#WITMonth: Fernanda Torres

My foray into Brazilian women writers continues apace with an author who has been recommended by many other Latin American authors (at the Hay Festival panels, for instance). Fernanda Torres is an actress, scriptwriter and novelist. Her debut novel The End is a witty depiction of beach bum culture and machismo, and it has been translated by Alison Entrekin for Restless Books in the US. However, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t reached this side of the Atlantic.

Ciro, Neto, Alvaro, Silvio and Ribeiro are five aging Carioca friends, who have either grown up together or got to know each other at university. The book has an interesting structure: we enter the minds of each one of the five in reverse chronological order of their death. We see them old and decrepit, hear their regrets, witness their deaths… and then get to see and hear what their wives, their sons and daughters, their friends their doctors and their priest thought of them. We get a flashback into their lives and their friendship, their marriages, their divorces, their affairs, their triumphs, regrets and disappointments. We see many of the same events, the parties, the seductions, the quarrels, the missed opportunities through five different pairs of eyes – and quite often from the point of view of their long-suffering wives.

For these are clearly men of the older generation, who expect to get away with anything. Ciro is the charismatic Don Juan, emulated by all, but is the first to die. Neto is the only one of them who tries to be faithful to his beloved wife Celia (and she tries to remove him from his circle of friends) – but is left a widower and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself after that. Ribeiro spent his whole life on the beach, proud of his good looks, terrified of aging. Now he’s resorted to giving volleyball lessons to old ladies and stuffing himself with Viagra. Silvio is addicted to sex orgies and drugs and cannot stop himself from carrying on with his friend’s girlfriend, even though he is married. Alvaro is the one who survives them all and he has become a grumpy old man. Modern life and habits only annoy him.

I don’t separate my trash, I don’t recycle, I throw cigarette butts in the toilet, I use aerosols, I take long hot showers, and I brush my teeth with the water running. Screw mankind. I won’t be around to see what happens. I haven’t voted in theirteen years, I’m not responsible for the tragedy around me.

Alvaro is impotent: both literally and metaphorically. And of course he blames others for his predicament. His is the first story and in many respects his monologues are the funniest. We’ve all met Alvaros like that.

It was women who made me lose interest. Nagging, snivelling, needy. Women love to blame their own unhappiness on the next person. I never let them drag me in. The minute they get one sign of life from you, they shoot off a three-page monologue in your ear. Boy, can they talk, they never get sick of yakety-yakking… I don’t like women. Truth be told, I don’t like anyone. I did like Neto, Ciro, Silvio, and Ribeiro, though. Men don’t talk. We each say something idiotic, we laugh, we drink, and there you have it: a great night.

Men’s friendships seem puzzling to me at times. I have male friends who are excellent friends and who can talk about anything, including their feelings. But very often I look at the friendships based on drinking beer, playing video games and watching football matches, while avoiding anything but the most superficial exchange of information regarding their personal lives and I wonder. Replace beer with cachaca and qualudes, video games with beach life – and you have that mysterious default of life itself, shared experience, growing old together even if you don’t have much in common, which Fernanda Torres manages to capture with what feels me to like great authenticity.

There are plenty of laughable, cringe-worthy moments to divert readers. But, as we get to see the other perspectives, the satire acquires additional layers of depth and the comedy turns into tragicomedy. Are all of these men losers who deserve their come-uppance, or are all of our lives full of mistakes and bad choices?

The famous wave pattern of Copacabana beach, about which Alvaro says: ‘Stupid mosaics. They’re everywhere. Pour some concrete over the top and send on the steamrollers!’

A book soaked in the atmosphere of Rio and Copacabana beach (which appears in the very first paragraph), yet with universally recognisable ideas of masculinity and looking back at life with regret.

This is the end, my only friend…

12 years in gestation, 2 years in the writing, 98,000 words in the making… and yesterday, finally, finished.  I never had as much satisfaction writing ‘The End’ as I did on the first draft of my novel.

So why does it not feel like more of an achievement? Why is the relentless thrumming and mournful wail (perhaps even the shouty anger) of the song ‘The End’ by The Doors a more accurate reflection of my feelings?

Perhaps because I have had this novel hanging over me like a bad conscience for so long that I have fallen out of love with it.  Or because I already know that the first draft is inconsistent, the voice and tone shifting as I have grown more confident with practice (or with age). I already know there are gaping holes and inaccuracies, wonky timelines, characters that need some space to grow beyond the stereotype.  But the plan is to let this badly written (but written, yes, nevertheless written) first draft lie in its marinade for the rest of the month and then do a rapid rewrite during July.  This rewrite will give it a unified voice (hopefully), plug the gaps, be a rapid brushwork like in a fresco once the damp plaster has been put in place.

Just to give you a sense of  how much I’ve been procrastinating: the germ of the idea for the story came to me in about 1997/98.  I let it stew in my head for about 10 years, then plotted out the storyline and added some characters in 2008.  But its existence was still limited to the confines of my head and nowhere else.  At that point I was focusing on writing and submitting short stories (for which I have no talent) on all sorts of topics (most of which completely unappealing ) for competitions that terrified me, simply because I was convinced that only by winning a competition would I find a publisher for my (as yet unwritten) novel.

Enough with the parentheses!

Then in May 2010 I attended the Faber Academy course on getting published. I was a bit cheeky attending it really, since I had not written a single word of my novel yet. One of the requirements for attending was that we bring along the opening chapter or the first three pages of the novel.  So, the night before the workshop, I hammered out 3-4 pages and read them out.  The noises were encouraging.  Much better than I deserved. The editor who ran the course, the cooly realistic yet very inspiring Hannah Griffiths, gave me the best advice I’d ever had up to that point: ‘If you want to write a novel, why are you writing short stories?  Write the novel! Don’t waste your time on competitions if you don’t want to be doing that: in the end, none of these awards count as much as the quality of the work you are submitting to an agent or a publisher.’

It sounds obvious, but it took a while for the penny to drop.  I still dithered, I still hid behind my a million other professional and family obligations.  But I did unofficially join NaNoWriMo in November 2010. Unofficially, because, well, I did tell you I don’t like publicly committing to challenges, didn’t I?  Somehow, don’t ask me how, I successfully wrote 50,000 words of my novel that month.  I continued some sporadic writing over the next couple of months, but then in February 2011 or so it ground to a halt again.  Another Faber Academy course in May 2011 reignited my fire, despite the huge personal changes I was going through at the time.  And no, honestly, I am not paid to advertise for Faber, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the fantastic Gillian Slovo and Sarah Dunant as tutors: they really make a good team, with their contrasting styles but equal passion for words and stories.  However, NaNoWriMo in 2011 was a bit of a failure, with me only managing to churn out about 20,000 words and the novel still nowhere near completion.

February 2012, however, was a turning point.  Yes, I know I keep saying that, and I know that I shouldn’t depend on external events so much to motivate myself.  A true writer always finds the courage and inspiration within his or her own self to keep going.  But at the time I needed a push, a small dose of encouragement liberally sprinkled with reality.  And I found that at the Geneva Writers’ Group conference, particularly in the words of Bret Lott, Naomi Shihab Nye, Susan Tiberghien and Dinah Lee Küng.  Since then I have left fear and procrastination, busy-ness and conflicting priorities behind.  I have written every day, set up this blog, started sharing my work with others, learnt to accept critique.  But still, still, still, no progress with my novel, even though I was so close to the finishing line.

End sign

And now, in a slow, steady trickle over days and weeks, this past weekend my world (of anxiety, procrastination and invention) and my novel ended.  Not with bang, but a whimper.  Or a long-drawn out breathy wail from Jim Morrison.

Take your pick!