Author photo of Daniel Galera © Suhrkamp Verlag.
Daniel Galera was born in São Paulo, and spent a year and a half in Garopaba, the Brazilian seaside town that became the setting for his tense, violent, and funny 2012 novel Blood-Drenched Beard, which was published in the U.S. by Penguin Press in 2015. His other novels include The Shape of Bones (2017) and Twenty After Midnight (2020). He has translated works by John Cheever, David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith into Portuguese, and his latest book, The God of Ferns, published in the Portuguese by Companhia das Letras, is a collection of three novellas. Earlier this year, we read the title story, translated by Julia Sanches, and were instantly hooked by its almost uncanny state of suspense, so we decided to share an adapted excerpt with you, to get you through these rather strange holidays we’re having.
Galera answered some questions about the story and about his writing from his home in Porto Alegre, where he lives with his wife, his young daughter, and his Australian cattle dog.
The apartment in “The God of Ferns” is a complete, and very detailed, universe—the piles of clothes, the coffee cups, the hair in the bathroom. Is it where you live?
It is made up of a few places I’ve lived—plus quite a lot of invention. The observation of my own private life is just a seed from which made-up details can flourish. Some of the stuff in the apartment has a significance, like the faded spines of Lucas’s books or the way Manuela organizes the pans on the stove; other things are random. For this story, I needed details to create a tension between the couple’s intimacy and the looming threat beyond their refuge. Their clothes, the contents of the fridge, their bodily detritus—I wanted all of it to add to a feeling that we are intruding a little, at a time when they’re not welcoming visitors.
Are you a smoker, like Lucas?
I smoke, but no more than three cigarettes a day, usually at night, when work and daily chores are behind me. More than that will make me literally sick. Lucas smokes heavily, and the interesting thing to me is that he’s proud of it at a time when smoking is widely censured. I liked imagining him feeling good about himself doing pull-ups and smoking at the same time. His behavior is a little childish and vain, and smoking is clearly a self-conscious part of his identity, the way he likes to be seen. Manuela gladly tolerates his smoking, and this is also meaningful. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more of an indication of his anxiety. Chain-smokers make people around them nervous, and readers can experience that, too.
Did writing the story begin with the birth, or with the election, or something else?
The story came out of my recollections of how I felt in the days before the election of Jair Bolsonaro, when a feeling of unreality started to sink in. It was like the future was dissolving. Most people I knew felt desperate. It was not a matter of liberals versus socialists, of private capital versus the social state. This was about basic human decency, the defense of democracy, the survival of the most vulnerable, the loss of even the few advances in social justice that Brazil had seen in the previous decade. There was so much fake news and hate speech. I have clear memories of those final days of the campaign. Our daughter was born a year before the elections, in 2017, and I combined both experiences to come up with this idea of a baby that refuses to come out, a mother enduring a long labor while trying to silence all that fear and hate. I started writing the story at the end of 2019, right before the first coronavirus reports came out of China, and so the social isolation we had to endure because of the virus became a sort of parallel narrative that the reader would bring into the story. While I was writing, I kept in mind that the reader would already know the outcome of the election and of Bolsonaro’s government, and this tension between what the characters know and what the reader knows felt essential.
Do you think the act of writing is a bit like childbirth?
Maybe it’s more like the opposite. The gestation of a story can be quite painful in a psychological sense. Giving birth, actually writing the thing, is mostly a pleasure. And once it’s born, very much unlike having a child, you have to move on from it.
Did you set out, with “The God of Ferns,” to write a short story, a novel, or a novella?
Initially I set out to write a story collection, thinking that “The God of Ferns” would be one among many stories. At some point I realized that I only had three stories, and that they should all be rather long. It felt possible that one of them might even grow into a novel. But I ended up with three novellas, or at least that’s what I decided to call them. They differ in style, plot, and setting. “The God of Ferns” is a short step backward into recent history, while the other two take long jumps into the future. They go from traditional realism to wide speculation. I like how they work together.
Does the form of the novella lend itself particularly well to science fiction or fantasy?
No, but science fiction and fantasy provide a useful freedom and a perspective from which to write about the present day. This has always been the case, of course, but I suspect that recently the realist tradition has been particularly challenged by the flood of big data, by widespread surveillance, digital images, and social networks. When people’s lives and daily affairs are so mediated by that kind of technology and by relentless digital reproduction, how do you write about it without sounding redundant? I think my ventures into science fiction and apocalyptic fantasy were probably experiments to try to answer that question. “The God of Ferns” is a realistic tale, but there’s this suspicion that something is wrong and unfinished, that the baby might never come, that history might be stuck in some sort of high-speed vortex that won’t deliver a satisfying outcome. In that sense, it is of a piece with the two other speculative tales.
Are there works of science fiction that you especially love?
I enjoy what they call “hard” science fiction—stories that are committed to scientific accuracy but that usually extract the most fabulous and mind-bending conclusions from it: books like Peter Watts’s Blindsight and Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem trilogy. I also love the “weird sci-fi” of Jeff VanderMeer, which blurs the boundaries between biology and technology, the human and the nonhuman. Recently, I had a great time reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, a rather realistic vision of the consequences of our climate emergency, and Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland, which I can’t really describe—go read it! Ursula K. Le Guin is terrific, too.
What have you been reading recently?
I often read even more than usual while working on a new book. Other writers are the best partners and allies, and I try to be open to their influence. I’d recommend The Employees by Olga Ravn, and Nuestra parte de noche by Mariana Enríquez (not available in English, I’m afraid), which is one of the most impressive and terrifying novels I’ve read. I enjoyed Visão noturna, a collection of stories about dreams, by the young Brazilian author Tobias Carvalho, and I just finished In the Eye of the Wild by Nastassja Martin, a thought-provoking memoir about her violent encounter with a bear in the Russian wilderness. Right now I’m reading a very unique book, The Man who Spoke Snakish, by the Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk. It’s a fantasy novel about people who live in the woods and talk to animals.
This story is set in a particular kind of lockdown. How did the pandemic affect your writing, if at all?
Even though the pandemic deeply affected my life, I don’t think it affected my writing very much. Writing “The God of Ferns,” I had in my imagination ideas and feelings that were gathered before the onset of the pandemic: coping with a country ruled by the far-right, with the often misguided ideology of technological progress, with the need to find new and better alliances with nature in order to survive in a damaged planet. During lockdowns I was struggling to find work, to not go crazy or get depressed, to protect myself and my family. Our habits and routines were constantly jeopardized and modified. Brazil suffered the additional tragedy of a president that was and remains anti-vaccines and scoffs daily in the media at masks and isolation measures. A lot of energy was spent just on hoping we would not be left to die by those who were supposed to take care of the people, on hate, on hoping they’d pay for their crimes sooner than later. Writing required me to find isolation inside isolation. I managed to do it, with support from family. Having to write this book helped keep my spirits up.
Illustration by Oliver Munday.
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