Peter LaSalle’s essay, “Driving in São Paulo at Night with a Good Friend Who Has Died,” appears in the spring 2016 issue of The Southern Review. Interview conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer.
Megan Feifer: How would you describe your style of travel writing? What did “Driving in São Paulo at Night with a Good Friend Who Has Died” allow you to do differently from your new essay collection The City at Three P.M.: Writing, Reading, and Traveling?
Peter LaSalle: To be honest, I’m not really sure that any of my essays like this are what you would call actual travel writing. But I’ve somehow been lucky enough to have had a couple of these pieces picked up from magazines for reprinting in the annual Best American Travel Writing anthology, so I guess that at least gives me sort of a de facto membership card as a travel writer, right?
Basically, the aim of all my writing in this vein is almost always an attempt to document, as honestly as possible, a quest for discovery that involves not only a place I go to, but also a writer from that place whose work I immerse myself in while there. In The Southern Review essay, it did involve some thinking about Mário de Andrade, a truly amazing Brazilian modernist poet and, famously, an organizer of Brazil’s Modern Art Week in 1922. I was in São Paulo to give some lectures on American literature at the invitation of the literature scholar Ivan Prado Teixeira, who most unexpectedly and very sadly died the following year. He was 62.
MF: In reproducing your conversation with Ivan Prado Teixeira and “the scenes of our night in São Paulo,” you pay close attention to the architecture, the landscape, the “maze of old streets,” and the “street commotion.” Why are all of these physical characteristics so essential to the essay and the recollection of the conversation itself?
PL: The answer on this one is simple—I hope that with my conjuring up the place the best I can, the reader is right there with me, in this case, alongside Ivan and me as we drive around and talk in São Paulo that fine autumn night. I’m principally a writer of short stories and novels, and much of my fiction is set in foreign spots where I’ve spent time, like India and Africa and pretty much all over Europe and Latin America. So if nothing else, I guess that has given me plenty of practice in working to establish solid setting, which can become a significant ingredient in narrative essays, too.
MF: In the midst of grieving the death of your friend, your relationship to literature shifts from Teixeira’s proverbial question of “what would we have if we didn’t have literature” to the very doubt that “words and literature could do anything.” Where do you currently fall on this spectrum?
PL: Well, by the end of the essay, after the moments of severe doubt that the loss of a good friend can evoke, I think I do somewhat reassert my belief in the power of literature and its transcendence. Which means how it can nobly challenge, though maybe not exactly triumph over, death itself. Such transcendence is there in the definitely timeless work of Mário de Andrade. It’s also in the work of unquestionably the most important nineteenth-century South American novelist, Machado de Assis, a Brazilian, whom I mention because Ivan had been his country’s leading contemporary Machado de Assis scholar.
A gifted teacher, Ivan loved and believed in literature with an enthusiasm probably more admirable than that of just about anyone I’ve ever known. I like to think that he, in a way, often escaped chronological time during his life through that excitement about books, perhaps beat time, too, in his instilling that spirit in a couple of continuing generations of his many appreciative students at the University of São Paulo. Some younger scholars in Brazil still write me today about what a great influence he was on them.
MF: In the essay, you critically address what you describe as “the often lamentable state of the study of literature in American universities today” and recall your own literary education. Could you juxtapose the differences between the study of literature when you were a student, in Brazil, and in current classrooms within U.S. higher education?
PL: You know, it would be tough to launch into such a complicated triangulation with the space we have here, and I wonder if anybody would want to suffer through my thoughts on it anyway. But I guess what I meant by saying “lamentable” is that I wish there were more scholars and teachers like Ivan in American universities today, people who understand and are vocally passionate about the uncanny magic of words on the page and how literature can get at the stuff deep in all our hearts by way of that unique and very mysterious element.
I know that the number of undergrad English majors in universities like mine at Texas is steadily dropping, which is surely lamentable and a stark indication that lately something isn’t working. No doubt, and understandably, this has to do with students’ practical considerations, their worry about jobs after graduation in an unsafe economy. But it also might stem from the fact that when the excitement surrounding exploration of the magic of literature is replaced—sometimes almost to the exclusion of all else—by rather directly logical political or sociological analysis, as seems the current trend, students possibly decide that if they want to study that kind of thing, as certainly important as it is, they might as well get it straight up, in a political science or sociology department, let’s say.
MF: How has your relationship with Brazil developed between the release of the Portuguese translation of your story collection Tell Borges If You See Him and the publication of “Driving in São Paulo at Night with a Good Friend Who Has Died”? Where is this relationship with Brazil currently taking you?
PL: I don’t know if there’s been any change. But I can say that for me Brazil is always an amazing country, electric in its wonderful cultural diversity and its people’s sheer enthusiasm for life. And that’s despite the big problems at the moment, like the Zika virus and a precipitous economic downturn, both of which I know Brazilians will face and survive with typical spirit. Figuratively, I’m not sure where my relationship with the country is taking me in the distant future. However, literally, in the next few weeks, it is taking me to Portugal to look into the literary scene there, one largely connected to that in Brazil, where, as you point out, my 2007 story collection Tell Borges If You See Him came out this past spring as a Portuguese-language e-book.
And am I ever up for that trip, too. In preparation, I’ve been reading or rereading the works of the whole gamut of modern Portuguese writers, from the iconic and deeply haunting Fernando Pessoa to the two recent masters of the novel there, José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes. Plus, I’m really looking forward to maybe enjoying some more of that great feijoada stew I had in São Paulo and of which I’m assured there will be no shortage in Lisbon either.
Peter LaSalle is the author of several books of fiction, most recently What I Found Out About Her. Additionally, he has published a book of essays on literary travel, The City at Three P.M. His story collection Tell Borges If You See Him has been translated into Portuguese (Edições Mombak), and a new collection, Sleeping Mask, is forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in 2017. He is a resident faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.
Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.