Born in Trinidad, André Alexis is a Canadian writer based in Toronto. Starting with his debut novel, Childhood, Alexis has been the recipient and nominee of numerous awards, including the Trillium Book Award, the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the US Windham-Campbell Prize. His most well-known book, Fifteen Dogs, has been championed by both readers and writers alike.
Alexis’ latest novel, Ring, will be released at the end of September and is the fifth and final installment in the intriguing Quincunx cycle. With a fresh take on romance, Ring takes a love story and turns it on its head, reflecting on the past, what honour means, and how magic plays a part.
Interviewed by Ash Hampson
Ash Hampson (AH): Your most recent novels — Pastoral, Fifteen Dogs, The Hidden Keys, Days by Moonlight, and now Ring — are part of the Quincunx Cycle, with each book providing connections (however big or small) to others in the series. You’ve mentioned previously that your quincunx is inspired by Thomas Browne’s essay “The Garden of Cyrus,” with each of your novels representing a distinct genre while dealing with similar themes. What is it about Browne’s essay that drew you to this concept you’ve applied to your work?
André Alexis (AA): Browne’s essay is hard to read. It’s a compendium of “facts” and quotes and ideas. It took me a few readings just to get a handle on it. But once I did, I found it very suggestive and inspiring. Its focus is on the shape of a quincunx and, more, the significance of the shape. He associates the shape of a quincunx – four dots representing four corners and one dot in the middle – with the divine and, of course, that appealed to me a great deal, because the idea is amusing — I mean, does God really prefer quincunces to squares? — and because I’m very much influenced by writers who are alert to structure and organization: Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett, etc.
But, to be fair, I was attracted to the Browne essay after I’d seen Pier Paolo Passolini’s film Teorema and wondered how I could use Teorema’s structure and ideas. I think it’s safe to say that there’s a long tradition of formal exploration in literature and both Thomas Browne — in his essay — and Pasolini are part of it.
AH: Since the quincunx was planned, did you already have all five books loosely visualized or outlined well beforehand (and by extension, did you have connections you wanted to make across the works set aside), or was the process more organic, with pathways revealing openings as you moved through each piece?
AA: Yes, in fact I had a sense of all five novels as I began writing the first one, Pastoral. That said, the process was organic, as you say. I had to know Tancred — who was in The Hidden Keys — before I could write about him and his friend Olivier in Ring. The same goes for Professor Bruno, whom I first wrote about in Days By Moonlight. In fact, what I’m planning to do is to rewrite all of the novels — more a retouch than a rewrite, actually — based on the completed novels. It was always my intention that A Quincunx — the title of the five novels together — be taken as a single, integral work, in which the kind of playfulness I rely on can be seen at its best.
AH: It’s interesting to see the amusement in assigning a shape (a quincunx) to the divine. One would assume the centre dot to hold more significance than the four corners, though in reference to your series is that the case — is there one work in particular that sits in the centre with ties to all others in the series? Is Ring the centrepiece?
AA: Ring is central, in that it has characters in it from the novels that preceded it (Pastoral, Fifteen Dogs) and from the novels that come after it (The Hidden Keys, Days By Moonlight). Ring is the pivot, if you like, and at its centre is a long poem on “love,” a central concern of all the novels.
That said, I think one should feel at ease reading the novels in any order at all. Every order will give the reader a different impression of the whole, with characters popping in and out in unpredictable ways. Each novel was meant to be a stand-alone work, needing no context to be understood or (I hope) enjoyed.
So, you could say each novel is “central,” in a way. That is, no one novel is more important than the others.
AH: The idea of magic or fantasy as a theme runs through several of your novels, along with many instances of Greek mythology. Can you tell me a bit about the use of Greek mythology in Ring and if the tale told is found within the mythology or if you’ve taken some creative liberties with it?
AA: So … I’m just writing an essay, at the moment, about my relationship to “magic” and “fantasy,” because I’d like to clarify my feelings about those ideas, a little. But, to answer your questions about Greek Mythology: the poem at the heart of Ring is entirely original, though it uses characters from Greek Mythology. And my relationship to Greek mythology is more personal than professional. My father, while studying for his degree in Medicine, took a course on Classic Literature. To help him with his tests, he read me excerpts from Homer and Hesiod, etc. I must have been about five or six at the time. I don’t think my father had any ulterior motives in mind. He wasn’t trying to educate or enlighten his six-year-old. But the closeness his reading brought — my Dad reading stories to me — was deeply influential on my life. I’ve been thinking about or using classical elements in my work from the first. It feels as if these elements are a living aspect of my work, not something old or dead.
AH: Regarding the essay you’re currently writing, could you explain a bit about what has propelled you to want to clarify your feelings about the ideas of magic and fantasy and your relationship to them?
AA: I’m going to keep this to myself for now, Ash, because I’ll only understand the essay once I’ve written it. Also: I don’t want to jinx myself!