For my first interview I would like to welcome prize-winning writer Leighton Gage, author of the wonderful Chief Inspector Mario Silva series, set in Brazil.
As Leighton notes on his homepage : “Chief Inspector Mario Silva has a big job. He’s a Brazilian Federal Cop. In his country there’s no FBI, no DEA, no Secret Service, no DHS, no CBP and most police corporations have no Internal Affairs Department. Mario and his colleagues have to do it all and more. And they do it while traveling a lot. The area of their responsibility is larger than the continental United States.”
The most recent title in the series is Dying Gasp. Leighton’s books have earned praise from many corners. A New York Times reviewer found the series “top notch,” and a Booklist contributor called it am “outstanding series,” adding, “Silva just may be South America’s Kurt Wallander.”
Leighton was good enough to answer a number of questions I had for him about writing and spirit of place:
Describe your connection to Brazil. How did you come to live there or become interested in it? And, if you do not live on site, do you make frequent trips there?
In 1973, I was offered a job in Brazil. I’d been working in The Netherlands for five years. I was ready for a change. I was thirty-one years old.
I arrived in São Paulo in the springtime. I fell in love with the country – and a girl. We’ve been married for thirty-two years. The language we use at home is Portuguese. The years have taken us, sometimes for extended periods, to many other places around the world, but Brazil is the place we always think of as home.
What things about Brazil make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Wouldn’t you agree that every place, when you come right down to it, is unique? Even small towns in America? On a larger scale, Brazil, like the United States, is a melting pot of many cultures. But there the similarity ends. The mix, for one thing, is entirely different. Six times as many slaves were imported into Brazil than were ever imported into North America. They’ve had a tremendous impact on culture and religion. Brazil, like the United States is immense. (Larger, in fact, than the continental 48.) But, again, the similarity ends there. Brazil is temperate in climate from north to south and from east to west. It hardly ever snows. There are few high mountains and only small deserts. Most people think of it as rural, but it isn’t. It’s highly urban. São Paulo is the largest city in the southern hemisphere. Brazil, like the United States is rich. But the distribution of wealth is an entirely different matter. Brazil is a rich country full of poor people. The contrasts go on and on.
As a physical setting, gosh, where am I to begin? We’ve got the Pantanal, a place that puts the Everglades to shame, we’ve got the Amazon, the mightiest river in the world, and we’ve got Rio de Janeiro. I’ve been to Capetown and to Sydney, two truly beautiful harbor cities. They can’t hold a candle to Rio. And speaking of Rio, how about Carnival? Forget about Ringling Brothers, the circus. Carnival in Rio really is “the greatest show on earth”.
Did you consciously set out to Brazil as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
My first “foreign” language wasn’t Portuguese, it was German. Shortly after that, I learned Dutch. I noticed, early on, that people can be different “characters” in their second or third tongue. You can be talking English to a Dutchman, for example, and think that he doesn’t have a good sense of humor. But, if you talk to the same man in Dutch, you suddenly discover that Dutchmen are masters of understatement, and that much of their humor is based on it. Unfortunately, much of that humor can’t be effectively translated (into English at any rate).
What I’m getting at here, is that the culture and the language are intimately related and both of them are heavily influenced by the location.
I live in Brazil much of the time. I may have an American passport, but I am more Brazilian than I am anything else. I see the world with that perspective.
It’s bound to come out in my writing – and it’s not conscious. I don’t plan to write “Brazilian books”. I simply write books from the perspective of a Brazilian. The difference is that I write them in English. And that, too, has an influence on the end result. (Don’t get me started on this one, Syd. I could go on for hours.)
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I don’t spend much time on description. I have, personally, an aversion to what I call “I was there fiction”, the sort of thing that’s written by foreigners for foreigners. We’ve all read it, haven’t we? And it’s boring as hell.
I do pay overt attention to location when I think there’s something to be gained.
Well, for example, moving the story along, setting motivation, or telling people something about a given place that might amuse or surprise them.
How does your protagonist interact with his/her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
With few exceptions, all of my characters are Brazilians. They act and interact like Brazilians. And, if you want to know more than that, you have to read the books.
I wrote, once, about an American FBI agent. I occasionally write about Argentineans, because the Brazilians have a great rivalry going on with the Argentineans, and jokes about them are very much a part of the culture.
Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do local (ie those who actually live in Brazil) reviewers think, for example. Are your books in translation in Brazil, and if so, what reaction have they gotten from reviewers?
I get fan mail from Brazilians who read my work in English. Many of them tell me they love it. I’ve never heard from any, but it’s likely there are an equal, perhaps even a greater number, who hate it. The reason that some might (probably do) hate it is that much of what I write is highly critical of the country that I (and my potential detractors) love so much.
How dare you criticize our country?
I haven’t been translated into Portuguese. Not yet. But I expect I will be some day. And then we’ll see what the local reviewers think. I’m hoping they’ll like my work as much as the American reviewers do. And I think they might. No one in Brazil today is writing the kind of stuff I’m writing. For the market, it’s innovative.
Of the novels you have written set Brazil, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
No, honestly, I don’t have a favorite book or scene that focuses on place. In a recent review of Dying Gasp, Hallie Ephron wrote in the Boston Globe:
“Readers will smell the steam and stench of the Amazon…”
I saw that, and I thought, Did I really do that? Well, I guess maybe I did, or Hallie wouldn’t have said it. But I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time. Here’s a short passage about my hometown, São Paulo. I drew it from Blood of the Wicked, my first book.
“In the largest city south of the equator, springtime is generally too warm for comfort, and the spring of 1978 was no exception. In those days, automobile emission standards had yet to be established. To make it worse, a thermal inversion persisted over the city for twenty-nine of October’s thirty-one days. The resulting smog reduced visibility to less than five hundred meters. Eyes stung. People buried their noses in handkerchiefs and addressed each other with gravelly voices emerging out of irritated throats. In Liberdade, the Japanese neighborhood, residents took to wearing surgical masks. The black waters of the Tietê, the river that flowed in a sluggish crescent around the city’s western boundaries, generated vapors strong enough to bring nausea to queasy stomachs. Socks, clean and white in the morning, were peeled off at night, begrimed with black soot so fine that it penetrated shoe leather. The smell of rotting garbage hung in the air. It was a typical springtime in São Paulo.”
You can see why some Brazilians might not like what I write, can’t you?
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
My favorite writers? Other than J. Sydney Jones?
Hmm, Syd. That’s a tough one.
There’s a remark from Louis XIV: “Every time I promote a man, I create one ingrate – and a thousand enemies.” I ascribe to that. When it comes to contemporary writers, I have to give you lots and lots of names – or none at all. Then, at least, all of my friends in this business are going to be absolutely, positively convinced that they’re all on my list. (And you are, my dear friends, you are.)
So ya know what? Of living writers, I shall give you no names at all.
I can, however, safely praise a man who’s dead: Eric Ambler. His sense of place and his ability to develop character continue to be an inspiration to me after all these years. I refer your readers to the series on “forgotten novels” published on the website The Rap Sheet. There are reviews there of three of Ambler’s books. One of those reviews is mine.
Thanks, Leighton, for a stimulating discussion.