September 2018

Frances de Pontes Peebles

Path to stardom

Ten years after the publication of her first novel, Frances de Pontes Peebles returns with The Air You Breathe. Set in 1920s Brazil, it’s a captivating tale of female friendship, music, love and ambition.

Share this Article:

Ten years after the publication of her first novel, Frances de Pontes Peebles returns with The Air You Breathe. Set in 1920s Brazil, it’s a captivating tale of female friendship, music, love and ambition.

You were born in Brazil, grew up in Miami and now live in Chicago. Where are you most at home?
I’m most at home around the people I love, and who love me. I have this in all three places, so they are all my homes.

The Air You Breathe started as a fictional account of Carmen Miranda’s life, but then you decided to create your own Brazilian star, Sofia Salvador. Why?
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 also reading a biography of Édith Piaf, written by Piaf’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 had to be true to my original impulse, so I re-envisioned the novel and started over.

Your research for this must have been extensive. Is that part of the reason it has been a decade since The Seamstress?
I did a lot of research, which I really enjoy. But research wasn’t the reason for the extended timeline between books. My husband and I moved back to Brazil and managed my family’s farm, building a business there. Farming is a 24/7 endeavor. While on the farm I gave birth to my daughter, which was wonderful, but I also went through postpartum depression, which wasn’t. After I had a child, my brain worked differently. I had less writing time and had to adjust to this new reality. I’d write while my daughter napped. When I had childcare, I’d write a few days a week. As she got older and went to preschool, I gained more time. Like many women who are mothers and do creative work, I felt like I had to fight for my time and my ideas. But the beautiful thing was that this book, this idea, also fought for me. It stayed with me all those years and through all those life changes. It was stubborn. It said, I’ll be here when you’re ready. It was my duty to learn how to be the writer that this particular book needed. I’m not sure I could have written Dores’ character—her wise, wry voice full of love and regrets—without having experienced my own decade of heartache and love and transformation. As Mary Oliver says, “Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.”

There’s a lot of detail regarding Graça’s family’s sugar plantation and the rituals and customs of the servants. Was this history something you’ve always been aware of, or was it part of the research?
In Pernambuco, where I was born, sugar still drives a big part of the agricultural economy. Ever since the 1600s, sugar was king. There are many working sugar plantations today, but the old mills, Great Houses, chapels and slave quarters are abandoned. They are relics. Driving through the countryside, I used to see them and wonder what life was like on those plantations, especially as Brazil began to modernize. I wanted my two main characters—Maria das Dores and Maria das Graças—to be from Pernambuco, and to have them migrate south to Rio, as so many Brazilians did and still do. I always wanted the young Graça to have a position of power over Dores. When I started writing Dores’ character, I imagined a little girl wandering through a Great House on a sugar plantation, not as part of the family but as a servant, born into this role that she desperately wants to escape. So it started there.

The novel chops back and forth in time. Did you originally write it linearly, or was it always your intention to give the reader snippets of what was going to happen? 
I always wanted the reader to see Dores as an old woman in the present day, as the last living member of the Blue Moon Band. I always wanted the reader to experience her regrets and to see the outcome of her life. I was inspired by Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin in terms of structure, and having a narrator who is alive in the present day but who focuses mostly on her past.

You based Dores on singer/songwriter Chavela Vargas, who was very open about the fact that she’s attracted to women, and is one of the few women in a male-dominated music scene. What were the challenges in writing the story from Dores’ perspective?
Whenever you have a first-person narrator with secrets and flaws, the challenge is how to be in their heads for the entire span of a book and not feel suffocated. Dores speaks to the reader as if addressing a long-lost friend. The challenge was how to build this relationship over the course of the book—how to have Dores slowly reveal her regrets and misdeeds, and how, in spite of these revelations, the reader (hopefully) grows to understand Dores and empathize with her.

Madam Lucifer is an interesting character: a killer and gangster who dresses in full drag during Carnival. He’s very empathetic toward Dores and never mocks her because of her sexuality. Where did he come from?
He’s inspired by a Brazilian man called Madame Satã. He died in the 1970s, but he’s a legend today. Satã basically ruled Rio’s bohemian Lapa neighborhood in the 1930s. By day he was a gangster, providing businesses protection from thieves and corrupt police. By night, in Lapa’s cabarets, he transformed into his famous drag persona, Madame Satã. He was openly gay and unashamed of his sexuality at a time in Brazilian history when gay men were sent to mental hospitals and administered electroshock conversion therapy. Satã was elegant, brutally violent and tenacious, surviving a 27-year stint in one of Brazil’s most notorious penitentiaries. In a country that still suffers from homophobia and racism, the fact that Satã became a legend—with several biographies and a popular 2002 feature film based on his life—is pretty amazing.

Did you have a sound or duo in mind when you created Dores and Vinicius’ band Sal e Pimenta?
I guess I was inspired by Ellis Regina’s and Tom Jobim’s Bossa Nova record from 1974. Although, in the book, Dor and Vinicius are antecedents to Bossa. They are Bossa’s fictionalized founders.

How did the Iowa Writers’ Workshop shape you as a writer?
My teachers and peers at Iowa were incredibly smart, intensely focused and very generous readers. They made me push myself to be a better writer and reader, and they still do. I read their work and feel this great mix of inspiration, jealousy (in the best sense) and awe. Iowa taught me to keep striving, keep working, keep reading. For me, the best thing about writing is being at my desk and feeling completely immersed and transported, even if it’s only for 10 minutes. Those 10 minutes are incredible! I live for those moments when I’m totally engrossed and in love with whatever I’m working on. Iowa taught me to fight for those moments, to never diminish them.

I read you’re already well into your next novel. How’s it going? Any clues?
I’m a slow writer. It takes me a long time to understand a book and to shape it. This new book feels very different from anything I’ve done before. It feels more like my short stories. I’m excited about this and terrified, too. I’m striving to be the writer this book deserves. I’m going to fight for it.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Air You Breathe.

Author photo by Elaine Melko.

Get the Book

The Air You Breathe

The Air You Breathe

By Frances de Pontes Peebles
ISBN 9780735210998

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!