André Alexis is the author of two novels (Childhood and Asylum), two books of short stories (Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa and Beauty and Sadness), a children’s book (Ingrid and the Wolf ) and a number of plays (Lambton Kent, Name in Vain, Fidelity), as well as A, newly out with BookThug. He was a contributing book reviewer for the Globe and Mail, and has worked extensively in radio, having been the host/writer of CBC Radio One’s "Radio Nomad" and CBC Radio 2’s "Skylarking."
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa, was the first repository of some of the questions that have troubled me (or inspired me) over the years. I work by wondering not only “what happens next?” (narrative) but “why does anything happen at all?” (metaphysics). The surprise of seeing some of my concerns and questions on the page was what inspired the next book, Childhood, which in turn inspired the book that came after it, and so on. My most recently published book feels like part of an ongoing conversation amongst me, my psyche and whoever is kind enough to read my work. (It’s either that or my work is simply an unhealthy monologue that gets more eccentric as it goes on.)
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I prefer poetry and would have been a poet if I’d had the necessary talents: patience and quickness of mind, above all. (I can’t tell you how much I admire and envy my friend, Roo Borson.) Having failed at poetry, I turned to something that tormented me much less than writing bad poetry did: fiction. I was born in Trinidad and I had always loved its stories and legends. Fiction was a way to keep myself in touch with my origins (its language and stories) while allowing me to meditate on things that are fundamental to my psyche.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
How long does it take to start? You mean once I’ve gotten an idea? It’s variable. When I started out, I probably didn’t think enough before writing. If I had an idea for a story, I immediately tried to write it down. Now, I wait a while – sometimes months or years. If the idea hangs around, I feel confident I can use it. If I’ve waited for the right amount of time, the writing comes quickly. But my first drafts are generally bad. They’re usually formally right – proper beginning, middle, end – and their structures are usually sound (“structure” meaning the narrative’s way of progressing from incident to incident or thought to thought) but their language and pace are always much worse than I expect. Which is why I prefer second, third or even later drafts.
As to notes: I never use them. If an idea is vivid enough, I don’t need notes and, besides, I like the element of surprise or discovery that rules a first draft. If the idea isn’t vivid enough to take me through a novel or short story, it’s not an idea I should be wasting my time with. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to tell the difference between ideas that are important (to me) and the ones that are brain fluff.
4 - Where does a story usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Difficult to talk about where a story comes from (see question 14): other stories (mine and others’), other books, films, philosophy, voices, friends, characters … almost anything can set a story in motion, but I’m usually working on a “book” from the very beginning. That much is close enough to true.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Your question is slightly paradoxical, rob. When we read something, the “creative process” that has generated what we’re reading is usually over. We’re usually on to something else. But if I take your question to be “How does something you’ve finished help you create something new?”, the answer might be something like … public readings give you a more objective view of your own work and voice. It allows you to see your own work a little more clearly. That can be deadly, if you don’t actually like the view up close. But it can also make you reflect on your own questions and process from an unexpected angle. When that happens, I’m grateful because I find odd angles inspire more work.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
There are “theoretical concerns” behind some of my writing, I guess. Right now, I’m in the middle of writing the second of five novels that are - explicitly but, I hope, invisibly – experiments with structure. The five novels (two of which – Pastoral and Fifteen Dogs – I’ve already written) are also playing with genre. Having been influenced by Harry Mathews and Raymond Queneau (members, both, of the OULIPO), I’m always wondering about structure. So, certain “theoretical” questions naturally appeal to me. For instance: what happens if I progress from this incident to that one along mathematical lines, instead of emotional one?
My play with genre is not influenced by the OULIPO, though. (If anything, it’s influenced by reading Witold Gombrowicz, a great writer for whom I feel a real closeness.) Playing with genre is a way of returning to zero - “zero” being a point of almost complete ignorance. It’s a way of asking myself fundamental questions. For instance, what’s the difference between a detective story, say, and a romance? For the writer, I mean. Is the difference writerly (style, diction, form, etc) or psychological? What does “genre” mean, exactly? My hope, in fooling around this way, is that I’ll be able to understand my discipline (fiction) more deeply. In a way, knowing “fiction” and knowing the world have become two sides of the same coin, for me. (Which is probably why I have so much sympathy – love, really - for philosophers, their methods, frustrations and inadvertent comedy. It’s just great – to me, anyway - that Descartes felt compelled to put the soul in the pineal gland or that in one of Plato’s dialogues “man” is described as a “featherless bipeds” or that Heraclitus buried himself in cow dung in order to cure his own case of dropsy. I know that last one is apocryphal, but I like to think it’s true. )
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
This is too difficult a question, rob. It would take too long to answer and I’d hate myself afterwards, whatever answer I gave.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It depends on the editor. For me, it’s been both difficult and a pleasure, in different instances. The process is essential, though, in that – as with public readings – it allows you another angle on your work and that, as I mentioned, is helpful in carrying the work forward.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best advice I’ve ever had was given – not to me – by Mordecai Richler. In an interview with Graeme Gibson (I think it was), he talks about being a writer as being, largely, a matter of persistence. He mentions that when he began his writing life, a number of his contemporaries wanted to be writers as well. As he got into his thirties and forties, that number dwindled until, finally, there were only a handful of “bitter enders” left, the ones who would not stop writing. Those “bitter enders” are the ones whom, for lack of a better term, you can call writers. I’ve been writing since I was nineteen. I’m now fifty six. I’ve persisted. I want to go on. I’d like to die learning more about the thing I love and respect: literature.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to novels to plays to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s not easy but I’m fascinated by genre, by the identities language is able to take on. I don’t do all of them “well”. (I couldn’t write a film script to save my life.) But there’s a bit of a contradiction at the heart of the whole “changing genres” thing. I’ve learned (or I’m learning) to stop caring too much about how well I write. (It’s damaging to care too much about that.) But as doing a short story well is different from doing a play well, when you change genres the challenge is to do each of them at the highest level. That is, “well”. (Otherwise, why not stick with what you do best?) Going from writing a short story to writing a libretto means having my idea of what makes a short story a short story and what makes a libretto a libretto firmly in mind and writing towards an ideal that isn’t quite expressible except in the work itself. So, writing in different genres makes me nervous about my abilities, though in order to do it I’ve got to ignore my performance anxieties.
Seeing things written out like that makes me wonder if I shouldn’t stick to fiction. But then, the more I know about other genres, the more I know about fiction. So, there you go …
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I wish it were different but no single routine has stood me in any kind of stead. For some books, it’s important to get up in the morning, for others it seems proper to do them at night. This isn’t something I can predict, either. So, naturally, my writing day can’t be said to begin in any typical way. If I had my druthers, every day would begin with me having preternaturally wonderful sex with someone I love and admire. I don’t know how that would affect my writing, exactly, but slightly exhausted and in a fugue state is how I write best. So, the whole Balzac “there goes a novel with every orgasm” thing doesn’t apply in my case.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If I’m stalled on one project, I usually turn to another project to help me out. This is where working in different genres really helps. Writing an essay is sufficiently different from writing a novel that I won’t think about the novel while doing the essay and vice versa. I use other projects and different genres to help me get away from something that’s problematic or stuck.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
There are a number of answers to this question.
Childhood home = coffee (slightly burnt) and bacon
Adult home = stale socks and “unscented” Dove soap
Homes of various woman I’ve loved = various fragrances (from mint toothpaste to Neil’s Yard hydrating cream)
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’m sure David McFadden said it, too. But this is an idea that goes back long before David. The Greeks, the Romans, the Jews, Borges … at some point, we all become aware that “the real” is far from the only or perhaps even the most significant place from which books come or draw their inspiration. In an interview with Libération, Orhan Pamuk said “I’m often criticized for my lack of life experience. They say that my books come from other books and not from the real. Well, so what? First of all I think paradox is the essence of literature. The power of what’s written comes from reflection. I have more confidence in my thinking than in my experience. My problem is finding the time to write not the material. I’ve got enough in my head to write a thousand books.” And Harry Mathews said “All books come from other books, especially when they’re drawn from real life.”
In one of your interviews, Stan Dragland says that “books come from other books” is an overstatement, a “usefully provocative generalization”. Stan – who is my favourite Canadian reviewer/critic – is probably right but … as someone who has definitely been influenced by music and painting, I do find it interesting (or troubling) that I often take what’s “literary” from these other art forms. A quick example: my novel, Pastoral, faithfully adopts the five part structure of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. And another example: thinking about Piero della Francesca, I think about his use of linear perspective and the perspective of iconography and, because I think the battle between these ways of looking produced wonderful art, I’ve tried to find ways to approximate that battle in my own writing. That’s my long-winded way of saying that I’m inclined to see the world and other art forms as writing, as books (or stories) within a bewilderingly long book.
On the other hand, I write while listening to music. From the second draft on, I listen to it loud. I’ll listen to the same song for hours. While writing the last chapter of Fifteen Dogs, for instance, I listened to Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter” almost exclusively, for days. I find the first two minutes of that song almost unbearably beautiful and strange. (And André Benjamin’s guitar solo towards the end is like the sound of a drunken man almost falling off a pier.) I’m certain the specific emotions that that song evokes in me generated part of my final chapter. So, I guess you could say writing (or maybe any type of creation) is – to put it in cybernetic terms - an open system not a closed one. But it’s an open system that feels for its governor like a closed one.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
God how I hate writers. I can’t stand the thought of them. Wretched, self-absorbed, miserable wretches. All of them. Without exception. How I wish I could be something else. Anything else. It’s writers that make me long for death, for a world where Nabokov and Pasternak mean nothing. Not just them two, either. Harry Mathews, Witold Gombrowicz, Tolstoy, Beckett, Proust, Jane Austen, Anna Akhmatova, Italo Calvino, Margaret Avison, Alice Munro, Raymond Queneau, Dante, Giacomo Leopardi, Albert Camus, Chateaubriand, Edward St Aubyn, Kazuo Ishiguro, Yasunari Kawabata, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stanislaw Lem … It’s because of them that “life outside of my work” is almost meaningless to me. I blame Kafka for my failed relationships. And Borges practically killed my parents off himself, the blind bastard!
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Learn Arabic and, if there’s time, Japanese.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
When I was eight or nine, I really wanted to be a lawyer. Later, I wanted to be a priest. Nothing else has occurred to me since.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
This is too difficult a question, rob. I can’t answer it with any precision. Place, time, inclination, opportunity, love of palaver, easy access to my emotions … something of all that, I’d guess. In any case, I’d make a lousy almost anything else.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Book (fiction): At Last, by Edward St Aubyn
Book (non-fiction): Zibaldone, by Giacomo Leopardi
Film (re-watched): Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujiro Ozu
20 - What are you currently working on?
The next draft of a novel called Fifteen Dogs. And the first draft of a play.
[André Alexis launches A as part of the BookThug event with Sandra Ridley and Michael Blouin at the Ottawa international writers festival on October 26, 2013]