Andre Alexis on the greasiest job he ever had and why he hates writing sex scenes
André Alexis's modern-day parable Fifteen Dogs brought home the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2015. As if that wasn't enough recognition, the book joined the pack of great reads vying for the win on Canada Reads 2017, where Humble The Poet championed it all the way into the winner's circle.
André Alexis answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Lawrence Hill asks, "What is the worst job you ever had, and what kind of good material did it give you?"
The worst job I ever had was working as a janitor at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. I worked at night, so it was kind of creepy and there's a kind of grease that gets over the floors in the kitchen that feels impossible to remove. It gets everywhere. You start to feel like you are made of grease.
The other thing I learned by being a janitor at KFC was the women's washrooms were always worse than the men's washrooms to clean. What I learned from that is that things are not what you think they are.
2. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "Do you know how your story will end when you begin writing?"
Sometimes you do and sometimes you don't. Sometimes you're working towards an ending and sometimes you're in a dark room trying to find the door. It's not necessarily easier when you know the ending because then it's like trying to steer a cow into a pinhole. I prefer not to know. I like the process of discovering what's going to happen as I'm going along. It keeps me interested and if I'm interested in it, I assume some other human somewhere must be interested as well.
3. Steven Heighton asks, "Have you ever created a character with whom you'd never want — or dare — to be alone?"
No. I've created characters that I haven't liked and I've created characters that I've felt unhappy having to spend time with, in retrospect. While you're writing, you have to love them or you can't write them. It's important that no matter what they do, whether they're egotists, whether they're horrifying and violent, you have to be that thing too. I hold very much to the Latin saying from Terence, which is "Nothing human is foreign to me." I think, in order to be an artist, in order to be a writer, that has to be true.
4. Jen Sookfong Lee asks, "Writing sex scenes: fun or torture?"
Torture. My mom told me at some point, "André, don't write sex scenes. You don't know how to do it." If your mom is telling you that, I suppose that's a pretty good indication that you should stop.
5. Will Ferguson asks, "How much thought/meaning do you put into the naming of your characters?"
I hate naming characters. And I suppose everybody does. You have to feel comfortable with a name because you're going to be writing it over and over and over. Sometimes, you get names that feel absolutely right. Sometimes, you get names that feel awkward, but then the character grows into it. I choose them not at random. I could never call anybody Percy. I have trouble with William too.
Aside from that, you try to feel your way into naming. One of the easiest novels for me to name was Pastoral, which is the novel before Fifteen Dogs, because I went to a chapel in the Lake District in England and behind the chapel there were graves. The wealthy were buried there. There were all these names of long-dead British people. So I wrote them down and whenever I needed a name I drew from the list of the dead in the Lake District.
6. Patrick deWitt asks, "What is the last thing you read that made you feel actually jealous?"
The last thing I read that made me feel actually jealous was the first chapter of Rachel Cusk's Outline. I thought it was simply brilliant. It wasn't shouting. It wasn't in your face. The description of a plane taking off was beautiful. The drama between two people who don't know each other, who are together for a moment and are telling each other secrets, I just thought it was perfectly handled.
7. Roo Borson asks, "What would you like to do in writing that you haven't yet tried?"
There's a lot of answers to that. If it's in terms of genre, I'd love to try science fiction. I grew up loving science fiction and feel that's a thing I would adore to try to do.
If it's in terms of technical matter, part of me would love to try and do a novel that's either entirely in letters or entirely in dialogue. I love the limitations of having to tell a story in a way that's not the usual, but that you can sink into. If you have just letters or just dialogue, you can find ways to get the narrative through. I like tough structural challenges. I would like to adapt a work of philosophy into fiction. The ultimate would be to do Critique of Pure Reason as a comic book.
8. Douglas Coupland asks, "Sometimes when I'm on deadline, I'll check into a hotel and not have my cell phone or anything and do what has to be done. That's my way of finding seclusion and writing a book. What's yours?"
Same thing. Except I don't turn off my cell phone or my computer because I would feel so alone it would kill me. I write for half an hour and then look up the history of Stephen Sondheim musicals on Broadway for the next hour. I write for 15 minutes and then look up all the films by Francis Ford Coppola.
My mind is constantly going at the work, but it can't be only involved in the work. It's drawing from all sorts of things. As I'm thinking, I need distractions. The other thing I do is play 2048 endlessly. Even though you're not writing words on a page, you're still writing because your mind is working out things like character.