The Marble Army
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Gisele Firmino writes about The Marble Army from Outpost 19.
When Brazilians were preparing themselves to vote for presidential elections for the first time after living through a military regime I was in third grade. The fact that I vaguely remember this, a process that a child normally wouldn’t even notice, hints at the giddiness and sense of hope that overtook our people. I was constantly on the lookout, trying to catch glimpses of political propaganda, of each candidate’s promising discourse, and to gradually learn the meanings of words such as dictatorship, censorship, torture, amnesty, exile, etc., all of which seemed foreign and ancient, buried in a distant past that belonged to generations before mine. As a nine-year-old girl, I couldn’t match such vocabulary with my own reality. But it just seemed that way; we would still have to rid ourselves off the many remnants left by this period. And to this day, we continue to dwell in its aftermath.
Depending on whom you spoke with, this time took on many different faces. Stories ranged from the elements of an incredible epic movie to the various fabrics of ‘life as usual.’ I’d interrogate my parents’ friends, I would eavesdrop on their conversations, I’d pick apart some of the lyrics that became the soundtrack of that time, everything I could to try to make sense of what it was, of what it must have been like for someone to grow up shadowed by oppression. Luca, the narrator in The Marble Army, was partly born out of my own search.
The Marble Army was originally a short story, which I adapted into a screenplay, and finally a novel. I was living in Los Angeles, and didn’t get to go home often. I had recently discovered it was possible to study creative writing, and started to attend a few workshops. After what felt like an inevitable period of giving in to my own insecurities and trying (and failing) to fit in with that environment, to cater to what I thought was expected from me as a writer, I decided to write about what was missing, not in literature, but in my life.
Luca was the first character I wrote who seemed real, who seemed to want to have his own life regardless of how hard I tried to create one for him. Once I had Luca though, it became clear to me that my knowledge at that point didn’t come close to what was required to create his world as authentic as I thought he deserved. But as I dove deeply into the different mandates of each general and how each leader differed from one another, I noticed I was gradually distancing myself from Luca, gradually losing track of his voice and his own search. So I stopped. From then on, any research I did served solely to provide him with the tools he sought to tell his story.
Luca required me to learn things such as: how often a middle class family would drink soda during meals? How wealthy did one have to be to own a television set, or a telephone? What kind of equipment miners used in the south of Brazil in the sixties? What a coalmine smells like? And for these questions, I relied more on word of mouth, movies and documentaries, blog posts, biographies… anything that felt personal. The idea for the title came from an image I read about in a blog post, which I only stumbled upon by sheer luck. A few scenes were inspired by João Carlos Bona Garcia’s biography, which was adapted into a film, called In Your Name. By the time I moved back to Brazil in 2011, I had a complete draft of the novel, and I was eager to see these places again. I visited Minas do Leão, and went inside the mine. I hadn’t been there in twenty years, and to have a chance to go back as an adult, as a writer, felt like an incredible privilege. In Porto Alegre, I sat through numerous sunsets in the very spot Pablo took Luca at one point in the book. I’d walk around downtown and campuses, drink chimarrão and pay attention to how our friends discussed soccer, and politics, and family.
From the first scene I’d written of Luca, his older brother Pablo seemed to be at the very center of his life, which wasn’t surprising to me, given my tumultuous relationship with my own brother. Pablo encapsulated everything that was both familiar and puzzling for Luca. I wanted Luca to experience nostalgia for Minas do Leão and the life they left behind through Pablo. A constant saudade of everything he associated with home, as well as the fear he experienced for what could never be home, for the unknown. It made sense to me that Pablo would also symbolize the anger and disappointment he felt toward the decisions made by all of those around him, and the guilt he carried along with such feelings. I needed his search for Pablo and his search for himself to almost be one and the same.
The research was critical to feel somewhat comfortable writing about a period I hadn’t witnessed. It provided me with a certain ease to follow these characters through different streets, mine gallerias, college campuses and protests, or simply from a kitchen to a bedroom. But I was constantly reminding myself that The Marble Army was less about the political turmoil Brazil had faced, and more about what happens inside the homes in such circumstances; the different ways in which families are broken, and how they manage to put themselves back together again. I hoped it would explore the surrogates we seek to mend our own scars, to replace something or someone we miss tremendously, and how effective or ineffective these surrogates can possibly be.