Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza didn’t take his first stab at writing fiction until he was 59. A professor of psychology and philosophy at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University, ensconced in psychoanalytical and philosophical theory, he wrote The Silence of the Rain, the first in his Inspector Espinosa mystery series, in 1996.
With trepidation, he sent it to Companhia das Letras, one of the top publishing houses in Brazil. “Much to my surprise,” he says, “it was not only accepted but later won the Nestlé de Literatura and Jabuti, two of the most prestigious literary prizes here.”
Buoyed, he quit his job in 1998. Now 72, he has eight novels to his name. The six previous titles in the Espinosa series (all available in the United States) have been translated from Portuguese into seven languages, and in July 2009, Alone in the Crowd, the seventh, was published in the United States, continuing Espinosa’s psychological adventures.
The prolific pace is due to a disciplined approach: every day, from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M., Garcia-Roza sits down in his office in Rio de Janeiro to write. When he needs a break, he gazes out the window or walks around the city that continues to inspire his Inspector Espinosa series. He recently paused to talk with AARP Segunda Juventud.
Q. Alone in the Crowd is the seventh novel featuring veteran police chief Inspector Espinosa. What about this character continues to fascinate you?
A. Espinosa isn’t a superhero who lives surrounded by tanned blondes. He’s like your neighbor or someone you would greet every day on the street and not even know his position. He’s reserved, well educated, and an avid reader. Because he’s a common man, readers identify with him. To give you a sense of this, people don’t ask me when my next book is coming out; they ask for the next Espinosa.
Q. How does Alone in the Crowd fit in with the rest of the series?
A. The central character is the same, and all of the books take place in Rio de Janeiro. The fact that they all share a main character and setting, however, doesn’t imply that you need to be familiar with the others. The books are completely independent of one another. The reader can read the last book first, the first book last, or in any other order they choose.
Q. How does Inspector Espinosa compare with other detective characters our readers may also be familiar with, like Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Philip Marlowe, and Sherlock Holmes?
A. He’s certainly not Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. When authors write, they often try to create exceptional characters, like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. I like these authors and characters a lot, but Espinosa doesn’t seem like these; he’s sort of like a character you may find in Georges Simenon or Lawrence Block. It’s very difficult to make precise comparisons because Espinosa is a common man. He’s an ordinary public official.
Q. You capture the inner workings of Inspector Espinosa’s mind by showing how he trails a developing case using intuition and relentless questioning. What kind of research did this require?
A. I conducted research before I wrote my first book, because I hadn’t even entered into a police station. I asked a friend of mine who is a criminal lawyer to take me to one and show me how it functions. That helped add an authenticity to my character and story. But since then I never research extensively. I usually begin with an image or situation and begin to unravel a story that I attempt to structure and use to create a plot.
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.
Q. Many twists and turns lead to a page-turning confrontation. While the ending is satisfying, it also leaves unanswered questions. How would you respond to a frustrated reader who expects a tightly wrapped conclusion?
A. If I had related a story in which I explained everything, I would have created a passive reader and underestimated his intelligence. If I offered a final solution, he’d read the whole story as if merely reading words—he’d have nothing to do. What I hoped to show is that it’s impossible for the author to explain the whole story to the reader. There are always matters left unexplained, even if motivations are clear. The feeling a reader may have that something was not completed is exactly the point. The reader is part of this story and left with the possibility of concluding the tale with his intelligence and imagination.
Q. You’ve embarked on a new career at a time when a lot of people are thinking of retiring. Has age affected your writing?
A. I’m not sure if it was age per se, but time has helped me gain experience in writing fiction. With aging, however, there’s always the fear that you won’t have the mental agility, reasoning, and clarity—but these fears are more illusory than real. The question really becomes: how long will I be able to produce quality work? The more I age, at least chronologically, there’s also the question of how much time I have left. Of course this is a question I could’ve asked myself in my forties and fifties, but when asked that question in your seventies it bears more weight. Now in my seventies, there’s a great urgency in writing and I’ve dedicated myself more intensely to it.
Q. Are there plans for another Inspector Espinosa mystery?
A. I submitted the latest last week and hope to continue with Espinosa, although I’m not excluding the possibility of a book that doesn’t feature Espinosa. My sixth book, Berenice Procura, didn’t feature him, and while it was well received, readers continued to ask when Espinosa would come back. I’d like to write another book without him to give me, the reader, and Espinosa a rest—we could all have a break.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. After just submitting my last novel, I have no idea about the next one. I’m in a certain limbo between two stories. I don’t like staying in this vacuum for too long. I’m giving myself a week at most before I start a new book.