Q: What inspired you to become a writer?
Raphael: My great-aunt Iacy gave me a copy of A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle when I was twelve-years-old. It was a rainy weekend, and I didn’t sleep until I finished the book. Then at school, during classes, I would write short stories and outlines for novels in my notebooks to give to my classmates. My passion for crime fiction was born in this period, and I read all the classics of the genre. When I started my professional writing career, I challenged myself to think about what crime literature of the 21st century would be like. And more: what would Brazilian crime literature be like? My literary ambition is to write suspenseful, agile and surprising books, with some violence and a good dose of black humor, and take Brazilian crime fiction abroad in the process.
Q: You started your career as a lawyer and transitioned into writing full-time. What prompted this change?
Raphael: I always wanted to be a crime writer. I wrote Suicidas (Roulette), my first published book, when I was at university. My choice to study law was calculated: back then I thought that the academic qualification would be useful to me as a writer, that it’d fill me with stories and legal and social knowledge. Besides, it offered a solid base and a “guaranteed job” if things didn’t work out. Roulette published when I was half way through my degree, and by then I was already writing Perfect Days. After graduation I studied for the civil service exam because I thought I wanted to be a court judge. When Perfect Days published in Brazil to much acclaim, I received writing invitations for film and television so I made the choice to put my law career on hold.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?
Raphael: My favorite authors are Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. The former taught me the importance of plotting a story carefully, with turning points and an unexpected ending; the latter taught me to give my characters dimension, to make them believable, with psychological depth. I also really like Stephen King, Cornell Woolrich, Dennis Lehane, Fred Vargas, Stieg Larsson, Jeffery Deaver, Rubem Fonseca, Harlan Coben and Chuck Palahniuk. And I am greatly influenced by other media, such as cinema and music. Tarantino, the Coen brothers and Almodóvar are all people I look up to.
Q: Perfect Days will be published in 13 territories, and you’re only 25-years-old! What does this kind of success mean to you?
Raphael: I’m very happy to see my work reaching so many people, in so many different parts of the world. When I write, my first commitment is to myself: I want to tell stories that I’d like to read. Once the book is published, then I have another commitment: to reach out to as many people as possible. At the same time, I try not to let the compliments go to my head, which might suffocate me or my creative process. But I also try not to be too hard on myself.
Q: You’ve said Perfect Days was written as a love story but in your own style. Why a love story?
Raphael: My first book, Roulette, is about nine young people who take part in a game of Russian roulette. It’s a thriller in the form of a puzzle, full of twists, violence. When my mother read it, she was shocked and asked me to write a love story. I took it as a challenge and tried to think what a love story would be like told my way, in my style. Which brought me to Perfect Days: a story of obsessive love. It’s about many human themes; themes that in one way or another, we’ve all experienced – love and rejection are universal. Love is the great enigma of Perfect Days. What is love? What makes us fall in love with someone? And, also, what makes us fall out of love with someone? The book doesn’t answer these questions, but rather brings the discussion to charged situations.
Q: How did you prepare to write this book?
Raphael: I did a lot of medical research for Perfect Days, visiting morgues and anatomy labs. It was pretty upsetting. I felt a little nauseated because I saw what we become. I talked to three doctors while I was writing the book, plus a psychiatrist. I was afraid one of them might turn around and say, “Hey, you’re a psychopath!”
Q: Perfect Days is a book of obsessive love from the point of view of the obsessed, the young medical student Téo Avalar. Téo, while being our disturbed anti-hero, is the protagonist. The kidnapped Clarice, who we more often cheer for, is the antagonist. Why switch the roles and tell the story from Téo’s perspective?
Raphael: Téo and Clarice are both protagonists and antagonists at the same time. The upper hand passes back and forth with every page, even when it isn’t explicit (especially when it isn’t explicit). I chose to explore a psychopath’s, Téo’s, point of view to understand how these people – who live and walk among us – think and behave. Téo’s logic is impeccable and he justifies his acts with great rationality and calm. It is a classic story of obsessive love, which has already been dealt with in books such as Misery and The Collector and films such as Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down and Boxing Helena. As I was writing, my challenge was to find a distinct, modern approach to the subject. This psychological immersion is the driving force of the book – as well as our desire as the reader to find out if he “gets the girl” or not in the end. But this isn’t a murder mystery. The real mystery is Clarice: what she thinks, feels and intends. An inattentive reader might think Téo is in control of the whole situation, but Clarice’s silent actions have an enormous effect on him.
Q: You’ve also created really excellent secondary characters in the mothers of these young people. What roles do their mothers play in the telling of this story?
Raphael: Psychology possibly explains that. I’m an only child to parents who are still married. My relationship with my mom is close and complex, something between reverence, fear, and friendship. All my books feature moms in strong, crucial roles. They explore what it means to be a son or daughter in the 21st century—a time in which parents have lost some control over who we are, what we do, what we think. It interests me because it’s what I live; it bothers me sometimes but comforts me as well.
In Perfect Days, I wanted confrontation between different personalities, like Téo’s and Clarice’s. I wanted to look at the dynamics of a couple-to-be and the way the families of these kids – in this case the moms – can either help or hinder. In a way, it’s not just an obsessive love story between young people, but also a story about mothers and their kids.
Q: Perfect Days has the perfect balance of both plot and character; they each drive and challenge the other. What is your writing process, and how do you maintain this balance?
Raphael: My books are totally plot-driven so that’s where I start writing. I love stories that are well tied-up but with a good dose of unexpected turns and shocking scenes. From the plot, I build the characters. I feed these personalities with characteristics, with specific elements or details that I may not even use in the book but are essential for me to get to know them. I keep them in my head, trying to imagine how would they react in this or that situation, their likes and dislikes, the kind of movies they watch, the kind of places they like to go. It’s only when I get this intimate with the characters that I’m ready to write. I don’t have any rituals, but I prefer writing late at night in absolute silence with a glass of water beside me. In murder scenes, I listen to classical music.
Though I may start with a mapped out plot, I make changes along the way because a certain character imposes her/himself, wanting to decide his/her own path. That happened in Perfect Days. There’s a twist halfway through the book that wasn’t in the original outline. When I got to this part, the character imposed on me, and I couldn’t say no. Curiously, this is one of my readers’ favorite parts of the book.
I should also mention my “team” of beta-readers to whom I send parts of the book while I’m writing. If they don’t send me late night messages or call me begging for a new chapter, then the book is not good enough yet. Every good suspense book must be devoured by the readers.
Q: Téo’s favorite author is famous Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Did you name your character Clarice after Lispector? Are there any other inspirations in the naming of your characters?
Raphael: I think every character already has a name, even if the writer doesn’t know it yet. I keep a list of names in a notebook so I can use them in future books. When I’m introduced to someone, I joke about the possibility of me using their name in one of my books.
Téo’s given name, Téodoro, is a strong, sober name meaning “gift from God,” and one who “has much passion and love to give.” It’s perfect for a character who’s obsessively in love. On the other hand, the name Clarice evokes light and clarity. She brings new meaning to Téo’s life, even if the consequences of the relationship are tragic. And Clarice is a name that evokes feelings and sensations in experienced readers because of Lispector, one of the greatest Brazilian writers. Purposely, Clarice’s character has some nuances and characteristics of Lispector – her diction, gestures and some ideological opinions. It’s very subtle, but it’s one of my teases. As a reader, I’m a great appreciator of the psychological depth that Lispector achieves in her work, and of course, I tried the same thing in Perfect Days. And Téo’s mom’s name, Patricia, is a tribute to one of my favorite authors, Patricia Highsmith, the creator of the incredible Tom Ripley. As my Téo has much of Tom Ripley in him, I decided to have Patricia as his “mom.”
Q: Clarice is headstrong and often complicates Téo’s antiquated views of traditional gender roles; she uses her femininity to her advantage to confuse him. Was this intentional on your part?
Raphael: I’ve always been interested in the pertinent topics of my era. In Brazil, as in the United States, there’s a lot of talk about a woman’s body and her place in society. This discussion reaches every social level; it’s present in schools, bars, parties, family gatherings. Personally, I’m a liberal – I believe everyone should be happy their own way. But I believe that in literature it is more important to ask questions than give answers. So when I was creating the main couple in Perfect Days I made Téo a homophobic chauvinist and Clarice bisexual with a strong personality. Women have a more prominent voice in our society, yet the fight for equal rights remains. Unfortunately, there are still people with sexist attitudes. That’s why I wanted Clarice to be such a strong, independent woman, full of layers. In the book there are dialogues about sexuality, feminism and moral issues. Those issues are not part of the “main plot” of the book, but rather reflections on contemporary society.
Q: Téo is often in conflict with himself – between what he wants and who he wants to be. Being inside his mind is both humorous and terrifying. How did you create this duality in his personality? Why provide those humorous moments?
Raphael: Téo is a psychopath, and I thought it more interesting to see the world from his perspective. The hardest part was finding the tone, and, when I finally found it several months later, everything began to flow naturally. To my amusement, I was already thinking like him, how he accompanies each disturbing action with, in his mind, a plausible excuse. It all made sense to him: it was reasonable to kidnap the woman he loved in order to force her to love him back. But in such a dramatic story, humor is a must. What I look for in my books is this perfect balance between nonsensical violence and dark humor.
Q: In addition to writing novels, you write (or have written) for popular Brazilian television shows and telenovelas including: “Espinosa,” “Supermax” and “A regra do jogo” (The Rules of the Game). How do you transition from writing novels to writing for the screen?
Raphael: My days are certainly different now! I have feature film and series meetings, and at night I have time to enter the world of my books. I switch from different fictional worlds on the same day. If I’m not organized, I go crazy. It wasn’t a very difficult transition, but it had its obstacles, of course. I’ve never studied screenwriting and had to learn it on my own, the hard way. Honestly, I find it easier to write scripts than literature, but I love doing both. I have sold the film rights of my three books to the big screen already but I chose not to be directly involved in the adaptations. I provide feedback and ideas, but, in the end, I think it’s important for the director to be free to do his work. We’re waiting on international feedback for Perfect Days before deciding if it will be a Brazilian or world-wide production.
Q: This story has so many twists and turns. Every surprise is more macabre than the previous surprise. How on Earth do you come up with this stuff!?
Raphael: Everyone’s attention is so divided— between TV, iPad, and social media. I want to engage people in my books so I carefully plot shocking scenes that hit readers. The ending, which I won’t spoil for you here, has been somewhat controversial. Readers both praise and complain about it. Like it or not, it’s an ending that no one can be indifferent about. That pleases me. Inevitably, my research involves some pretty heavy stuff. I visit bizarre places, talk to dangerous people. The more I read the news, though, the more I conclude that reality is way worse than anything that could ever be created in fiction.
Q: Do readers ever confuse you with the characters you create?
Raphael: It’s natural that some readers confuse the writer with the protagonist of the book. Some of them send me emails or messages saying that they love my work, but they’re afraid to meet me. I find it funny. When I published Roulette, a girl visiting Rio de Janeiro asked me through Facebook if I could meet with her to sign the book. I said yes. When we met, she was shaking, and accompanied by two very tall guys. I signed her copy, smiled for the pictures. Then she turns to the guys and says “You can go now. I’m not scared anymore.” And they left! I stood there trying to understand. The girl explained she had been afraid to meet me in person, so she had asked two random guys to stay with her until she felt comfortable around me… What could I say? I laughed out loud, right?
Q: What are you working on now?
Raphael: My third book, The Village, was published in Brazil last summer. It’s a horror novel that earned comparisons with Stephen King, which is to me a huge honor. I’m currently writing my next suspense novel, O jantar está servido (Dinner is Served) in which four friends leave the interior of Brazil for university in Rio de Janeiro. Among the hardships they face, such as trying to pay their rent, is starting an illegal business that makes them very rich. It’s about their rise and fall, like “Breaking Bad” but with younger characters.
I also invest a lot of time in my film work. Aside from the shows for which I currently write, I’m working on a feature film screenplay and projects for two TV series that I hope will come to fruition soon!