James Scudamore

James Scudamore on Heliopolis

Crossing the social divides of São Paulo

Congratulations on being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009. This in only your second novel with your first (The Amnesia Clinic) winning the Somerset Maugham Award and being shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. You must be delighted that you're writing has been so well received at such as early stage of your writing career?

I am! Like many novelists I'm protective of work in progress, and rely during most of the writing time of a book on my own muddled and over-exposed critical faculty for guidance. To emerge blinking into the light and find that trust in myself vindicated by the discovery that other readers like what I have done is wonderful.

In Heliopolis you describe São Paulo's two contrasting sides - the poor favelas and the ultra-rich communities. Had you witnessed first-hand this extreme poverty and super wealth during your time in Brazil?

Not so much super wealth, but the relative wealth that comes from living an expatriate lifestyle in any country with social inequality. And you can't escape the poverty if your eyes are open. We lived not far from a favela, so I became used to the sight of kids my own age playing in the street through the car window on my way to and from school (quite often envying them at the time). I also had contact with kids like that because my mother worked part-time at an orphanage, and we'd take them out on excursions at the weekends. I probably didn't realise how much the contrasts I saw had impressed themselves on me until I came to write this novel, and noticed how much of what was forming my protagonist was gathered from the stockpile of imaginative material I had in my head from having lived in São Paulo.

Ludo is plucked from his poverty-stricken favela background and crosses over São Paulo's social divide. Would it be almost impossible for a favela child to cross this social divide except in these extremely fortuitous circumstances?

It's not for me to say what is and isn't possible in terms of social mobility in modern Brazil, beyond expressing that I greatly admire the fact that this is a country whose president was buffing shoes and selling peanuts on the streets of São Paulo when he was ten years old. Sending Ludo on that journey was less about social commentary and more about seeing what effect such great changes in circumstance might have on a character like him. He is so passive for most of his life that it's almost crippling, but he gradually realises that certain received ideas he has always accepted to do with where he comes from and how those origins define him may not be entirely trustworthy.

Some reviewers have said they could see Heliopolis as a film. Has the book been optioned for film or TV?

Not yet, in spite of one or two speculative nibbles. I'd love to see how a film-maker would adapt the novel, because I saw certain scenes with almost hallucinatory clarity when I wrote it. I imagine there would be considerable discussion about what language to film it in, as one of the things I enjoyed most about writing it, which was also one of the most challenging, was trying to develop a narrative voice that speaks in English while remaining recognisably Brazilian.

Your two novels so far have had exotic settings - Ecuador and Brazil. Did you find it easy to develop narratives for these colourful backdrops?

I think the starting point for a novel should always be the development of rich and complex characters, but I do also like to put characters in places with distinctive texture; places that lend themselves to a descriptive language that interests me. And so far, when it comes to novels at least, the writing has really taken off when I have found not only a cast of characters but a physical territory for them to occupy that I can see a way of making my own. I like to get excited by place, in that sense. But that doesn't mean that the setting has to be 'colourful', or that 'exotic' has to be abroad. It could be anywhere that presents itself as an interesting imaginative space.

You're now living in London. What are you working on next?

London features a little in what I'm working on now, but I wouldn't call it a London novel because the canvas is broader than that: it's set in a particular kind of eerie, uncanny England that we sometimes think doesn't exist anymore because modernity has eclipsed it, but which I'm pretty sure hasn't gone anywhere.

To download a free audio extract of Heliopolis to your mobile phone Text MBP to 60300 (text messages charged at your standard network rate) or follow the link http://gospoken.com/a/mbp09 (only viewable on mobile internet)  or visit our audio page to listen online.

(Interview by Sophie Rochester)

The Man Booker Prize Fiction at its finest