"There's a weirdness from growing up in Miami that lends toward storytelling. Everyone there comes from somewhere else. It made me want to know people's stories."
She was born in Brazil and resides in Chicago, but author Frances de Pontes Peebles believes her formative years in Miami nudged her into writing. Perhaps in tribute, her new novel, The Air You Breathe, is narrated by a woman spending her last years in the Magic City.
"She's 95, living in Miami, filthy rich from all her songwriting credits," Peebles explains.
Over the course of the novel, you learn this songwriter's history, along with that of her best friend, Graça, who was based on Carmen Miranda. "I like looking at people who actually existed and turning them into a fictional character. Carmen Miranda was a respected singer in Brazil. Hollywood turned her into a comedic act. She was taken very seriously in Brazil, and then the way they made fun of her in Hollywood seemed very sad."
Peebles based Graça's friend (and the book's narrator), Dores, on the Latina singer Chavela Vargas. "When I started, it was more about Graça. But I didn't want to turn it into an E! True Hollywood Story. It became more about her friend who writes the songs and is an independent woman. I followed novels likeThe Great Gatsby where the story is told from an observer."
The novel, which spans much of the 20th Century, required some heavy-duty research. "I read about Lapa, a neighborhood that was almost like Brazil's Harlem Renaissance, where samba music was formed," Peebles recalls. "I researched how Hollywood treated Latin characters. Before World War II, they were mostly villains. Then, when they wanted the countries as allies, they started portraying them as heartthrobs."
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The inspiration for The Air You Breathe came not long after the publication of her 2008 debut, The Seamstress, but life got in the way of its writing. "My husband and I moved to Brazil to manage my family's coffee farm. We helped them build a business of selling gourmet coffee to Brazilians. Farming was 24/7, so I didn't write during that time. Then we had a daughter. Motherhood changed my brain and how I worked. I had to sneak writing in when my daughter napped. I had to fight for this book in a way I didn't with the first."
The fight was worth it, according to the early acclaim her book has received. Amazon and O Magazine chose The Air You Breathe as one of August's ten best reads, and Book of the Month Club featured the novel as one of its five August selections. Miami readers will get a chance to learn more about the novel and the author when Peebles reads at Book & Books Friday, August 24, mere days after the novel's release. "I hope to give some historical context to the book. I'll read a fun section and give people a taste of Brazil."
Though she's taking a month off from writing to promote The Air You Breathe, she promises fans won't have to wait long for novel number three. "The new book is in the works. I don't think it will be another ten years before it's done.'
Frances de Pontes Peebles. 6:30 p.m. Friday, August 24, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free.