Please welcome Leighton Gage, our feature author!
Leighton Gage is best known for the Chief Inspector Mario Silva series of novels set in Brazil. Prior to his literary career, Gage was an international creative director for a major worldwide advertising agency where he won over 120 awards for advertising excellence. He is also the co-author of O Filme Publicitário, a non-fiction work in Portuguese that was widely sold in Brazil, Portugal, and the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa and was adopted as a textbook in many universities in those countries.
Gage and his Brazilian-born wife spend much of the year in a small town near Săo Paulo and the remainder of the time visiting children and grandchildren living in three other countries.
His books have been translated into a number of languages. His newest, A Vine in the Blood, will be released in the United States on December 27, 2011 and is available elsewhere on Kindle. He was gracious enough to spend some time with NMR’s Dana King for this interview.
NMR: Let’s cut to the chase: why Brazil? You’ve been everywhere, yet settled in Brazil. I’ve read three of your books, and it’s clear from that you’re there for reasons other than your wife. (Well, let’s say “in addition to” your wife.)
LG: Dana, I honestly don’t have a rational answer to that.
Have you ever had the feeling that you simply belong to a place?
That’s the way I feel about Brazil.
I settled here because it captured my heart.
And home, so they say, is where the heart is.
NMR: I became friends with a Brazilian during my days as a musician. (He’s from Joao Pessoa, way out on the eastern bump.) He tried hard to get me to come to Brazil, yet he never intrigued me on the subject as much as your books do, and you don’t gloss over the horrific poverty. As an expatriate, what do you think Americans visiting Brazil would find most appealing, and most off putting?
LG: We’re talking about Americans going to Brazil on a short visit, right? Folks who don’t know the language, and who don’t have the time (or the interest) to delve deeply into the culture?
Well, for folks like that, what’s going to be most appealing is the great natural beauty of the place.
And what’s going to put them off is the crime.
Bear with me a bit while I elaborate.
On natural beauty: Those of us who have visited the great harbor cities of the world (as I have) are likely to agree: the five most spectacular are Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, Capetown, San Francisco and Sydney.
In that order.
Rio is splendid.
Everyone should see it once — and then, promptly get out of the urban environment and into the countryside.
A good first stop might be the Pantanal.
I wrote a post about it for the blog I share with six other authors of “international” mysteries.
Check it out, because there are photos and statistics that will amaze you:
Next, our hypothetical tourist should definitely take-in the waterfalls at Iguaçu. (You may have heard of them as Iguazu Falls, the Spanish spelling, often used because they straddle Brazil’s border with Argentina.)
I also wrote a post about them:
Next stop, the Amazon River and the jungle that surrounds it.
The Amazon is the oldest and longest river in the world and is home to more kinds of fish than swim in the Atlantic Ocean. Ten of its branches are larger than the Mississippi. The amount of water it dumps into the sea could fill Lake Ontario in three hours and exceeds, daily, the output of the Thames for an entire year. As it pours into the ocean, fresh water pushes salt water back a hundred miles into the open sea.
The Amazon rain-forest has more butterflies than anywhere else, contains half the world’s bird species, and shelters one-third of all the types of living creatures on the face of the earth.
Incidentally, both the Amazon and Iguaçu Falls have recently been included in the (preliminary) list of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Check it out here:
Or maybe our tourist the kind of nature lover who isn’t particularly adventurous, prefers the seaside and doesn’t want to get too far from civilization.
In her case, I’d recommend the Bahia da Ilha Grande, a bay between Rio de Janeiro and Santos, the port of Săo Paulo.
I wrote about that, too:
Our blog, you might have recognized by now, isn’t a place where we write about our books, or the craft of writing, but rather a site where we hold forth on subjects of cultural, historical, human and touristic interest in the countries in which we set our stories.
There’s a new post from one of us every single day of the week.
My day is Monday.
And now a bit about the thing that most puts visitors off.
Crime: There are no reliable overall statistics, because much of it goes unreported.
But this simple fact will give you an idea about how serious it is:
More cops are killed in the line of duty, each year, in Rio de Janeiro, than in all of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom combined.
It doesn’t help, either, that it’s sometimes hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, because many of the cops are, themselves, criminals.
But I hope those (very real) statistics won’t cause our (hypothetical) tourist to cancel the visit he/she was just planning.
Visiting the places I’ve suggested presents no danger.
Rio, as long as one stays in the areas frequented by tourists, is perfectly safe.
The killing goes on in the suburbs and in the favelas.
And your average Carioca would no sooner think of going there than your average New Yorker would entertain the idea of strolling through Central Park at midnight.
NMR: What was your level of knowledge of Brazilian police forces when you got the idea for the Chief Inspector Silva series? Was a lot of research required, or were you already familiar with the relationships?
LG: I’d done all of my research in connection with another project.
So, when I came to write my first novel, I already knew quite a lot.
Here’s how it came about:
After I quit my job in advertising, I opened a film production company in Săo Paulo. Mostly, we did television commercials and industrials, but I was always casting around for ideas for documentaries.
One day, I read an article about a Brazilian cop who’d just completed a course at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. (Not to be confused with the FBI Academy, which trains agents, the FBI National Academy is a course of study for national and international law enforcement leaders.)
I thought it would make an interesting subject, and I got in touch with the guy who’d done it.
We actually shot some material, but I cooled on him when I saw how badly he performed in front of a camera.
Back then, the head of the City of Săo Paulo’s murder squad (750 men/women strong – and, even with that many people, severely understaffed) was an old law-school colleague of my brother-in-law’s.
Not quite willing to give up on the idea of doing a documentary about some aspect of Brazilian law enforcement, I prevailed upon him to let me accompany his people on investigations.
It led to many experiences, many conversations with many cops, and the witnessing of many grisly events.
Too grisly, I thought, and yet all too banal at the same time.
No great mysteries, no wonderful stories, just people killing each other because they were jealous, or angry, or wanted to steal someone’s purse or wallet.
So I gave up, for good, on the idea of making a film.
And started writing a work of fiction.
NMR: Mario Silva is the perfect protagonist for this series. Did you think of the character and decide to write stories around him, or did he happen to be the lead cop in Blood of the Wicked and you saw his potential and ran with it?
LG: The character came first, and I built the stories about him. Initially, I imagined Mario as an amalgam of the two guys I mentioned before, the one who went to Quantico and the guy who handled the murder squad.
But then it occurred to me that, if I made him a federal cop, he’d have a national mandate, and he’d be able to range far and wide and take my readers with him.
So that’s what I did.
Something else, too: in Brazil, there’s no DEA, no ATF and no Secret Service. All of those areas, and more, are the province of the Federal Police, which in every other sense is like the FBI in the United States.
So Mario, and his colleagues, and my readers, all find themselves getting involved in every conceivable kind of crime.
NMR: The relationship Silva and his cops have with some powerful criminals seems much more routine than a series set in America could get away with, unless police corruption is in play. The incorruptible nature of Silva’s team is never in question, yet he thinks nothing of setting up a meeting with a criminal overlord to work out an agreement to gain information. I get the feeling the upper-level criminals operate on more of an even, yet parallel, footing with the police than they do here, and are far less concerned with police trickery hurting them. Do I have that right?
LG: Absolutely right.
And you used the key phrase, “unless police corruption is in play”.
In Brazil, there’s a popular expression: “The rich don’t go to jail.”
By and large, it’s true, because the rich can generally buy their way out of difficulties.
Mind you, it isn’t only the cops who are corrupt.
Many judges, prosecutors, prison officials and politicians are as well.
Some recent examples:
Two months ago, a (female) judge was brutally murdered by a gang of cops whose illegal activities she was investigating.
A month ago, Brazil’s largest news magazine, Veja, ran a cover story naming more than a dozen judges who have taken money to rule in favor of defendants or special interest groups.
Last week, a major drug-dealer and murderer, who’s been on the most-wanted list for more than ten years (and had never spent a single day in jail), was apprehended when four crooked cops tried to smuggle him to safety in the trunk of a car.
Within the last few months, three of the President of the Republic’s chief ministers (equivalent to Presidential Cabinet Secretaries in the U.S.) have been removed for taking bribes.
Among Brazilian cops, the Federal Police have the reputation of being the least corruptible.
And that’s another reason I chose to make Silva and his buddies members of that elite group.
My protagonists are honest, but they’re also realists, well-aware of the fact that they’re in the service of a corrupt legal system, so they seldom waste their time trying to arrest people who are unlikely to be prosecuted or convicted. And who, if they are, will soon “escape” by bribing the people who run the prisons.
If they go after those people at all, they’re more inclined to work outside of the law.
And, as my readers know, they have a tendency to do that every now and then.
But, generally, they leave the criminal overlords alone and go after the smaller fry.
I realize that an attitude like that is hard, maybe impossible, for most Americans to accept, but it’s the way the system works.
And things are so deeply rooted, that it isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
NMR: The upcoming World Cup lends a nice, unconventional sense of urgency to solving the kidnapping. Did you have the idea to do a kidnapping story and the World Cup lent itself to the development, did you want a story with a relationship to the World Cup, or were they together from the first germ of the idea? (For those who are unaware, Brazil will host the 2014 soccer World Cup, the most popular sporting event in the world.)
LG: The credit constructing my story around the World Cup goes to my friend and agent, Jacques de Spoelberch, who is as big a football (soccer) fan as I am.
Centering it on the kidnapping of the team’s principle striker was my idea, but it didn’t require much imagination on my part, because it actually happened to not one, but three members of the Brazil First Eleven who participated in the last Cup. (South Africa, 2010.)
NMR: Brazilians’ love of soccer and almost pathological desire to win the Cup on their own soil plays a large part in the story. You’re an American, living in Brazil. Does any American sporting interest—even the Super Bowl—rival Brazilians’ passion for soccer?
LG: No. And not by a long shot.
My wife often laughs when she hears someone refer to the (baseball) World Series.
Only American teams, right? she says, So how can it be a World Series?
The World Cup, in contrast, is truly an event of worldwide significance.
More countries participate in the qualifying rounds than have been admitted to membership in the United Nations.
And more than a billion people will watch the finale on television.
Brazil is the only country to have participated in every World Cup, and the only one to have won it five times.
It’s has become, to Brazilians, a contest in which the national honor is at stake.
A victory in the quarter-finals is heralded with firecrackers and skyrockets in every city and town in Brazil.
And brings tens of thousands of people into the streets to celebrate.
A victory in the semi-finals brings hundreds of thousands.
And a victory in the final game brings millions.
Live TV coverage jumps around the country for hours after the game, showing crowds in the centers of Rio, Săo Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Porto Alegre, Salvador and a number of other cities and towns. And the parties continue throughout the night.
The team is greeted, upon their return, like conquering heroes.
They tour the country, standing on the back of a truck in the heart of ticker tape parades, and the parties start all over again in every place they visit.
In the early phases of the series, some ten minutes of the (forty minute) national news on Brazil’s major channel (Rede Globo - the largest commercial television network in the world outside of the U.S.) is given over to information and speculation about the Cup.
Coming into final week, it’s seldom less than thirteen or fourteen minutes - fully a third of the entire program.
And just before the big game it’s up to half of the total time, or more.
The converse is also true.
A Brazilian defeat, God Forbid, brings on a state of national depression.
If the score is close, heart attacks abound in the final minutes of every game.
And, yes, there have been cases of suicide.
NMR: You’re published by Soho Crime, a well-established imprint. I suppose there may be two schools of thought about the Silva books there. The Brazilian locale is exotic and spicy (more sales), or unfamiliar (fewer sales). Has your publisher ever asked you to make the stories more or less Brazilian?
LG: Soho Crime’s stock-in-trade is “international” mysteries. That’s all they publish. So they’d never ask me to make my stories less Brazilian.
But, one time, Laura Hruska, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Soho, who died a couple of years ago and whom I deeply miss, questioned the way I’d handled Dying Gasp.
The book begins in Amsterdam, and in the first draft, I stayed there for fully half the book.
She remarked that I was supposed to be writing about Brazil and asked me whether I didn’t think I’d gone a bit too heavy on the Dutch setting.
I reflected on that — and wound-up changing it.
I’m still not entirely sure it was necessary, but it certainly didn’t hurt the story, and I wanted to keep her happy.
I think you’re quite right, though, about the equation unfamiliar=fewer sales.
My West Coast agent, who knows about such things, alleges that the big Hollywood studios aren’t interested in properties that don’t have at least one American protagonist.
It is okay, he says, to set stories abroad, as long as you always put (at least) one American into a prominent role.
He suggested it might be easier to sell the books as films if I were to make the switch.
And I don’t intend to.
My stories are about the Brazilian Federal Police, and any Americans who creep in play minor roles.
More satisfaction, knowing I’m writing the books I like to write?
NMR: This has been a difficult interview to prepare. The events of the book work so closely together that the reader is never sure in advance which events or relationships are important to the solution, or just relevant to a character, so many questions are potential spoilers. These intricate relationships lead logically (to me) to my next question: do you figure your plots ahead of time, or make everything up as you go?
LG: I realize how difficult it’s been, Dana, and I thank you for taking the trouble not to give too much away about A Vine in the Blood. Not everyone would be as considerate.
My blogmate and fellow Soho Crime author, Tim Hallinan, divides writers into two categories: “plotters” and “pantsers”.
Pantsers are folks who write by the “seat of their pants”, who let their stories develop as they write them.
Tim is a pantser, and he writes wonderful books.
I’m not only a plotter, I’m an extreme example of the breed.
First, I do a synopsis, then a more detailed outline, then a chapter summary.
And only then do I start pounding out the first draft.
That’s not to say that I don’t improvise as I go along, exploiting new characters as I develop them, changing the order of events and taking advantages of dramatic opportunities as they occur to me.
But I also know, before I start, where I’m going to end up.
And, sometimes, I even start with the end and work back.
The major advantage of extreme plotting, as I see it, is that I seldom have to throw things away.
Tim, in contrast, often does.
If the subject interests you, you might like to read about the 40,000 words he recently felt he had to junk.
You’ll find it here:
NMR: What were the easiest and hardest things about writing A Vine in the Blood? That’s a wonderful title, by the way, set up by the Ezekiel quote as it is.
LG: Thanks. I draw all of titles from the Bible, by the way.
But I digress.
Let me tell you, first, about the hardest thing — and kick off my answer with an anecdote.
Hemingway once remarked that he’d rewritten the first chapter of A Farewell to Arms twenty-six times.
And, when a journalist asked him why, he said, “Because I couldn’t get the words right.”
I think any writer worth his/her salt knew exactly what the Master was talking about.
Writing, folks, is rewriting.
And, even if you don’t change a thing about what happens in a chapter, there are always words that will help you to show and tell it better.
A writer who cares about craft will always read the work-in-progress aloud.
And stop working on it, occasionally, to let some time go by in order to build up some degree of objectivity about it.
The hardest thing about writing A Vine in the Blood?
Getting the words right.
The easiest thing?
Telling folks about Brazil like it is.
Whether they’re willing to believe it or not.
It’s easy for me, because I live here — and seldom, if ever, have to do any research.
Because the little that isn’t already in my head is all around me.
I live it every day.
I take it in with my daily newspaper, on the television news, in conversations with family, friends and neighbors.
But, for folks unfamiliar with Brazil, it’s often very hard to get their heads around.
Let me illustrate with another story:
A reader once wrote a review of my first book, Blood of the Wicked, on Amazon.
And, since Amazon reviews are forever, it’s there until today.
The review begins thus:
“I’ll start by saying I am no expert on South American law enforcement. That said, after reading this book I have the distinct impression the author isn’t either. Depictions of crime scene investigations are sparse if explained at all. In the era of shows like CSI and Law and Order, authors should be expected to at least pretend they did some research on police procedure and present a believable investigation.”
Now that, my friends, is what sociologists call ethnocentrism.
I do know a great deal about Brazilian law enforcement.
But it would be boring and preachy to include, in any one of my books, the (very good) reason why Brazilian cops use working methods vastly dissimilar to those of their counterparts in the United States.
Basically, it comes down to the fact that Brazil’s law enforcement people never had to deal with the Miranda Decision.
That review caused me to write a post about it.
And those of you who’ve never read it might find it interesting:
NMR: What would you like readers to take away from A Vine in the Blood?
LG: An appreciation for Brazil, with all its merits and defects.
Because I’m convinced Brazil will be impacting on the lives of many Americans (and Western Europeans) in the coming decade.
Brazilians are not alien to sarcasm, and they used to say about their country (with some justification I might add) “Brazil is the country of the future — and it always will be.”
That, however, is no longer true.
Brazil is, at last, coming into its own.
It’s one of the few countries in the world to remain untouched by the current economic crisis.
As a matter of fact, it’s undergoing a boom — and foreign investment is flowing in as never before.
The balance of payments is very much in Brazil’s favor.
The country is currently the seventh economy in the world.
It is projected to be the fifth in ten years’ time.
It has a GDP greater than that of the next six countries in South America combined.
It is independent in terms of petroleum, natural gas, coal and uranium, is the world leader in bio fuels and has immense potential for the generation of hydroelectric power.
It has the world’s largest fleet of private jets and helicopters and regularly sends satellites into space.
It is the world’s largest exporter of beef, chicken, orange juice, coffee, soybeans and a number of other commodities - and its territory, larger than the continental United States, is composed, almost entirely, of arable land situated within the temperate zone.
In addition to the World Cup in 2014, it will be hosting the Olympic Games in 2016, and is likely to be the next permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Believe me, you’re going to be hearing a lot about the place in the next few years.
NMR: Who are your primary influences as a writer?”
LG: You’ve compared my work with that of Ed McBain, which I find extremely flattering, and you hit the nail right on the head. I admire him greatly – and learned a lot from him.
Another primary influence is Eric Ambler. Years ago, before I ever thought about writing a book, I devoured everything he ever wrote — multiple times.
More recently? Living writers? John Sandford.
With Sanford, the influences aren’t as striking, but they’re there if you look for them, mostly in the repartee between his cops.
NMR: What’s next?
LG: I’m sticking with Silva.
Perfect Hatred, the sixth in the series, will be published in North America in December of 2012.
The Ways of Evil Men, the seventh, in December of 2013.
In North America, that is.
Long time to wait, you say?
I couldn’t agree more.
The American publishing industry moves with the stately pace of an elephant.
My friend, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, writes her books in Icelandic.
And they’re published in her native country about ten days after she finishes them.