We talked to André Alexis, author of July book club pick Ring (Coach House Books), about the constraints inherent to writing romance, the intensity of writing home when away, and the “potentially endless” influences in Ring and the quincunx as a whole. Read our interview below.
All Lit Up: The quincunx explores different genres of storytelling, active and forgotten – apologues, pastorals, etc. – but the genre of romance often has a negative connotation to it. How did you approach the romance genre inherent to Ring: what about it surprised or frustrated or delighted you?André Alexis: It always begins with something personal, for me. I remember enjoying watching Days of Our Lives with my mother and sisters. I was struck by the fact that they could watch the soap opera while carrying on a conversation: laughing, joking, being together. The soap opera was more the occasion for a family ritual than something crucial. It didn’t, of course, hurt that you could miss days of the serial and not be very far behind at all.Out of curiosity, I read a few Harlequin Romances and was amused by the similarities. In effect, you know what’s going to happen. You know who is going to end up with whom, so the intrigue was in how you ended up at the ending you knew was coming. I love that challenge, the need to frustrate the reader while taking them to someplace known. It provides you with a way to surprise, destabilize, and provoke, because we have all agreed what the ending will be.That state of affairs is what surprised, delighted and frustrated me.Also: as an admirer of novels writer under great constraints – like George Perec’s novel A Void, which was written without using the letter ‘e’ – I’ve come to believe that Romances are among the most difficult, most constrained and most challenging to make new/old.ALU: Ring sees many of the characters introduced in other books in the quincunx: Tancred Palmieri, the thief in The Hidden Keys, Professor Morgan Bruno from Days by Moonlight, among others. How did you plan for this in the writing process? Did you flag the characters as suited to move between books while writing each? Or did you always know they’d culminate in Ring?AA: A tricky question to answer, because the process of writing the novels began with me knowing, more or less, what genres I would use, without quite knowing which characters would feature, which would interest me, who would return. It was really only after the first four novels were written that I knew who would return, how I would use them.In the case of Tancred Palmieri, for instance: I was drawn to bring him back because I didn’t feel as if I’d got him quite completely down. In the case of Robbie and Professor Bruno, there was just the pleasure of writing such amusing characters.The writing of Ring was part of an organic process, one I did not entirely understand or control.ALU: The novel is so evocative of a particular Toronto: Roncesvalles, the Annex… but you wrote the book in Berlin! What was the process of revisiting these places on the page, even as you were physically absent from them?AA: The chief thing about writing about home when you’re away from it is that home is reduced to its essentials. The parts of it that won’t leave your psyche find their way onto the page. They are even more intense in the imagination – when one is far from home – than they are when you are walking around in them.Berlin, in some ways, gave me a more intense Canada/Toronto. And, as a result, I feel grateful for (and even a part of) Berlin itself.ALU: In an interview with Jade Colbert, you discussed how the reader is an “immigrant” in the quincunx. How does that feeling of simultaneous discovery and unease play out in Ring?AA: A good question because, in a sense, Ring – in its structure, its centralizing of poetry, its use of rural and metropolitan Ontario – is a mini version of the Quincunx itself. It’s amusing (for me, anyway) to imagine that if all of the books of the Quincunx were lost, you could still recreate with Ring as its central and most characteristic piece.ALU: What books, films, and/or music lend inspiration to this novel?AA: There are of course the books that are cited in the novel’s afterword. But if I had to list others, they’d include books and movies I thought about most intensely during the writing of Ring:
Paul Celan’s Poetry
The Odyssey (Homer)
As You Like It (Shakespeare)
Divine Comedy (Dante)
Brief Encounter (movie)
Fanny and Alexander (movie)
Tannhäuser Overture (Wagner)
Beethoven’s Late String Quartets
One Punch Man (a manga by ONE and Yusuke Murata)
Die Känguru-Comics (Marc-Uwe Kling)
The problem with these lists is that I am perpetually trying to avoid work by watching movies and reading bits and pieces of novels and listening to music. So, any list of my influences and distractions is potentially endless.
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André Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His 2019 novel, Days by Moonlight, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Fifteen Dogs won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, CBC Canada Reads, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His other books include Asylum, Pastoral, The Hidden Keys, and The Night Piece: Collected Stories. He is the recipient of a Windham Campbell Prize.