What inspired you to write a book based partly in Rio de Janeiro?
In 2011, when I was told by a 'spiritual' friend that I would be travelling to Brazil very soon, I laughed at her! But strangely, the very next morning, my agent contacted me to say that the Brazilian publishers Novo Conceito had just bought my first two books, ‘Hothouse Flower’ and ‘The Girl on the Cliff’. I had to admit that it was an incredible coincidence.
I emailed Fernando Barrachini, the owner of Novo Conceito, to thank him. He then asked me if I would travel to Brazil to take part in the renowned Bienal do Livro book festival the following year. As I had already been told it was my destiny to go, I had to say ‘Yes’!
Thankfully, my books were extraordinarily well-received by Brazilian readers, and when I arrived in São Paulo in August 2012 for the Bienal, I was overwhelmed by the reaction. Hundreds of fans had arrived to greet me. From São Paulo I flew to Curitiba and from there on to Rio. Everywhere I went, the readers were so fantastically supportive and welcoming. By the time I arrived in Rio, I had fallen deeply in love with the country and its residents. The beauty and openness of both the landscape and the people was something unique. And suited my own 'spirit' very well.
And as for Rio... when I drove into the city from the airport after many days travelling in Brazil and saw the iconic white statue of the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), lit up above me for the first time, my eyes filled with tears. The deep emotional feelings I have for it are difficult to describe - it was a big moment. I understood its magic.
I travel to so many countries as an international author, and it’s rare that I suddenly feel that I MUST write about a place. But the first morning I woke up in Rio, and looked out at the Atlantic waves crashing on to Ipanema beach, I knew I wanted to do just that. So, I engaged a guide, Suzana Perl, and she took me on an amazing three-day historical and cultural tour. As I travelled round the city, I went to the old Parliament building and saw the coffee beans engraved in the tiles on the floor and in the decorations above the door. I learnt how the ‘Coffee Barons’ once held great power in government due to their extreme wealth, and how the Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to the terrible depression and near bankruptcy of the country. I discovered that the 1920s 'Belle Epoque' era that preceded the crash was the period during which the Cristo was being built, and knew that it would form part of the story. Suzana also took me to a beautiful old house in the Cosme Velho district of the city, which was deserted and falling down, but I could see how stunning it would have been 90 years ago
Armed with all those precious memories, I left Brazil knowing that I had the seeds of a new book.
How did you approach the historical research and what did you find most interesting?
I bought what books I could find (there are limited options in English!) to read about Brazil in the 1920s, and also about the construction of the Cristo and Paul Landowski's involvement. I read Landwoski’s biography in French. However, when I arrived back in Rio for a second research trip in 2013, installing myself for a month in a lovely rooftop apartment overlooking Ipanema beach, I had many unanswered questions. By this time I’d already had the inspiration for The Seven Sisters series and knew that the first book, the story of Maia, would be enormously important in establishing the contemporary characters, and the overall premise, that would underpin all seven books. So I knew I had a lot of work to do in weaving Maia’s ‘present’ story around the ‘past’ I wanted to write. Usually when I research a time period I can find the 'detail' of what I need to know translated into English, in books and on the internet, but Brazil's history doesn’t seem to be documented widely beyond the country itself. And as for the building of the Cristo in particular, precious little reliable information was publicly available.
Then fate intervened when I met Bel Noronha, one of my neighbours in Ipanema. Astoundingly, I learnt that she is the great-granddaughter of Heitor da Silva Costa, the engineer and architect who was the driving force behind the statue’s construction. We have since become good friends and she has been an amazing source of information for certain parts of the first Seven Sisters book. She was able to tell me the TRUE story of her great-grandfather's vision to build the Cristo - which seems to be a tale that has many different hand-me-down versions in Brazil. I was shocked to find that many people in Rio still believe the statue was a gift from France!
I asked Bel whether she would allow me to breathe life back into Heitor and his family and to fictionalise – using the genuine extracts from his diary that she had graciously allowed me access to – a little of how the Cristo project was executed from 1925 to 1931. Thankfully, she trusted me and agreed. Bel’s account of the story hugely enhanced the book I was already planning to write.
How did you develop the plot and the characters?
Having done as much research as I could, I began to write, sitting up on my roof terrace in Ipanema, with the Cristo behind me and the wonderful expanse of beach in front. I was then lucky enough to be invited up to the mountains to stay at a friend's beautiful fazenda, built in 1820, which also features in my story. There I had perfect peace (no tempting Rio distractions!) surrounded by fantastic scenery. Ideas flooded easily into my mind and the story really began to take shape. In the ‘present’, Maia D’Apliése has been left clues to her heritage by her recently-deceased father - the enigmatic billionaire known to his six adopted daughters as ‘Pa Salt’ – and journeys to Brazil in search of her long-lost family. In the ‘past’, Izabela Bonifacio, a beautiful young woman whose rich father, Antonio, is from an Italian immigrant background in São Paolo. When the family moves to Rio to fulfil Antonio’s ambition of climbing the social ladder, Izabela’s life begins to change in more ways than one
It’s important to say that ‘The Seven Sisters’ is NOT a history book, it is a big sweeping love story that takes the reader on an emotional journey with two women who just happen to come from different eras. And it uses real historical detail only as it suits my plot! If my readers around the world learn something from it as they read, then that’s great, but I mainly want them to simply enjoy the story.
Besides the things you love about Rio, are there any negative aspects you discovered?
I was fascinated to find out that slavery in Brazil was only abolished in 1888 and of course, the Great Depression of the 1930s caused appalling poverty in the country. I also visited a modern-day favela and saw for myself the deprivation, yet also the tremendous 'spirit' of the people who inhabit it. I had a favela right behind me in Ipanema and came to understand that it is simply a big village where people live and work and get on with their lives. I loved seeing the kites flying and hearing the drums playing at night. One of the most striking things about Rio is the gap between rich and poor, not only financially, but in the way the poor live so physically separately from the rich in their favelas. In many other countries I've visited, the streets are far more of a mixture of both rich and poor. As for violence and crime, I’m sure they exist in Rio, but I deliberately didn’t write about that aspect. My books are escapist and tend to focus on the positive side of human nature, not the negative. Because I believe in the goodness of human beings and that most, if not all, can find redemption if they wish for it.
And I should also say that as a woman, living alone in Rio for a month, I walked the streets at night to shop or eat and never once did I feel ill at ease or threatened. The image of Rio in the international media is often very misleading. I understand that I was living in a 'good' area, but still, I live in a ‘good’ area of London and have had my handbag stolen. I think every big city has the same problems.
How did you avoid the clichés always associated with Brazil such as beautiful women dancing samba at the Carnival and amazingly skilful football players?
I try always to avoid the cliché, for example the 'face' of the country that is presented to the world, and I write about the real people that inhabit it. Living in Ipanema in my apartment for a month I became part of the everyday life in Rio, shopping at the market and supermarket, eating at the local (not tourist) restaurants, real Brazilian food which I love, and trying to improve my bad Portuguese. At no point did I see the residents dancing a samba in the streets although I would have enjoyed it if they had! And I'm not interested in football! But I did want to include two other things that Rio and Brazil are renowned for – the stunning landscapes and the warmth of the people. It was my conversations with ordinary people that helped me form a picture of who the Cariocas – natives of Rio - are. And living in the city helped me catch the atmosphere of it as well as the history. I know I could not have written this book as well without doing this. I only hope I have done Brazil, its people and its culture, justice.
What’s the one thing about Rio that you took away with you?
I took away the overriding impression that Rio is THE most beautiful city in the world in my opinion. Those who live there permanently are so very lucky. It has everything, from the climate, to the wonderful beaches, to the mountains (watching the sun set behind them every night was a wonderful and moving sight). And also the Cariocas themselves, who have been so kind and welcoming and helpful answering my many questions. I was honoured to be an 'adopted' Carioca for a month. Oh, and I also took home a whole suitcase full of Havaianas for my family and friends!