Thursday, March 11, 2010

12 or 20 questions: with Nino Ricci

Nino Ricci’s first novel, Lives of the Saints, garnered international acclaim, appearing in fifteen countries and winning a host of awards, including, in Canada, the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and in England, the Betty Trask Award and the Winifred Holtby Prize. It formed the first volume of a trilogy that was completed by In A Glass House and Where She Has Gone, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize for Fiction. The Lives of the Saints trilogy was adapted as a miniseries starring Sophia Loren, Sabrina Ferilli, and Kris Kristofferson.

Ricci is also the author of Testament, co-winner of the Trillium Award and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and the Caribbean and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. In 2006, Ricci was the winner of the inaugural Alistair MacLeod Award for Literary Achievement.

Born in Leamington, Ontario, to parents from the Molise region of Italy, Ricci completed studies at York University in Toronto, at Concordia University in Montreal, and at the University of Florence, and has taught both in Canada and abroad. He is currently the Killam Visiting Professor in Canadian Studies at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. He is also a past president of the Canadian Centre of International PEN.

Nino Ricci’s newest novel is the The Origin of Species. According to the Toronto Star, it is “Ricci’s masterstroke to date . . . . An ambitious, thrilling novel that resists encapsulation and takes not a single misstep.” The Origin of Species earned Ricci his second Governor General’s Award for Fiction. In spring 2009 Ricci also published a biography of Pierre Elliott Trudeau as part of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The success of my first book allowed me to continue writing on a more or less full-time basis afterwards, which has been an incredible luxury.

My most recent novel, The Origin of Species, shares some similarities of tone with Lives of the Saint and covers some of the same thematic material, but from a somewhat more nuanced point of view, I think. It also tackles different issues that are more relevant to me now, or that I have a better perspective on--the issue of parenthood, for instance.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

As an undergraduate I studied mainly poetry rather than fiction, and for a time even wrote poetry. I have often felt, in fact, that most of whatever is good about my fiction I learned from poetry. But I always felt like an interloper in the land of poetry, whereas I had been drawn to writing fiction, and particularly long fiction, ever since the second grade. As for non-fiction: probably from the first time I read a biography, back in my teens, I had the sense that non-fiction was somehow less honest and less true than fiction, because it had access to so much less information than fiction did and had so many biases and agendas.

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?

Some projects go quickly and well, others not. With the years, each project seems to take longer, I'm not sure why. My resistance to beginning grows greater as well, perhaps out of fear of failing, or because my expectations are always getting higher. And my first drafts seem to get worse and worse. My first drafts seldom look anything like my final ones. They serve essentially as my notes, my outline, where I let every possible version of things have its say before I ferret out the one that will become the final work.

4 - Where does fiction 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?

My books usually come to me as a whole, and usually years before I start writing them. I get ideas constantly, but only a few of those stay with me, and these I keep coming back to again and again, not so much to flesh out their details as to test their endurance.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I generally enjoy readings because they are a way to get out of the house and to meet actual readers. If not for readings, the circle might not feel closed; it might feel--it in fact often does feel--as if one were sending one's words out into the void. So in that sense readings help my creative process, by helping to assure me that there will be an audience out there who will care in some measure about what I write.

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?

These sorts of questions are rather difficult to answer. Maybe "theoretical" is not the right word. The concerns are more practical. Why are we here? What does it mean? What is the right way to live? Concerns like that. In a nutshell: how do we make sense of everything? I think that is the main question for most novelists.

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?

Again, a rather difficult question. There are many different types of writers, of course, and different types of writing. The job for the novelist, I think, is as above: to try to make sense of everything. Other fields of knowledge try to make sense of their own little wedge of the pie, but novels, like other narrative forms--the epic; the feature film--try to fit in everything.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both. I have been very fortunate, of course, in having had brilliant editors, from my advisor when I was a grad student in creative writing at Concordia University, Terence Byrnes, to Jan Geddes at Cormorant, Ellen Seligman at M&S, and Martha Kanya-Forstner at Doubleday. Most writers, I think, are very grateful for their editors, who save them from many public embarrassments. That has certainly been my own case.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

For writers? Keep writing. Paul Quarrington's advice for writers also always struck me as particularly sound: if you want to make it as a writer, just make sure you write better than everyone else.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

To be frank, I found non-fiction easier than fiction--the story was there, after all, so I didn't have to deal with the paralyzing doubt about where I was going that dogs me when I write fiction. That said, I hold to my comment above, that it seems rather less likely one will arrive at the truth in non-fiction than in fiction.

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 write when I can, which is usually between 9:30 and 3 or 4 or 5 most weekdays, depending on other professional and domestic obligations. I used to keep longer hours when I was childless, though I'm not sure I wrote any better. I certainly wasn't any happier.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When my writing gets stalled, I'll let you know.

13 - What was your most recent Hallowe'en costume?

I gave that up a while back, probably five or six years ago. I think my last incarnation was as Darth Vader.

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?

Of course there are other influences. Film has been a big one for me, particularly Fellini, but also all the late-night Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine movies I watched as a kid. Increasingly, the internet is an influence. In short, everything is an influence.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Thomas Pynchon, Bernard Malamud, Jonathan Swift, Sophocles, and others.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Oh, god. I don't think I can say this in print.

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?

Mostly, I'd like to direct. Seriously: if I'd had the qualities, I suppose I would have liked to have been an auteur filmmaker, though I likely would have ended up embittered and cynical (or even more embittered and cynical).

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Can one really answer a question like this? It was what I was good at, I suppose. It was what I liked doing. It was my only option. It was the only thing that would make me happy (relatively speaking, of course).

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Last great book: The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Last great film: Sorry, nothing comes to mind. Though Fantastic Mr Fox wasn't bad.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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