THE MAKING OF A NOVEL
©2007-2009 Errol Lincoln Uys
When I began work on my novel I knew as little about Brazil as the next foreigner. I'd once stopped over at Rio de Janeiro for three days on a flight to Africa, an instant course in cliches of Carnival, samba, beach and jungle. I'd another impression that harked back to my South African childhood, when the country was still tied to England.
Every month there arrived from London an adventure magazine for boys, its pages filled with the glories of Empire and conquests of its heroes. Among them, explorer Percy Fawcett who was most often depicted in a tiny canoe paddling past the gaping jaws of an anaconda. Colonel Fawcett went in search of a fabulous Lost City in Brazil and vanished forever in Mato Grosso. The intrepid fortune hunter lived on in the imagination of boys 1ike myself who scoffed at the idea that an Englishman had been killed by headhunters and pictured our champion sitting on a golden throne in E1 Dorado.
Living in a day when we still saw the world divided into two parts — those who belonged to the British Commonwealth and those who didn't — I naturally considered Fawcett to be the discoverer of the Brazilian interior. Before his time, I believed, no one dared venture there except the denizens of the impenetrable forest.
I remember drawing a huge map of Brazil, days of painstaking work with pen and India ink, with every known river and a myriad tributaries. I marked my hero's route to "Point X" where he disappeared. The map won me a coveted star from my geography teacher, Miss Kane, and a vow to "find" Fawcett. Little did I know that many years later I would visit some of the very places explored by Fawcett that remained as deserted as when he first set eyes on them half a century earlier.
As happens with boyhood fantasies, somewhere along the way I left Fawcett behind and got on with my schooling. Then came the real world and a brief and wretched experience as a law clerk. My adoptive father knew I wanted to be a journalist but warned that before I wasted my life as a writer, I should get a safe "billet," a favorite word of his. He suggested a career in accountancy or better still, a job with the Johannesburg city council, where I would be guaranteed a pension. (A chilling prospect for a seventeen-year-old!) I tried law but after a couple of years of hounding debtors and licking stamps, I abandoned this course.
Then came another round of fantasies with a disastrous attempt to go into business for myself. I founded the Lincoln Swift Organization, an odd mixture of cane furniture factory, pottery distributor, and missing persons bureau. It survived three months. At last, in an act of desperation, I literally threw myself at the feet of the manager of the Johannesburg Star and asked for a job. I got it.
Between daydreams about Fawcett, I'd been writing stories from the age of ten. I was seventeen when I penned my first novel, a three-hundred page saga of teenage angst in a small town in South Africa. Unpublished, I included it with my application to the Star and to my everlasting gratitude, the editors decided to take a chance on me. Three weeks after joining the paper, my name was in print for the first time beneath an article on the editorial page: Happiness is an Unprejudiced Mind.
My career as reporter, features writer and editor spanned seventeen years on three continents. From the Star I went to Post, a newspaper serving the black and mixed-race communities of South Africa. Then to England and the South-East London Mercury, a London weekly; in London I joined Reader's Digest returning to South Africa, where I became editor-in-chief. In 1977, I came to the magazine's headquarters at Pleasantville in the United States. My transfer couldn't have been more propitious.
In 1978 because of my background and the Digest's long-standing relationship with James A. Michener, I was assigned to work with the writer on his South African novel, The Covenant. My two years with Michener convinced me that were I ever to be an author I would have to make a total commitment to writing, not pecking away at manuscripts in the dark of night but out in the open. At the end of 1980, I resigned from the Digest to begin work on Brazil.
Why choose Brazil as my subject? And why on such an immense scale? I've always believed one should make no small dreams for the results will be commensurate. During our time together, Michener and I spoke about places that would lend themselves to treatment in epic novels. He mentioned Alaska and the Caribbean, both of which would become locales for Michener books. I suggested Brazil.
The more I began to think of Brazil, the more reasons I found for wanting to write about the country. My very ignorance prompted question after question, and when I began to look for answers, I quickly sensed a tremendous story that hadn't been told to the North American public. As an outsider to both nations, I had a singular vantage point unbridled with innate prejudices and chauvinism.
Among other compelling reasons for choosing Brazil, not the least was my having just spent two years delving exhaustively into the history of my birthplace. Broadly-speaking, the relations between the races in South Africa and Brazil couldn't have been more different in the 1980s: how, when, why, I wanted to know, did the two nations take such radically different paths? This wasn't something to include in the book I envisaged about Brazil but it gave me a base-line to work from in considering the dynamics of Brazilian society. In Africa, I also traveled widely in Mozambique and Angola, gaining insights into the Portuguese, their history and way of life, a valuable introduction to the colonizers of Brazil.
On January 5, 1981, the first working day of the year, I woke up at the usual time when I would leave for the Digest's offices in Chappaqua. This day there was no Digest, only the vast unknown in Brazil and with my future.
During the next three months I haunted libraries and second-hand bookstores in New York. I wasn't selective but read anything I came across related to Portugal and Brazil, anything but fiction. In plotting so vast a story one has to take care not to lock into the imagination of others and inadvertently borrowing from their works, a pitfall Michener drew my attention to when we were working on The Covenant.
In the back of my original workbook I pasted a letter received from Michener, after I wrote telling him of my decision to quit the Digest.
I read hundreds of books and articles on my library forays, not only on my initial three-month plunge into Brazil but as I went along. A small sampling of my reading list includes some of the classic works on Brazil and Portugal, both contemporary and historic:
One of my early sources was the three volume History of Brazil written by the English romantic poet, Robert Southey, between 1810 and 1819, considered the first comprehensive history of colonial Brazil. I pored over Southey's thousand-plus pages in awe of his achievement, the closest he ever came to Brazil was among the volumes in the library of his uncle, Reverend Herbert Hill, chaplain to the English Factory at Lisbon. I would have the opportunity to visit Brazil and carried Southey with in my thoughts, an inspiration to another outsider making a literary journey of epic proportions. Southey showed that it could be done.
As I let Brazil seep into my imagination, my first concrete step was to compile a detailed chronology. Alongside this, I mapped out a genealogical timeline for my major families, initially the Cardosas and the da Silvas. I later changed the Cardosas to the "Cavalcantis." As I worked on these timelines, I began to isolate the markers for my characters, the great events where I knew they would have to be present, the sidelines of history where there might be a role for them, as yet undefined and potentially as surprising to me.
The Chronology extends from 8,000 B.C., with north-coast Andes sites of hunter-gatherers to 1981, the year I started my research. So, for example, from 1616 to 1681, the years covering the lifespan of my character, Amador Flôres da Silva, the bandeirante or pathfinder:
Once the Chronology was complete, I had enough material to flesh out my original plotting ideas in a detailed outline, proposing a saga spanning five centuries and involving multi-generations of two families, the Cavalcantis and the da Silvas whose stories depict the major historical elements in Brazilian society. This ninety-page document comprised an Overview of the novel, Family Trees and the Outline itself. My ideas would constantly evolve during a year of research and travel and throughout the actual writing. There would be many variations in the plot, for I could not know where the characters I created would lead me but the broad plan held firm.