Canada Reads·How I Wrote It

How André Alexis wrote Fifteen Dogs

How André Alexis wrote his novel Fifteen Dogs, which won Canada Reads 2017, championed by Humble The Poet.
André Alexis is the author of Fifteen Dogs. (CBC)

At the outset of Fifteen Dogs, the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo bet on the outcome of giving animals human consciousness. Their test cases: the 15 dogs spending the night in the back of a Toronto veterinary clinic. André Alexis won both the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize for the book. The book won Canada Reads 2017, when it was championed by Humble The Poet.

In his own words, André Alexis describes how this modern-day parable came together, from the dogs he's known and loved to the richly scented city he calls home. 

From divine to canine

"The idea for Fifteen Dogs came to me after watching Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Teorema. In Teorema, a god comes down to earth, interacts with and influences a family and then leaves them, and we watch the result of that bereavement. I really, really liked that, and I wanted to re-write that story in some way. The situation that Fifteen Dogs describes, the gods influencing the dogs, was one that was particularly vivid to me because I have a love for animals, but maybe even more particularly because I have a love for animal stories.

"When I first learned to read, the one story that I read over and over again with indescribable pleasure was "The Bremen Town Musicians," which was a collective of animals getting the better of humans. For some reason I was moved by the idea of these animals getting together, forming a kind of collective and creating a better life for themselves than the lives they had been living under the oppression of humans. That was just so important to my psyche — maybe because it was a kind of victory of the outsider. And at that point, being from Trinidad and coming to Canada, I would have felt very much like an outsider."

The barking muses

"The inspiration for the various dogs all came from different places. Majnoun, the poodle, was specifically based on a poodle that I know and adore named Layla, who was the poodle of my then-partner Catherine Bush. Layla was important to our relationship; Catherine got her when we were just starting out our relationship, and so that dog was a dog that I observed as an adult very closely, thinking about what she was doing. I directly took Layla and Layla's impulses and flaws and put most of them into Majnoun. 

"Then there's Benji. In the book, Benji is a mischievous and conniving beagle. Benji actually comes from a beagle I had with the same name when I was younger. But my Benji was very different from this character. My Benji was a beautiful beagle puppy who died. It's one of the first creatures that I loved as a child. I must have been five or six years old, and I was inconsolable at the death of Benji. Why I would take this creature that I adored and turn him into the conniving beagle probably has something to do with my identification with him. Benji is in some ways powerless, an outsider. Benji comes to an awareness of his outsiderness and that is deeply connected to something in myself."

Smell-o-vision

"I was very aware in writing the book that dogs are sensually different from us. They have greater capacities for smells, they have greater hearing in general, their sight is different. While I was writing the novel, I had to try to figure out, what does Kingston Road smell like? What does it smell like to be in Roncesvalles? What does it smell like to be in High Park? I have within myself — just as we all have within ourselves — memories of the sensual that we sometimes just let go. But now, I was forced to meditate on that sensuality, to go back to the Beaches, to go back to High Park and experience them on a more sensual level and try to work out, well what does this smell like, what's in there? In some ways that's disgusting because you have to have shades of urine or shades of merde. But in other ways it is deeply pleasing because of course plants smell different, trees smell different, food from a distance is different, all of those things I allowed myself to take in and think about and then write about in a concrete way. It was wonderful for me because it brought the city of Toronto in the most lively way into my consciousness. So that, the sensual, was a way of expressing my love for the city of Toronto."

Stating the obvious

"My friend, the poet Roo Borson, is the person who named the novel. I had originally named it something terrible: Night of the Hummingbirds, which is just horrible, and she said, 'Well, that is horrible. Why don't you name it Fifteen Dogs?' And I thought, well, that works."

André Alexis's comments have been edited and condensed.

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