Q. There was more than a year between when you published your first book and quit your academic position to write full time. How did you manage the transition? And how does your second career compare to your first?
A. There was no continuity. It was a complete rupture. My work at the university was theoretical and in conversation with past texts like Freud’s. Although this could sometimes be stifling, it also acted as a guide. With writing fiction came an incredible freedom in creating from my imagination and personal experience, but this same liberty often left me stuck and in solitude.
Q. All your novels take place in Brazil. What is it about Brazil that has captured your imagination?
A. To speak of the whole of Brazil is difficult. I was born and grew up in Rio de Janeiro, and all of my books take place here. Rio, however, is not just the scenery in my novels but their very body. The city cannot be separated from the story. Because Rio is a beautiful city, it could easily have been used just as scenery. But that didn’t interest me. Rio has a rich life; it’s a city of contrasts, a city that has a lot of wealth and a lot of poverty. Right behind the beautiful beaches of Copacabana are favelas, shantytowns. Citizens of Rio have accustomed themselves to this. This is only part of what makes Rio socially and economically complex. I couldn’t say how the whole of Brazil influenced my work, but the influence of Rio was total. I have a great intimacy with this city; I learned how to crawl on its beaches. I grew up in Rio, but it grew along with me.
Q. What themes do you revisit?
A. All my books are considered crime and mystery, but these categories are only a comfortable way for me to explore not the question of the crime itself but the larger question of what brings someone to commit a crime. Although the whodunit concerns Inspector Espinosa, it isn’t my main concern. Edgar Allan Poe has a phrase I like a lot, and it’s the epigraph of Alone in the Crowd: “The essence of all crime is undivulged.” That is, what interests me most is not just the crime, but the people implicated in the crime, the human complexity in cases when people who aren’t criminals are led to the extreme of killing someone.
Q. It does seem that in Alone in the Crowd Espinosa is implicated in a crime that grows more complex in its possibly interrelated deaths.
A. Yes, that’s the essence of the novel. The more Espinosa investigates, the more he discovers the roots of the crime stretch back to his own childhood. The model for this might be Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, where a character is trying to find the assassin and discovers he’s the killer. While this isn’t what happens here, Espinosa does discover he’s fundamental to the unfolding story. The main conflict happens within Espinosa.
Q. Yes, there’s an ambiguity throughout among crime, accident, memory, and imagination that allows for multiple interpretations of events by Espinosa. Was this an intentional device to make the reader a participant?
A. The book was written with that intention. I tried to make a double of Espinosa in Hugo Breno, the main suspect. When you begin to discover that the bad you see in others can also be in you, that it’s not foreign—on the contrary, you can find it in a relative, someone you are intimate with—this is what Espinosa becomes aware of and, for me, this is the richest point in the book.