In 2013, after nearly a dozen short stories and three novels published, Andréa del Fuego wanted to slow down: she missed delighting in the artistic process of writing a book. On the horizon? The story of a “good man, who yields nothing”. However, as the years went by, the good man proved to be stubborn and still hasn’t left the author’s head. More resourceful was Cecília Vilela, an independent and pragmatic woman who made Andréa del Fuego – born 47 years ago in São Paulo, Brazil – abandon magical realism and move away from the style that earned her, in 2011, the Saramago Award with Os Malachi, a novel about his own family. Now, in A Pediatra (Companhia das Letras, 208 pages, €16.60), written in a few months, she tells the story of a professional who is so cold that she doesn’t like children. Cecília’s life takes a 180-degree turn when she falls in love with Bruninho, her lover’s son. From there, this doctor uncontrollably embarks on a journey she never thought she would live: motherhood.
The premise is unusual: a pediatrician who doesn’t like children. Where did this idea come from?
I’ve been in the process of writing a story for over seven years for which I still haven’t found the tone. The protagonist is a young man whose mother dies on the tenth page. One day, I felt I should give the mother more space: I scribbled some ideas, I liked the female voice, but the story didn’t move forward right away. I suddenly had an idea: a pediatrician who doesn’t like children. From there, I already knew that the story would unfold naturally – the starting point was very good.
Did the whole book emerge in a natural way?
I didn’t know the end of the book until I wrote it. There was no prior structure: I relied on the gravitational pull of history. I spent many months rewriting the first five pages, until I found Cecília’s dysfunctional tone. When I found this tone, it only took me a month to finish the book. It’s been many years since I’ve written this passionately.
Could this dysfunctional character of Cecília symbolize her inability to deal with unhappiness? She even tries to run away from the fibromyalgia she suffers from…
Disliking illness means disliking ourselves. Diseases are part of us – and the pandemic of the last two years is proof of that. When her father becomes ill with pericarditis, she ceases to believe in her father’s infallibility. Until then, she always sees him as a perfect man and doctor.
Is it true that, to write this book, you talked to two pediatricians?
It’s true, I did a lot of research: I read a lot about diseases, medicines and treatments. By the way, I’m a hypochondriac: it didn’t cost me anything! [Risos] Then I moved on to conversations. I wanted to know more about Medical Comfort, an area of the hospital where doctors rest and set aside their profession. For this, I went to talk to my son’s pediatrician. He was very discreet, almost unspoken. And then a whole scenario was built – “the imagination will be worse than the answer”, I thought. On social media, there are many doctors who talk about intimacy in hospitals. What they don’t realize is that there’s a writer to watch! Doctors in Brazil have an image of almost impunity. I wanted to reveal the behind-the-scenes games between the doctors – and which, in the book, are evident with the competition between Cecília and Jaime, a neonatologist who steals many deliveries from her.
What about the other pediatrician you spoke to?
In 2019, I did a literary residency in Penela, near Coimbra. In those three weeks, one of the elderly women I spoke to was a former pediatrician. One day I asked her: “When you are a pediatrician and your child gets sick, is it possible to take care of your own children?” And she replied vehemently: “No! We forgot all about medicine.”
This explains the scene when Bruninho gets sick and Cecília petrifies.
It’s a key moment in the book. She completely loses her way and explains a lot of what the end of the book is about – which I don’t want to reveal! [Risos] By the way, Cecilia’s ending is one of many versions. And this is also curious in literature… The character stays with me, forever.
The character also falls in love with you.
I wrote salivating: I couldn’t wait for the next day to get back to the text. I realized that I was writing a character almost as if I was watching her and she didn’t know. I had detective pleasure, almost.
She wouldn’t like you at all, so…
Anything! Even because I’m the type of mother she rejects. First, when I got pregnant, I had help from doulas. [assistentes de parto, sem formação obrigatória na área da saúde, que acompanham a gestação com foco no bem-estar da mulher]. Then, I had a humanized delivery, in which I decided the place where I was going to give birth and all the procedures. Cecília criticized all these practices. Besides, she was going to hate being my son’s doctor: he has asthma, a chronic illness, and she was going to refer us straight away to a specialist.
In 2016, in an interview with Folha de São Paulo, she said that she would never write a book about motherhood. But here arrived…
I’ve been caught! [Risos] This book talks about a different motherhood, almost symbolic, but it is pure motherhood.
And does this motherhood make Cecília enjoy life?
When I wrote the book, I was thinking, “Does this book have a moral? Does it show that a woman cannot escape her maternal instinct?” Cecília doesn’t get this instinct, she doesn’t feel like having children. She only likes Bruninho, no other children. And this connection is something very deep: it’s an enthralling, soft scent that tickles you somewhere in your brain. And this connection didn’t come with the hormones of being pregnant: it came with the experience, with a simple life event.
How did the idea for this different but visceral motherhood come about?
Above all, I wanted to pay tribute to adoptive mothers: they are an example of what it’s like to take care of a child. Then there’s the obsession side. Cecília already had a certain psychic functioning. Before Bruninho, he had already pursued his lover, Celso, and Jaime, his competitor… Even the relationship with the maid borders on bullying: Cecília feels superior to Deise, she knows she won’t have resistance and goes entering the maid’s life more than she should. Cecilia wants to control everything. It feels like we’re at a party and only her music can play. She doesn’t listen to anyone…
Even because, throughout the book, we only have access to her thoughts, never to dialogues.
Exactly. While criticizing Jaime, she describes home births that she has never witnessed. Even when this doctor gives a lecture, we only have access to what she selects.
But because we see everything through her prism, do we know this woman’s intimacy? Is there a feminist cry behind the work?
It’s an interesting question… Honestly, I even think that Cecília is a bit sexist: for her, there is always a hierarchy. For example, she does not recognize the mother’s authority, because she does not occupy a place of power: she is a nurse and could be a doctor. But, on the other hand, Cecília is very competitive with men and values her freedom – in fact, the pleasure I had in writing this story is due to the fact that Cecília has often escaped my control. Now, ask me: “If the protagonist were a man named Osvaldo, would it be less strange to read the thoughts of the character in this book in a raw way?” The answer is yes.
When we delve deeply into Cecília’s conscience, are we also understanding the reasons why she has these prejudices?
Cecília’s behavior is greatly influenced by the loneliness she felt when she was young. She’s very dysfunctional: she doesn’t visit museums, doesn’t have a boyfriend, hates work. Even her father, who adores her, irritates her! She doesn’t see art in anything. In fact, this is a topic that intrigues me a lot. It’s scary to think that we are programmed by the environment that surrounds us and that we do not control.
In the book, there are more female characters than males. Is it an attempt to give more space to women in literature?
My books are not an explicit manifesto: I think that my civic discussions naturally infiltrate my works. In the first sentence of the writing, I set a tone for the book. From there, I submit myself to that language, in this case, a story in the first person. I wanted to write a book in a female voice because I had never done so. In A Pediatra, we find the feminist issue between the lines. My civic concerns eventually entered the tone of the story.
And that’s why the only characters that have a name before Celso’s appearance are women – Deise and Maria Amélia, Cecília’s obstetrician friend?
Truth. Deise is a character that stands out in the book: proof of that is that we have already talked a lot about her. There is an intimacy between Cecília and her maid – and, in one of the alternative endings, she would even have more of a leading role… I can’t reveal more!
The book was written in 2019. Would the pandemic have changed the way doctors are described?
All. Even because of the way the pandemic crisis was managed in Brazil. Cecília does not deny Science – in fact, she highly values the protocol of Science. There were doctors, here in Brazil, who never respected Science since the beginning of the pandemic. I can’t predict what the book would be like if it were written after the pandemic. I just know it would be different. Absolutely.
But this work can become a good reminder of the truth and scientific importance.
Yes No doubt. Cecília highly values her scientific ability – when she loses clients, she always says that she will overcome this phase because she studied, had high grades and has proven herself as a pediatrician. What he lacks is the other part of what it means to be a doctor: the part of care, humanity, sensitivity…
Did you feel pressure to write this book? Bearing in mind that he has already won a Saramago Award…
I think I can always disappoint expectations: each book of mine could have a different pseudonym. They are different writers. It’s hard to find bridges between my books. I also know that I broke expectations – I went nine years without publishing. Still, I don’t regret it: it was a time to be enchanted by writing. It is an artistic work, which has nothing to do with the publication. From the moment the book is published, the writer’s artistic experience is over: we are already thinking about the promotion, the public, the cover… We are distancing ourselves from art, like an adult child who is going to live his life. In fact, I even forget the stories of the books I wrote!
In A Pediatrician, there is no magical realism. Was this book a turning point?
In 2011, Os Malaquias was published, a book of poetic prose and magical realism. It’s a book about my family, and the metaphors helped me tell the story. Here, the text is much cruder. There are almost no metaphors, no poetic prose, no magical realism – but there is an existential absurdity. Now, I don’t really know where I’m going…
Is it this unknown that fascinates you in literature?
I think it’s wonderful. In life, it’s despair! In writing, that’s what you expect.
Will you continue to write the book you started seven years ago?
This book is about a good man, who lives up to all expectations, who doesn’t have any imbalances… I’ll insist on him – maybe he’s not that good… I don’t put down any books. This one must be ready too! [Risos]