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Looking for Meaning in THE MARBLE ARMY

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 The Marble Army

Looking for Meaning in THE MARBLE ARMY
An Authorlink interview with author Gisele Firmino

By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

June 2016


The Marble Army
by Gisele Firmino

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 In her novel, THE MARBLE ARMY, Gisele Firmino explores the impact of war and political oppression on the Fonte family of Brazil. The story covers the 1960s through the 1990s, as the father Antonio struggles in the city, and Pablo, the oldest son, joins the resistance movement. With Pablo’s disappearance, Rose, their mother, holds the family together, while Luca, the youngest, grows up in a world complicated by war.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer – degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, and mentors that helped you along the way.

FIRMINO: I’ve been writing for myself all my life, and in my early twenties I started to write in English, hoping it would help me have a better grip on the language itself. I was attending Pepperdine University in Malibu, when I found out someone could actually study creative writing. Until then, I didn’t know it was possible. After graduating with a creative writing minor, I pursued an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.

I am very fortunate to have had incredible mentors along the way, without whom I am positive The Marble Army wouldn’t have happened. John Struloeff, Zachary Lazar, Pinckney Benedict, Ashley Warlick, Fred Leebron, Naeem Murr have all made a huge impact on me, along with many others.

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?     

FIRMINO: I don’t think I’ve written enough to recognize where stories begin for me, to see some kind of pattern. But I’m tempted to say they begin with a character, with his or her voice in particular.

“Luca was the first character I’ve ever written that felt real to me . . .”

AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of The Marble Army develop?

FIRMINO: It began with Luca – its narrator and main character. I was taking an Intro to Fiction class at Pepperdine, and we were given an exercise to come up with five different characters and write a page or so on each. Luca was the first character I’ve ever written that felt real to me, as though he had something to say despite how much (at first) I tried to shape him.

I’ve always been very intrigued by the military dictatorship period in Brazil. I remember the very first direct presidential elections, and although I didn’t realize it then, I did notice people’s giddiness about the whole thing. At first, I just thought that was simply how people reacted during elections. But it was such a strange time. Depending on whom you asked what it was like to live under a military regime, people would tell you life was the same as it was then, while others would describe an incredibly frightening epic story. I was always fascinated by such contrast. It didn’t make much sense. But Luca, right from his very first scene, seemed to seek the truth about this period in our history, how it actually affected one’s everyday life.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your choice to tell the story from Luca’s point of view. Why him? How does having him as the narrator influence what the reader is told and how we understand the story?  

FIRMINO: The Marble Army was always Luca’s story to tell. At one point, I did try to alternate points of view, but that didn’t feel right for the novel. The novel is less about what actually happens, and more about how one deals with not knowing, how one comes to terms (or not) with not having an answer for some of life’s most crucial questions. There’s a lot of myself in Luca. I obsess over the things I do not or cannot know. I tend to imagine different scenarios, and am constantly trying to fill in the blanks.  
In a sense, I feel that The Marble Army is a book about self-discovery, and to me there is no better way to understand someone than to see the world around them through their eyes. My hope while writing was that the sections where Luca describes scenes he couldn’t have possibly witnessed were just as revealing of Luca’s character as they were of those present in the scenes, if not more.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title. Where did it come from? It is a repeated motif. What significance does it hold for the overall story?

FIRMINO: I’ll try to address it without spoiling for those who haven’t read the book yet. But the title came from an image I read about on a blog post. The post itself did not at all emphasize the image at all, it was another piece of information. For me, it was such a moving representation of this generation of rebels, epitomizing their innocence, and the over-romantic views of this battle they were fighting.

“So many stories have inspired and informed me as I was writing The Marble Army.”

AUTHORLINK: What other stories of war and witness did you read and draw from as you were constructing your novel?

FIRMINO: So many stories have inspired and informed me as I was writing The Marble Army. Pretty much everything by Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat, In the Time of Butterflies, Imagining Argentina, The Power and the Glory, Sleep in Me, The Stories of Eva Luna, Room, Sophie’s Choice… I could honestly list every book I have read in the last decade. Don’t they all inform?
I’ve also spent some time reading blog posts about that time in Brazil, and biographies of former militants. One in particular was João Carlos Bona Garcia’s, which was later adapted into a film called “In Your Name.”
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about the sections in italics, which seem to channel Pablo.  How do you explain Luca’s second sight/connection when it comes to his brother?  

FIRMINO: Pablo held the answer to many of the questions that bothered, held meaning and haunted Luca. Luca desperately needed this connection to find himself, to find his own identity. At one point, Luca even says the man he should’ve been never became a reality. He is a poet, but it’s Pablo’s message he truly feels the need to share. The dream sections are another representation of his need to know, to understand what has happened to his family. But Pablo and Luca were always very close. They communicated through dreams while they were younger, and in Luca’s view that hasn’t changed with Pablo being gone.

“I wouldn’t have finished the book had I caved into my own insecurities . . . .”

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Marble Army and how did you overcome them?

FIRMINO: I think the most obvious and ever-present challenge was to accept my own limitations when it came to the language itself. It was also what made writing more exciting for me. There’s something about writing (and living) in a second language that feels very liberating. It allows you to reinvent yourself.

Point of view was also a big challenge for me. To give myself permission to treat point of view the way I did in this book (hopefully, with authority) while also finding myself at such an early stage in my writing career required a lot of work. In the end, it was essential to the story. I wouldn’t have finished the book had I caved into my own insecurities and not played with point of view the way that I did.  

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book.

 FIRMINO: I love research! I once spent months trying to find a record of my husband’s great-grandfather’s journey from Italy to New York and finally to the south of Brazil. I do love the challenge of hunting bits and pieces of information and putting them together. So when I realized I was writing a historical novel, I knew I’d immerse myself completely in that time. There’s such a comfort, too, in knowing, isn’t there?

From biographies, to documentaries, government records, conspiracy theories, to movies, countless interviews. I was sure I needed them all!

However, the more I researched the less immersed I felt in my characters’ lives. I was constantly getting caught up in a technicality (a particular park I described with luscious trees that maybe hasn’t been there long enough for its trees to be so luscious, for instance). I was losing Luca’s voice, questioning his own authority in telling his story.

So I stopped, and focused on staying true to the big picture (major historical events) and trusted Luca and myself to do the rest.  

“I don’t think I completely understood what I was trying to accomplish with The Marble Army when I finished writing it. It was through revision that I could really grasp its meaning..”

AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this book. Who was your editor? What was it like working with your editor? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

FIRMINO: My editor at Outpost19 is Jon Roemer. By the time The Marble Army landed on his hands, I had already spent almost two years revising it. So with Jon, we didn’t make any major changes. We focused more on line edits, and making sure every chapter ended on a strong note. There might have been one or two scenes that we spent more time on. Jon was a pleasure to work with. Incredibly patient, knowledgeable and kind. Again, I feel very lucky to have had such incredible mentors and colleagues without whom The Marble Army wouldn’t be here today.   

I don’t think I completely understood what I was trying to accomplish with The Marble Army when I finished writing it. It was through revision that I could really grasp its meaning. Don’t assume you know all there is to know about the work because you wrote it. When revising, stay curious, stay open.

AUTHORLINK: Who is your agent? How did you connect with them? What tips can you offer for managing the agent/author relationship?  

FIRMINO: I’m afraid my case might not apply to most writers when it comes to seeking out an agent. My agent is Fred Leebron, with whom I was fortunate to connect with at Queens. He was my mentor and advisor. We had also been working together on an MFA program based in Latin America. So when I was ready to start seeking a publisher, he was very kind to offer help and represent me.  

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now. 

FIRMINO: I’m not quite sure yet. I started writing what I hope will be another novel about the lives of five complicated women, one of which is a compulsive liar. But it’s so early on, I’m not even sure what this novel is about, or if it is a novel.

I’ve also been writing nonfiction for the past few months, which I find incredibly challenging.

About the Author

Gisele Firmino earned a BA from Pepperdine University and an MFA in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. Born and raised in the south of Brazil, Gisele’s writing has appeared in such journals as Expressionists and Rose & Thorn. She works as a freelance translator and lyricist and is also the founding locale coordinator for Queens University’s MFA in Creative Writing: Latin America. She currently divides her time between Brazil and the United States. The Marble Army is her first novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.

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