Ed Siegle has spent a considerable amount of time living in Rio de Janeiro and Brighton, so it’s no surprise that his debut novel would be set in these locations. On Invisibles he explores his love for Brazil as well as it’s social problems, in a universal narrative that should appeal to everyone. JD sat down for a chat with Ed to discuss his novel and this love of Brazil.
First off, I just wanted to ask you about the novel; Where did the idea come from? And when did you write it?
From the outset I wanted to write a novel about someone going back to Brazil with a mission of some kind, because I had recently been living in Brazil and missed it a lot. I thought tapping into my feelings of saudade for Rio de Janeiro would give the novel some impetus, and that writing a novel set largely in Rio would also be a good way to keep my relationship with Brazil and its language alive. I was also interested in the issue of fatherhood because I had moved in with my girlfriend and her son (now my wife and step-son) and found myself in a quasi-father position for the first time. Putting these elements together I came up with the main spine of the plot: a man going back to Brazil to find his father. The rest grew from there.
Brazil obviously plays a big part in the novel. What was it about Brazil that made you want the country to feature so heavily?
Brazil is a fascinating country and a place I’ve personally loved spending time, having lived for periods in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There is so much one could say and write about Brazil, it is hard to sum it all up. But I suppose one thing which struck me were the vivid contrasts – between the vibrancy of its cities and the richness of its natural environment, between the high-life and the poverty. There is heaven and hell to be found in a city like Rio de Janeiro, and that makes it a great location for a story. Added to which, Brazil has one of the richest musical cultures on earth and the warmest people I have encountered – again, great material for fiction. But beyond any such generalisations it is the little details of life in a place which really get under your skin: the things you eat, the quirks of language, the humour. Such details helped me fall in love with Brazil and I hoped they would seduce my readers too.
You now live in Brighton. Do you feel there are some obvious parallels or differences between Brighton and Rio that made these two cities perfect choices for the setting of your novel?
I certainly think there are parallels, up to a point. They are two cities by the sea with a reputation for decadence and knowing how to enjoy themselves – in contrast to more serious neighbours like São Paulo and London. Both nestle in a natural setting, and although there is little in common between the South Downs and the Atlantic Forest, that situation close to nature is important to both. In reality Brighton is very different from Rio de Janeiro, but it’s the closest Britain has to the “Marvelous City”.
You pick up on some sensitive themes during the novel; street children and the 174 bus hijacking. What was your aim in raising these issues?
Around the time I started writing the (as yet untitled) Invisibles I was asked to write a review of the excellent Jose Padilha documentary Bus 174 (Onibus 174). The film makes reference to os invisiveis – in that context an invisible underclass of people living on the fringes of society, such as street children, who are neglected and sometimes brutalised. I interviewed Sr. Padilha, and one of the points he made was to emphasise the distinction between street children and the kids in favela drug gangs – the point being that the former are not where they are through any kind of choice, and yet are sometimes viewed in a similar light to the latter. I was interested in this distinction and in social invisibility more generally – an issue not just in Brazil but everywhere, including the UK – and my aim was subtly to present and explore it through the novel.
Was most of the novel informed by your travels or did you feel it necessary to do research into the characters and places you wrote about after your travels?
The novel was a combination of existing knowledge from my time in Brazil, and research. Some elements, of course, had to be researched – the details of 60s Brazil during the advent of Tropicália and the years under military rule – which occurred long before I spent time there. But the principal locations in the novel were all ones in which I’d spent time: Ipanema, Lapa, Paraty, Tiradentes etc. But I didn’t know all that I needed to know about them from my time in Brazil alone, so research was also important to the depiction of these places, as well as to the details of others of which I was ignorant.
The existence of the Internet makes such research so much easier for a writer than it would have been twenty years ago. Using resources like Flickr it is possible to access photographs of almost any location; using Google Earth and Streetview you can go anywhere and virtually walk down a street.
Music is central to the novel, why was it so important and what do you think of the Portuguese language in song?
Going to Brazil and not enjoying the music would be like going to France and not liking the food. Until I spent time in Brazil I’d assumed that the UK and the US produced the best music in the modern world, thanks to all of the different evolutions and revolutions in those countries from early 20th century Blues, through the sixties, Punk, House and up to the present day. Sure, other places all had their signature tunes – Flamenco, Salsa, Bhangra etc – but their modern music wasn’t a patch on ours. That wasn’t a very informed or intelligent viewpoint, admittedly, but I think it’s a viewpoint many share in the Anglophone world.
Brazil set me straight. The depth and variety of the musical culture was beautiful to behold – so many forms of music seemed so very alive, some of them quite traditional and without equivalents back home. Forró is a good example: young people in the UK do not associate going out dancing, or indeed having any kind of fun, with the playing of an accordion; yet forró was hugely popular and full of life. There was music everywhere in Rio, from Chorinho to Funk, Pagode to Bossa Nova. My knowledge of Brazilian music is still rudimentary and I’m still more familiar with the work of Tom Jobim than anyone else, but it was inconceivable to write a book about Brazil and not thread music into its fabric.
Food is also important in the novel. What foods remind you most of Brazil?
Salgadinhos! Coxinhas, empadas, pasteis, folhados… I loved everything like that. The first thing I’ll eat next time I set foot in Brazil will probably be a coxinha. For pure Brazilian-ness I’d have to say farofa has to be up there too, as we don’t have anything like that really. Simple local food is always the best – farofa, feijao, pao de quiejo, a caipirinha… I am starting to salivate… plus things like frango a passarinho and bolinhos de bacalao, which I used to devour with a beer after work with friends.
I am also a bit of a carnivore and developed an addiction to picanha. I am slightly ashamed to say that a few years ago on a family holiday in the Algarve my wife, step-son and I drove the 4 hours to Lisbon just so that we could have lunch at a one of the only European branches of Porcão.
Where are your favourite places in Brazil and why?
I particularly loved Rio. Like all great cities there are so many different aspects to explore and it’d be great to live there for a few years in order to get to know it a lot better. I lived in Ipanema, so it’s a place I have great affection for, but I’d happily live in a lot of other places in the city. My favourite place was probably Lapa, for its music and energy on a busy night. But, perhaps more unusually, I also have fond memories of Avenida Rio Branco and the Centro area. As with the City of London, there is so much history hidden in the streets and alleys of this business district and because I was working when I was in Rio it is one of the areas in which I spent most time. I used to enjoy ending the working day at a bar with local friends, often one of those around Arco do Teles.
I also spent a great few days in Ilha Grande. I’d come to the end of my time in Brazil and went to stay in a hotel there on my own to unwind before I flew back to the UK. I stayed in a room overlooking the sea with humming birds feeding outside my window. But best of all one night the people who worked in the hotel took me to a party around the headland, which we travelled to by canoe. There were stars bright in the sky and fish jumping silver from the water as we paddled, which I’ll never forget. At the party the locals were dancing forró in a small place, while lots of kids ran around. I was made to feel very welcome, had a great time, and felt honoured to be part of it.
Where and what next for Ed Siegle?
I am in the very early stages of writing a new novel, which will also have some aspects based in South America, partly in the rainforest this time. At the moment the plan is for the story to be set in three places: England, the Amazon, and Spain. I am developing a few of the main characters, and have written some early parts, but the core of the story has yet to crystallise. I love this stage where I don’t know what is going to happen, as I know I’ll really enjoy finding out.
Interview by Daniel Hatton-Johnson
You can buy Invisibles from Myriad Editions
Ed Siegle will be interviewing fashion designer and eco pioneer Bia Saldhana about her life and work at The Hub, Kings Cross. Click here for more details.
NB: the image at the top of this page is a Wordle of Invisibles, highlighting the most used words in the novel, with the largest words being the most prominent.