My initial reaction to The Night Piece: Collected Short Fiction (Penguin Random House Canada 2020), the most recent book by André Alexis, was this: imagine that you are having the strangest dreams, having fallen asleep in a perfume shop in a city shadowed by menace. The disturbing stories in this collection bring together tales from earlier publications, and in doing so, showcase elements that appear in Alexis’s later work. Fans of Fifteen Dogs will find a precursor in “Ottawa 3,” in which suicidal dogs gain consciousness. The novella “A” and the story of the Gravedigger’s Worm from Despair explore the source of literary inspiration, which is taken up at length in the novel Days by Moonlight. Souls separated from their bodies, poetic ghosts, and vampiric creatures are countered by a playfulness in a text full of allusions, repeating images, insertions of Alexis’s name in various guises, and such oddments as civil servants who breed like mosquitoes; Alexis’s playfulness is its most exuberant in the puzzle novel, The Hidden Keys. And the odours! These stories lead our noses to everything from rosewater and talcum powder to moth balls and caulking, “the smell of a blanket like a horse’s mane,” (p. 55) or earth that “smelled of weeds and the close of day” ( p. 60).
Who is this author of stories that are both playful and laced with menace, of novels that explore nature, god, faith, right and wrong, love and loss? Why does the journey show up in so many of his works?* And how many literary prizes can one man garner? (see below). Time to ask him some questions.
André Alexis is currently living in Berlin, under the DAAD artist-in-residence programme (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst/ German Academic Exchange Service). His first four childhood years were in Port of Spain, Trinidad, thence to Ottawa, Petrolia and again Ottawa, and when not in Berlin, Toronto. He has also stayed in London, England; Ocala, Florida; and Florence, Italy. Below are his answers to questions, which he kindly sent by email on February 28, 2021.
DM: Let’s start with Berlin. This is your second stay in Berlin. How is Berlin under lock-down different from your earlier experience of Berlin?
AA: Lock-down Berlin is just a different city, feel-wise. When I was here two years ago, I was living in Schöneberg, as I am now, but my partner, Elaine, and I walked about the city, taking it in. I went to see a number of operas and, in general I got to live in an environment that felt, to me, halfway between Toronto and Paris – with Toronto’s casualness and occasional plainness but with the European culture of Paris. I loved my three months there.
I’m loving my time here now, too. But I’m here without Elaine, no one can visit because of Covid-19, and I’m happily stuck in my apartment on Innsbrucker Strasse doing nothing but writing and thinking about home. I go out daily for walks and to buy groceries and I’m slowly learning German – a language I adore. I know my small tract of Berlin better and better. I guess you could say that, two years ago, I was immersed in Berlin. Now, Berlin is immersed in me.
DM: Did you write your monologues, Metamorphosis: A Viral Trilogy, while in Berlin?
AA: I wrote the first two in Toronto and the last one in Berlin. They began as a way to write a monologue for my partner’s daughter, Lea, who’s interested in acting. It was meant to be one monologue, but the idea of confinement and how one is changed by confinement led to the two other monologues. They were done quickly and for fun while I was writing an opera for the composer James Rolfe.
DM: You’ve described yourself as a Catholic agnostic, and doubts about the existence of God run throughout your work. With the pandemic, in lockdown in Berlin, has your faith (or lack thereof) changed?
AA: No. I’m still very much a “catholic agnostic” – by which I mean that the god about whom I have doubts is the god of my catholic upbringing. I do think it’s a mistake to speak of “Atheism” or “Agnosticism” as if the god who is being denied or doubted were always the same. There are so many different versions of “God” that there ought to be a corresponding number of atheisms or agnosticisms. Personally, it is an open question for me whether or not I will encounter a version of god that is hospitable to my intellect and faith. But if I do, I’m prepared to accept belief.
DM: In three of your works you describe buildings that use marble or imported stone. For the illustrations in Asylum, which details a prison, you credit a painting by Luciano Laurana in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy. Have your travels abroad – where buildings can cause one to wander in endless admiration – inspired these fictional structures or is there an aesthetic longing at work here?
AA: My relationship to architecture is really more fascination than study. I love that order is manifest in buildings, that structure is made concrete – no pun intended. Insofar as there’s an “aesthetic longing”, I guess it’s for architecture’s structural playfulness. I envy it. But painting is the artform that has had – along with music (also “architectonic) – the deepest influence on me. And the influence is personal: the first woman I loved is Linda Watson, a visual artist. (She did the illustrations in Days By Moonlight.) Linda’s favourite painters were Giotto and Piero della Francesca. So, when I think about Italian painting I feel the love I have for Linda. The painting called “The Ideal City” by Luciano Laurana was first attributed to Piero della Francesca. Its inclusion at the heart of Asylum – I describe the painting precisely when I describe the prison – is as much a matter of personal longing as aesthetic longing.
DM: You deploy the senses in your fiction, particularly in the story collection The Night Piece and in the novels Pastoral and Fifteen Dogs, but I am amazed, and envious, of your descriptions of food (except for the pablum in Childhood and the foul-tasting beverages of the Southern Ontario Hades in Days by Moonlight). Freshly squeezed melon juice in springtime northern Ontario! Which leads me to ask: In Berlin, was ist dein Lieblingsessen?
AA: Hmm. I suppose you’d have to tell me what you mean by “Lieblingsessen”. Do you mean my favourite Berlin-specialty – like curry wurst? (Which I fucking hate.) Do you mean the food available to me in Schöneberg at the moment? (That would probably be Indian food, from one of the delivery places.) Or do you mean the food I’m forced to make myself because none of us can actually go to restaurants at the moment? (I’ll go for my own pasta sauce … maybe.) The truth is, though, with the lock-down, I’m a little tired of everything. But I’m still in love with good Rieslings or Primitivos – which you can get in corner stores.
By the way, I really do have a thing for food in fiction. It was Evelyn Waugh who pointed out just how much food is described in The Odyssey. And food is a good synechdoche – a part of a culture that can sometimes stand in for the whole culture. In the new novel, Ring, I needed to create menus that my characters might be shown in a fancy Toronto restaurant. I asked chef Ben Spiegel – who staged at Noma and had his own restaurant in New York – if he would create a fictional menu for my fictional restaurant. And he did!
DM: My favourite line in your work, “Words know when you’re afraid of them” (Night), is uttered by Death. While this is humour at one level (words substituted for dogs), at another level Death links writing with all that death brings – grief, loss, fear of death itself – as if words could provide a salve. Am I reading too much into these words?
AA: From Days by Moonlight: “The place words come from is the same place death comes from.”
I don’t think this quote from Days by Moonlight is only “metaphorical.” It also has concrete sense, in that the words we use are not our own inventions, but come from “the past,” from places that are long gone, spoken by people who have long died. To go back to your “favourite line,” you can also read it as “The dead know when you are afraid of them.”
DM: Daniel Mandelshtam pitches up as a detective in The Hidden Keys and in The Night Piece (“Quim Monzó”). His father is Baruch, but he seems to have no relation to the poet Osip Mandelshtam cited in Childhood. Does Daniel appear in the work you are now completing? Which character will you miss the most when you finish the Quincunx?
AA: He does appear in Ring. And, of course, his name is in honour of Osip Mandelshtam – a poet, like Eugenio Montale or Rene Char, who I find extremely suggestive, but sometimes impossible to pin down, which is why I like them. I love that the concrete – this tree or this cloud – can be made almost bewilderingly abstract. To me, poetry is the art that most closely relates to dreams. It’s a “place” where things are rarely what you think they are. That’s kind of my ideal for fiction as well.
Of the characters from the Quincunx, I think I’ll most miss Tancred, the most difficult character to write, and Robbie, the most fun. That said, my love for the dogs in Fifteen Dogs is deeper.
DM: You mention Oshun in a 2017 Rumpus interview; in Hidden Keys, Willow talks at length about Oshun. What role will Oshun play in your next book?
AA: Sadly, Oshun plays no role in Ring. I didn’t feel comfortable using as a character a god from a culture other than my own. Instead, I turned to Aphrodite, a god at the heart of my language and culture. In fact, one chapter of Ring is an homage to ancient Greek culture and poetry.
DM: I have to admit to readers of Canadian Writers Abroad that I am no stranger to you. Do you think it is acceptable for friends to interview friends, or review each other’s work? Canadians seem to lean towards Not Acceptable rather than towards literary communities such as the Bloomsbury group, for example. Have you seen a similar reluctance of authors to discuss the works of colleagues during your time in Berlin or London or is this a Canadian restraint?
AA: I just don’t think this is an issue at all. If you write for long enough, you’ll meet more or less everyone in Canada who writes, because although there is a good number of published writers, we do tend to congregate at writers festivals and readings, etc. After that, it’s just a matter of sympathies: I really like what I know of David Bergen as a person. And I’m always happy to spend time in his company. I feel the same about Anakana Schofield, Christian Bök, Yann Martel, Greg Hollingshead, Michael Ondaatje – though he’s a little intimidating, because I owe so much to him as a writer. (There are others, but I’m just naming the ones whose names jump out as I write this.)
Then there are writers who are really important to my work and sensibility: Michael Redhill, Catherine Bush, Alex Pugsley, Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, Elizabeth Ukrainetz. Without these writers – who are all also personal friends – I simply would not be the writer I am today. (This is no exaggeration at all.) This just all comes from sharing the same profession and being “like-minded” – though not always in agreement.
That said, it would be difficult for me to review a novel by David Bergen or Yann Martel, because I’d be thinking of the person while writing the review. It would be impossible for me to review Redhill, Borson, etc. Because I love them and wish them only the best and would choose my love for them over the handful of dollars I’d get for a review – which is only a record of my momentary feelings and thoughts anyway.
That said: I know very well what distinguishes Roo’s work, say, from the work of other poets. I think I could write a very good account of her work. Of all the writers I’m close to, hers is the work I’d most like to write about. But every time I sit down to write about her trilogy – Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida, Rain; road; an open boat, Cardinal in the Eastern White Cedar – I’m stymied by my imagining of Roo.
That that-ness said: Roo appears as a “speaking character” in my novel Ring. The fact that I’m close to her actually made it easier to write her as a fictional character. Go figure.
DM: Home is an ongoing theme for Canadian Writers Abroad, where several authors have mentioned its importance, along with the fresh perspectives its absence brings. Homesickness recurs throughout your work (Asylum and Hidden Keys, for example). Does time abroad clarify home for you? Are you homesick?
AA: I’m not going to fully answer this question because, in fact, the review of The Night Piece you pointed out to me, the one in the Literary Review of Canada by Spencer Morrison, does a better job at showing just how important “home” has been to me as a generative idea – it’s an important aspect of the new novel, Ring, as well.
But … yes, time abroad absolutely clarifies the idea of “home” for me.
And … no, I’m not homesick at the moment because, in this pandemic, home is not home.
And where was home in all this?
He had once wondered if home were people or a place. It was, of course, both and neither. Each person who lived in Toronto held a facet of the city. Naturally, he did as well and, to see himself clearly, to begin the new life, he would have to be in that place that held the old one, that held those who knew him.
Others, it seemed, could leave home to become different.
Not him. He needed the strength he drew from home in order to change.”
— The Hidden Keys, p. 227.
Books by André Alexis
1. Pastoral. Coach House Books: Toronto, 2014 (pastoral)
2. Fifteen Dogs. Coach House Books, 2015 (apologue) (2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Canada Reads 2017)
3. Ring. Forthcoming
4. The Hidden Keys. Coach House Books, 2016 (quest)
5. Days by Moonlight. Coach House Books, 2019 (Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize)
- Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa. 1994, 1998
- Childhood. M&S, 1998 (Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Book Award)
- Asylum. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart 2008
- Beauty and Sadness. 2010
- A. (novella), 2013
- The Night Piece: Collected Short Fiction. Afterword by Madeleine Thien, McClelland & Stewart a division of Penguin Random House Canada, 2020.
- The Complete Stories of Morley Callaghan. Volume 2 Introduction by André Alexis, Exile editions, 2018
- Lambton Kent: A Play. Gutter Press, 1999.
- Metamorphosis: A Viral Trilogy 2020
- Librettos for James Rolfe’s operas, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Aeneas and Dido.
Former host and writer of CBC Radio One’s “Radio Nomad” and CBC Radio 2’s “Skylarking.”
Awards and Honours
Windham Campbell Prize for fiction 2017: click here for his humble response to receiving the prize.
The Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and Canada Reads 2017 for Fifteen Dogs.
Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for Days by Moonlight.
Trillium Book Award and Books in Canada First Novel Award for Childhood.
Complete list of prizes at the Canadian Encyclopedia.
*Journeys take us away from our mundane lives and give rise to further associations, be they literary or spiritual. The journey shapes the following works by André Alexis: the train in “The Road to Santiago de Compostela” in The Night Piece, the road trip in Days by Moonlight, the road trip in the dodgy car of Mr Mataf in Childhood, and finally, Father Pennant’s nature walks in Pastoral.
Each journey is enriched by literary allusion. The tale-telling ghost-loving train travellers remind us of the storytellers hiding from the plague in The Decameron. In Days by Moonlight, Alfred’s surname is Homer and his odyssey reads like a cross between Kerouac’s On the Road and Orpheus’s attempt to retrieve Eurydice from Hades. In Childhood, Thomas loses his innocence when forced to steal during the car trip, which with other elements is reminiscent of Dickens; and Father Pennant’s miraculous walks bring to mind the footsteps of Jesus in Pastoral.
Nick Mount writes about Alexis’s body of work — tracking all the puzzles and taking the fun out of it — in his article “This One Goes to Eleven: The fictional world of André Alexis, Canadian Notes & Queries 108 (Fall/Winter 2021), pp. 22-26. He also explains the importance of Harry Mathews, to whom Asylum is dedicated and whose books is listed twice in A Note on the Text in The Hidden Keys.
A Vice interview in which Alexis praises the work of Rachel Cusk.
Ann van Buren interviewed Alexis in 2017 about The Hidden Keys, for the Rumpus.
Spencer Morrison, “Home Sweet Unhomely,” Literary Review of Canada (March 2021), p. 35.
Berlin Feature photo, Neue Kirche Deutscher Dom and Berlin street photos by Martin Riese; DAAD photos by Carolyn Gammon; park and office photos by André Alexis.