André Alexis on treasure-hunting in Toronto
André Alexis' new novel, The Hidden Keys, is inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 novel Treasure Island. The book is set in contemporary Toronto, where several characters from very different walks of life take part in a modern-day treasure hunt. The Hidden Keys is Alexis' follow-up to Fifteen Dogs, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
Shelagh Rogers spoke to André Alexis in Toronto.
A quest for meaning
Everything in the novel is a quest to determine what has meaning and what doesn't have meaning. Each thing in the novel exists to be interpreted, in much the same way as we interpret things in the world as having either sacred significance, or no significance, or significance to be determined. How do you know what is good when you don't know what the implications of your actions are? That's the profound puzzle for me.
Complex city, complex characters
Toronto has become an extremely complicated place in terms of what is good and what is not good. It's on that ground that the actions of the protagonist, Tancred, must be judged. He is very representative of versions of Toronto, in that he's part Italian, his mother is French-African, he's living in Parkdale and has grown up in poorer parts of Toronto. He represents all of the things that come together in this city. Our city is extremely mixed, and so is he, and so are all the characters. He's 25 at the start of the book and 28 at the end, and he's only just coming into the understanding that his life is not just connected to other lives, but that other lives are essential for who he is. He's searching for the hidden keys, for something that's perhaps valuable in a monetary sense, but he's also coming to a more deeply valuable understanding — an understanding of our connectedness in the world.
A five-part story, in progress
I conceived of five novels all at once. And so at every stage, I'm in the midst of another novel. So right now I'm in the midst of the novel that's coming out after The Hidden Keys, just as The Hidden Keys kind of screwed up my relationship with Fifteen Dogs. Because the five novels were all conceived at once, they're all also inside of me. I need to get the next two out. So there's Pastoral, Fifteen Dogs, The Hidden Keys, the new one which is called Days by Moonlight, and then the last one, which is my version of a Harlequin romance. So once I'm done with that, I'll rewrite all five, and that will be the end of the project. So I feel like it's just taking me a long time to do one thing, rather than having five things at once.
André Alexis' comments have been edited and condensed.