It has been 25 years since my 1,000-page epic novel Brazil rolled off the presses. A best-seller in Europe and in South America, Brazil was orphaned in the United States when its editor left Simon and Schuster only two months before its publication in April, 1986.
Six weeks after publication I was told, "Brazil didn’t take off." I had one press interview and one radio interview before my book vanished from local shelves.
In France, critics hailed the novel as a "masterpiece," a first printing of 14,000 copies sold out in three days, and the book became a summer blockbuster. It went on to sell over 400,000 copies in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Holland, Israel and Brazil.
I was buoyed as much by my international sales figures as by the words of eminent Brazilian literary critic, Wilson Martins, who wrote in the prestigious Jornal do Brasil:“Uys has accomplished what no Brazilian author from José de Alencar to João Ubaldo Ribeiro, as well as others including Jorge Amado and Bernardo Guimarães was able to do. He is the first to write our national epic in all its truly decisive moments.
“Uys is the first to have the talent required for the task, to see us with total honesty and sympathy, the first to understand Brazil as an imaginary creation, coherent in its apparent inconsistencies, organic in its historic development. Descriptions like those of the war with Paraguay are unsurpassed in our literature and evoke the great passages of War and Peace.”
French reviewers were similarly enthusiastic about my work: “A masterpiece! Brazil has the look and feel of an enchanted virgin forest, a totally new and original world for the reader-explorer to discover,” crowed L'Express, Paris. “No one before knew how to bring to life Brazil and her history. Uys's characters are brilliant and colorful, combining elements of the best swashbuckler with those worthy of deepest reflection. Most stunning is that it took a South African, now a naturalized American, to evoke so perfectly the grand but interrupted dream that is Brazil,” lauded Le Figaro.
I began my writing career as a newspaperman on the Johannesburg Star and at the helm of the Cape edition of Post, then the country’s biggest weekly publication serving its African and mixed-race population. Following a stint in London, I became Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest in South Africa. In 1977, I emigrated to the United States to work at the magazine’s international headquarters.
I met the American author James A. Michener through my work at the Digest and became assistant and researcher for Michener’s South African saga, The Covenant. Commenting on our two-year collaboration, Stephen J. May, Michener’s most recent biographer, concluded: “Michener committed a scarlet literary crime and used his celebrated influence in publishing to get away with it." – The affair is chronicled in an extensive literary archive on my website.
"The road will always be longer and harder for some of us," Michener told me. Controversial as our work on the South African book was, the experience convinced me that I could go out and dedicate myself to writing Brazil, as grand a theme as any that Michener undertook.
I spent five years’ time on the writing of Brazil. I devoted a year to my primary research, including a 15,000-mile trek through Brazil, almost entirely by bus in order to get a feel for the vast country and its people at ground level. My journey took me into the Sertão, the arid backlands of the Northeast, and to the Casas Grandes of coastal Pernambuco. I voyaged the Amazon River from Belém to Manuas and explored southernmost Rondônia. I roamed the highlands of Minas Gerais and followed the route of the bandeirantes, the Brazilian pathfinders, from São Paulo to the south.
I returned to the United States at the end of October, 1981 to begin what would become a 750,000-word manuscript written entirely by hand. It took a further four years to complete my task seeking a vision of the Brazilian El Dorado, not beyond the next hill or the river ahead but deep within the soul.
Like my fictional hero, the bandeirante Amador Florés da Silva, I knew periods of utter loneliness and fear, times when I felt the sertão closing in on me but always, I broke through the barrier. I never lost the will to understand the Brazilian genius.
I needed to call on the same steely resolve after seeing my work founder in the United States market. Despite Brazil’s overseas triumph, my follow-up book proposals (including an epic on Mexico) were submitted to no avail. I was more successful with my non-fiction efforts, publishing Riding the Rails: Teenagers on the Move during the Great Depression, a companion volume to the Peabody Award-winning documentary made by Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell, my son and daughter-in-law.
If my spirits ever sank, I had only to re-read Wilson Martins’s review of Brazil. -- Professor Martins truly understood the scope and nuances of my work. As time passed, many other readers who stumbled across the book sent me their own appreciations of Brazil.
“I don’t believe I would ever have felt this strongly about my people if I hadn’t read your book – I feel more Brazilian!” wrote Moises dos Santos, a Brazilian living in the United States. Birdie Hope effused: “I read your entire book aloud to my husband on a series of trips we made — he drove as I read. We started in Mato Grosso, Brazil and finished somewhere in Kansas! The edition we read was an even 1,000 pages. Loved it! It's fabulous! Congratulations for writing it.”
In 2000, I signed a reprint agreement with Silver Spring Press, a small publisher in Connecticut. I added an afterword bringing the story up to Brazil’s 500th anniversary celebration. Seven years later, my French publisher also issued a new edition of Brazil (La Forteresse Verte.)
Brazil was on the "long tail" at Amazon riding on that river sea with its vast schools of customers. Occasionally, sales of the new edition and secondhand copies sent Brazil rippling upward from the tip of the tail to somewhere in the fat middle. It was enough to satisfy a passionate author that someone, somewhere was dipping into his book. This encouraged me to keep paddling, no matter the current.
Then came Kindle, and for Brazil, a totally new world opened up. Having fought so long and hard for my masterpiece, I was ready for this new challenge. I took three decisive steps to launch the e-book, producing:
· Kindle Illustrated Guide to Brazil
Linked to the e-text is a unique and free online guide with more than 200 images and maps, providing an indispensable companion on a fictional journey through five hundred years of Brazilian history. Captions drawn from the narrative enhance the reader's sense of immersion in time and place. The novel guide is also interwoven with the author’s original Brazilian journal and working notes.
· Errol Lincoln Uys – A Writer’s Website
A wide-ranging personal website sharing the author’s archives, journals and working notes. The Making of Brazil and Michener’s Secret Covenant offer meticulously documented and intriguing insights into what went into the writing of these two books, from conceptual outline to final printed manuscript.
· Twitter Edition of Brazil
I am also tweeting my 340,000-word book in 140 (or fewer) - character tweets for thousands of followers. Brazil is the first huge epic to be micro-blogged on Twitter, each tiny “episode” contributing to daily installments of 20 to 50 tweets. The novel’s Twitter handle is @BrazilANovel
The spectacular rise of the nation of Brazil over the past two decades couldn’t be timelier for me, as events like the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics loom on the horizon. Twenty-five years ago, people made light of ‘'Brazil, land of the future and which always will be." This is no longer so today, as Brazil takes its place among emergent nations.
The timing for a big book on Brazil is perfect. Brazil is ranked No 1 on Kindle’s Brazilian-related books, the e-book’s success driving strong sales of the print edition.
If I’ve one thing to be thankful for – and there are many – it’s that I never stopped believing passionately in Brazil.