Love, Music, and Longing in "The Air You Breathe": An Interview with Frances de Pontes Peebles

Sarah Harrison Smith on August 21, 2018

Frances_de_Pontes_Peebles_(c)_Elaine_Melko.jpgIn Frances de Pontes Peebles' new historical novel, The Air You Breathe, two very different girls -- Graça, born rich, and Dores, poorer than poor -- grow up together on a remote sugar-cane plantation in 1930s Brazil, where they fall in love with samba. Their deep bond to each other and to the African-inspired dance music sustains them as they struggle to escape repressive cultural expectations, first at home, and later in 1940s Hollywood.

The Air You Breathe is enthralling: Peebles's poetic, sensuous writing brings to life the nuances of the young women's intense friendship and the rough beauty of Brazil and its songs. As Peebles says in the interview below, for Graça and Dores, “Music is a way to be seen and heard in a world that tries, again and again, to discount and demean them. Music is their weapon and their solace.” 

We hope you'll enjoy hearing more about how Peebles came to write this remarkable novel, one of the Amazon Book Editors' Best of the Month.

Sarah Harrison Smith: Your two protagonists, Dores and Graça, are in love with samba. When did you discover that form? Had you written songs in that form before you wrote it for this novel?

Frances de Pontes Peebles: Where I’m from in Brazil, samba isn’t the most popular musical genre. (In northeast Brazil, it is Forro—a twangy, accordion-based style that is reminiscent of Mexican corridos and also of polkas—that has always dominated the musical landscape.) Of course, I’d heard samba often in my life, but it was only during writing and researching The Air You Breathe that I tried to truly immerse myself in samba and its history.

It was intimidating to write about samba, which is sacred in Brazil. Samba and its history are so complex and dynamic that I couldn’t fit it all in this book. I couldn’t do it justice, and this weighed on me. But music is also an extremely personal experience, so I eventually let myself feel what samba is for me, and for the characters in my book—Dores and Graça. For them, music is salvation. Music is a way to be seen and heard in a world that tries, again and again, to discount and demean them. Music is their weapon and their solace. 

The sambas I wrote for the book are styled like poems, with an emphasis on lyrics rather than melodies. I’m not a musician, so I tried to recreate the poetry of samba on the page, just as Dores would. 

At first, Dores and Graca perform together. Later, that changes, and Dores focuses on songwriting. Does that mirror a decision in your own life, to write rather than to be onstage?

Aside from a stint in high school drama club, I’ve never wanted to be on any kind of stage. I don’t want to appear. I want the exact opposite: to disappear into a character, or into a different place and time. For me, the best thing about writing is feeling completely immersed and transported, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Those minutes are incredible! I live for those moments when I’m so engrossed and in love with whatever I’m working on that I forget myself and live vicariously through my characters. 

Your novel spans a tumultuous period of Brazilian history. Was it tricky to allude to a political past you couldn’t assume your readers knew about previously?

It was challenging to give historical context, to build a world and show how politics affected the characters’ daily lives, without making the book into a dry history lesson. This novel went through many drafts, many complete re-writes, in part because I got bogged down in history and research. My editor helped immensely with this. With each draft, she gently pushed me to serve the story better, to be the writer that this book deserved. Ultimately, this meant letting go of history and focusing on the characters and their music. 

You also write about Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s. When you researched those periods, what did you discover that surprised you?

In the book, the fictional Blue Moon Band has the opportunity to be in the movies as part of the Good Neighbor Policy during WWII. The US government basically demanded that Hollywood studios scout new Latin American talent, and change viewers’ perceptions of Latinx characters by casting them not as villains but as heartthrobs, sexpots, or (in Carmen Miranda’s case) fun-loving, comedic sidekicks. In the book, the Blue Moon Band must live within the strict confines of the Hollywood studio system.

Hollywood was painted as a bohemian, unconventional place, when in reality it enforced the same rigid and demeaning racial and sexual castes as the rest of 1940’s United States. Black and brown Latinx entertainers were not allowed into many popular nightclubs as guests or as entertainment; they were paid 20% of what their white counterparts earned; they had to ride in freight elevators and sit in separate sections of studio cafeterias. For a band like Blue Moon—whose members identify as black, white, male and female—this is devastating because it divides them.

Hollywood studios also placed morality clauses in entertainers’ contracts, allowing them to terminate employment if there was any “offense against decency.” This was aimed at gay and bisexual entertainers. Studios demanded discretion, which meant that you had to keep your sexuality a secret or else you would be fired and run out of town. I can’t say I was surprised to learn any of this, but it was important for me to understand and try to depict in a way that was true to that time period.

You’ve said that this novel sprang from your interest in writing about Carmen Miranda. At what point did you realize that you wanted to write a novel that moved away from the facts of Miranda’s life?

The Air You Breathe began as an exploration of Carmen Miranda’s life and career. She is an icon throughout the world, but she is also a problematic figure. In Hollywood, her colorful costumes and her accent were exaggerated to the point of making her a caricature of herself. The end of her career, and her life, were very sad. Carmen Miranda’s story is compelling but ultimately I felt hemmed in by having to faithfully follow the trajectory of her life. It felt like a story about a Hollywood star that has already been told many times, in many forms. I didn’t want to tell the same story over again. This was very early in my writing process, when the novel was more an idea than a fully formed manuscript.

At the time, I was reading a biography of Édith Piaf, written by Pilaf’s former friend. I was fascinated by the tone of the book, how much love and jealousy was in her account of their friendship, how music bound them and also broke them apart. My instincts told me that my novel wasn’t about an actual Hollywood star but about music, friendship, loss, and memory. I discovered Dores's voice and found her point-of-view much more compelling. So I told the story from the point-of-view of the “unremarkable” friend, a musician and lyricist behind the scenes, who sees her best friend—and the love of her life—become warped by stardom, and who harbors a lifetime of jealousy and regret.

How closely did you model the character of Dores on singer-songwriter Chavela Vargas, whose singing voice was – like Dores’s -- said to be like “an old drunk’s at a bar”? 

I actually kept two photographs of Chavela Vargas—one of her as a young musician and another when she was very old—next to my computer as I wrote. There is something about her eyes in these photographs, something so deeply sad and wise that reminded me of Dores.

The trajectory of Vargas’s life—being a star, then being forgotten and becoming an alcoholic for decades, then recovering and discovering her voice again—was definitely an inspiration for Dores’s trajectory. I also love and respect Vargas’s complete disregard for society’s opinion of her. Outwardly, she expressed no shame or regret about her sexuality and was very open about being a lesbian at a time when such openness was both dangerous and career suicide. I wanted Dores to be like this. She, like Chavela, knows who she is as a physical being. This allowed the novel to explore love in its multitude of forms: romantic love, physical love, artistic love, unrequited love, and the deep love between friends. Dores and Vinicius, for example, love each other first and foremost as artists. This bond between them is deeper than any physical love affair, and has its own kind of romance. They give each other the strength to keep creating. They save each other through their art.

Are there particular books that inspired you or assisted you as a writer, for this particular book or more generally?

Wild Iris, a book of poems by Louise Glück, and the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop helped me a lot. Both women’s poems are suffused with longing and regret, like I hoped Dores’s voice would be. Poetry, like music, speaks to the deepest parts of our natures. 

Thank you, Frances de Pontes Peebles.

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