Every author is influenced by other writers. But most aren’t so afraid of another writer that they write a story, in part, as a form of therapy. In the following email interview about his urban fantasy romantic comedy The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Wayne Santos not only explains what inspired and influenced this novella, but how Margaret Atwood unknowingly became part of that process.
Let’s start with an overview of the plot. What is The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling about, and when and where is it set?
The book is about Maria, a woman who works as a concept artist in a big, AAA video game studio, and the true nature of herself and her own romantic relationships that she is thus far blissfully unaware of…until the lid on that explodes, and she has to deal with a bunch of supernatural karmic payback tied back to Filipino divinity.
It’s based in modern-day Toronto and will, in particular, resonate strongly with anyone that’s ever been to or lives in the Annex neighborhood of the city.
Where did you get the idea for this story?
The story had two different motivations. The first was that I wanted to write something that used Filipino folklore in it since that’s not something you see a whole lot of in popular culture. We’ve been drilled to death on Roman and Greek mythology, and now even Norse mythology is getting its time in the sun. But when it comes to Asian stuff, even though there are the occasional brushes with Chinese and Japanese myth and folklore, Southeast Asian stuff is still very much unfamiliar territory to most people.
The other motivation was that I’ve always flirted with comedic elements in my writing, usually just some snappy moments of dialog or the odd, funny moment scattered around like seasoning. But I wondered if I could actually write a story that was primarily comedy and tried to maintain that tone for the entirety of the story, rather than just here and there. A novella seemed like a good place to do both of those things since it also meant I didn’t have to commit to 300 pages.
And is there a reason it involves Canadian national treasure Margaret Atwood as opposed to Canadian national treasure Ryan Reynolds or America’s sweetheart Emma Stone or whoever the national treasure / sweetheart is for England? Helen Mirren, maybe? Ricky Gervais?
Margaret Atwood’s appearance in this novella is just me working out some psychological issues. A good chunk of the story takes place in the Annex, one of the downtown neighborhoods of Toronto, and I lived there for several years. So in some ways, the novella is also a little bit of a love letter to that neighborhood and my old favorite haunts in it.
But, as the novella points out, the Annex is also the home turf of Canadian literary treasure Margaret Atwood. So I still have vivid memories of sitting for all-day breakfast in specific local diners and seeing her picture there while the wait staff casually dropped “Oh yeah, Maggie comes in for breakfast all the time.”
Being someone that was only interested in writing fantasy and science fiction, I developed a phobia about Margaret Atwood and was terrified that if we were ever in the same space, her “genre hack sense” would start to tingle, and she’d cough uncontrollably, hacking if you will, because someone who was an affront to decent literature was in the area and setting her off like a bad allergic reaction.
So I figured if I was going to be writing about the Annex and what makes the Annex the Annex, I’d be remiss not to at least mention her. Then my awe and fear of her turned into a running joke, I guess. As a way to manage that, like, “There you go, Margaret Atwood, I have finally confronted you. Sort of. Please don’t hate me.”
Did you ask Margaret Atwood if it was okay to have her be in your book?
The Margaret Atwood thing is definitely not something I cleared with her since I have a mortal terror of meeting her. It’s not like I had her speaking or doing anything Margaret Atwood-y or of significant literary merit; she just kind of stands around being important, and the important waves radiate off her and into the general atmosphere. So I thought I’d be in the clear just sort of invoking the presence of Margaret Atwood since I wasn’t really depicting her.
Having said that, getting smacked down by a defamation lawsuit would be no surprise whatsoever.
Now, normally in my author interviews, this would be the point where I say something about how a book sounds like it’s one genre and then ask the author to confirm or deny this. But I have no clue what genre The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling would fall under. Urban fantasy? Horror romance? Drug-induced fever dream?
It’s an urban fantasy romantic comedy, I guess? With elements of hallucinatory trippiness, Filipino folklore, and horror, here and there. And maybe some social commentary. And maybe some Lonely Planet style tour guiding of the Annex neighborhood…
I mean, it’s just a weird, hodgepodge mess. But you can do that in novellas.
The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling is your second book after your novel The Chimera Code, though you’ve also written stuff for TV and magazines. Are there any writers who had a big influence on The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling but not on anything else you’ve written?
For this one, probably the biggest influence that hadn’t popped up in previous works was Douglas Adams. His Hitchhikers series is still the cornerstone of just how funny genre fiction can be, and I had no issues with trying to learn and emulate as much as I could from that.
What about non-literary influences; was The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Being Canadian, I’m obligated to admit that there were some major Canuck television influences in there, like SCTV, Four On The Floor, and The Kids In The Hall. If you’re going to write a comedy that takes place in Canada, you have to acknowledge your roots. And, of course, the granddaddy of all random comedy, Monty Python.
In terms of the dialog and making it fun and snappy, I have to be honest and say that Buffy The Vampire Slayer has always been a big influence, though now we’re getting into a case of, “You have to divorce the creator from the work, and always remember what the work did to inspire you, not what the creator did later that made you regret your support.”
Now, in the previous interview, we did about The Chimera Code [which you can read by clicking here], you said it was the first book in an ongoing series of stand-alone novels called the WitchWare series. Is The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling the second book?
This novella is most assuredly not connected to the WitchWare series. It’s a completely separate concept that does not take place in a future cyberpunk world where magic erupted, and societies went into upheaval coping with the integration. This book is about how even goddesses have relationship problems. Or maybe especially goddesses.
So then is The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling the beginning of new series?
It…might? I have a tendency to write all of my stories as if they are just one snapshot of a larger narrative that took place before the story started and will continue after the story ends. Each story is self-contained, but I like leaving that impression with readers of, “These people have lives. They did stuff before you came along, and they’ll do stuff after you go.”
All I will say with absolute certainty is that I like the crazy Maria Makiling world, and my publishers seem fond of it as well. So if the Powers That Be are feeling merciful, maybe there will be sequels one day, should the suns align for the Great Conjunction.
Though it is, in a different way, already part of a series in that it’s part of what your publisher, Solaris, are calling the Solaris Satellite series, which is a series of novellas. What was it about the Solaris Satellite series that made you jump in early?
Rebellion was not actually the original destination for this novella. I think in that regard, it has a similar trajectory to what happened with Premee Mohamed’s novella, These Lifeless Things. My agent originally twigged me onto another publisher that had opened up a call for novellas, and I was like, “All right! Finally, an excuse to write something shorter, but with Filipino folklore in it!”
The novella ultimately didn’t resonate with them, which is like, okay, you have demon horses and Margaret Atwood and an Annex tour and meta-commentary on JRPGs, so I get it. Kinda weird.
Then the serendipity kicked in. It just so happened that Rebellion was also thinking of bringing back some shorter-form fiction. So it’s really just a matter of good timing that this turned out the way it did; otherwise, the novella might have just gone on the pile of other unpublished work I have sitting around from over the years.
One aspect of the Solaris Satellite series that the print versions are limited edition and signed. And that’s all of them; it’s not like there a regular print version and a limited edition signed print version. Have they said if this is forever or just during the pandemic or if they might republish them later, maybe in some kind of anthology, or is this it, get it now or you’re screwed?
I had no idea what the answer was to this myself, but as soon as you asked it, I too wanted to know the answer. So I went straight to the source and asked my editor.
The official answer seems to be that no, the signed, printed editions are not going to be the only printed versions of the book available in the long run. But, if you want a signed copy, once they’re gone they’re gone.
As far as a compilation or anthology or omnibus or some other thing…well, they are novellas, so don’t be too surprised if someone over at Rebellion decides one day, “Hey, we can make a whole damn regular-sized book out of these things” and puts something like that out on the shelves one day.
Going back to The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling, earlier, I asked if this story had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But do you think it could be adapted into a movie, show, or game?
The shorter length of this novella probably means it could work as a movie. Ideally, I think an animated feature would work. I mean, this story is so nutty that giving it bold, bright colors, over-the-top voice acting, and hyping and exaggerating everything up through animation might actually be the best route to take with something like this.
Of course, if that happen, Hollywood would immediately make plans to do a live action movie, because god forbid they leave anything well enough alone. So when that happens, who do you want them to cast as Maria and the main characters?
I think Shay Mitchell [Pretty Little Liars] would actually make a pretty damn good Maria. She also happens to be Filipino and Canuck, so she checks off everything on the wishlist, but she’s got sass, which translates well to Maria’s own personality and presentation.
The only other major character, Teek, is a demon horse, so… Yeah, he’d definitely be an effect, most likely CG, but Roger Craig Smith, who’s done a lot of video game and anime voice acting [including Naruto: Shippuden and Fortnite], would probably nail the cracking-wise nature of him. He’s a really versatile actor; I think he could make it work.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Difficult Loves Of Maria Makiling, what similar-ish novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I guess by today’s standards, it might be considered a novella since it’s only 160 pages, but one of the earliest comedy fantasies that made an impression on me was the Harvard Lampoon parody, Bored Of The Rings. It’s a product of its time, written in 1969, but it’s got the feel of an Abrams Zucker Abrams movies of old, like Airplane, Top Secret, or The Naked Gun. It just throws a lot of stuff at the wall, from horrible puns to gross-out humor to college-academic scholarly references, and just hopes that some of them land with you.
I also really loved the fact that the teaser passage included in the opening pages to entice readers to read more doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the book. It’s definitely not for everyone since it’s a product of late ’60s American college humor, but there’s a lot of funny stuff in there.