With Brazil’s economy now the sixth-biggest in the world, everything bodes well for the country’s future. But it is also home to a crime writer that has amassed a huge following with his gritty fictional depictions. Leighton Gage’s most recent book, A Vine in the Blood, gives us another Chief Inspector Mario Silva investigation. I spoke to him to find out about his writing, Brazil, and his influences.
1. You’ve had an interesting career, from being an international creative director for a major advertising agency, to running a film production company before you became a novelist. What inspired you to create the character of Chief Inspector Mario Silva and specifically set him in Brazil?
Meeting a Brazilian cop.
There was a time, about a decade ago, when a law-school colleague of my brother-in-law’s ran the (750 men and women strong) murder squad in São Paulo. He had some great stories to tell, and I was a filmmaker, but he’d get flustered every time I pointed a camera in his direction. So I elected to string together a number of his experiences and write a crime novel instead. I hide that manuscript under my bed, and pull it out, once a year, to remind me how far I’ve come. Back then, I thought (as many of us do of our “learning book”) that it was pretty good.
These days, I’m grateful to all the agents and publishers who had the discernment to reject it. Why Brazil? Because it’s my reality, the place I live, the place I know. It’s not an exotic location for me.
2. What was the hardest part of writing it?
“I couldn’t get the words right.”
I wish I’d said that. But I didn’t. Hemingway did, in response to a journalist who’d asked him why he’d re-written the first chapter of For Whom The Bell Tolls twenty-seven times.
3. How long does it normally take you to write a book?
A year. I could probably do it quicker, but I’m not sure how much quicker. Many romance novelists manage three books a year. I might be able to do two. I’m sure I could do three books every two years but my publisher won’t let me. I’m allowed to bring out a new book every twelve months – and that’s it.
5. Your intense research on the Brazilian Police strongly comes through in your novels, how has that been received by Brazilians in particular?
Badly because one of the first things one comes up with, in any study of the Brazilian police, is how deeply corruption permeates the system. And Brazilians, like any other nationality, object to having their society criticized by outsiders even if that criticism is directed at corrupt cops.
I’ve spent more than thirty years of my life in Brazil, am married to a Brazilian, have Brazilian children and grandchildren, and the language we use in our household is Portuguese. But, for many, I remain an outsider.
6. Was that the sort of reception that you expected?
Yes. I never expected to be published in Brazil. And I’m not.
7. The spotlight will fall on Brazil in the next few years with the upcoming Word Cup 2014 and Olympic Games 2016, do you think that exposure will create a new audience for your work?
Undoubtedly, and it isn’t just the Cup and the Olympics. Brazil is, in every way, poised to take a position on the world stage. Our GNP recently passed that of the United Kingdom and is greater than that of the next six economies in South America combined.
Brazil is independent in petroleum and natural gas, mines and refines the uranium used in its reactors, has the world’s largest potential for the generation of hydroelectric power and is a world leader in the development of biofuels.
We are the world’s largest exporters of beef, chicken, orange juice, coffee, soybeans and a number of other commodities. We dominate our continent and are likely to become the next permanent member of the UN Security Council.
But it isn’t all moonshine and roses.
We have floods, occasionally crippling droughts, and shocking crime rates. More cops are killed, each year, in the city of Rio de Janeiro than in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada combined.
8. Please tell us about your latest novel, A Vine in the Blood.
People are telling me it’s the funniest yet. “Funny” may seem like a strange adjective to apply to a crime novel, but only for folks who’ve never read my work. My books are dialogue-heavy. And a lot of that dialogue is levity between the cops. A Vine in the Blood rotates around the kidnapping of a football (soccer) star’s mother at the worst possible time – just before the World Cup begins. But if you know nothing about the sport, or even if you hate it, it doesn’t matter. The book isn’t about the game, it’s about the crime.
9. What books have influenced your life most?
The collected poems of Kipling and Housman. As to books that have had a direct impact on my writing, there have been many. I won’t cite a living author, because, as Louis XIV once said about raising a man to the nobility, Every time I do, I create another ingrate – and a thousand enemies.
Eric Ambler, in my opinion, gets nowhere near the credit he deserves. Nor does Anatole France. I also think it’s a pity Conrad has fallen out of fashion. I stand in awe of his talent. On the other side of the coin, I think Poe is overrated. And so is Stieg Larsson. I admire his creation of Lisbeth Salander, but his books would have been twice as good if they’d been half as long.
10. What do you think makes a good story?
A beginning showing injustice being committed, a middle showing goodness being frustrated and an end showing evil being punished.
11. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Have passionate conversations with people who don’t agree with me about something.I also like to read, travel, sail and scuba dive, although I’m getting a little creaky for the last two.
12. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Some things I learned from others:
Good books aren’t written. They’re re-written, and re-written and re-written. If you think your first draft is publishable, you’re either a genius or a hack. And very few of us are geniuses.
If you think you’re really, really good, you probably aren’t. A good writer is a humble writer.
There is no profession more supportive than the writing profession. Writers, if they possibly can, and with rare exception, are always willing to help other writers. Ask for help when you need it. And pass it on.
And, this, specifically for people who write, or want to write, my genre: Crime, as it actually occurs in life, seldom makes for a good crime novel. Why? Because most crimes are banal. There’s no tension, no excitement and there are very few surprises. Good true crime books are one thing. Good crime novels are another. And much harder to write.
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