Most people, when asked what special qualities they bring to a new job, would trot out the standard “I’m a perfectionist” or “I get things done.”
But award-winning Canadian author André Alexis is not most people.
Alexis, University College’s Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Studies in 2016-17, names “ignorance” as his primary qualification for the job of UC’s writer-in-residence.
“I’m comfortable talking with any age group,” says Alexis, “but I love talking with young people. I love the questions they bring to me. It’s like getting a chance to start again from ignorance—but a good ignorance, you know? A sense of ‘Well, how does this work?’ Coming at problems with fresh eyes.”
Alexis, now 59, was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His latest novel, Fifteen Dogs, the story of a pack of dogs who are suddenly gifted with human consciousness after a bet by two capricious gods, won the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize in the fall of 2015 and bagged the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize a week later.
(This means that Alexis has now earned two of Canada’s three major fiction awards—the third is the Governor General’s Award.)
Fifteen Dogs is the second in an ambitious five-part series of books Alexis has called his “quincunx”; the first was Pastoral, which he published in 2014.
“My timeline is one a year,” says Alexis. “I’ve got another one [The Hidden Keys] that’s coming up this fall, and I have to write the next one after that, so I’m incredibly busy writing all the time.”
Although Alexis is perhaps better known for his prose, he is equally at home in the world of music and Canadian composers. In addition to finishing up The Hidden Keys, he is currently writing an opera libretto—one of many he’s created.
“I’ve actually written for opera quite a lot,” says Alexis. “I work with two composers. One is James Rolfe, and the other is Veronica Krausas.”
His collaborations with Rolfe include Aeneas and Dido (2007), Orpheus and Eurydice (2004), and Fire (1999); with Krausas, he has worked on Sillages (2014), Waterland (2010), and From Easter (2000), among others.
This year, just for something different, he is writing a work for puppets, which will be produced by Calgary-based Old Trout Puppet Workshop.
“It seemed like a really cool idea. I’ve always wanted to work with puppets,” he says enthusiastically. “I love them. And Old Trout is a really great company. Famous Puppet Death Scenes is one of their productions. It’s really beautiful.
“The music [for this production] is going to be written by Veronica [Krausas]. For me, [writing this libretto] is kind of the easy part. I know that world.
“I started out wanting to be a musician. So it seems a natural thing for me to apply my work to that medium,” he explains. “I started off playing guitar and that’s what I was going to be. I wanted to play blues.”
Although he doesn’t play professionally, he regularly picks up his guitar to give his “writing brain” a break. “I use it to just …” he gropes for the correct word here, “…well, to waste time.” He laughs gently. “It’s a good time-waster. It allows me to think. You can do that with your guitar in hand. It actually ends up being quite nice. I would be useless without it.
“Mostly I play whatever pops into my head, but I’ve just started a project of learning Beatles’ songs. I think Paul McCartney is incredibly talented. Melodically, obviously, but when you start learning the songs you learn just how talented he is as a songwriter… You can see the nuts and bolts in his discipline as well. I find it fascinating.
“What’s interesting to me is learning the difference between a McCartney song and a Lennon song. Melodically they’re very different creatures. Lennon is as much about the feel as about the music, but there are some McCartney songs that are simply beautiful. ‘Blackbird,’ for instance – that’s just a wonderful song. There’s a really lovely simplicity to how he composes that I like a lot.”
Asked if he would pose for this feature with his guitar in hand, Alexis laughs uproariously. “Oh god, no,” he chortles. “My daughter would totally freak.”
The daughter in question, Nicola, now 23, was born around the same time Alexis’s first novel, Childhood, was published, and studied music at Toronto’s renowned Etobicoke School of the Arts.
The senior Alexis graciously defers to his talented young offspring in the arena of musical artistry. “She’d say ‘Daaaaad, you’re playing your guitar! Nooooo!’”, he demurs, with a certain delight. “I know my place.”
For Alexis, this place is firmly in the world of prose – although some would argue that some of his work, especially with composers Rolfe and Krausas, could well be considered poetry.
“I also wanted to be a poet,” he says. “But it’s hard work. It’s harder work, I think, than being a prose writer. It depends on the person. There are people who are naturally inclined to the poetic and it seems like they’re born with that skill.”
Not coincidentally, Alexis counts many poets among his friends. “My best friend, for instance, is Roo Borson. I talk about poetry with her quite a bit. And just now I was making a date with Ricardo Sternberg to go watch some soccer.
“But then there are people who are born with the prosaic, and I think I’m one of them. Storytelling has always fascinated me. And I think I have a propensity in that direction. That’s the thing that Roo always talks about. She doesn’t know how to write a story; she doesn’t know what storytelling means. There’s a long conversation about this that I’ve been having for about fifteen years with her.
“I started writing early, like in my early teens… I knew I was interested in writing for some reason. Although I loved music, and still do, I found as I was growing up that I enjoyed the company of writers more. I had more friendships with writers; they were interesting to me because they talked about our artistic problems in ways that I identified with.
“I kind of knew that I was fated to be an artist — it was only a question of what kind of artist I was fated to be. For the writer in me, [my friendships with writers] made sense because I could identify with how writers spoke about things. I found they spoke in ways that meant something to me.”
And speaking with writers of all ages is what he relishes about his post at UC.
Given his gruelling book-a-year writing schedule, Alexis says that “being the writer at UC will be the easiest part. I think it will be fun. The other writing, my own books, is a bit more arduous.
“I’m looking forward to talking to writers—it gives you a chance to rethink answers to questions that you think you’ve settled in your mind but maybe need a re-questioning.
“I love the chance to be ignorant again. It’s a very important thing to not know all the answers.”