André Alexis on what he values most, in art and friends
This interview originally aired on May 11, 2019.
André Alexis won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016 and Canada Reads in 2017 for his novel Fifteen Dogs. His latest book, the fourth in his quincunx which also includes Fifteen Dogs, is Days by Moonlight. The novel follows a botanist named Alfred Homer, who, about a year after his parents' death, agrees to a research road trip that takes him through the gothic underworld of southwestern Ontario.
Days by Moonlight is on the longlist for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The shortlist will be announced on Sept. 30, 2019.
Alexis takes The Next Chapter's version of the Proust Questionnaire.
Tell me about your favourite character in fiction.
I like Pierre in War and Peace. He's lost at the start of the novel and he becomes fully human by the end. But then, in that novel, there is also Prince Andrei, who is a noble character from the start and dies nobly as well. I suppose they're both aspects of Tolstoy himself — the regal aspect in Andrei and the wastrel in Pierre. But Pierre gets married in the end and it's okay.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Easy: pens. I'm a fanatic for pens. I love fountain pens. I have bought pens that cost $6,000. I bought pens that are way too expensive, obviously.
But I'm snake-charmed by them. The possibility of writing with them. The feel of them. The way the ink flows in them. I adore and I'm fascinated by and obsessed with pens. It's a huge extravagance.
What is your favourite occupation?
I love writing. I really do. I know that it's difficult. I know that it's frustrating. I know that there are times when it won't come. I like to complain about it as much as anybody else but I adore the physical act of writing. I adore the lostness of writing, that I can be somewhere else, that I can be in the past, that I can be emotionally engaged in something that is a product of my fantasy. Like dreaming away. I love dreams too. Writing is for me a great activity. I love it.
What do you value most in your friends?
Loyalty. That they're on my side, even if I'm wrong. Sometimes they'll correct me, but after the fact; after supporting me through my stupid mistakes.
On what occasions do you lie?
I only lie if I feel like the truth will cause someone pain. I hate the idea of causing someone else pain. I know that lying only puts it back or makes it worse because you've now lied and then somewhere down the line they have to find out about it. But I lie so that I don't cause pain. On the other hand, I don't think I've lied to anybody who was close to me, because I know I'm going to have to face them immediately afterwards, so it makes no sense. It would be to acquaintances that I would lie mostly.
Who is your favourite painter?
Really tough choice, but that would probably be Piero della Francesca. I once did a 40-day pilgrimage to the National Museum in England and went to the Sainsbury Wing and visited the three Piero della Francesca's that they had there every day for 40 days. Not only did I become deeply acquainted with those three paintings, but of course the subsidiary benefit was that I became acquainted with a lot of the things around Raphael, Holbein, Bellini and so that experience was deeply marking for me. In fact, there's a painting in my latest novel that I describe that is the fruit of that devotion.
André Alexis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.