Joca Reiners Terron is a novelist, poet, and Brazilian playwright. He was born in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso, and now lives in São Paulo. His novels include São Não Há Nada Lá, Hotel Hell, Do Fundo do Poço se Vê a Lua (awarded the Machado de Assis Prize for Best Novel of 2010 by the Brazilian National Library), and A Tristeza Extraordinária do Leopardo-das-Neves. He is also the author of a graphic novel, Guia de Ruas Sem Saída, illustrated by André Ducci. Terron started the Ministry of Disaster, an independent publishing house that galvanized the Brazilian literary scene in the nineties. He writes reviews for the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, among others.
McSWEENEY’S: So how did you approach the idea of writing a crime story? Did you start with a character, or a particular situation, or something else? Did you think about it differently than you would another sort of story?
JOCA REINERS TERRON: I do not like to plan what I write. I usually start from an image. In this case, I was in a metropolitan train station, and I saw a car full of masons closely following an ambulance as it cut through the gridlock. The other cars around them remained stuck in traffic, but the ambulance moved with ease.
Most Brazilian workers—particularly the poor ones—do not have access to ambulances when they need them. The whole story came from that scene. Putting a Brazilian construction worker in a well-equipped ambulance is more or less like seeing an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table, to borrow a phrase from the surrealist Lautréamont.
McSWEENEY’S: We asked you for a story set in Brazil. How much did you think about that, as you were working on this? Do you think a story like this can tell us something about a particular place, or a particular country?
JOCA REINERS TERRON: It’s difficult to set crime stories in Brazil, or in any other country where democracy is not yet fully consolidated, and where the basic needs of a civil society are not yet met. The reason is simple: the most terrifying criminal in Brazil is the state itself. The notion of good and evil around here is less clear-cut. Because of this, the bad guy in my story is almost faceless: a civil servant who abuses his powers for frivolous reasons. I don’t think my story would work as well in a country other than this one.
McSWEENEY’S: Is there a Brazilian author, or a particular Brazilian book, or even a movie or a TV show, that you think takes on the genre particularly well?
JOCA REINERS TERRON: The detective stories of Rubem Fonseca are among the few that manage to portray—with little help from the English or American traditions—the moral issues of an immoral country. In film, O Bandido da Luz Vermelha (The Red Light Bandit, from 1968) by Rogério Sganzerla is essential viewing. Both men achieve something very original.
McSWEENEY’S: Your protagonist, a Polish insurance adjustor who ends up in something like a detective role, is initially so out of his element that he mistakes Brazil for Uruguay. How did you decide to center your story on that character?
JOCA REINERS TERRON: As I said, I do not plan my stories. But since Brazil has become a major player in the global economy, it has become common to see foreign businessmen visiting. Often they have no idea how to handle themselves in this wild, tropical country. My poor Stefan Czarniecki is just one more of them.
McSWEENEY’S: Traffic jams, and lines, and the ways people attempt to circumvent them, play an important role here. How have you dealt with that frustration, living in Sao Paulo?JOCA REINERS TERRON: I have adapted my everyday life so that I don’t have to leave the house frequently. However, I still get frustrated when it comes to the poor quality of public transport in São Paulo. The protests that broke out in Brazil in June 2013 demanded, among other things, improvements in public transport. My story was written during that period of protest. A period that, it bears mentioning, is not yet over.