Vlad Savich: Shakespeare said, “what’s in a name? João, tell us about yourself.
João Cerqueira: I was lucky enough to inherit my father’s book collection with hundreds of books including all of the classics. From The Canterbury Tales to Don Quixote, all the major titles were there. At eighteen I read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Another important book was Pär Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf, the protagonist of which was incapable of feeling anything else for humanity other than hatred and contempt, which also fascinated me. At that time, I also read Cosmos by Carl Sagan, which taught me to understand the universe; I learned that the stars and I were made of the same stuff – this idea is in The Tragedy of Fidel Castro – and that many of them although still visible, may no longer exist. These are the books that initiated me into adulthood.
I then read two remarkable works: 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the dystopian prophecies of which are, for some, now coming true. Years later I rediscovered Orwell when I wrote Art and Literature in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell fought against Fascism, but in the end the Communists wanted to kill him too. Homage to Catalonia describes this tragic experience that leads to books such as 1984 and Animal Farm.
It was through Portuguese writers – Camões, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Lobo Antunes – that I learned to write. Hence my belief that form – that is, command of language – is as or more important than content.
I am interested in exploring the complexity of human nature. Why there is so much violence? Why there is so much stupidity? Are we really so much different from other animals? The lives of Hitler and Stalin were worth more than those of my (your) cats (or dogs)?
I use humor to show that religious or political dogmas always lead to fanaticism or dictatorship. Human beings are different from other animals because they have the ability to think, to question things and to laugh. That is why we have democracy and freedom – and some cultures do not. A religious or political fanatic is a person with no humor at all. Zero. But I am sure that God can take a joke: bears, children, wives, for example. The same happens with intelligent and confident people – they even can laugh from themselves. Stupid people don’t – so they became violent. In Umberto Eco’s The name of the Rose, a fanatic monk killed because he fears humor. So, if all the holly books had jokes perhaps we’d live in a better world.
Both my novels The Tragedy of Fidel Castro and Jesus and Magdalene satirize modern society and use irony and humor to provoke reflection and controversy.
VS: I like early mornings with a cup of hot coffee on the table the bird’s sing or quiet music and inspiration at this time come to me. At what time of day do you have inspiration for writing: morning, Afternoon, evening or night?
JC: Inspiration is working. Any time of the day is good for writing.
VS: What is literature for you. What is the purpose of the writer. Is this supposed to make life more justice or only for entertain people?
JC: I don’t give answers in my novels. I don’t have a solution for the world’s problems. I just use humour to make the readers think about complex matters.
VS: Literature is obliged to defend: good, justice, democracy or simply reflect our life?
JC: The literature that sets out to defend something becomes me propaganda. Even if they are values such as Good, Justice and Democracy. For example, the book Lolita by Nabokov. For many, it may be considered an apology for sex with minors. And yet it is a masterpiece of literature. Literature tells stories where the complexity of the human being is revealed. Only in a utopian world could man always be on the side of moral values.
VS: Tell me, please, what is justice for you? What a fair world should be. Maybe justice is an utopia?
JC: Allow me to give my own example of injustice.
I won three literary prizes in the US and seven other recognitions, my novel, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, was adapted to a play and I am published also in the UK, Argentina, India, Australia, Spain, Italy and Brazil. Still, nobody knows who I am in my own country.
I am not recognised as a writer in Portugal for political reasons. I satirize Marxism and Socialism (but also Capitalism) and most of the people in the culture area don’t appreciate this, nor have sense of humour. In Portugal, if you admire Stalin like Saramago, no problem; but if you say that Socialism never worked, then you can have problems. Censorship still exists in Portugal. Here are two examples. I was interviewed by a literary magazine, but because they did not like the answers, they censored the text. A journalist from one of the leading newspapers also interviewed me, but the director of the newspaper decided that the interview would not be published.
VS: If you can’t implement a utopia, then why it is possible to embody an anti-utopia. Modern Russia, for example, is the realization of 1984 of Orwell
JC: Russia is not a democracy, but so little is Orwell’s dystopia. What the communist leaders from the Soviet Union liked most was money, besides power. Putin now has both, legitimized by the vote of the people. This shows is that outside the Western world, apart from Japan and South Korea, there will never be true democracy.
VS: Why Do You Write?
JC: All writers say the same: they write because they need to, because they are trying to understand the world and the people, because they cannot do anything else. I also write to have fun. I also would like to earn millions, but I don’t.
VS: How Do You Change People?
JC: Writers do not change people unless they can make them more cultured and more critical.
VS: How do you connect your emotions to your story?
JC: Writing is made of memories and experiences. There’s always something biographical about a novel. Writer’s problems are transported to books, as well as their joy.
VS: Where do you get your inspiration?
JC: My inspiration comes from what is around me. Political and religious conflicts, fanaticism, madness, technology, corruption and the books I read, all that provide the material I use to write.
VS: What lessons have you learned as a writer?
JC: It is a dangerous profession. Writers make a lot of enemies.
VS: What do you think is the future of writing?
JC: We will publish books on other planets.
VS: What do you like to read in your free time?
JC: I like to read the classics of literature and history books.
VS; What projects are you working on at the present?
JC: I’m writing a novel called Perestroika. It is a story that takes place in an imaginary communist country where there are political prisoners, concentration camps and famines. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the former leaders will suffer the revenge of their victims. However, some people can move from one regime to another without problems. Vladimir Putin is an inspiration to this book.
VS: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
JC: If I may give some advice, I give the following: globalize. That’s what I did. As I felt that in my country they did not value my work, I risked publication in English. And it was the best decision of my life. Discussing with a professional publisher how to improve a novel, a process that took three months, is worth all the creative writing courses that can be done. The internet offers the possibility of discovering publishers, magazines, forums, contests anywhere in the world. I advise you to do an exhaustive research and to send your texts, starting with short fiction. If you have quality, someone will notice your work. I have no doubt that there are unpublished writers in Portugal who, in the rest of the world, could succeed.
João Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. He is the author of eight books. Blame it on to much freedom, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, Devil’s Observations, Maria Pia: Queen and Woman, José de Guimarães (published in China by the Today Art Museum), José de Guimarães: Public Art.
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.