Interview with Mae Respicio


About the Author: Mae Respicio is the author of the middle-grade novels THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT (out now) and the forthcoming BEACH SEASON, both from Wendy Lamb Books/Random House. Mae is a former recipient of a PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship, a past writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook and Atlantic Center for the Arts, and has published many musings on parenthood. On most writing days she’s powered by iced coffee — and fear of the blank page.

Find Mae Respicio on the following platforms:

A huge thank you to Mae Respicio for talking with us about her literary career and her latest middle-grade novel, The House That Lou Built. Check it out!

Anna Gerwig: Why do you want to write Middle-Grade novels? What do you wish to share with that audience?

Mae Respicio: Middle-grade books are what made me want to become a writer. I was a huge bookworm growing up and whenever I dug into a title I loved, I would think, “I want to write a book one day, too!” What inspires me most about the middle-grade genre is the feeling of hope and wonder that MG books always convey. My wish is to keep sharing nuanced characters who are finding their place in this world—the same way middle-grade readers are.

AG: There’s a lot of talk about the lack of diversity within the publishing world. Did this impact you as a reader growing up? Have you noticed any progress?

MR: It’s a necessary and long overdue movement to make sure that all kinds of kids, issues and experiences are reflected in what they read. The lack of diverse representation in books (and any media really) impacted me growing up—even through the beginning stages of my adult life, since it wasn’t until recent years that I was able to find any books with Filipino American characters. Books are transformative. They help us step into someone else’s shoes but also inform who we are. Imagine being a reader and never once seeing yourself, family, or culture in a book—or else only reading about the same type of character over and over? That was my experience as a kid-reader, in a time where covers were dominated by fair-skinned, light-haired characters. What does that teach kids about their identity and the world around us? I do think the market landscape is changing, though when I read things like “The Diversity Gap in Children’s Book Publishing, 2018” from Lee and Low Books—statistics on the number of children’s books by and about people of color—I realize there’s still more work to be done. 

AG: What was a take-away from your first visit to the Philippines?  

MR: I was only a few years old on my first trip to the Philippines so I don’t remember anything except for what I’ve seen in old pictures. The first trip that made a momentous impression on me was in my early teens. At the time, my extended family lived in provinces out in the countryside, and being immersed in that was a very stark contrast to my everyday life in suburban California. As a tween who had some angst about being American while being raised in a very traditional Filipino family, that visit really cemented my roots and made me appreciate my family’s history and journey.  

AG: I love that Lou’s story is told through the lens of building a house — it’s so unique and demonstrated a lot of family themes. How and why did you decide to include this element and make it central to her story? 

MR: I’m definitely into all things related to home and design, and was that way when I was a kid—I used to spend hours building forts and drawing my dream houses! The first house I lived in with my husband was a fixer-upper, which we fixed largely ourselves. I think there’s something innately satisfying and inspiring about creating things with your own hands. I have two kids and they’re always building and tinkering too, brainstorming ideas and making them come to life—that’s fun to see. So somehow I put all of these elements together and came up with an idea nugget: a girl who builds a tiny house. The more I fleshed out the idea the more it made sense as the premise of a middle grade novel. There’s so much rich symbolism to a house and ultimately it helped give the book its structure. Lou’s arc in physically building her tiny house parallels what she’s building inside of her as she explores the meaning of “home.”

AG: After moving around a lot, and even living in the Philippines, I really resonated with Lou when she said, “home isn’t necessarily a place; it’s more of a feeling — of comfort and trust, of people who are a part of you. And I’m lucky, because it means I have a lot of different homes.” Where’s home for you? And when do you feel most at home?

MR: How cool that you lived in the Philippines! I have a handful of communities that I always call “home” and I think the thread is that they’re all places where I have the confidence to be completely myself without reservation or judgment. 

AG: As Lou’s dad wrote, “sometimes plans change,” and Lou’s plans changed a lot! There was a lot of back-and-forth between Lou and her mom as secrets were revealed. Did you know all of these twists ahead of time? Did you know all along that Lou would not finish her house? (I guess a bigger question is: how much do you plan out your stories and how much do you discover along the way?)

MR: I knew that I didn’t want Lou’s journey of creating her tiny house to be easy, and I decided early on in the drafting process that I didn’t think it would be realistic for her to finish building it in only a few months time (the book is set over the summer). However, many of the plot twists and turns happened as I was writing and were not scenes I outlined beforehand. I was more of a “pantser” for this novel, starting with a very general outline—the things I knew needed to happen in the beginning, middle and end of the book—then filling in the blanks as I got to know my characters and their world better. My upcoming book is a little different; I had much more of detailed outline, which was needed since I had a deadline! I think pantsers are sometimes scared of plot/structure (or at least this pantser!), but a novel needs it at some point whether you start with it before drafting, or end up adding it in during your revision process.

AG: What’s a current project that intimidates you? How has Lou inspired you?

MR: Every project starts off with a blank screen, which is always equally intimidating and terrifying! Lou inspired me to go for my dreams. Her persistence and determination inspires me.  

AG: What has been one of the most meaningful responses to LOU?

MR: Oh gosh, there have been so many meaningful responses to LOU and it’s been a joy to hear how readers have connected with this book on such a variety of different levels—everything from the cultural themes to the #stronggirl aspect to the themes of creativity. One response that really made me tear up was a reader who tweeted that she had never seen herself in a book until she read Lou’s story in her late thirties.

AG: What was one thing that surprised you about becoming a published author?

MR: The thing that has surprised me most about becoming a published author is that all of the authors I’ve connected with have had such different publication journeys—no two publishing paths are the same. All this means is: keep going in your work… you can do it!

PRR Writer, Anna Gerwig