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




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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Dores, a poor orphan, befriends Graça, the brash and strong-willed daughter of the wealthy baron of the sugar plantation where she lives. The two girls are different in every way, but what inextricably bonds them is their shared love of music. 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. 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. 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. She took time out to chat with me.

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ALEX ESPINOZA: I imagine your first novel, The Seamstress, took a great deal of historical research. How different was the background work on The Air You Breathe? Were there things you learned while working on your first book that helped you with the research for your second?

FRANCES DE PONTES PEEBLES: I love research. Whether it’s visiting a library, a museum, or the actual neighborhood or region where characters live, research inspires and motivates me. The main difference in the research for The Air You Breathe was that music was a huge part of the discovery process. I listened to many sambas. I tried to understand their origins, lyrics, rhymes, and the incredible storytelling within each song. I also watched every Carmen Miranda movie musical and saw how she changed during her time in the United States.

Every book has unique challenges. 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. I was scaling an entirely different mountain, with its own terrain and pitfalls.

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. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of creating two very complicated and contrasting characters?

The novel is told from Dores’s retrospective point of view. So we see Graça as Dores saw her, with all of the complications and illusions of Dores’s perception. This gives the novel the fallibility of memory. We never have access to Graça’s point of view, which was a conscious choice. Graça is a star and has the same intense, searing, sometimes painful and destructive heat of a star. 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. If I included Graça’s point of view, we’d lose both Dores’s fallibility and Graça’s mystique.

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.

I’d like to talk about the songs Dores writes for Graça. How did they come about? Did you study music? What was your process for writing the song lyrics?

I have no musical talent. I play no instruments. I know nothing about composing. But I wanted each chapter in the book to begin with a samba. Dores measures her life in music. When she hears a certain song, she remembers the inspiration behind it and what compelled her to write in the first place. So we get her history (and Graça’s) first and foremost through song lyrics.

The sambas in the book are styled more like poems, with an emphasis on words rather than melodies. I looked at many famous sambas in an attempt to understand how the songs were structured. Ultimately, though, the sambas in the book were fueled by pure feeling and not any kind of musical expertise on my part. Some were inspired by actual sambas. 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. Dores’s songs express everything she cannot.

You say that Carmen Miranda was a source of inspiration for Graça, who adopts the stage name Sofia Salvador. Can you talk about the narrative opportunities that creating a wholly original historical character present? What were you free to do that you might not have otherwise done?

I love taking inspiration from actual historical figures and creating my own fictionalized versions of them. Doing this allows me a wider narrative scope. 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. I like the freedom of this, and the challenge of building completely original characters and relationships.

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?

Staying focused on the characters themselves and not getting bogged down in historical detail was one of my greatest challenges. There was so much information, especially in my research into Hollywood and how it treated Latinx talent. 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. I had to focus on the book’s primary relationship and the music. I had to ask myself: what is necessary for their narrative arcs, and what is just an interesting historical topic? This was a definitely a challenge!

Do you hope your book complicates perceptions and attitudes about nation and class in Brazil?

Brazil often gets simplified into three common perceptions: the Amazon, violent favelas, and a continuous carnaval party. Obviously, Brazil is much more than any of those things. It is as vast and as heterogeneous as the United States, if not more so. There is no one Brazilian identity. 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. It is everything you can imagine and more. Brazil is, too.

This is a big and layered book. It tackles history, politics, race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. How do you manage to take on such broad topics while providing an intimate glimpse into a vast and complex culture?

I really didn’t set out to tackle all of those topics! 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. A former professor of mine once said: “If you set out to write about an idea, the text will feel hollow. But if you set out to write about people, ideas will shine through naturally.” I hope that’s what happens in this novel. I hope the ideas don’t feel didactic but organic and essential to these particular characters.

What were some unforeseen challenges you faced while writing The Air You Breathe?

I wrote many drafts of this book. I began to get tired, both mentally and emotionally. The material became too familiar, and I got really stuck in that familiarity and had a hard time finding solutions and seeing clearly. I wasn’t prepared for how much mental stamina I had to have in order to finish.

Can you tell us what you are working on now?

My new project feels very different from anything I’ve done before, but similar in that it also involves history. It feels more like my short stories. I’m excited about this and terrified, too.

I’m being vague for two reasons. 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. 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. I feel very fortunate to have it, and for its patience with me as I attempt to decipher it. I hope to share it with readers one day.

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Alex Espinoza is the author of The Five Acts of Diego Léon.


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