their early 30s, Estella and Marcus Cleary, and their 16-year old half-sister Willow from their father’s second marriage. 

I think the story will be told from the perspectives of the two sisters, and maybe also Marcus, but right now, I’m focused on getting to know Willow. Because her father believes that his first family was a failure, he and his much younger wife have raised Willow in an incredibly sheltered and rarefied world—homeschooling, no television, few friends, almost no contact with his previous family. 

But when the story opens, the father is ill and Willow is in public high school for the first time. I find her so interesting, this odd combination of self-assured—she’s always been taught that she is a superior person being raised in a superior way—and scared, knowing and deeply innocent.  She’ll tell her story in the first-person, so I’m learning her voice, which is always a fascinating undertaking. I still miss Pen, Will and Cat, but it makes me happy to think that Willow and Estella and Marcus and I have a long, long road ahead of us.