Ed Siegle, Invisibles
Interview by Pat Black
Booksquawk speaks to Ed Siegle, author of Invisibles – the story of one man’s journey to Brazil to discover the fate of his missing father. Read Booksquawk’s review here.
Booksquawk: Location is very important in Invisibles. How much did you draw on your own experiences of Brazil to bring Rio to life? And was it difficult to keep the two strands - Brighton and Rio - going throughout the novel?
Ed Siegle: I drew a lot on my experiences of Brazil. I started writing Invisibles having recently returned to the UK, to Brighton, after living and working in Rio. I had a strong sense of saudade – a Portuguese word for an intense feeling of longing – for my life there, and so it made sense to write a novel about someone with a similar feeling. When Joel goes to Brazil, looking for his lost father, the story unfolds in lots of places I knew and loved: Ipanema, Lapa, Paraty – even particular restaurants I enjoyed like Porcão and the Confeitaria Colombo. It was one big nostalgia trip, the sad part being I wasn’t actually in Joel’s shoes. I also enhanced my own knowledge with a lot of research – using Flickr, Google Earth and Street View, for example, by emailing people to check important details, and through a lot of reading. It wasn’t particularly hard to keep the two strands – Brighton and Rio – going, because I was living in the former and dreaming of the latter, which worked quite well.
Booksquawk: Music helps bring the text to life - it certainly had me checking out a few of your references for myself afterwards. How much of an inspiration was the music in writing Invisibles? How difficult did you find it to represent something which can't actually be replicated in text? And, how good are your samba dancing skills?
Ed: I like bringing music into my writing – the first (unpublished) novel I wrote had a lot of Tony Bennett music in it (which might explain a lot). But I think it is particularly appropriate to a novel set in Brazil because music is so integral to life there, and the variety of music to enjoy in Brazil is beyond compare. Samba and Bossa Nova are well known, but I really enjoyed forró – which you dance with a partner and which has a really folky, yet lively sound. Brazilian music was certainly an inspiration. I think it is hard to communicate the feeling of music through words; to the extent I succeeded I think it may have been through giving a sense of what the character playing or hearing the music was feeling – such as Nelson when he’s playing melancholic Tom Jobim songs, when the compositions he picks match his mood.
My samba dancing improves in direct proportion to the number of caipirinhas I drink – or at least it feels like it does.
Booksquawk: Nelson was the book's standout character, for me. From one point of view he's a morally dubious man, but you always understand why he does what he does. How much did you enjoy putting this character down? Did your perceptions of writing the character change, as you progressed with the book?
Ed: To me, writing a character like Nelson is the most enjoyable thing about writing. However much you plot and plan, finding the voice of a character is a kind of alchemy. I managed to get a feeling for Nelson and felt I could write him into almost any situation. I’m really glad you liked him, and that his occasionally dubious behaviour didn’t alienate you. It might sound odd, but I miss writing about him and find myself wondering what he’s up to now and how things are working out. I’ve never really considered the possibility of writing a sequel – and my next novel will certainly be unrelated to Invisibles – but Nelson is there in the back of my mind nagging at me, and it’s possible I might write about him again one day.
My perceptions of Nelson didn’t really change as I progressed, but my knowledge of him did grow – by which I mean I didn’t really have a concerted idea of him when I started, just a feeling for him and a fundamental view of where he stood on a moral map. As I went on and the story developed I got to know him a lot better.
Booksquawk: This book takes us down some dark paths, and shows us some perhaps unsettling things about searching for missing people in our lives. Can you talk a little bit about your own feelings on looking for "invisibles"?
Ed: I think a lot of people would like to understand themselves better, perhaps in the hope that they’ll be able to set their lives straight. And many people have a fascination about their family history and roots. I am lucky to have a close family and living loving parents, and all the building blocks of my life are pretty normal, yet there are idiocies in my behaviour I’m at a loss to explain.
In Invisibles, Joel believes the answers to his own mysteries lie in the discovery of his long-lost father, and I suppose a moral of the story is that such neat answers don’t really exist. I was interested in writing about this hunt for the invisible roots of behaviour, for the hidden forces we can’t see or ignore. As part of this I wanted to touch on the cause and effect of violence, particularly regarding relationships, a subject which itself has a tendency to be rendered invisible by society.
And I wanted also to look at such social aspects of invisibility. The title of the novel was partly inspired by a great documentary by José Padilha called Bus 174, which sheds light on an underclass in Brazil, of homeless people and street kids, referred to as os invisiveis – the invisible ones – because of the way they are marginalised. This is the social dimension of invisibility I wanted to incorporate, the tendency we have to develop blind spots when it comes to groups like street kids, forgetting them or ignoring them or painting them as criminals.
Booksquawk: You address a tumultuous time in Brazilian history. Can you talk about your research into Gilberto's treatment at the hands of the military - was it intended to be an allegorical scene, or does it have its roots in actual documented cases?
Ed: The violence was not intended to be allegorical, although the precise abuses described are fictional, rather than being drawn directly from any particular source. Torture and disappearance were a feature of the regime at that time. One account which was influential is that given by Caetano Veloso in his book about the Tropicália movement – he and Gilberto Gil were locked up for their avant garde musical activities. I think it is hard for a British person to imagine what it can be like to live under a repressive military regime, and a passing knowledge of Brazil today makes it hard to believe that such a regime was in power so recently. Importantly also, the kind of abuses that Nelson describes – regarding the conditions and treatment in prisons in cities like Rio and Sao Paulo, and regarding violence against street kids – are not only real but a current reality.
Booksquawk: What does the book's abiding motto - ate a morte, pe forte! - mean for you?
Ed: It is a positive message – literally “until death, strong foot” – but akin to something like “best foot forward,” though with a bit more vigour. It sums up the spirit of Nelson, who has lived this difficult, tragic, meandering life, but who lives each day with a spring in his step and a sense, not far from the truth in his case, that it may be his last. I also see it as a forward-looking pronouncement, extolling the virtues of a strong attitude going forwards, one which Joel could do well to heed, in contrast to his near-obsession with his father and the truth about the past. And finally, in spite of the dark strands discussed, I hope my novel, like this saying, also leaves a positive feeling – because of the endless positivity of characters like Nelson and Jackie and Eva, but also because of the great colour and vitality of Brazil itself, which may have its problems, like everywhere, but which it is impossible not to love.
Invisibles is available now.