An Interview with Leighton Gage
Author of Buried Strangers
Leighton Gage is the author of an exciting Brazilian crime series featuring Inspector Mario Silva. The first novel in the series is Blood of the Wicked, and the second novel Buried Strangers (published January 2009) is a terrific mystery. This series should draw a large following for those who enjoy crime fiction in exotic locations. For more information about the author, visit his website www.leightongage.com
LEIGHTON GAGE (LG): If you’re confronted with that recurring problem faced by all serial killers, hiding a lot of bodies, you couldn’t pick a better place than the Serra de Cantareira. The Serra is a mountain range visible from almost any tall building in São Paulo. Visible, at least, on those few days of the year when rain has cleared the veil of pollution that generally hangs over the city.
The rain forest up there is as dense as any in the Amazon, so thick that a small aircraft on a final approach to Congonhas airport went down among the trees back in 1956, and wasn’t found until 1984.
Within jungle that thick, a mere three dozen bodies don’t run a great risk of discovery, unless one of them hasn’t been buried deep, and the ground isn’t being explored by a curious dog.
Both of those factors come together in the first chapter of Buried Strangers. The unearthing of the first body, and the subsequent detection of many more, sparks an investigation by the Brazilian Federal Police.
As to the motive for the killings, I can’t tell you about it. It would be a spoiler.
MF: You’ve traveled to a number of countries. Why did you select Brazil for your novels?
LG: I’m a Brazil nut. Maybe it has something to do with my (Brazilian) wife of almost thirty years. Maybe it’s our two daughters, who now live in the United States, but still speak Portuguese among themselves. More likely, it’s my mission to inform people about the place. It has become an endless source of fascination for me that a country of almost two hundred million people, with a landmass greater than the continental United States, and one of the top ten economies in the world, is virtually unknown to so many Americans and Europeans. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve come across who think the capital of the country is Buenos Aires. Seriously.
MF: What was the creation process for the Mario Silva books? In other words, how did you come up with these ideas?
LG: In a former life, I used to write and direct documentary films. I started to make one, never finished, about a Brazilian cop and his experiences at the FBI National Academy (not to be confused with the FBI Academy). The material, in the end, wasn’t suitable for a film, but I thought it might make for an interesting book. The book went from non-fiction to fiction, morphed into a story about the haves and have-nots in rural Brazil, got mixed up with the landless worker’s movement and liberation theology and emerged, seven years later, as my first novel, The Blood of the Wicked.
MF: Are your novels based on any real-life crimes?
LG: The short answer is yes. But the names have been changed, not to protect the innocent, but to protect me. And the circumstances around the crimes have been altered to make for a better story.
MF: BURIED STRANGERS contains a great deal of social commentary. Did you set out to do this or did this occur as the narrative moved along?
LG: No one can write about Brazil without getting involved in social commentary. Brazilian or non-Brazilian, it doesn’t matter. Here are a couple of popular expressions:
(On the justice system) “The rich don’t go to jail.”
Are her citizens cynical? Yes, but with good reason. Brazil, in a recent survey, was found to be the fourth most corrupt country in the world, after Benin, Kenya and Guatamala. By and large, the politicians are corrupt, the cops are corrupt, the judges are corrupt and so are most of the other public servants from tax collectors to building inspectors.
There’s at least one good thing about it, though. It makes for interesting reading.
MF: What sort of research was involved in BURIED STRANGERS?
LG: Experiencing things is the way I do much of my research. But I don’t make any allegations without being able to back them up. That requires some digging in books, newspaper archives and other sources. I do it not so much to uncover facts. Living here (near São Paulo) is quite enough to give me most of those.
I share some of the statistics gleaned by publishing them at the end of my books. They’d interrupt the flow if I were to put them into the body of the manuscript. Most of my readers just want to be entertained, and I do my best to achieve that, but for those who want to know more – they’ll find it at the end of the story.
I know some folks are interested in those author’s notes because I get a surprising number of emails (through my web site) from people who ask me about Brazilian society. I make it a point to answer every one, although it sometimes takes me a while.
MF: One of the things I enjoyed so much about BURIED STRANGERS is that when you introduce a character, you include a description of that person. These descriptions are extremely effective and deliver the essence of that character in just a few lines. Is this something you do naturally or is this a technique you’ve perfected over time?
LG: Neither one. I sweat over it. A friend of mine, another author, once said, “good books aren’t written, they’re rewritten, and rewritten and rewritten. Hemmingway put it another way: “First drafts are shit.”
In my case, once I get the story down, I go back and try to enrich it. Part of that enrichment is adding depth to the characters. I try to do that through action, either “showing” or relating those actions rather than employing descriptive narrative. And I keep it short. You can say a lot in a few words if you work hard at it.
MF: You are currently on a book tour here in the United States. How is it going? What are the highlights so far?
The major surprise is that I’ve been discovering pockets of prosperity within a generally dismal economic picture. There have been a few shops that don’t seem to have been hit at all. I’m still trying to figure that one out.
By and large, though, book stores have cut down on stock, both in terms of titles and in terms of the number of copies they order. Attendance at my events has been good, but I’ve been signing fewer books.
I fear for the future of many of the independents. New authors can’t build reputations without them. Supporting them is fundamental. Get our there, folks, and buy books from your local independent. The chains don’t need you. They do.
MF: How well received is The Silva Series in Brazil?
LG: By foreigners who live there, quite well. But there’s a natural resentment, by most of the nationals, to a foreigner “writing Brazil.” Chauvinism is part of it. The other day, I was talking to Cara Black, who writes an excellent series with a French protagonist. It took her years, and eight books, before she finally had one translated into French. And she is nowhere near as critical of France as I am of Brazil.
MF: On your website you mention that you’ve visited numerous countries during times of turmoil—for example—“Argentina in the time of the junta.” How did your travel experiences contribute to your novels and to your career as a writer?
LG: I’m sometimes amazed at the levels of sensitivity, and depth of perception, shown by very young writers. But I’m sure that there wasn’t a decent book in me until I turned forty, maybe even later than that. Experience, for me, has been fundamental to my writing.
One thing I don’t mention in the web site is the fact that I also lived in Brazil in the days of the dictatorship. Back then, a man I knew, a journalist, married to a colleague of mine, was arrested and murdered for no other crime than being publicly critical of the government. An experience like that scars you, makes you introspective.
I’ve been scarred, too, by the murder of five people over the last few years, one a young lady I’d know ever since she was a little girl, one a close friend, one an uncle of my wife’s.
I’ve been threatened at gunpoint, burgled, assaulted with a knife. I’ve been extorted by policemen and government officials and I’ve had occasion to become intimately acquainted with the man who, for years, ran São Paulo’s (seven-hundred man strong) murder squad.
I spend much of my time in a country where there are fifty-thousand murders a year, seventy percent of all crimes go unsolved and only one convicted felon in ten serves out his sentence.
It’s all grist to my literary mill.
MF: One of the characters, Yoshiro Tanaka is a delegado titular. What is that and what is the jurisdiction? How would someone in Tanaka’s position interface with Mario Silva, a Chief Inspector for Criminal Matters of the Federal Police of Brazil?
LG: A delegado titular in the Civil Police, the institution Tanaka works for, can best be compared to a precinct captain. The other delegados in a given delegacia (precinct) can best be compared to lieutenants in the American system. To be a delegado in Brazil, as for the equivalent post in the United States, you have to pass an exam. But you also have to be a lawyer.
The Brazilian Federal Police can be compared to the American FBI except, in Brazil, there’s no DEA, or ATF, or Secret Service, or Customs Service. All of those functions, and more, are the purview of Silva and his people. Silva’s specialty, as his title implies, is tracking down criminals, mostly violent criminals.
Another function of the federals is to “police the police”. Last year, in the Amazonian city of Manaus alone, the federals busted more than 120 local cops for crimes ranging from extortion to murder.
MF: What’s next for Mario Silva and Leighton Gage?
LG: Leighton Gage is going to continue writing Silva books until he drops, but he’s also toying with the idea of writing an historical novel about the first slave revolt in the Americas. Long before Nat Turner’s rebellion there was, in Brazil, a man called Zumbi, and his story is a fascinating one. I’d like to tell it.
Mario and his colleagues next tackle the challenge of the enforced prostitution of minors, a serious problem throughout Brazil, but particularly in the north of the country. The book is called Dying Gasp, it’s finished, and Soho will publish it in January of 2010. Currently, I’m working on The Tenth Passenger, my entry for 2111.
MF: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I look forward to reading the new books in the the Mario Silva series -- and any book you write.
Read our review of BURIED STRANGERS at MostlyFiction.com