In which our heroine sets out for Lisbon

Sometimes, the story comes before the setting—that is, I decide to write a story set in a specific place (and if you’re one of those who wondered about the Japan adventure mentioned at the start of Locked Rooms, yes, I’m going to Japan for the research next year.)  But other times the story shapes itself around the place. Pirate King is one of those.

I’d decided originally that this book was going to be a farce, a return to the light-hearted Russell of Beekeeper’s Apprentice, only more so.  The last two books were rather somber outings, downplaying the whimsical and the ridiculous.  Set in places like this:


Not this time.  I wanted to write something with color and fun, embracing the absurd, with maybe a dash of spice to it.

While I was mulling over the book, my daughter and her husband set off on a sabbatical year in Lisbon.  Since the three of us get along well, and since the tools of my job are relatively packable (in the early stages of a book, anyway) I thought, Why not go and work in Lisbon?  Which led naturally enough to, Well, if I’m in Lisbon, why can’t Russell come along, too?  (Does this give you an idea of the meticulous and long-range planning my novels demand?)

(“Beyond the Manueline excrescence rose Lisboa itself—Alis Ubo to the Phoenicians, Ulissipont to the Romans.”)

So I started reading about Lisbon—buying a 1920s guide to Portugal, looking into what was going on there in 1924, seeing who was doing what.  And as those questions before I wrote Locked Rooms took me to San Francisco’s Dashiell Hammet, so they now took me straight to Lisbon’s Fernando Pessoa.

Who?  Ah, now there’s the question.  Which I will answer, as well as any woman can, in the book rather than here—if you get the newsletter, you read Russell’s description of the man last Wednesday (you can sign up here) and today, it’s on the web site, here.  Suffice it to say, Pessoa was the self-confessed poet laureate of Portugal, who turned his 72 identities to creating a literary movement that placed his country at the forefront of the modern era.  That you likely haven’t heard his name may suggest that there were some flaws with his system.  However, he met Mary Russell, and surely that is almost as good.

The residents of Lisbon have made a statue of Sr Pessoa, outside his favorite coffee house, where visitors can sit beside him the ponder the questions of the universe.  And inside, admire the decorative rooftop while you’re waiting for your cafe con leite.

But the true Lisboan gem in the Pessoa crown is the museum made of the house where he lived (with his mother—he never married) where one can admire his desk,

wonder at the multiple versions of a single poem that now covers the walls, and do research in multiple languages (it helps to bring along a translator, although clearly even a fluent Portuguese speaker has to puzzle his way along.)

And if you’d like an idea of where Russell writes her letter to faraway England, she is staying with her film company here, at the Avenida-Palace, where she meets Sr Pessoa and steps out onto the slippery streets as a riot is going on just up the way.

Next week: Pessoa and pirates?

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  1. Mom of 6 on July 11, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    What a wonderful collection of photos and background. It saves me from having to go looking for those places after I read the book.

    One thing I’ve always loved about the Russell series of books (besides the fact that they’re plain awesome) is that I always feel like I’m learning something without being lectured to. Oftentimes I’m given just enough of a nugget to sink my teeth into, and then I can go digging on my own to find out more. Sometimes those tidbits come back to me in surprising ways.

    Case in point: several months ago when you first teased the setting of the book with Pessoa’s statue, I read up on him on Wikipedia and a couple of other sources, in a general-interest sort of way. At the time I was writing a particularly personal essay and after several drafts, I found I was missing a cohesive perspective on the whole. In Pessoa’s bio, I found the word “flaneur,” and not knowing what it meant, I looked it up, only to find that it was the very word that I was looking for to give my essay its proper direction. So, because of Pirates, I found Pessoa and became an unofficial flaneuse. (Thanks, Ms. King!)

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