I try not to lock myself away, cutting myself off from outside influences as I write what I hope will be my next blockbuster. That can lead to some interesting discoveries.
While writing a novel, I think it’s a good idea to take notice of what’s going on around me, because if my theme is as universal as I think it is, I am bound to see or hear something which helps me to strengthen an element in my story. This was the case with the character flaw for Tomas in my novel Carnival of Hope, and also the theme.
I was listening to a radio program about the late Steve Jobs, and something was said of his character which made me understand better what Tomas’ character flaw and the theme of the novel was. Tomas, like was said of Steve Jobs, has “…a vision so pure that he couldn’t accommodate it to the imperfections of the world.” In Steve Jobs case, it meant him working until he thought a product was perfect before releasing it. But in Tomas’ case, living in a poor North-east Brazilian shanty with few choices in his life, his idealism causes him to wait for the perfect solution, the right time to act, while others around him who accept faith, hope, and dreams, are willing to take the incremental imperfect changes to their lives that come from acting on these. This puts at risk Tomas’ relationship with Thereza, the woman whom he loves, as she is ready to follow her dreams and win a trip to the southern Cities, via a Carnival competition, where she might find work, no matter how imperfect this may seem. Ultimately, this puts both their lives in danger as they become embroiled with ruthless people trafficking gangs. But understanding better who Tomas was meant that I was able to intensify the conflict between Tomas and Thereza.
So that’s why I don’t lock myself away when writing, I continue to engage, because my senses are buzzing with issues raised in my novel in progress, and I am bound to see, hear, smell or taste something that will find its way into my story.
Below is one of the scenes from Carnival of Hope which best exemplifies Tomas’ pure vision:
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Have you read any stories recently where you’ve been able to say, that’s where the writer got the idea for that scene from?
When Tomas woke, the sun had lain down and a meagre calmness had returned to him. All he had to do was avoid staying in one place for more than a few hours. That way he might learn if anyone was searching for him before they found him, and also keep his mother and friends safe. He drank a mug of water and then trekked across to Thereza’s hut, using back alleyways and looking over his shoulder once or twice. Dona Benedita peered out of the cracked door with her usual foul face. ‘Thereza’s busy,’ she said.
‘What, don’t you believe me? Do you want to come in and see?’ She pulled back the door.
‘No, Dona Benedita, I’ll speak to her another time.’
Tomas turned and left. She was standing guard at the door because they were making the carnival costume. They would have gone to any lengths to make sure no one saw it and stole their idea, though come the day of the competition, dozens of the costumes would be the same. The worry was eating him raw from the insides. He went to wait at the side of a hut behind theirs, as he knew Thereza had heard him, and if she could, she would find some errand to run and come out to see him.
By the time she came, carrying a blanket over her arm, his pacing had worn a scar into the dirt. She walked a few strides one way then spun in another direction, darting into the alleyway where he was waiting. A wave of gratitude that she had made the effort rushed over him, as he was now in need of her support. His lips brushed against her cheek. ‘Thanks for coming.’
‘I can’t stay long. I told Mama that I was taking the blanket to lend to my godmother.’
‘Come.’ He took her hand and led her further behind the hut.
‘What’s the matter?’ she said. ‘You look odd.’
‘Nothing, I just woke.’ She continued to gaze into his watchful eyes, and he looked away. ‘What’ve you been doing?’ he said.
‘Helping Mama to do something.’
Making a costume, she meant. ‘Are you taking part in the carnival competition?’ he said.
‘Why are you asking me that?’ He dug into his pocket, pulled out the feather that he had found, and held it up. She took a step back with the deepest of breaths. Then her fists pressed into her gently rounded hips as if she had sprouted wings.
‘Was that you following us the other night?’
‘I wanted to make sure you were safe.’
‘You frightened Mama and me.’
‘Are you taking part?’ he demanded.
‘What if I were? There are only jobs on the plantations for you men. Then when we have children you leave us to fend for ourselves.’
‘I wouldn’t do that, Thereza, you know me better than that.’
‘Mama thought she knew some of the men she was with, Tomas, and look at her.’
‘That won’t happen to you, I promise.’
‘You can’t promise anything. Seu Jacques is sick and he’s been laid off. Mama wants me to marry one of the men on the hill to help the family out.’
‘Who? Did you tell her I’ll be on a minimum wage by the end of the year?’
‘Did you get the new students?’
He looked away and breathed a deep sigh. ‘I’m not sure about them.’
‘Maybe we could manage on what you make now while I try to find work. I could cook or clean for some of the ladies on the north side.’
‘Do you know anyone?’
‘Not yet, but someone may be hiring.’
‘I’ve lost all my students, Thereza.’
The blanket fell loose in her hand and dragged in the dirt. ‘All of them, they’ve left?’
He explained to her about the missing book and Dona Menzies giving up on him. They were silent then, as a full moon hung in a vast sky littered with stars. Tomas gazed over her head at them. How could such enduring beauty exist alongside their suffocating lives?
‘If I take part in carnival, I may win enough for both of us to go. You can’t stay here now.’
‘I can’t leave Mama, Thereza, Papa wouldn’t have wanted that.’
‘Did you really make a promise to your father, Seu Tomas, or are you afraid?’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘You don’t get to decide if or when to eat most days, so how can I expect you to make such a big decision?’
‘I’m trying, Thereza, just give me some time.’
‘There’s more for both of us to choose from down South. I’ll find it easier to get work.’
‘Because there’s more doesn’t mean it’s any better.’
‘Well, I want to try.’
‘But … what about us?’
‘What about us, Seu Tomas? What are you doing to help us? I’m hope for Mama and my sisters.’ She snatched up the blanket and made to go, but he grabbed hold of her arm.
‘Mama says they decide the carnival winners before the dance … and the life of workers in the South is hell.’
‘It’s our lives which are hell. I’ve heard that they have everything they want.’
‘You’ve never been there, so how do you know?’
‘I’ve seen them on the TV in the municipal offices, and in the magazines.’
‘Thereza!’ Tomas laughed.
‘Then how do you suddenly know that life there is hell? What about the people you’ve helped?’
The clatter of cans and boxes caused them to fall silent, staring at each other. Tomas signalled to her to stay and wandered down the alleyway, searching between the huts, but there was no one there. When he came back, he took her arm and led her to the other side of the alleyway. ‘Is it all right?’ she said.
‘I think so,’ Tomas said, his eyes and ears pricked like an animal on alert. He watched for a while longer before returning to their conversation, dampening his tune. ‘Look, Thereza, the people I’ve helped may do better to stay here and help their families instead of chasing what they think may lie in the South.’
‘None of us knows what’s down South waiting for us, Tomas, but whatever it is must be better than this. Don’t you want to find out?’
He didn’t believe in their dreams. The dreams of the women going south and finding a rich coroa, of the men finding high paying jobs and buying their own homes. It was all the same as the wishful incantations of the candomblézeiros to their orisha deities, and nothing had changed. How could moving south put more on the table for them, when they would find men like the mayors and Giomars of this world wherever they went? He had taught those people in the hope that when enough of them were educated and ready to stand up as equal men and women, it would be impossible for the few to deny them, and then they might be able to develop their own towns and villages; that would be his perfect solution. But he had no time for the anaesthetic of dreams, which had prompted the young, fit, and healthy to seek him out in the first place, to learn to read the few words that some said would secure them a job in a car plant, or caring for the children of a rich family, leaving the old and sick in the countryside to fend for themselves.
Thereza clutched at his hand with the force of a man. ‘If I take part and win enough, we could both get work there.’
‘What about our mamāes and all the young ones? When we leave what will become of them?’
‘We can’t feed them on the ideas which remain in your head. We can help them by going.’
‘Is that what your mother says?’ Tomas prised his hand free and slid his fingers through his curled hair, black as the Sertão night. He chuckled at the thought of all those migrants having become as fat as the landowners, and once they had secured their places at the tables of the rich, forgetting about the people they had left back home. ‘Thereza, how you love to dream.’
‘At least I have seen the life I want to live in my dreams and can tell you what it looks like; have you ever seen this equality and dignity that you talk about?’
Tomas’ back stiffened. ‘Has anyone you know sent enough back to help their families, or returned to visit with all this wealth of theirs?’
‘We could do better than them. That’s why I worked so hard when you taught me.’
‘I don’t know.’
He bent to lift the hanging blanket from the dirt, but she snatched it from him. ‘If we spend all our lives here, then our minds will never be opened the way you said; I can’t accept that now, Seu Tomas.’ She turned to go, tainted with bitterness now.
‘I cannot make you change your mind?’ Tomas asked.
‘If you want me you have to do something to help yourself and us. You need to try something new.’
‘What the hell do you expect me to do in less than two weeks?’
‘Nothing, like you always do,’ she said, and retreated down the alleyway leading to her godmother’s hut.
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