WHEN Tif Marcelo first read “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton growing up, she knew she wanted to be a writer.
“I told my dad and, of course, his reaction was not super excited because my parents were definitely more pragmatic and logical,” recalled Marcelo, who grew up in San Francisco after migrating from Quezon City, Philippines at a young age.
Like the common experience of many Filipino Americans, she was directed toward the nursing profession, which she pursued while serving in the Army.
“I started blogging about being a mom and doing crafts and that led me to a little bit of freelance writing with Military Spouse magazine,” Marcelo said. It was then when her mom suggested that she consider writing a book.
Fast forward years later, her fifth novel, “Once Upon a Sunset,” was released on March 3.
“Once Upon a Sunset,” published by Simon and Schuster imprint Gallery Books, follows Diana Gallagher-Cary, a Washington, D.C. OB-GYN who is forced to take a leave of absence when a decision attracts bad press for her hospital. Her mother Margo finds a box of letters her World War II veteran grandfather Antonio left behind, spurring curiosity and a trip to the Philippines to find surviving relatives.
Diana, who is of Filipina and European descent, is an homage to Marcelo’s four biracial children and “how they fit in the world,” she said. The character is witty, analytical and set on her own ways — oft times coming across as stubborn — as a contrast to her more free-spirited mother.
“This visit has changed me. You have changed me, too, for the better. But now I don’t know where I fall, with this family, with my mother, with you. I don’t…I don’t know what to do with all of this, with all this information, at Corregidor, the letters between my grandparents, the will. Am I supposed to leap for joy? Cry? What of me is Filipino, is American, of my mom or Antonio? Was I supposed to be more than what I am now? I thought I knew who Diana was before coming here, down to what brand of socks she likes, but it all doesn’t seem to make sense now. Who am I supposed to be?” —“Once Upon a Sunset,” p. 300.
The story also comes from a six-week trip Marcelo took to the Philippines as a teenager, during which she spent time with her grandfather, her “first pen pal” who also fought in World War II and had moved back to his home country at 40 years old. She had wondered what his life was like during those years in the United States and if he had made any romantic connections.
“The trip was really a true life-changing event. I came back feeling like, ‘Okay, I belong somewhere.’ I always say now that where I belong is really in the in-between,” she described.
Written in Marcelo’s signature charming style, “Once Upon a Sunset” has the recurring themes of identity, family, romance and that search for ‘happily ever after’ found in her novels. With this story primarily taking place in the Philippines, she also hopes it will spark interest in readers to visit the country and learn more about Filipino culture.
“I really wanted to put books out there that reflected the joy in being a Filipino American and falling in love. To me, I thought that was just as important of a message as all the non-fiction, historical, and very serious, sometimes very sad, books. It is my goal even now in 2020 to write books that have a ‘happily ever after’ for these characters,” she explained.
Since her first novel “North to You” was released in 2017, Marcelo has unapologetically personified Filipino American main characters who are experiencing love in a way that is not often portrayed in media.
Every morning, Marcelo wakes up around 5 a.m. and writes for the next two hours until her children need to get ready for school. Then, most days, the house is quiet so she spends that time writing and revisiting until they return. The laser focus is where her Army and nursing past come to play.
“There’s no substitution, no matter what process do you do — you either outline, not outline, get up in the morning, stay late at night, write one day, write 10 days in a row, doesn’t matter. But you have to get to the end. You have to write the end,” Marcelo said.
The first novel led to a three-book “Journey to the Heart” series and then “The Key to Happily Ever After” (2019) about three sisters who have their own share of romantic adventures.
While she does not write with a target readership in mind, she thinks about the human inspirations around her, whether it was her grandfather, children or female friends.
Marcelo is set to release yet another novel in spring 2021 titled “In a Book Club Far Away,” which was prompted by the sisterhood amongst military spouses. (“They’re in a book club so it’s very meta writing a book about them talking about books,” she joked.)
“There are all kinds of little nuances that I grew up with and wanted to throw out there in the world. I’d like my books to be slotted with other Filipino American stories so that it is just one story out of so many stories,” Marcelo said. “My books are not meant to speak for all Filipino Americans, but I want it to be part of the landscape and the fabric.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article stated Marcelo’s grandfather lived in the United States for 40 years. He was 40 when he returned back to the Philippines.