Books·Q&A

Staying focused on craft is why André Alexis completed quincunx exploring faith, place, love, power and hatred

The Canada Reads-winning author of Fifteen Dogs talks about writing Ring, a novel that completes his literary quincunx.

'I will never write another romance as long as I live'

André Alexis is a Canadian writer who was born in Trinidad, grew up in Ottawa and lives in Toronto. (IFOA)

André Alexis's career is an impressive one: his novel Fifteen Dogs received the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and won Canada Reads 2017, when it was defended by Humble the Poet. His other critically acclaimed books include PastoralAsylum and The Hidden Keys.

We're celebrating the great Canadian book debate's 20th anniversary! Host Ali Hassan looks back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show’s history and speaks with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them. 1:37:20

His latest is the romance novel Ring, which completes his quincunx. The five-book series includes PastoralThe Hidden KeysFifteen Dogs and Days by Moonlight. The novels in the quincunx each explore one of faith, place, love, power and hatred. Ring focuses on love.

Ring is a story about Helen Odhiambo Lloyd, a woman who, when sensing that her daughter Gwenhwyfar is in love, gives her a ring that has been passed down through endless generations. The ring lets the bearer change three things about her beloved. It's a blessing, but may also be a curse. 

Alexis spoke to CBC Books about writing Ring, his literary approach to race, romance and the fantastical and winning Canada Reads with Fifteen Dogs.

Your novel Fifteen Dogs won Canada Reads 2017, when it was championed by Humble The Poet. What was that experience like?

I didn't listen to anything as I find it incredibly painful to listen to people talk about your work. So my Canada Reads experience was being told I won and then saying, "Yay!" 

There were two other experiences that were overwhelming with Fifteen Dogs. One was winning the Giller Prize — with cameras taking my picture and my family being with me on stage. It was so overwhelming, but it was a wonderful experience. The other one was winning the Windham-Campbell, where you're invited to Yale for a week to celebrate your work along with the work of a number of writers. 

These were experiences that were personal, deep in a way that Canada Reads, wasn't. But the pleasure of winning is always nice. It feels like Canada Reads is much more for normal Canadian readers. And that's interesting.

Your novels contain fantastical elements but you have pushed back against the term magical realism. Why is that?

Magic realism is problematic for a number of reasons. The first is that it tends to be something that is assigned to Southern or South American writers. I was born in Trinidad. Maybe it seems normal for people to talk about magical realism in relation to my work because I'm a Black writer, originally from south of the equator. So that's problematic to me because my literary influences include Kafka.

My sense of the "magical" isn't actually of magic realism. It's from Italo Calvino folktales and Grimm's Fairy Tales.

My sense of the "magical" isn't actually of magic realism. It's from Italo Calvino folktales and Grimm's Fairy Tales. My sense of the "magical" doesn't come from the places that people normally ascribe as the origin of magic realism. Magic realism is a term that hides what I'm trying to do. It obliterates what I'm actually interested in, which is this human imagination and innocence about magic.

In your own words, what is Ring about?

All five novels in the quincunx came to me at once. They came to me after repeated efforts to do something that responded to [Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1968 film Teorema]. This was one of the many ways I thought I could use genre as a way to see my typical themes — place, love, violence — from an odder or a different perspective. 

Writing the romance was something I initially wanted to look at earlier, because it's so foreign to me. Reading Danielle Steel or reading Harlequin romance books — it's not that I developed a taste to read those things. I don't read them normally. But there's a real structural hardness to a Harlequin romance, where things have to happen in a certain way and with a certain rhythm and language. 

Writing the romance was something I initially wanted to look at earlier, because it's so foreign to me.

As I was thinking about romance, I realized it is one of the most constrained genres that you can think of. They have tight constraints on them. That interests me, that I have to write a character that perhaps doesn't like this another character at the start of the book that then goes on from there. There are things in the genre that are absolutely typical and have to happen in these books, but it's like a constant effort to make them new or different or interesting to the reader. 

I will never write another romance as long as I live. It's a difficult thing to do from a structural perspective.

LISTEN | André Alexis discusses Ring:

If you had the power to change something about someone you love, what would you change? That’s one of the questions André Alexis poses in his latest novel, Ring. The award-winning Canadian writer joined guest host Talia Schlanger to tell us what he learned about love while writing the book — and why it’s still such an enigma. 21:16

Is there room for cynicism in a romance novel?

There's no room for cynicism. You can't write something that you know with one hand keeping you away from the other. You have to connect to the rules. That means you do have to have the scene where they're together alone, each one feeling their emotions, the moon is out and all that stuff. 

Writing and looking down on your subject, or looking down on your genre or at the way the structure works, doesn't work. 

These are not things that you would normally do because they are cliché, but you have to totally embrace them. So what do you do with it now to make it different or entertaining? As a writer, you have to keep yourself engaged so the idea of being cynical about it is not helpful because it doesn't help you. Writing and looking down on your subject, or looking down on your genre or at the way the structure works, doesn't work. 

If you're cynical about the genre, it's really hard to do effectively.

How does the reality of race shape your writing?

For me, it's always a difficult question. You don't want to come to the point where you deny that being Black or Trinidadian, where I was born, is a significant aspect of who I am. It clearly is. The problem is that people make assumptions about what it is that they are getting from a Black writer. They also have a sense of what they want from a Black writer: They want somebody to talk about race. They want somebody to talk about inequality in a certain way. They want a speaking of the ugliness. While none of those things annoy me, a lot of those presuppositions and what people expect you to be as a Black writer, do annoy me. To be clear: the theme of race doesn't annoy me, but the expectations that I have to talk about those things do.

The problem is that people make assumptions about what it is that they are getting from a Black writer.

 

Why can't I, for instance, write fiction in which I'm talking about the landscape of southern Ontario, as a person who has lived in southern Ontario? There's a bit of a struggle against the expectations and against the clichés of what a Black writer will be, will think, and how they will conduct themselves. 

For me, Fifteen Dogs could be taken as an immigrant story. These dogs don't know who they are anymore and have to come in there to a new sense of their identity and give up their old identity or hang onto the old identity and be able to move efficiently in the new world. 

Fifteen Dogs absolutely could be taken as being about the immigrant experience. However, if you take it that way principally and only, you lose so much of what is going on in that moment. You lose the references to Greek mythology. You lose the references to philosophy. You lose the references to human imagination, because that's another thing in which, you know, the ways in which humans imagine the world is paraded before your eyes. 

So there is a genuine racialized reading, the reading of Fifteen Dogs that I wouldn't argue against. Can you look at all my work from that perspective? Sure … but it's a hard subject to talk about with any kind of precision. Of course I'm a Black writer and of course you can read my work that way. But I find that perspective as interesting, but impoverishing if that's the sole focus of your reading of my work. 

Now that Ring is here, it completes the quincunx. Did you accomplish what you set out to do?

That suggests that I had an ending in my home and that I was reaching for an ending or a place that I wanted to get to. To be fair, I still haven't read the quincunx. It was in my mind that one would read the first three books — and then the third one would contain elements of the first two and contain elements of the last two. And by the time you as the reader — if you read them in order — came to Ring, what would happen was that you would have experienced echoes of the previous two books. You would then have something that you're not sure of, would it still have resonated as you read the final two books. The next book in sequence has one of the protagonists from Ring in it. Finally, the last book in the sequence has more protagonists and themes from Ring in it as well. 

To be fair, I still haven't read the quincunx.

So we're creating a sense of deja vu, but also premonition. I don't know what it's like to read the books in order because of course, I couldn't write them in order, I had to write the third one last. I'm kind of curiously unsure about whether what I wanted to accomplish — in terms of making the reader surprised and alert — really works. But I don't think of my work in that way, in terms of what I accomplished. 

This is what you have to do. We did it. Now you're on to something else. It's not really a feeling of wanting to climb Mount Everest, doing just that and then you are done. It's more like these novels belong together, more as a whole, they were really fun to work with and think about and knit certain themes and ideas and characters. 

I'm onto the next thing now. 

Geography plays a huge role in the quincunx, particularly Ontario. What was the role of research or your own memory in writing the books?

These are more a matter of the places that are important to me in my life. I grew up in Petrolia, Ont., which is southern Ontario. I know the landscape very well. It reminds me of my childhood. And so it's intensely important to me in some ways. 

But I'm also now a Torontonian, and have been since I was 30. I am now in my 60s. In fact, Toronto is the city that I suppose I've lived in the longest. One of the things that happened while I was writing The Hidden Keys in particular was that I began to wonder what would I miss if I never saw Toronto again?

Ring is about a Toronto that is deeply personal and reflects my emotional reality of Toronto.

The Hidden Keys and Ring were about writing of Toronto in that way. Ring is about a Toronto that is deeply personal and reflects my emotional reality of Toronto. 

Ring being a novel about love, there are moments in the novel where I mention specific places where I've been in love and where I've kissed somebody that was important to me in my life. Those places are an essential part of the Toronto that Ring is. 

How have you defined success for your career over the years?

On a personal level, it's the ability to go on supporting my mortgage and not getting too far in debt. That literally is the case, on a personal level. 

On a professional level, it means that people will listen to me if I propose such and such a thing. It's also likely that if I call a number, someone will get back to me. When you're starting out, nobody gets back to you or does so weeks later or whatever. People are more likely to get back to me within a reasonable time, because I have a reputation. My reputation is somewhat out there. I've realized how I'm doing by the speed at which my calls get answered! 

Taking your reputation or your success seriously is damaging to your creative self, because it takes attention away from the ideas that your creative self is dealing with.

But honestly, you have to work so hard to protect the part inside of you that is the creative part of the artist. Taking your reputation or your success seriously is damaging to your creative self, because it takes attention away from the ideas that your creative self is dealing with.

There's a certain distance you have to keep from reputation, if you want to keep writing. So winning prizes has never been my goal. And that's partly why I'm still so fascinated by Fifteen Dogs, because I am not a writer that you would think would be popular as I deal with themes and scenes that are difficult at times to read.

André Alexis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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