The Next Chapter

Nino Ricci answers the Proust questionnaire

The author of the novel Sleep on what he'd like to change about himself, why his favourite characters are deeply flawed and more.
Nino Ricci is the author of two Governor General's Literary Award–winning novels. He says he's drawn to conflicted (or downright despicable) characters. (Doubleday Canada/Rafy Photography)

Nino Ricci's first novel, Lives of the Saints, won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and established his reputation as a writer to watch. That book began a trilogy, later adapted into a television mini-series, that followed the life of an Italian immigrant to Canada. Ricci won another Governor General's Literary Award for his 2008 novel The Origin of SpeciesHis most recent novel is Sleep.

Nino Ricci tells us why his favourite characters tend to be fatally flawed, as he answers The Next Chapter's version of the Proust questionnaire.

Tell me about your favourite character in fiction.

I tend to favour characters who are sometimes downright despicable, or at least very conflicted. The characters who stay with me are characters like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Part of what I find appealing in them is that they take me places I wouldn't go in my own life, but that give me a kind of license to explore those places and expand my idea of what it means to be human.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

From a fairly young age, I've always wanted to be the sort of person who could come into the room and be the life of the party and feel comfortable in every social situation. And I've never managed to become that person. I'm still the person who hovers in a corner and attaches himself to the one person who seems to be willing to talk to him and sticks with them all night and makes a beeline for the door at the first opportunity.

What historical figures do you most despise?

It's easy to despise a Hitler or a Stalin, but there's always the fiction writer in me that wants to discover what made them what they were, to get at those complexities. To understand why we see Hitler and Stalin as such monsters, but we think back on people like Augustus and Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, who committed similar kinds of atrocities, but who are often now through the lens of history regarded as more benign.

The quality you most admire in a man?

Warmth. There's a certain kind of man who, in a very genuine way, can make you feel very much at home and safe and accepted. Though I'm not sure that I'm that kind of man, I value those who are.

The quality you most admire in a woman?

I remember when I was courting my now-wife, and she wanted to build a fence in her backyard. She asked for my help, and I told her I thought that was a job for a trained professional. And then the next time I came to see her, I looked out in her back yard and there was the fence. She had managed it entirely on her own, and after that, I was hooked.

Nino Ricci's comments have been edited and condensed.