João Tordo

Illustration by: Uma Joana

Interview by: João Miguel Fernandes

João tordo escritor

Occupation: Writer

Click here to read the interview in Portuguese

1- Tell me about one moment from your childhood that has particularly marked you.

When I think about my childhood, unfortunately or fortunately, I think mostly about loneliness. Loneliness is a word that people interpret in a negative way, and of course it has a negative side, especially when you are a kid and you are not supposed to be alone. But my childhood was mostly spent with myself, with me discovering a number of things which were later confirmed, that I really enjoyed reading, writing and, therefore, I spent a lot of time alone also as a defense.

I remember Guernica from Picasso, because my parents had that painting at home, in Lisbon. I was born right in the center of Lisbon, in what was before called the Commerce Employees Association (“Associação dos Empregados do Comércio”), which was some sort of maternity in the Madalena street, in downtown center. My father had it on the wall, although I was recently told it was not that big, a serigraphy of that painting of Picasso which is at all levels a painting that is a little scary for a child, it has a horse with its head upside down, a strange light. And I remember such memory, of being afraid of that painting, even though I have been later told it was a small painting, but in my head it was something huge, almost on the entire wall.

2- Which people you know/knew have marked you more from a personal perspective?

I had a teacher of Portuguese in the tenth grade who was very important. This merges with the professional perspective because I was a good student. He was the first teacher I had that realized I had a talent for writing and that encouraged me to write, finding out I was writing short stories. I ended up showing him the short stories and he would read them, correct them and give suggestion. That was rare in Portugal in 1989/1990, so it was a long time ago. He was an important person in both perspectives.

My parents of course marked me, as they are always special figures in our lives, both in a positive and negative way; also, my twin sister, Joana, we grew up together; later, some friends that I still have, which is basically my group of friends who are all related to this area, one of them is a writer, another is a scriptwriter, others are related to other creative areas. I surrounded myself with people with whom I had some affinity. My colleagues in London, when I studied there, were also important, one or another person I met when I lived in the United Stated, but it is hard to identify just one person.

3- I imagine that is a challenge to write books in a digital era in which the attention is increasingly lower or do you consider that people who like to read are still the same audience and, in that way, nothing has changed?

I think there are certain things which are obvious in the times we live in. Life has become very visual, much more than a written or spoken thing. The downside of this is that you see a lot of people on social media, people mostly look for some kind of approval of the way they look, much more than the way they are. There was a Roman philosopher, Seneca, who said that we have to take care of the spirit over the body, or to take care of the spirit as well as of the body, and what social media does right now is taking care of the body rather than the spirit, and this is a sign of the times. The brain is a malleable organ, we shape the brain according to what we feed it. If I spend the entire day in front of a television, my brain will have stimuli related to the pleasure boosted by television, and will have troubles responding to more difficult stimuli, and literature at all levels was never a project of ease, but rather a project of truth, of trying to say the truth through imagination. I am not sure how to define literature, but I think it is more or less this. When I read a literary text, the resonance it has in me is to be something true.

In Spain, it is possible to sell en masse, but in Portugal literature was placed second and mass sale is for things that seem like literature, but they are not, they are the result of social networks, people who have a lot of followers and that end up writing books which obviously are, to whoever has some sort of literary culture, of little or no interest. This is a by-product of what social media may create, thus I think there is space for everything, this is not a criticism, people shall write whatever they want and buy whatever they want, I think there will always be people interested in books and a reading public, but maybe in the future this will decrease because of the way our brain is being reorganized with social networks. This is an individual choice, for me spending the day on social networks is unthinkable, it would be a miserable life, but for other people this is the life they choose, I have nothing to do with that.

“When I write I am so immersed that I do not have much space to feel, usually feelings just come when I finish the book and sometimes is good or deeply complicated, because such acknowledgement happens of what I made of the characters and myself, because they are part of me. “

4 – In what way a language may influence writing in the sense of creating a character, a world, etc.? Do you think that a country’s language has cultural characteristics that influence what can be written or do you think that one may write a book in English or Portuguese and convey exactly the same?

I think it depends on the translator and depends on the degree of knowledge you have of the author you are translating, as well as on the enthusiasm you have for what you are translating. It has already happened to me to be translating authors that I really like and treating them as if the text was mine, therefore the challenge is to get me out of that place to avoid being me and finding that space is very complicated. The challenge is to think how Raymond Carver would write if he was Portuguese. On the other hand, when we translate things that we do not like the challenge is bigger, as it turns out to be more tiring. I already had that experience and I rather prefer not having it again, because it really gives you no pleasure at all, and translation is also a way to reinterpret and give a new language to those ideas and that is not easy.

There are books that are untranslatable, if you take Ulysses from James Joyce, that is untranslatable, in whatever language, no matter how good the Portuguese translator was, and personally, I think it made an excellent job, but it is not the same thing, it is not the same book. However, there are books which are more similar, like the ones from Raymond Carver, it is simpler to make them speak Portuguese. For others is not possible, we have to try to reach an approximation.

5 – When you create a character do you usually create its entire story since the beginning or is it different from character to character?

When I start a book I already have a long time impulse or an idea which is very solid and obsessive, and what happens is that the characters are born and grow up while I write, and it is this discovery of characters that I like to do while writing a book. Every day the characters start to take shape, although some characters, as Lia (The Woman who Ran After the Wind, “A Mulher que Correu Atrás do Vento”), was inspired by a girl I met a few years ago, thus there was already a given shape. The personality and motivations of each character are proven on the page, especially in what each character do and, as in life, our actions define us, and that turns out to be a challenge of writing by itself, finding the characters. No, I do not do any sketches or files, I am not that kind of writer, I like to discover things as they happen.

6 – To what extent you let yourself be absorbed by the sensations and emotions of the characters growing inside you?

It depends on the books. The book I published in 2018 (Teach me to Fly over the Rooftops, “Ensina-me a Voar sobre os Telhados”) is much more biographical than The Woman who Ran After the Wind (“A Mulher que Correu Atrás do Vento”), also because the latter is narrated from a feminine perspective, not so close to me, even though it has things from me. I think that what is difficult to disassociate is the way the characters set free from the ties I build for them. When you launch a character in a story you will inherently launch it with a certain degree of conflict, trouble and incidents. There are characters that later make the Aristotelian acknowledgement, they realize the result of their choices, as we do in our lives, Aragnoris, and you make that decision with the character, even if it goes against what you would do. And that is how I understand there is a bit of me in all characters and I can see all my perspectives working, the happy side, the dark one, the good, the bad, etc. The acknowledgement that we have all these perspectives and that it is our choice and decisions which lead to this Aragnoris is sometimes scary, because we realize that there is a part of life that is not in our hands, the part controlled by a superior force, but our decisions are still our decisions.

When I write I am so immersed that I do not have much space to feel, usually feelings just come when I finish the book and sometimes is good or deeply complicated, because such acknowledgement happens of what I made of the characters and myself, because they are part of me. Sorry for the complicated answer, but this is a complex process for me. That is why literature is so complicated and easy at the same time. It may be so easy to read, in a fluid manner, but for those who write is highly conflictive and turbulent, that is why writers have sometimes a difficult life, because they have to deal with what is outside them, as well as with what is inside them and that is not for everyone, just like being a lawyer, a firefighter, a doctor, etc., it is necessary to have a certain mental and psychological structure, which is neither better nor worse, it is just a specific one.

7 – Literature is the basis of various arts such as cinema and theatre. Would you like to take a more active role in the cinema and theatre or is it something you are not looking to explore?

Well, if it was just for me, I would only write books (laughs), it is what I really like to do and the day will come I will be able to do it, I am closer than I was in the past. The process of writing TV and cinema has a great advantage, it is a collective job, usually you do not do it alone and thus it involves an immediate confrontation with others, unlike the book, in which I spend various months writing alone and a confrontation only arises when I hand it over to the publisher. With a script you get an immediate feedback, which is good because it helps you growing, not only as a writer but also as an individual. If I would do it voluntarily? I do not know, I do not know if I feel like it. I think that after so many novels and to dedicate myself so much to just one thing, I think I have no more space in this life, neither physical nor mental time to improve more than one form of art, therefore I think it would too ambitious, considering my limitations, to aspire to be a great screenwriter because I think I will have no time. But I do it every time an interesting project comes up, of course.

8 – Do you consider yourself very perfectionist in what you do?

I am very perfectionist in writing indeed, and sometimes this is a source of pain. Anything that interferes with writing is some sort of enemy, which is complicated because I often have to stop to do other things, to interrupt a book because I have to travel or something and that sometimes makes me feel anguished. Writing is a source of great joy, but sometimes is a source of great pain, and if it is not an obsessive process then I do not know how to do it, and I think many writers say the same thing.

“I believe that the nowadays society is built from an informative perspective, when you turn on the radio and newspapers or on the TV, they say this and that happened, but rarely ask how people feel, thus, a society that is built in this way does not consider feelings. Feelings are something individual, it is hard for us as a society to find compassion, because we live in an informative manner. We live in a state of perpetual conflict, against the guy who pushed me, who jumped the line, etc.”

9 – Do you think pain and chaos drive human being more than love? In a motivation sense; or do you think they are both connected?

I think they are the same thing, I do not see a great difference between hurting and loving. I do not know whether is possible for one to live without the other. I believe that the nowadays society is built from an informative perspective, when you turn on the radio and newspapers or on the TV, they say this and that happened, but rarely ask how people feel, thus, a society that is built in this way does not consider feelings. Feelings are something individual, it is hard for us as a society to find compassion, because we live in an informative manner. We live in a state of perpetual conflict, against the guy who pushed me, who jumped the line, etc.

I think we find such state in the artistic expression. If you go to Gulbenkian [museum in Lisbon] to see a concert you see this kind of expression in people’s body and face, that is the expression of pain in love, it is the pain you bring from the day-to-day life which is in a perpetual conflict with love that allows to fell when I am there, in that moment.

So yes, I think they are the same thing, but it is almost a matter of alchemy, to transform something that is cheap metal into gold (laughs). Obviously, you can also transform love into pain, there are many examples.

10 – In the movie The Thin Red Line there is a part in which one of the characters asks the other “Do you ever get lonely?” and he replies “Only around people”. I read in a previous interview that you like being alone, that you are a lonely person. Do you identify yourself with this answer?

I really enjoy being with people and I am often with friends, family, etc. I do not feel alone, I feel in good company, mainly with myself, because my job has much of that. I do not feel a lonely person, I feel that I need to stay alone to do what I do and loneliness can be either a negative or positive thing, without it I could not write.

11 – Is there any influence from Ingmar Bergman’s works or other filmmaker in your works? Any cinema influences?

I really like Bergman because he is a filmmaker who has something to do with the environments which sometimes I describe or get inspired by, especially in the most recent books. There are some movies of him that I really like, maybe lesser known, such as Summer with Monika and my favorite Winter Light which is a beautiful movie about faith. His movies are incredible, they deal a lot with the same topics, faith and hope. Winter Light was important because when I was writing Teach me to Fly over the Rooftops (“Ensina-me a Voar sobre os Telhados”) I ended up taking some things from the movie. I think Bergman tries to bring everything that is mystical to everything that is human. We are often looking for God when, in the end, everything we are looking for is here with us.

12 – There is a certain tendency for human beings to forget death until it knocks on the nearest door. Do you think we should prepare the society better for this topic which is still a bit of a taboo?

That is hard to answer because one thing is the death of someone close to me, which is tragic, other thing is the death of 300 people who live in a country 10.000 kms away.

I think that we, as a society, tend to hide the dead, the soonest possible. We do not have great dignity with the dead, they are things to get out of there, to not annoy the living ones and I think that is natural, we are fragile creatures, being faced every day with our mortality may be a very tiring process and, thus, until a certain age we have the illusion that we will never die. I recently wrote a reflection of one of my book’s characters in which it was said that death is the great whole, meaning is to where all the individuality is drained as well as all our construction as “me”. Death is some sort of community of anonymous people and that is very hard for us to conceive, that we are just another one and that we will be nothing. I think such education does not go through any government, politics, it depends from one to another, the way one wants to learn and face such end. Being alive, reflect about death is worthwhile, because it helps us to live, but it is not worthwhile to spend our entire lives thinking about it.




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