Launch: Stephanie Renee dos Santos’s Cut From The Earth


Stephanie Renee dos Santos’s Cut From The Earth is an exploration of Portuguese tile arts and its diverse makers set at the time of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Other themes in the novel are the struggles for emancipation and creative recognition by women and Africans working in the tile trade.

What attracted you to this story and this period of history?

​This story “chose me” after time spent in the town of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon in 2005 where I came across buildings along the riverfront decorated in tile, azulejos, like one sees throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Cut From The Earth began to take form from a spark of curiosity about why these tile works were there in the middle of the jungle.

On returning to the States, I began looking into how the tiles might have arrived in the Amazon. I came across the Great Lisbon Earthquake and an eighteenth century innovation in tile arts which captured my attention, the figura de convite, a cut-out of a human figure. It was a revolutionary tile design, leading me to discover a tile artist by the initials of PMP whose life story is an enigma of art history. From these threads, voices of the past began to speak through to the here and now, begging to be heard and explored.

There is a tremendously vivid depiction of 18th century Lisbon, the Mocambo – its black barrio, and the tile workshop in the novel. Are you writing from experience of Lisbon? How did you create your setting?

​Yes, I visited Lisbon multiple times over a ten-year period to walk the streets, listen, smell and “live Lisbon”. I toured the still active tile factory, the Fabrica Sant’Anna, founded in 1741, which inspired much of the novel’s Fabrica Santa Maria factory. Since I am an artist I notice every little visual detail in physical spaces. I had an opportunity to work with a Penguin/Random House editor during the manuscript’s development. The editor encouraged me to fully create and “world build” Lisbon in this time period, because it is a city little known to readers of fiction, unlike other cities throughout Europe, such as London, Paris, Amsterdam or places in Italy. She stressed the importance of having to educate readers into this “new” Old World.

I studied tile works and paintings of the period for inspiration. I scoured books in specialized libraries connected to major artistic collections throughout Lisbon. There is an amazing sixteen-panel tile rendition of Lisbon in the National Tile Museum, which survived the 1755 Great Earthquake. One panel depicts the tile factory smokestacks in the Mocambo barrio. Two books, in particular, assisted in creating the novel’s settings: Lisbon Before The 1755 Earthquake: Panoramic View of the City, and A Herança Africana em Portugal by Isabel Castro Henriques.

How did spending time living in Africa contribute to your account in the novel?

Immensely. I am not sure I would have been able to write the African and African descendant voices had I not lived in Niger, West Africa from 1994–1997. I drew on my lived-experience with a little-known tribe called the Fulmangani, and also the Gulmancema, Fulani, Zarma, Hausa and Tuareg people who inspired much of the feel and sentiments of the African population in Lisbon in the book.

When I was in Niger, people shared historical accounts with me about their tribesmen being abducted and forced across the Sahara desert into slavery. It was these people’s ancestors who might have ended up in Lisbon. The Sahara human trafficking route is one we hear little about and I felt it important to acknowledge it in the novel.

It was vital to recognize the African and African descendant contributions to this amazing time period of tile production in Portugal. Without a doubt, they were participating in tile making in multiple ways since the factories were located in their neighborhood, even though there are no written historical records. These people’s voices started talking to me as I was writing, sharing their struggles, victories and longings.

I started asking questions of art historian and Portuguese tile specialist Luisa Arruda at the University of Lisbon. She confirmed, “yes”, without a doubt, the population in the Mocambo would have been integral to tile production.

I was inspired by some short stints I spent in Morocco where I was exposed to Moorish culture. The Iberian Peninsula, making up Portugal and Spain, was invaded and controlled by the Berbers in the eighth century. They occupied the southern portion of Portugal for three hundred years, bringing with them their arts, such as tile making. The history of Africans in Portugal is long and complex. At one time, they were the conquers and then later the enslaved.

How did you approach researching the earthquake in order to write it?

​I studied the art works inspired and made after the great quake. There were prints and paintings created afterward as artists from all over Europe made their way to Lisbon to visually record what had befallen the “Princess of Europe”. I read non-fiction historical accounts and firsthand written descriptions of those who survived the Great Lisbon Earthquake. The Lisbon Earthquake by T.D Kendrik, Wrath of God by Edward Paice, and The Last Day by Nicholas Shrady were particularly helpful.

There is tragedy and joy in your story. Did you find it difficult – without a spoiler – writing the tragedy? How did you approach that?

Yes, I did find it difficult to write about the tragedies caused by slavery and what today is thought to have been an 8.9 or 9 on the Richter scale earthquake. The number of lives lost in the earthquake was over 40,000. When writing the drama of earthquake, tidal waves and fires, I literally went through the different psychological stages of grieving from loss: shock, denial, anger, depression, and then coming into some sort of acceptance. This was a very emotional part of the writing, along with giving voice to the anger, shame, longing, and frustration caused by enslavement and imposed limitations forced upon women. I felt sad and down for blocks of time while writing and editing. I think this is common for writers dealing with emotionally charged subject matter like this or for any feeling person.

Could you tell us something about your publishing process.

It was a long one! Male protagonists are not vogue right now (and fair enough!) and despite literary agents saying they are interested in original story lines, different world settings, and unheard stories I didn’t find this to be true. For this novel, it took an artistic Acquisition Editor at a European publisher, Next Chapter, based in the UK and Japan, to recognize the value of this artsy multicultural story.

This is the first book in a series. Can you tell us about your next project?

​Book two of the series will explore what rose from the ashes and destruction of Lisbon and will also go to Brazil!

What is the last great book you read?

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.


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