A novelist wants to occupy a place of tension.  When I set out to write Farewell Rio, I intended to inhabit an uncomfortable territory — not at home, confronting foreignness.   It was an exercise in exploring things that are full of emotional power, often delightful, but also unfamiliar and infuriating.  It’s like the experience of getting married.  You marry for love, but when you meet your in-laws, you don’t like all of them.

I really had this experience with Brazil.  I first got to know Brazilians in New York when I was working at the United Nations.  Then I went to Rio and lived there for a year.  I fell in love with the country.  Unlike my protagonist, Kate, I went to Rio, not in search of a man, but to work on a film that never got beyond a screen treatment.

Brazil had a profound and lasting effect on me and I’ve stayed tied to it ever since.  Many of my best friends are Brazilians.  I’ve returned for visits, and my work on this novel led to some writing for the Brazilian Embassy in Washington.  Now, frankly, I’m only interested in writing about Brazil.  I don’t want to write about the U.S.  So this is love.  But it isn’t all delight.  There’s a lot about Brazil that is strange to me, mysterious.  In addition to what delighted me, a lot was maddening when I lived there, and made me uncomfortable.  This is the territory I explored in my novel.

I set my story in 1968 because it was a time of enormous tension and change in Brazil.  Because I didn’t live there then, my descriptions of historical events are based on interviews, books and newspaper reports rather than on my own experience. 1968 was a formative year for many of Brazil’s current leaders, launching many of them into politics.

One of my own Brazilian friends robbed several banks in 1968 to raise funds for the armed resistance to the military government.  He now works for a major Brazilian bank.  After all, he knows a lot about banks, especially how to get in and out quickly.

Brazilians and Americans both think they live in the best country in the world; neither wants to hear that the other is more perfect.  I hope you enjoy my novel the way I offer it to you:  I didn’t want to confirm the prejudices of either Americans or Brazilians, but rather to represent the experiences of a sympathetic outsider.

Let’s start with men.  I have Kate find the Brazilian diplomat Sérgio so fascinating, so attractive, that she simply loses interest in American men.  But he is also neurotic and self-centered.  The Brazilian men she meets in Rio lack Sérgio’s physical beauty and high culture.  Despite the practiced charm of her dear friends Walter and Nelson Claudio, she perceives them as romantically unappealing.  To Kate, Brazilian women are another matter altogether.  She sees them as intelligent, dependable, curious and outgoing, confident, fashionable — to be admired and envied.

Some of my Brazilian friends ask why Kate falls for a Canadian.  Why doesn’t she find herself a suitable Brazilian man?  Well, that wasn’t my intention.  She is attracted to John because he’s not Brazilian — in the wildness of Rio in 1968, he’s an oasis of the reliable, well-organized, emotionally controlled.  (But he turns out to present his own unique problems.)  It’s not that I can’t imagine a wonderful Brazilian man  — I know many — see The Barbosa Legacybut that isn’t the story I was telling this time.

Part of the discomfort of being a foreigner in Brazil when I lived there was being on the receiving end of anti-Americanism, much of it generated by the legacy of Vietnam.  Kate doesn’t engage in many political debates.  She is sympathetic to the opposition to the military government, but it isn’t her fight.  She sees the military as both dangerous clowns and menacing thugs.  She feels that Brazilians envy and respect Americans and Europeans, but also resent them.  Despite the anti-Americanism of her friends on the left, Kate is well aware that she gets privileges as an American.  Even in rumpled clothes, she can walk into the Copacabana Palace Hotel as if she belongs there.  She sees Brazilian student demonstrations as copies of the French.

Kate is vividly aware of contrasts and contradictions in Brazil.  She moves through fabulous wealth (David Bernardes’ parties) and terrible poverty (José’s shack, the poem Macumba).  She encounters both educated intellectuals and ignorance and superstition.  She sees the amazing beauty of Rio, but also its shabbiness (missing sidewalk mosaics, poorly maintained buildings, favelas).  Openness, friendliness, alegria, and sensitivity co-exist with self-indulgence and frustrating inefficiency.  Appointments aren’t kept.  Telephones don’t work.  Some Brazilian customs are simply very foreign to her — the pervasive corruption of the police, Brazilian attitudes toward mistresses and crimes of passion.

One of the main things I’m trying to do in my novel is to give a portrait of Kate, a fictional character, through the way she sees, expresses and interprets things.  She’s a poet, not a historian or a sociologist, so she isn’t supposed to get everything right.  She isn’t completely honest with herself or with the reader.  If you disagree with Kate’s way of seeing something, I want you to assume that you are disagreeing with the character Kate rather than with me, the author.  Likewise for John:  He’s an honest and fearless man, but a very calculating one.  He’s very purposeful about what he reveals and when he reveals it.

This is a realistic novel, like a photorealistic painting.  It’s fiction, but I was trying to write it so realistically that people who choose to can be in doubt about whether it’s fiction or fact.  I wanted to make the suspension of disbelief easy for the reader.  If a person or an event was sufficiently in the public eye to be reported in The New York Times, I generally tried to be very accurate in my portrayal.  But the needs of fiction always had precedence over historical accuracy.  I was willing to change the facts where it seemed necessary to better tell my story.

Click here for reflections on The Barbosa Legacy.


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