5th Pedras Negras writers meet-up: the (ever-present) weight of the island
Before the interview I’m about to share with you, the day had been particularly intense and emotional.
In the morning, after our regular breakfast of bolo lêvedo and cheese sandwiches at O Trancador, me, Carolina, and Elaine had gone down to Praia da Calheta beach to (attempt to) write a piece together.
That wooden gazebo with an ocean view and the harbor took us on a journey that neither one expected. I, for sure, didn’t expect it—the island, the weight of dependency and rugged cliffs, ever-present around us.
Soon we drifted from the exercise’s intended goal and, stubbornly, stuck to our voices as writers — both of them a lot more poetic and polished than me.
There was something heavy and nostalgic about the curvy roads of Flores Island and the dense, humid fog that would follow us everywhere that weekend.
In true remote island style, the day we left was the day the sun shone brightly. The island was done with us, ready to get us out.
This interview takes place at O Valzinho, Nina Soulimand’s refuge of plants, art, and music. Minutes before, Nina had given us a tour of her property and open-air nature lab, and I had sobbed over the text I had written at that beach gazebo earlier that morning. Strange things like that happen at Fringe.
Sitting in a circle on the floor, we talked openly about writing, the challenges of publishing, the pains of being an islander, and how it all changes and magnifies and shapes who we are as artists.
The interview was transcribed from Portuguese and translated into English; portions were edited for clarity.
A massive portion of that conversation will remain private. I struggled about publishing it or not because I believe it would shake so many foundations that change was inevitable. In the end, I chose to keep it to ourselves.
I want to openly start with this question: what is your challenge as authors? Considering that the Fringe authors will never fit the image of what is “normal.”
I’ll answer that question as quickly as I can. I think our challenges are linked to how some older generations [of authors] make things difficult for us. Some of them find it harder to accept a younger generation of writers, a new voice.
Of course, with all due respect, the older generations cater to a specific generation, a voice, an era, a concept. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, it’s another generation, another voice, another concept of island.
This doesn’t mean the older generation isn’t valuable. Of course not. On the contrary! They are the generation who created us, but they need to respect us for publishing our work, for our effort, for our commitment, for wanting to leave something for our generation and the future ones.
Our biggest challenge is to be accepted by those who are part of what I call the “levels generation,” but we also need to do what Susana [C. Júdice] has been preaching to us all weekend long — having the willpower to do things, believing in what we do and our work, having the ability to work around the obstacles.
If we work around the obstacle and there’s no longer a barrier, then we deserve recognition, we can do it, and we should go for it.
Now I believe, and I’m talking specifically about my personal experience, I need to take all that’s happened to me recently and reconcile myself with whether those “levels” accept me or not and with my inner strength and belief that I’m worth something.
“Taking Carolina’s image of [hierarchical] levels, for those who don’t live on the islands, do you feel the same? José Efe and Susana C. Júdice, does this happen to you as well? Do you struggle with these hierarchical obstacles?”
In my career, so far, my biggest challenge has been [having a solid network of] contacts. Contacts I could use to make people more aware of my work because I am very confident in my work. I know my books deserve a lot more than what I’ve gotten so far.
That said, I’ve started [my writing career] without any expertise in the market or with experienced people in the business who could spend their time helping me out. I have to learn as I go along, and of course, my growth is a lot slower because I don’t have that network that could probably help me get there faster.
Recently I searched and interviewed a literary agent because I thought I needed one. I quickly realized it’s not a literary agent that I need, but a press assistant with experience in the literary market. So, I don’t have someone to teach me how it’s done, and I do it by trial and error.
I think it’s tough when we don’t have a name, when we have to start from scratch, and we have to convince other people that our writing is worth their time, especially if you’re not already famous in some other area of business.
People judge us for our image, our status, not for our books, which should be the only thing under scrutiny to deem an author as successful or unsuccessful. In my opinion, our challenge is the lack of a contact network.
Well, maybe I’m a lucky writer because I’ve already published 10 books, and none of them was self-published. The difference, perhaps, is that I worked for 19 years as a journalist at Jornal de Notícias [a newspaper in Porto]. In a way, the newspaper opened up the door for me to become a writer.
Writing for a newspaper is different, of course. I published my first book as an author’s edition, following the advice of others. Most of the famous authors started like that. Well, I’m not famous, and I’ll probably never be famous, but that’s not at all what matters.
I invested 500 Euros and published an author’s edition thinking that, if lucky, I would get back part of that investment. I did a first launch event and sold half the books, which truly surprised me. I did not see that coming.
I was a teacher at the time, and the Porto City Council ordered 100 of my books. So, I started out focusing on not losing a lot of money and ended up actually earning some, which was a very interesting first experience.
[I think what really made this experience worthwhile] was that I followed the process of making a book from beginning to end. I didn’t only write it. I revised it and edited it, I designed the cover, and I oversaw the printing process.
I think the lucky strike came after when that book was advertised in the newspaper. Later, Valter Hugo Mãe [a famous Portuguese author] invited me to write a second book called “Fenda Acesa.”
Most authors don’t live off their writing, and most of them don’t even get their 10% royalty for books sold. They might get offered 15 or 20 books, perhaps no more than that. In my case, I sold 300 copies of that second book and got my 10% royalties seven or eight months later. And then came the third book, and since then, I’ve already published books through six different publishers.
I’m probably the odd one out because my books have been well accepted, not that I make a lot of money from them…
Ever since the first Azores Fringe Festival I attended, I have a lot of respect for all of you as artists, creators. But there is something that I find odd, and that reminds me of something [Pedro] Almeida Maia said when he was introducing himself. He said, “I’ve already published four books, but this is a hobby for me.” All of you have published dozens of books, and in my mind, that’s no longer a hobby. So my question for you is this: do you think that earning an income from writing is what makes you professional writers? Or better yet, when or how does it stop being a hobby?
I believe that here on the islands, what will make me a professional writer in other people’s eyes is how many books I’m able to sell. If I sell 50 or 100 books, then I’m no one. But if I sell 500 books, then I’m worth something. It’s what I constantly feel, especially if I don’t have friends in the right places…
Which was something we also discussed on our way to the cafe in the morning…
…Exactly. If I don’t have friends in the right places, then it complicates matters. That said, it’s hard for me to explain to you why I’m a writer. I don’t write because I need to or because I feel like it. I write because that’s who I am. I write because I believe that I, my being, need to talk to myself. What I write doesn’t necessarily have to resonate with you or someone else. If I believe that in the end, that conversation with myself is worth something, then I print it, and I publish it, and I present my book to people.
No matter the outcome?
No matter the outcome. Now, I don’t want to be a hypocrite. Of course, I’d love to live off my writing and my books, obviously, because I’m fascinated by it. However, if you’re asking me that selling books is what makes me a writer, my answer is no.
But do you feel that the others’ perception is influenced by awards and recognition?
Yes, absolutely. I think everyone in this room knows that there are many competitions and awards to benefit the friend of a friend, either because they’re already famous or as retribution for a favor. There is no recognition of merit.
And the merit in the creative industry is always tricky because it depends on others’ perception…
Precisely. Of course, if people explain to me why a person got an award instead of me, I don’t have a problem with that. I will accept it.
But the problem is that most of them are based on hidden agendas or rules that don’t clarify why this person won and not the other one when they’re both at the same level. And most of the time, when we call or email asking for feedback, we get none.
The following section of this interview is an adaptation of Gabriela Silva’s reaction and words to this issue of merit and recognition. I’m not sharing it in full because we all took it as a private confession of sorts. And although I love to tell stories, I also only write what I want the reader to read.
On Flores Island, being a writer is a risk but for other reasons. It’s a small island of 4,000 people, mostly isolated and lonely. Recognition here is tricky. I never know if people recognize me or mention me because of my work or because there is no one else in Flores who writes and publishes books. Being an islander in Flores is entirely different from being an islander in São Miguel or in Terceira. Our challenges are different.
Remember what I told you in the morning [Sandra]? After spending time here, I understand your dependence on the ocean, your dependence on a ship for cargo, and if it comes or not.
São Miguel [islanders] don’t know how to live in an archipelago. [With Fringe] I became part of an extraordinary and wonderful family, I became part of an archipelago.
But Fringe has other merits. To me, it’s one of the most important [events]. I’ve been to many writers’ meet-ups everywhere in the world. I went as that woman who sometimes says some stuff on the radio, and on TV, and on newspapers.
I’ve been to many writers’ events with people with College degrees who wrote awarded books, but all I met were people away from their essence, saying things they don’t mean, conveying ideas that are not their own. Doing stuff that’s absolutely meaningless. Fringe allows us to strip down to our true selves. We are all here emotionally naked, unafraid of each other, unafraid of our words, unafraid of our tears, and that’s what matters because this is a gathering of human beings. Most of the time, those writes’ meet-ups aren’t gatherings of human beings.
I’d like to go back to the issue of being small on a small island. If people who live here feel too small for the rest of the world, then that’s the real problem because I believe we can do whatever we want to do from these small lumps of land. That’s how Fringe began.
If you want to publish a book, you don’t have to go to Lisbon or look for the largest publisher in the country. I know writers who sold a lot more than 500 books, and they weren’t part of any publisher. And I also know some who are part of a publisher and who weren’t able to sell 500 books, and they’re screwed now because they’ll have to wait longer to get that publisher to ever trust them again.
But everything these days is about the numbers. As you well know, I, with MiratecArts, a small association in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, have reached 140 countries in seven years and welcomed 1800 artists from 60 countries here on the islands. Numbers. Numbers matter.
And going back to your initial question about publishing books, nowadays you can publish your own book on the internet even if no one knows who you are.
(Susana C. Júdice)
We have to tell apart what we call limitations if they are real or imposed upon us. Many times I notice people waiting for outsiders to come and make their dreams come true. It’s our responsibility to fight for our dreams with whatever tools we have.
I want to sell my book abroad, but I can’t stand and wait for things to happen on their own. I hustled to get contacts because I don’t have friends in important places, like Carolina mentioned, or a job that gives me those opportunities. So I need help. And I can’t be afraid of getting that help and of sending proposals to people. If I want to go to Hollywood, then I have to fight to get to Hollywood!
And just because I have the ambition to sell my book in other countries, someone who decides to publish a book just for their friends is not a lesser writer than me. I don’t think we should label someone as a more or less professional writer because what makes me feel happy and accomplished might not be the same for my colleagues.
That’s why in the sales world, there’s commercial and there’s the alternative, right? To me, there is no longer such a thing as professional and amateur. And when we’re specifically talking about art, everything is subjective. But I don’t think the word “craziness” is enough to describe people like us.
You have to go and do what you love. I don’t think we’re crazy. I believe we are truly free.