One of the many things I love about Mae Respicio’s debut novel, The House that Lou Built, is how she creates a character who so thoroughly plays against type and yet is relatable and familiar. For readers unfamiliar with Filipino culture, as I am, Lou is the best kind of guide. Experiencing the world through her eyes was a delight from start to finish. Middle grade readers are in for a real treat.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
The Filipino culture has a rich tradition of oral storytelling. I grew up hearing lots of ghost stories and folk tales, especially from the lolos and lolas (grandmothers and grandfathers) in my life—that was one of my favorite things growing up! I’m definitely someone who has always known I wanted to write. As a kid I was a voracious reader and writer, and was largely influenced by my elementary school teacher mom who encouraged me to read everything. During recess, instead of playing dodge ball, I’d write plays for my friends to perform (though now that I think of it, it’s probably because I was terrified of playing dodge ball).
The House that Lou Built is set in San Francisco. I love how you immerse the reader so fully in the city. How much of this is based on your own experience?
I’m a Northern California girl born and raised, so like a lot of kids I spent time visiting the city. Coming from a sleepy town in the Central Valley, San Francisco always felt so vibrant to me and I wanted to try and capture that. I spend a lot of time now with my own kids in places that Lou and her friends explore like the redwoods and the beach and it’s been fun to write about familiar settings.
I’m a big fan of characters breaking stereotypes and Lou does that, demonstrating her building and creating skills, and leadership. I felt her anxiety at showing up her classmates in woodshop! Did you have this in mind when you began thinking about this story?
I set out to write a #stronggirl story and wanted to give my main character a hobby that’s normally associated with males so that I could play around with breaking stereotypes. I love the challenge of figuring out how to give nuance and layers to characters and to make them less clichéd.
I’m fascinated by tiny houses! How did settle on Lou trying to build one as your driving plot line?
I’m fascinated by them too! I love the idea that a tiny house means you can focus on people and experiences instead of All The Things. When I started writing Lou’s story I deliberately picked a topic I’d be interested in spending lots of time on (very important when you’re going to be reading your own book a gazillion times!). Also, I just loved the idea of writing about a kid who’s so passionate about creating things. I was inspired by my own kids, who get excited whenever they have an idea then physically bring it to life. Finally, let’s be real: researching tiny houses was a great excuse to watch more HGTV.
Who are your favorite authors? I love so many different authors across all genres but for middle grade a few of my favorites are Rita Williams-Garcia, Pam Munoz Ryan, Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate Messner and Erin Entrada Kelly. I’m inspired by their meaningful books and the careers that they’ve built.
What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?
My current non-writing fascination is gardening—I’ve been trying to bring a dry, weedy garden back to life! I wouldn’t say I’ve been successful (yet), but luckily weeding time makes for good coming-up-with-ideas time.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on my next contemporary middle grade novel, which will also be coming out with Wendy Lamb Books. It’s a coming-of-age about 12-year-old Kaia who’s obsessed with special effects make-up and Filipina mermaids, and is using her unique strengths and passions to help her family get over a tragic event. Just like THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT I’m aiming for equal parts joy, hope, and “get your tissues ready” with this one.
How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?
I love hearing from readers, students, educators and parents; you can contact me via my website here.