The story of a book in five years and ten seconds

Every book has a story of its own — and publishing one of them will create a rather unpredictable chain of events. To tell the story of our book, I have to start at a certain party: New Year's Eve 2016.
Marco Neves
The storyteller of the adventures


By the end of 2015, I was falling into a hard-to-cure addiction: I wrote often (really often) on a blog about languages (and other personal crazes). Its title doesn't really matter; let me just tell you that the blog still exists. Well, on that New Year's Eve, somewhere by the sea, in the South of Portugal, while the people around me were downcounting from 10 to excited 0, and as I was stuffing raisins in my mouth (dropping frizzy grapes on the floor is bad luck, as we know) — I made up my mind. That year was to be the year I would finally publish a book. People say we need to do three things in life: plant a tree, have a child, write a book. I already had my son, I remember vaguely planting a tree in Primary School — all that was missing was the book (and planting a few more trees to compensate). On top of that, from time to time, I received messages from readers of my blog saying they liked reading my rather long articles, but they would love even more to read them on paper.

I gathered the best texts from that blog and sent out proposals to editors. One of them, for some reason, thought the proposal was publishable: Manuel S. Fonseca, from Guerra e Paz. We had a book! It didn't even take long: in April of that same year, while the noise of the end-of-the-year party was still echoing in my ears, the book was already out. It was about secrets and our language, and even told a few stories about words from Peniche, my hometown.


Now — and this is the first link in the chain of books — after that first book, the editor wanted more. Not a collection of texts, but a proper story. One of those stories that starts a long time ago and goes on, telling everything that happened, mixing imagination and reality, in a word stew that should please the readers (which does not always happen — and that’s why an editor doesn't sleep at night).
So I took my favourite subject — language — and baked it with stories of Romans and Celts, Portuguese and Galicians, poets and pirates (I think it had pirates, but I'm not sure). It was a real history, but with a lot of fiction in between.
The book was written in the second half of 2016, slowly, really slowly. Meanwhile, another New Year's Eve came and I had that rare experience of looking back and thinking: look, I've managed to keep my end-of-year promise... (The trick, of course, is to promise just one thing; one can publish a book or lose weight; not both.)


On that night of New Year's Eve between 2016 and 2017 I was more cautious: I didn't want to write yet another book (I already had two; one of them about to come out). Instead, I wanted to write an adventure that would begin precisely at that moment, on that New Year's Eve. I smiled as I chug raisins again. I already had some ideas floating around while the fireworks were reflected in the faces of my family.
So I wrote a text in which a couple received a phone call at midnight and had to find a treasure chest on an island. I thought I would continue writing in episodes—a real serial novel, as of yore. The title of such an episode was stolen from a line of a song by Azeitonas, with a little adaptation: "The Treasure We Stole from the Spanish". I noticed the line because once, on the radio, I heard a live version and everyone started clapping when the singer talked about the treasures we had hidden from the Spaniards. The song is called "In Cartoons (It Never Ends Badly)" and begins like this: "I want the luck of a cartoon character / on the mornings of RTP1” (which is, if you happen not to know, the first TV channel in Portugal).
And indeed, I was lucky enough to appear on RTP1, one morning. Well, it wasn't exactly in the morning, because it was already lunchtime. The reason was this: the second book about the language was out on the streets and RTP1 did a report that scared my grandmother Leonor who never thought she would turn on the TV and see her grandson rambling. I say this not out of vanity (I shudder with embarrassment when I think about it!), but because that appearance on television had a certain importance in this whole story (another link in the chain!).


It wasn't only my grandmother who saw me on RTP1. Also, Tó-Zé Correia, who was then the mayor of Peniche and king in his spare time (we'll get to that in a moment), saw me on TV. Without having seen the book yet, but knowing its structure — a 2000-year-old story told through adventures — he phoned me and said: you have to do the same with your hometown. I already have — he told me — the first character: Lucius Arvenius Rusticus, the garum merchant from Roman Peniche who was much later lucky enough to have an oven discovered and studied by a nice team of archaeologists (whom I would meet months later).
My hands were on fire immediately. I hung up the phone, took a deep breath, sat down at my computer and started writing. Anyway, I also took care to ask the editor if he would be interested. Apparently, he was. I just had to be quick. Two months...
I remembered the story I wrote about the New Year’s Eve. It was a possible start to the new novel. I started rewriting it, researching the history of Peniche, imagining adventures, tearing up paper (i.e., throwing files into the recycling bin inside the computer).


It's not easy to imagine stories. I read a lot, I sweated a bit... During the Easter holidays, I went to visit my brother in England and there I finished the book — not a bad idea because in the story there are a lot of English people. The streets of Cambridge inspired me (distance doesn't always hurt when writing about what we know).
With the book finished and sent to the publisher, I took another deep breath. The book went through the usual machinery, revisions, further revisions, rewrites, choice of cover, proofs and finally, the book in my hands. The night before it goes to the printers, the editor calls me: the title had to change! We don't want to steal anything from the Spanish! All right, I thought, but as revenge, one of them will be swallowed by a whale. And that's how The Whale that Swallowed a Spaniard came about, an account of many bizarre adventures from Roman times to the present day.


I remember seeing the book for the first time one day in May 2017, when I went to the publisher, in the middle of Lisbon. When I left the building I had the book in my hand and I remember very well the happy journey to the car, which was parked far away. It was sunny and I had adventures of my hometown inside a book.
The first presentation was in a Lisbon bookshop, where King D. António, Prior of Crato, appeared to wish the book well and to greet Fernando Alvim, the official presenter. Some people said that D. António looked a lot like the Mayor of Peniche. It's true: after all, D. António, Prior do Crato, who wanted to be King of Portugal, governed little more than Peniche. To have the mayor or Peniche impersonating the king is only fit. Everything is explained in the book.


The second presentation was — no surprise here — in Peniche, by Rogério Cação, on the night I met the archaeologists who uncovered Lucius Arvenius Rusticus's pottery. Unfortunately, Rogério will no longer be able to hold the second edition in his hand. He spoke about it — and spoke well, as always — one evening in the summer of 2017, at the Clube Recreativo de Peniche.
It was precisely there where, the following year, TEDxPeniche was organised. By then, the book had already passed through many hands, including those of Pedro Reis, one of the organisers of TEDx (among 1037 other things). He told me later that those stories helped him get Peniche, so to speak. He had some ideas in his head. Instead of telling me right away what they were, because there's no reason to do one thing when you can do two, Pedro asked Ângela Malheiros, the librarian of Peniche, to invite me to join the 2019 TEDxPeniche.
I really enjoyed participating, saying a few words on the translation of "saudade". In the end, Pedro came up to me and said he had a proposal to make. The book about Peniche could be the basis of another book about Peniche. I had a bit of a headache but I understood the idea (I thought).


We arranged a longer conversation in January (TEDx was in November, Christmas was coming, no one plans to start anything in December — and we already discovered that this story needs the month of January to move forward).
We arranged it in a certain pizzeria in Peniche whose name I don't want to remember — I don’t remember now and I didn’t remember then, because I went to sit waiting for Pedro and Ângela in another pizzeria in Peniche. Come on, be gentle — I wrote a book about Peniche, I don't have to remember the exact location of all its pizzerias! After some confused SMS exchanges, and considering that I had already ordered a nice pizza, Pedro and Ângela left the right pizzeria and came to meet me at the wrong one.
I think they forgave me. We talked, we talked, and we then planned a book. We were happy and quite optimistic. It was January 2020. We were going to have a second, spectacular edition of the book out by the summer of 2020...
And then you know what happened…


Months later, between lockdowns, masks, tests, online classes and the world upside down, I sent Pedro a message, like someone throwing a bottle into the sea, asking if we could talk about the project, not in the wrong pizzeria, but through Zoom. Pedro was happy that I could still remember a project that had been thought of so long before (it was only three months, but what three months!).
A team got together, we started having weekly meetings (do you think this bookmaking thing is easy?) and the idea started to take shape. One of the meetings was actually in my car, because I had taken my youngest son for a short trip just to look at the river. Matias liked the project so much that he couldn't stop screaming. The meeting went well (after all, at Zoom, we can silence each other).


We invited Rui Venâncio, a historian from Peniche, to participate.
I was not certain he would accept. A historian might not want to participate in a book project that (let’s be honest) doesn't mind twisting history a little (just a little) for the sake of a good story. Well, he came along enthusiastically, even if only to straighten what was twisted in such a novel. We also convinced Hélio, who started drawing. Beside Pedro we have Riikka, Andréa and Tita. And Ângela, of course. ("And Ângela, of course." is a phrase that is added to almost every list of people participating in projects that take place in Peniche.) In the summer of 2020, with masks on our faces and some distance between us, we all met in the courtyard of Peniche library one fine afternoon. Since then, while the virus came and went (many times), we haven't stopped dreaming of this book of Peniche.
Recently, Andréa created the most realistic and delicious descriptions of us all that I could ever imagine reading — they are there, on our website:
Just go there and check it out.
We've already had a live broadcast about Peniche's history.
We've been around Peniche.
We've thought about and rethought the title.
We've already made a presentation to the Municipality, which supports the project.
We've also got the support of Thai, the canned food company that keeps Lucius Arvenius Rusticus’ tradition going — in a slightly different way...
We've had several work sessions, including a certain morning in September 2021 when we had a fight on deciding the title (it had to have more Peniche and less whale in it).
So many conversations we've had and so much has happened, but we have no seconds left to explain it all.


All these stories and chain links will give rise to the new book: Peniche — Ilha do Tesouro. It will be a book of adventures, in Portuguese and English, with a historical guide and illustrations à la Jules Verne, not forgetting a map that will take many people around our town with the book in hand.
It will be a book you’ll want to touch, a book to carry in your luggage, a book that will make our hometown even more unforgettable.
And after this one there will be others because books are like conversations and the chain never breaks.

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