Interview The White Angel for Visão
- How much did you want to tell your dad’s story?
JRS: Very much. A cousin of mine once asked me: “why don’t you write the amazing story of your dad?” She’s right, I thought: it’s a great story! So I began writing The White Angel. I wrote so much that, at one stage, I had a very long novel in my hands.
- How long?
JRS: So long that I realized I had to separate it into two different novels. Life in a Breath, where I tell the story of my grandparents, is actually part one of The White Angel. But I wrote both books in such a way that you don’t have to read one to understand the other. They are self-contained novels, one is not a sequel of the other. The main characters in one become secondary characters in the other. But the writing went on and on. When I finished The White Angel I had to cut out some three hundred pages, it had become too long again.
- How hard was it to edit out three hundred pages?
JRS: Not hard. I had to decide what was important for the story and what was not. I did it easily, no problem at all.
- It didn’t hurt?
JRS: Oh, I’m sure I can use the edited part in some other novel…
- The White Angel, part three?
JRS. No. I can write a totally different novel and, nevertheless, use the same characters. Isabel Allende does that. For example, the main characters of Daughter of Fortune are secondary characters in Portrait in Sepia.
- Is that happening because characters escape authors? I mean, in the third part of The White Angel, Diogo, the soldier, almost becomes the main character…
JRS: This novel really has two main characters. I wanted to do a little bit of War and Peace here. You have a character that represents the humanist view of Portugal in Africa and another character who represents the violent view.
- Paradise, Purgatory and Hell. The White Angel’s route is the opposite of La Divina Commedia. You follow the same itinerary, but you have a different ending.
JRS: My novels always have good and bad endings simultaneously.
- They remain open?
JRS: Yeah, like life. Unless a character dies, everything ends in an open manner. In life, the ending of something is always the beginning of something else.
- Do you view The White Angel as homage to your dad?
JRS: It’s much more than that. This novel recovers a certain humanist vision of many Portuguese in Africa. You see, Portuguese colonialism was filled with contradictions. When you look at the secret police’s reports, you see they were involved in the death of African liberation activists, but we also find that the secret police opposed white land owners who mistreated the black population. The novel focuses on these contradictions: the Portuguese were waging war at the liberation movements, but my dad helped injured soldiers from both sides, who were accommodated in neighbouring beds at the Portuguese hospitals.
- I’m sure PIDE, the secret police, didn’t find that amusing at all…
JRS: Of course they didn’t, but it was regularly done nevertheless. Other Portuguese doctors did the same. In the book I tell a true story about an American complaining to my dad that the Portuguese allowed niggers ahead of him, a white man, in the hospital cue. This is when the Americans were supporting the liberation movement through the Ford Foundation. This novel does not present us with a coherent view of things, but the various contradictions. Reality is contradictory.
- What did you do to reach that reality? Did you research, did you interview witnesses, did you travel to Mozambique?
JRS: Talking to people that lived in those days was extremely important, because they provide us the living history and tell us things that documents do not. Even small daily things. There was this popular advert on the radio at the top of the hour. “What time is it?”, asks one voice. “It’s time to drink a pint of black Laurentina!” It’s the witnesses that gave me the story of the Portuguese military officers visiting an injured soldier at the hospital while liberation leaders visited an injured guerrilla on the neighbouring bed. But I also had to be aware of the fact that memories are selective, so the interviews had to be careful about that.
- Like a filter?
JRS: Precisely. We must determine if we’re dealing with romantic memories or with accurate memories.
- Was your dad a good story teller?
JRS: He was. But he never talked about the war. Nor of his work. Even after the Wiriyamu massacre, I only realized his role after he died, when other people told me what happened.
- He didn’t talk about the massacre later on?
JRS: Nope. Sometimes he would tell an African story. For example, once he told me about this disease that kids caught in the grass. So he told me he managed to convince the kids not to pee close to the grass by arguing that snakes were hidden there, ready to bite their penises. Using these techniques, he managed to eradicate some endemic diseases. And he was proud of it as a doctor.
- At the beginning of the novel there’s something that helps us understand your dad. His father asks him: “if you use a ring that makes you invisible and nobody can see you, would you do the right thing?” Is this fact or fiction?
JRS: It’s fiction. That derives from the fact that my novels always have a philosophical approach. In The White Angel, the philosophical subject is the concept of right and wrong. It’s about people who are faced with hard dilemmas: if they keep silent their life will be easier, but they are being accomplices to evil; if they rise against it they will be punished, but they would be doing the right thing. The problem of good and evil is present throughout the novel.
- Why do you do that?
JRS: Because I think it’s important. Anyone who’s read my novels knows that they are not just about a story. If you just want a story, there are two hundred thousand novels in the bookstore that tell you about this gal who met a boy and they fell in love and so on. I try, in my novels, to bring some added value to the readers, something about history or philosophy or a specific field of knowledge. In the instance of The White Angel, it’s philosophical thoughts about right and wrong, especially in a time when these concepts are not particularly valued. People nowadays value what’s efficient, what’s profitable, not what’s right.
- Do you think our society lacks values?
JRS: People do neglect the importance of an ethical attitude. And the novel shows us ethics in action.
- Your family had a guerrilla at home, didn’t it?
JRS: Ernesto was an expert in mines for Frelimo, the Mozambique liberation movement. My father managed to get him freed by PIDE, the Portuguese secret police.
- So, your dad got along with both sides in the war.
JRS: That’s right. He was a friend to the PIDE chief, but also to the Frelimo guerrillas. The novel tells you the story of a doctor who has no borders. “I don’t have terrorists under my care, I have patients”, he would say. He practiced medical ethics under extreme conditions. The South African newspaper, The Rand Daily Mail, travelled with him once and began the article by showing my dad taking care of a guerrilla he found in the bush. The guerrilla asks my dad not to treat black soldiers who were fighting for the Portuguese. My dad tells him: “you bring me my mum’s assassin for health care and I’ll help him.” I included this dialogue in the novel. At the same time, my dad would go to the PIDE chief’s home to listen to soccer on the radio. Both were Benfica supporters.
- So, that’s how Ernesto goes from terrorist to your gardener…
JRS: Yeah, my dad was a friend to the PIDE chief. Instead of the guerrilla prisoner being killed, he managed to get him to work at our home. Ernesto worked for us and, when he had a son, he named him after my father.
- Is Ernesto alive?
JRS: I don’t know, I’ve looked for him but I never found him afterwards.
- Did your mum like the way she is portrayed in the novel?
JRS: She hasn’t read it yet. But it’s important to stress that the characters are not real people, they are fictional creations. I add, I edit, I change. This is a novel.
- So you weren’t bothered by describing your dad chasing girls at college?
JRS: He is a character in the novel. But it’s reasonable to assume that my dad, when he was in his twenties, chased girls. It’s normal.
- You spoke with Antonino Melo, the commander of the commando group who carried out the Wiriyamu massacre. How was that conversation?
JRS: Interesting. There’s a similarity to something that happened to me when I wrote The Wrath of God, when I had to show what’s in the head of an Islamic radical to understand how they perceive the world. In The White Angel, I dealt with war atrocities and I kept asking myself: “why did they kill three year old children?” I may understand why do they kill a eighteen year old man who they suspect is a guerrilla, but a three year old child?
- It doesn’t make sense.
JRS: So I asked Antonino Melo. And he answered me: “you see, there are some things I cannot explain here, today; you’ve got to be in those days and understand the way people saw things then to comprehend why we did it”. That’s why I tried to bring the reader into the environment of the commandos, so that the reader sees the way they saw things, their priorities, their thought processes. Because, looking at things from 2010, those atrocities make no sense at all. How do I explain things in a way that people will understand? I don’t know if the novel manages to do it, but at least I tried.
- And what did Vinte Pacanate, one of Wiriyamu’s survivers, tell you?
JRS: I met him at Wiriyamu and what he told me was in agreement with what Antonino Melo had told me. What the novel narrates about the massacre is, I think, true to the events. The only fiction is the dramatization of what happened.
- Are the survivors still angry?
JRS: Things happened many years ago. Mozambicans are nice, good people. And after the colonial war came the civil war, which was worse. So, all that became past.
- Did you enjoy writing The White Angel?
JRS: I think it’s impossible for a reader to enjoy a story if its author didn’t enjoy writing it. Sometimes I hear other novelists say: “oh, writing is utterly painful!” I don’t get it. For me, writing is pleasure.
to the same literary genre. Why is that?
JRS. Because I do not want to become a predictable author and because it’s crucial to surprise readers. It’s important to master different genres, so I need some literary versatility. Life in a Breath is a love story, but also an historic novel, a portrait of an age, a philosophical essay, in fact a little bit like The Captain’s Daughter. If you look closely, however, you’ll see that this novel is not very different when compared to my other books. Through Life in a Breath, I try to make readers understand the rise and popularity of Salazar’s dictatorship in the 1930s. And, in fact, that’s what I do in all my novels: I use fiction to explain reality.
- Professor Noronha’s saga has reached its end or is this new novel of yours a simple break from the thriller genre?
JRS. After a trilogy with Tomás, I thought it was high time to leave him alone for a while. But I’m not through with him. He’s going to return.
- Mystery thrillers were the genre that brought the Portuguese public to you. Why swap them for a different kind of fiction?
JRS. I thought it was the right moment to make a break from the sequence of historical and scientific thrillers. I felt the need to surprise readers and give them something different, though still based on the same essential idea: to make sure my novels are not pastime, but gaintime. You know, History is always written by the winners and the simple truth is that losers have a different version of it, albeit silenced. The Salazar dictatorship was defeated by the 1974 democratic revolution and, in contemporary discourse, the dictatorship become a devil of sorts in the Portuguese 20th century. But the undeniable fact, though conveniently hidden, is that Salazar was a very popular man in the 1930s. Many Portuguese people thought he was some kind of Messiah, a perception that only changed from 1945 onwards, with the Allied victory in the Second World War. And this is the crucial point: if Salazar was such a bad person, why did a lot of people in the country love him? What did he bring to Portugal? It was to answer these questions that I wrote Life in a Breath and I hope this novel will help us understand Salazar’s rise to power.
- So, you want to stay in this genre’s tracks…
JRS. It’s possible. Look, I try to get versatility in my writing and I try to surprise readers. That’s why I do not exclude a single genre.
- Are you going to write a sequel to Life in a Breath?
JRS. Gosh, it’s too early to say.
- And The Seventh Seal? Are you going to continue it?
JRS. It’s not in my plans. The Seventh Seal is a novel about global warming and the end of oil. I don’t think there is much sense in coming back to the same subjects. When Tomás Noronha comes back, it’s going to be with a completely different story and subject.
- What genre do you feel more at ease? This one or the thriller?
JRS. I feel perfectly at ease with any genre. What really matters is that I enjoy writing a book and the reader enjoys reading it.
- What kind of research did you undertake for this novel?
JRS. Mainly historical research. I looked into History books, documental archives and the newspapers published in the 1930s. And I spoke with people from my family, because the novel includes the story of my family. In fact, the fictional starting points for this novel were the following questions: what would have happened if my father’s parents met my mother’s parents? What if my mother’s mother had married my father’s father? You can see there’s a lot to explore here…
- How long did the novel take to write?
JRS. I began writing it in 2005 and published it in 2008, so it’s three years of working. But it wasn’t continuous work. In this period I wrote two other novels too, The Einstein Enigma and The Seventh Seal. Let us say that Life in a Breath kept maturing throughout all this time.
- Where did you write it?
JRS. At home, as usual.
- Your books are usually bestsellers in Portugal. Do you think Life in a Breath will follow the same path?
JRS. I believe readers are going to enjoy this novel, yes. It has love and war, history, philosophy, action. And it talks about us.
- If we had to find similarities, we could say that Codex 632, The Einstein Enigma and The Seventh Seal were in the Dan Brown line. What about this one?
JRS. It’s the José Rodrigues dos Santos line, I guess.
- Have you got a bit of Camilo Castelo Branco’s influence?
JRS. No, not at all. You see, my novels are mine, I do not know of any author who writes novels the way I write them. This writing style is part of my identity, a sort of literary finger print. But of course I’m influenced by other authors. Perhaps in this novel you can find a little bit of Somerset Maugham, a little bit of Isabel Allende, a little bit of Jeffrey Archer, a little bit of Eça de Queiroz. But that’s not conscious.
- You already sold more than half a million books. What do you feel about it?
JRS. If, a few years ago, someone told me this would happen, I would laugh in his face. But it did happen.
- How do you explain that readers remain so faithful to you and enjoy so much your writing?
JRS. You’ve got to ask them, of course. But I think there are three main reasons: the story, the writing style and the fiction-non fiction mix. As you know, I do invest a lot in the story, my novels have some action, there’s always something going on, the plot advances and there are twists, surprises and suspense. All that is important. On the other hand my writing is not complicated, something that turns many readers off from Portuguese novels. I recall having received, a few years ago, an e-mail from a reader who said the following: “Everybody on television and newspapers say we have great authors and great books and I reach the conclusion that the dumb ones are us, the readers, because once we arrive at the beach we see everybody reading Spanish, British, American or French authors and nobody cares about Portuguese authors. We supposedly have great writers, but nobody can read them, they are unreadable. But because no one can blame them, since they are so good that whoever criticizes them is immediately humiliated, it seems that the culprits are exclusively us, the readers, the stupid ones, the uncultured ones.” I think this e-mail sums up the general feeling among many readers who feel unattracted to Portuguese authors. A lot of writers in Portugal enjoy experimental writing, but most readers hate it. I think I played for these readers. You see, I always try to make my writing transparent, I believe that words are at the service of the story and not the other way round, and I think readers enjoy that. Finally, the non fictional side to my fiction seems to carry some weight too. Through a fictional story, I try to convey non fictional information. It’s again that idea of novels as gaintime, not pastime. Let’s call it faction, a mix between fact and fiction. I believe faction plays an important part in the success of these novels. The reader reads a story that entertains him, but he also learns something about the world where he lives in.
- What do you think about the fact that well-established writers, such as Lobo Antunes and Novel laureate José Saramago, end up behind you in the bestselling charts?
JRS. I’m not aware of José Saramago’s and Lobo Antunes’ sales, so it’s a bit difficult to answer that one. But, at least in Saramago’s case, I’m not sure my novels sell better. Fact is, I do not know their figures…
- Do you think Life in a Breath’s story could have taken place in the real world?
JRS. Sure. In fact, the story was not just made up. What is narrated in Life in a Breath did take place, though to different people. You do not have to make up things when reality is so rich.
- Do you believe that impossible love stories are the ones which sell better?
JRS. I don’t know, I never thought about that. But they are interesting stories, that’s for sure.
- How does Fernando Pessoa show up in your book?
JRS. Fernando Pessoa died in the middle of the 1930s. He wasn’t an unknown author at the time, but he wasn’t as known as he is today. Let us say that he was known in intellectual circles. I thought it would be interesting to have my characters fleetingly cross their paths with him, because some of his poems reflect the spirit of his time. And, after all, Life in a Breath is a novel that tries to capture that spirit.
- You provide an e-mail address in your novels. Do you get a lot of messages from your readers?
JRS. A lot, yes. I get daily five to ten e-mails and I answer them all.
- What kind of e-mails?
JRS. All kinds and from everywhere. Most are from Portugal, of course, but I do get a lot of e-mails from Brazil, Italy, the United States, Mozambique, Holland, Argentina, Switzerland… everywhere. It’s quite interesting to be able to talk to your readers. That’s an experience I strongly recommend to other writers.
- Do you think Portuguese authors write in a way that is able to seduce international readers?
JRS. It depends on the readers and on the authors. But, as a general rule, I would say no, unless we are talking about niches. International readers look at a Portuguese author the same way they would look at a Bulgarian or Bolivian author. With the exception of José Saramago and perhaps Fernando Pessoa, we do not have authors that are able to be regarded in international bookstores as mainstream.
- Your writing rate is different when compared to most Portuguese writers – this time we are talking about 612 pages. How do you manage to write so quickly?
JRS. Perhaps because I write as a professional since I was 17 years old, when I began my career as a journalist. Every day I produce a lot of written pages. Doing that as an author was just a small step.
- Do you never get writer’s block?
JRS. Never. I do not know what writer’s block is. I do not doubt that it exists, but I’ve never been through that experience. I build the book in my head, sometimes even a sequence or a dialogue, and the difficulty lies in the inability of my fingers to be quick enough to register the ideas that flow from my mind. It’s as if from my head there was a haemorrhagic stream of narrative, sometimes it’s so much that I cannot stop it.
- How do you like to write? In the morning, in the evening, after a coffee…
JRS. In mornings and afternoons. When it’s eight o’clock in the evening, I stop. If I don’t, it will be difficult to relax my mind and fall asleep.
- Do you rather prefer books that require research or books that require inspiration, like this one?
JRS. Do you think this novel is all inspiration? It’s not! Life in a Breath took a lot of research, have no doubt about it. Perhaps the research is hidden, but it’s there. Actually, all my novels require a lot of research. As the saying goes, it’s 5 per cent inspiration and 95 per cent perspiration.