The city of the novel is a confection combining some features of the São Paulo I remember from my childhood, some elements of the modern city that I have revisited and researched since then, and some flights of imagination. It felt vividly real when I wrote it, and I hope that comes through for the reader, but it's not intended to be an objective representation of the place (if such a thing even existed). Having said that, I should point out that the real São Paulo feels to me like the product of someone's fevered imagination anyway - an imagination acquainted with Ballard and Delillo and Judge Dredd's Mega-City One - so those initial spurs of inspiration don't necessarily contradict one another. When the Brazilian translation came out last year I was apprehensive about locals taking me to task for over-imagining their city's social divides, but many people I spoke to said that I could have gone further than I did, offering me in passing the latest examples of the chasmic distance between the lives of the majority and those of the gated, helicoptered elite.
1. Heliopolis combines a lot of different elements really successfully- plot, character and style- but what really makes the book for me is the setting. Sao Paolo came across to me as almost a post-apocalyptic ruined city, and some of your descriptions of high rises and city streets and the way people live in gilded cages, sounded like something out of science fiction. How realistic is the Sao Paolo in the novel? If I went there tomorrow, what would be different? What would be the same?
2. You've lived all over the world; why did you choose Brazil as the setting? Could you have told this story about another country?
The starting point was simply a conflicted character who hated his job, who could have existed in any city. Then all this Brazilian imaginative furniture started to crowd things out and I realised that my character was conflicted because he was adopted, and had graduated from one world to another in a very stratified society, but wasn't accepted anywhere. I also felt that the city in my mind was somewhere I hadn't read that much about - it certainly doesn't conform to many of the stereotypical images of Brazil. From then on, even though I never actually name it in the novel, the action could only be happening in one place. Which isn't to say that there aren't other megacities like this one: I imagine you could find parallels in, say, Lagos, Mumbai or Mexico.
- What made this Brazil, the one in the book, this way? What forces in society brought it to where it is?
Principally an accumulation of fear. Fear makes people lock themselves away from the rest of society, and when they are locked away they feel increasingly afraid of what lies outside their gates, because they can't see it anymore. The more they lock themselves and their families and their stuff away from everyone else the more they feel that those on the outside want to climb their walls and get at those things. Which makes them build bigger walls. Which makes the people on the other side of the walls hate them even more. I was also conscious of the force of advertising and marketing in a city of haves and have-nots: Ludo's working life is a extreme vision of a certain toxic workplace philosophy.
- What themes are you trying to address through the story of Ludo, who seems stuck right in the middle of all this chaos? What is important for the reader to understand or take away from the story?
That's not for me to say: the reader can take away whatever she or he wants. One of the reasons I like the story is that it looks into the way people can use generosity to take control of others: a cynical line of inquiry, perhaps, but an interesting one.
- How does your embattled hero find a place in such a starkly divided and troubled society?
To begin with, he can't: that's the point. The man we are introduced to as the novel opens, trapped in bed under the naked body of his adoptive sister, is someone who has allowed himself to become inert because a powerful group of people has hijacked his life and influenced its direction. Over the course of the novel he tries to get back some of that control, as well as to confront some of the various different prejudices working against him based on where he is perceived to be positioned in society.
- Why did you decide to write this story? What's compelling in it for you?
I had to write it because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to get it out of my head. If I hadn't got rid of them, visions of pollution sunsets and derelict skyscrapers and helicopters full of rich people flickering over pungent slums might still be preoccupying me, potentially emerging at random in dangerously inappropriate contexts. The same is true of the novel I'm finishing now: it's the repository for a whole new set of images I'm trying to exorcise. But that's for another interview.
Mr. Scudamore, thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with my readers and me!
More in my Publisher Spotlight series on Europa Editions:
- Introduction to the Series,
- Tuesday: Interview with editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds,
- Wednesday: Review of Heliopolis, by James Scudamore, nominated for the Man Booker Prize,
- Thursday: Interview with James Scudamore.
- Monday: Review of The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, by Alina Bronsky, due out next month,
- Tuesday: Interview with Alina Bronsky,
- Wednesday: Review of Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amélie Nothomb,
- Thursday: Review of The Jerusalem File, by Joel Stone.