The Fallibility of Memory: An Interview with Frances de Pontes Peebles

There is no one Brazilian identity. The main difference in the research for The Air You Breathe was that music was a huge part of the discovery process. I tried to understand their origins, lyrics, rhymes, and the incredible storytelling within each song. My new project feels very different from anything I’ve done before, but similar in that it also involves history. The material became too familiar, and I got really stuck in that familiarity and had a hard time finding solutions and seeing clearly. I also watched every Carmen Miranda movie musical and saw how she changed during her time in the United States. Brazil often gets simplified into three common perceptions: the Amazon, violent favelas, and a continuous carnaval party. But I wanted each chapter in the book to begin with a samba. There is no one Brazilian culture. My hope is that Dores, Graça, and the Blue Moon Band — Brazilian characters who represent a wide range of racial, socioeconomic, sexual, and regional identities — are a fair representation of Brazil and of samba itself. Samba is not one thing, with one origin. Obviously, Brazil is much more than any of those things. I looked at many famous sambas in an attempt to understand how the songs were structured. I like the freedom of this, and the challenge of building completely original characters and relationships. NOVEMBER 1, 2018

FRANCES DE PONTES PEEBLES loves big and complex narratives with characters caught up in sweeping historical events, the kind of stuff that gets readers yearning for more. Ultimately, though, the sambas in the book were fueled by pure feeling and not any kind of musical expertise on my part. The Seamstress follows two sisters, talented seamstresses whose lives are caught in the crossfire of a lawless and tumultuous Brazilian countryside during the 1920s and ’30s. If I included Graça’s point of view, we’d lose both Dores’s fallibility and Graça’s mystique. First, when an idea is new, it is fragile; it shouldn’t be shared too widely or put up to public scrutiny because it needs time to grow strong. Do you hope your book complicates perceptions and attitudes about nation and class in Brazil? Her first novel, The Seamstress (2008), was translated into nine languages and won the Elle Grand Prix for fiction, the Friends of American Writers Award, and the James Michener-Copernicus Society of America Fellowship. Dores, a poor orphan, befriends Graça, the brash and strong-willed daughter of the wealthy baron of the sugar plantation where she lives. Some were inspired by actual sambas. Written with elegance, charm, and a flawless eye for detail, The Air You Breathe showcases the talents of a writer of remarkable grace and intelligence. For example, “Turned into a Gringa” is my attempt at honoring Carmen Miranda’s “They Say I’ve Come Back Americanized.” When writing the song lyrics, I tried to think of how Dores might represent that particular time in her life — how she might communicate her longing, anger, or vulnerability in a way she was incapable of doing in her actual life. It is everything you can imagine and more. I was scaling an entirely different mountain, with its own terrain and pitfalls. I hope to share it with readers one day. What were some unforeseen challenges you faced while writing The Air You Breathe? So we get her history (and Graça’s) first and foremost through song lyrics. The greatest challenge of writing Graça and Dores was how to communicate their deep and complex bond — how to show the intense envy, ambition, and affection they both harbor. When she hears a certain song, she remembers the inspiration behind it and what compelled her to write in the first place. The novel explores the familial bonds that connect these women as they face a rapidly changing and uncertain world, with the rise of Nazism across the Atlantic and World War II threatening to destabilize everything. Can you talk about the narrative opportunities that creating a wholly original historical character present? So we see Graça as Dores saw her, with all of the complications and illusions of Dores’s perception. A former professor of mine once said: “If you set out to write about an idea, the text will feel hollow. And second, I know that the idea will change so much between its conception and its delivery into the world that it won’t even resemble itself by the time I’m finished. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of creating two very complicated and contrasting characters? I’m being vague for two reasons. I wanted to be true to the characters: to respect and understand them as human beings; to intuit their choices, mistakes, loves, and losses, and translate these onto the page. I play no instruments. It feels more like my short stories. Staying focused on the characters themselves and not getting bogged down in historical detail was one of my greatest challenges. I feel very fortunate to have it, and for its patience with me as I attempt to decipher it. After experimenting with several points of view, I realized that I had to keep my distance from Graça so that she becomes a kind of myth. I try to stay true to the broader historical context surrounding the characters’ lives (World War II, for example, or Los Angeles during Hollywood’s Golden Age), but their emotional trajectories are mine to mold. Dores measures her life in music. There was so much information, especially in my research into Hollywood and how it treated Latinx talent. The two girls are different in every way, but what inextricably bonds them is their shared love of music. In previous drafts of the book, I wrote about the New York music scene, the Zoot Suit Riots, meeting Howard Hughes, and so many other people and events that ultimately had to be cut from the final version. But if you set out to write about people, ideas will shine through naturally.” I hope that’s what happens in this novel. How did they come about? Did you study music? What were you free to do that you might not have otherwise done? Every book has unique challenges. It tackles history, politics, race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. What was your process for writing the song lyrics? ¤
ALEX ESPINOZA: I imagine your first novel, The Seamstress, took a great deal of historical research. Graça is a star and has the same intense, searing, sometimes painful and destructive heat of a star. I know nothing about composing. So while I truly hoped The Seamstress would prepare me for writing a second novel, when I actually began work on The Air You Breathe, I felt as if I was starting from scratch. It is as vast and as heterogeneous as the United States, if not more so. The Historical Novel Society wrote that “[i]n The Seamstress, Peebles brings the history and culture of a part of the world rarely visited in English-language historical fiction.” 
The Air You Breathe, her second novel, also set in Brazil, further explores the way history and memory can shape and alter the lives of two women, testing their strength and challenging their friendship. I wrote many drafts of this book. How do you manage to take on such broad topics while providing an intimate glimpse into a vast and complex culture? Were there things you learned while working on your first book that helped you with the research for your second? That love will take them from the remote countryside of Brazil, to its bustling cities of back alleys and jazz clubs, to the glitter and glitz of Hollywood. 
In the novel, Peebles offers a complex view of her native Brazil, showing the country to be much more than rainforests and rumba. I’d like to talk about the songs Dores writes for Graça. I had to ask myself: what is necessary for their narrative arcs, and what is just an interesting historical topic? I really didn’t set out to tackle all of those topics! I love taking inspiration from actual historical figures and creating my own fictionalized versions of them. I had to focus on the book’s primary relationship and the music. Dores’s songs express everything she cannot. This was a definitely a challenge! American novelist Abby Geni calls The Air You Breathe “a luxuriant, lovely, utterly delicious book” that “will transport you to a world that is half-magical, half-historical, deeply familiar, and wholly new.” And BookRiot says that “The Air You Breathe is a beautiful, luscious ode to the lasting friendships that shape our lives.”
Born in Pernambuco, Brazil, Peebles is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Chicago. ¤
Alex Espinoza is the author of The Five Acts of Diego Léon. I listened to many sambas. You say that Carmen Miranda was a source of inspiration for Graça, who adopts the stage name Sofia Salvador. The sambas in the book are styled more like poems, with an emphasis on words rather than melodies. I imagine that researching for this book must have been fun but also overwhelming at times. How did you decide what to focus on and what to ignore? I have no musical talent. The novel is told from Dores’s retrospective point of view. I began to get tired, both mentally and emotionally. FRANCES DE PONTES PEEBLES: I love research. We never have access to Graça’s point of view, which was a conscious choice. Whether it’s visiting a library, a museum, or the actual neighborhood or region where characters live, research inspires and motivates me. Can you tell us what you are working on now? I wasn’t prepared for how much mental stamina I had to have in order to finish. This is a big and layered book. Graça and Dores have a relationship that can be described as tender yet complicated, rife with history and trauma, but also one predicated on a shared sense of survival. Doing this allows me a wider narrative scope. How different was the background work on The Air You Breathe? I’m excited about this and terrified, too. I hope the ideas don’t feel didactic but organic and essential to these particular characters. She took time out to chat with me. Brazil is, too. This gives the novel the fallibility of memory.