PJ Pereira is the author of the trilogy Deuses de Dois Mundos (2013, 2014, 2015), novels published in five countries that became bestsellers in his native Brazil. In 2017, his novel A Mãe, A Filha, e o Espírito da Santa was published. In addition to being an author, Pereira is a pioneer in advertising and entertainment, co-founder of the Pereira O’Dell agency, an Emmy winner, and an avid practitioner of martial arts with several black belts in different styles of Kung-Fu and karate.
Bruce Dean Willis: A major theme in your novels is religion, and the relationship between it and faith, spirituality and self-knowledge. You did many interviews with people victimized by religious leaders in the research phase of your most recent novel. On the other hand, you consulted with authors and authorities from the diaspora of African religions in the research phase of the trilogy. Could you summarize the importance of this theme of religion as an engine, or perhaps as a means to an end, in the lives of characters like Pilar and New?
PJ Pereira: I was born and raised in a cult. It wasn’t my choice. The choice was just to leave, after I became an adult. But all my childhood memories are influenced by this experience—both good and bad. One of the things that happens when you grow up in one of these cults is that part of your life becomes a secret, a taboo. So religion becomes this mixture of pride (you’re led to believe you’re part of a special chosen group) and shame (you can’t tell anyone). To complicate matters, I studied at a Catholic high school and university. So the theme of faith was all around me.
The funny thing is, I didn’t decide to write about faith. I chose to write about African traditions, because I liked mythology and one day I discovered that the world had denied me these stories that are so fundamental for understanding Brazilian culture. But to find my own place in this universe, I created New as a character who encountered this world of the orixás [African deities] but didn’t feel comfortable because it was so different from what he had been brought up to believe.
With the development of the story came Pilar and the cult she created, because that was the experience I knew most about the issue of religiosity. And the character grew until she got her own book.
Looking back, although it was neither intentional nor conscious, the narrative turned out to reveal both my fascination and my fear of the subject of faith—this conflict I have in admiring an individual’s faith and dedication to what he believes, while I tend to viscerally reject all forms of power linked to religious experience—whether the power of a church, a cult, or a person. But it’s not a judgment, you know? I don’t think every faith is beautiful and every religious leader is a crook. I’m only fascinated by one, and I’m afraid of the other. They are sensations, not opinions.
B.D.W.: Sometimes in the writing process, characters take over and the plot goes off in an unexpected way. In developing a narcissistic character like Pilar, did you ever feel that she eluded your plans? Or, on the contrary, that the other characters tried to rebel against the submission you wanted them to show to Pilar?
P.J.P.: My creative process has a very clear pattern. I draw the entire plot before writing the chapters, and then I write one chapter a day. This tells me where that snippet needs to start, and where it needs to end, plus some critical points that need to happen. But the formula ends there. I read this summary in the morning, spend the day thinking about how to build the strongest scenes for those events, and at night I sit down to write. And then the plan never goes as it should. It is very normal for a character to take over his own story and deviate from the original script. So I let it happen. Sometimes this creates implications for previous chapters, sometimes for what I haven’t written yet… and I’m making these notes for future revisions. Pilar’s relationship with her devotees was already more predictable for me because I’ve experienced that kind of dynamic between a toxic narcissist and her followers more than once. So I planned the whole plot knowing what it would be like. Now, her relationship with her cousin João Batista… that really surprised me at every turn. I never knew what she was going to try, and how he would react. Then, there is the ending. Of everything I wrote in all the books, the only event when I left the plot blank so it could flow as the characters wanted was Pilar’s death. When I got to that scene, I had spent the day getting ready. I ate light, tried not to increase the stress… I took a long shower and sat down to let the characters resolve their issues. It was five hours in front of the keyboard. When I wrote the long-awaited “the end,” I lay in bed and cried myself to sleep. I was traveling by myself, so I had no one to reach out to for support. I woke up in the same fetal position, with pain all over my body and a mixture of grief and euphoria that confuses me to this day. In that scene, I left many of my ghosts behind, and committed all the violence I had ever fantasized about committing. That PJ who woke up as a fetus was a second incarnation of myself. Because that night my characters left my old life behind me. I was free.
B.D.W.: Which authors, or readings, have made the most impact on you as a writer?
P.J.P.: My first book was a collection of old fairy tales. The ones everyone knows, from Europe. Later, my mother introduced me to the work of Monteiro Lobato, who created a fantasy universe that mixed Brazilian rural life with adventures through magical universes, such as the Minotaur and the Iara (a type of mermaid from Brazilian folklore). So my initiation into literature came through fantasy.
Then, also at my mother’s recommendation, I got to know the work of Agatha Christie, who fascinated me with her ability to assemble stories so full of details that I hardly noticed that she had given me everything I needed to unravel the mysteries. At that time, I already had dreams of becoming a writer, and her way of writing already appeared as the challenge I wanted to try to face.
From adolescence onwards I started to read more Brazilian authors. The magical realism of Jorge Amado and Ariano Suassuna enchanted me right away, as well as the mocking lyricism they brought. I never imagined anyone could write like that. And by contrast, I ended up also enjoying Nelson Rodrigues, and his cutting cynicism and the surprising scenes he always built.
This is exactly the mixture that happened in my work. The African side of my early books has a tone more like fairy tales (and their less childish version, which is epic fantasy). New’s story, on the other hand, has a tone more inspired by the irreverence of Nelson Rodrigues. And Pilar’s story comes from my attempt to play with the linguistic dazzle of Jorge Amado and Suassuna. All this with these elaborate constructions where everything that happens throughout the story turns out to be important in the end, like a good Agatha Christie mystery.
B.D.W.: Do you feel any affinity with any other author from the Northeast, especially regarding the role of faith and mysticism? And how does this figure into language?
P.J.P.: Another important aspect that religion ends up bringing is magic. I like to believe in magic. In real life it is perhaps less exuberant than in fiction, but this contrast enchants me even more. In my fantasy, storytellers can see and reveal this magic more clearly. And then we return to the Northeast of Brazil.
I don’t think in chapters. I think of scenes that should be watched behind the forehead. When a film director tells a story, he has images to show. There are costumes. Music. They have a way to combine it all without compromising the pace of the narrative. In written language, although there are times when detailed descriptions and even soundtracks are acceptable, in many moments we need to skip all that and get to the action. And in those rawest moments, all we have left, all the resources equivalent to lighting in a theater and music in a movie, for example, is wrapped up in the choice of words we use and how we combine them on the page. Hemingway’s economical style makes his stories rawer and more realistic. Now compare his constructions to those of García Márquez, Mia Couto, or JK Rowling. These latter writers tend to use words and phrases that you don’t imagine, don’t expect, maybe have never seen. Sometimes these are made-up words, like the ones Rowling uses in her Hogwarts adventures. But Jorge Amado’s Vadinho does the same thing when he uses words that make us laugh trying to imagine the meaning, without ever being sure what they really mean. When we opt for a language disconnected from the reader’s reality (because it is invented or particular to a region that is not theirs), reading takes on that magical aspect without even needing supernatural descriptions. We don’t have music or lighting in literature, but we do have the vocabulary and constructions of our sentences and paragraphs. And so, the culture of the Northeast, so full of linguistic secrets and highly peculiar expressions, becomes a very fertile environment for this type of narrative where reality is just the starting point for much more splendorous universes.
When a scene or a word appears and you think you’ve never seen or heard it before, but it makes perfect sense, the scene and the story are like that too—suspended between reality and invention. There is a moment in my trilogy when Iemanjá, the goddess of the seas, walks into the water and mixes with the oceans. I needed a description for this that was magical, but also quick because the scene couldn’t take too long. So I said that Iemanjá dissolved into a school of fish. This expression does not exist and would not be possible, because when a solid dissolves in a fluid, it only dissolves, it does not dissolve into anything other than the fluid itself. But when she “dissolved into a school of fish,” the contrast of the wrongly used word, with the image it creates, tells a complete story of how, in a magical moment, she walked into the sea and became one with it without losing her individuality.
B.D.W.: Could you give some hints about your next projects?
P.J.P.: I’m working on a new book that combines futuristic technologies that are being developed in laboratories all over the world (computer interfaces linked directly to the brain) mixed with ancient Chinese ideas such as Daoist philosophy and Tai Chi. It’s a fun project to build an entire universe and explore the conflict between the new and the old, science and faith… just the way I like it. Only this time, in English. I’m making the final adjustments to the manuscript, working precisely on the construction of this narrative voice, which must be a mixture of the vitality and sweetness of the Chinese way of talking about magic with the violence of the narration of a UFC fight and the scientific enthusiasm you find in books like Michael Crichton’s. It seems like it would be a mess, but I’m really enjoying how it’s turning out.
When I wrote A Mãe, a Filha e o Espírito da Santa, I used a language that was not mine either, which is the language spoken in northeastern Brazil. But since I knew I would never be able to sound like a real native, I created a language of my own, and a character to justify that language. I researched several words that I liked, regardless of where they came from, and mixed it up on purpose. Then I established that the narrator was the owner of a circus, who traveled all over the place and absorbed these words. That’s how I invented a language that doesn’t exist, a language that many readers in the Northeast recognize partly as their own, partly as their neighbors’, and find fun in it.
Now writing in English, I have encountered a similar challenge. I don’t have the control over the language that I have in Portuguese. The solution I found, once again, was to choose a narrator who would also experience the same challenge. Thus, the entire book is written in the first person, from the point of view of a young woman born and raised in China. Her English is fluent and has no grammatical errors, but she doesn’t know the more conventional expressions of spoken English, so she has to invent her own. Which is exactly what happens to me in real life. When I arrived in America, I kept trying to learn the idioms, but there are so many… one day I decided that, in the absence of them, I would create my own. I remember one day I was talking to a friend and wanted to say that I was dealing with so many problems at the same time that one day I would make a mistake and then there would be chaos. I didn’t have an expression to say all of that, so I said I needed help because I was “juggling tigers” and he started laughing. “I’ve never heard that expression before, but it makes perfect sense,” he told me. That’s when I realized that my partial familiarity with the language could be an advantage. That if I embraced this lack of knowledge of common expressions (which would often be seen as cliché) and replaced them with my visual instincts, I could develop another kind of magical language. That day, I established the linguistic approach to the book I was writing, and I haven’t been able to stop writing since.
Translated by Bruce Dean Willis