We talked with the Canadian novelist about his award-winning 'Fifteen Dogs' and how to write poems like a dog.
The gods Apollo and Hermes are in Toronto, knocking back beers, when they decide to make a friendly bet. Thus begins this year's unlikely north-of-the-border "it" novel, Fifteen Dogs, by Trinidad-born, Toronto-based André Alexis. Last month, the book received the Giller Prize, Canada's top fiction honor.
Since his first book, 1994's Despair and Other Stories , through five novels before this one, Alexis has been one of Canada's most inventive writers. His stories carry out heady experiments that are needfully and beautifully grounded by a lyricism with one working rule: no bullshit. The grand experiment of Fifteen Dogs begins with power-drunk Apollo and Hermes making their little bet. They wonder: What if dogs were as smart as humans? Would even one out of 15 of them die happy?
Thus 15 dogs at a vet clinic are suddenly thrown into existential crisis. After living perfectly natural and orderly lives up to this point—real lives—they are made painfully self-aware. Every day, the surviving dogs must face the same vexing question, something like, how should a dog be ?
"The Giller," as the Scotiabank Giller Prize is called around kitchen tables in Canada, has no match in the US. It's a household name with the familiar ring of a brand of hockey stick, synonymous with something like, "You have to read this, even if you don't like books." Half a million Canadians watched the nationally broadcast award show on TV on November 10. That night the usually ultra-casual Alexis—who accepted the Rogers Writers' Fiction Prize for the same book one week earlier in a big, brown street jacket—was provided a fresh tux by the Giller people. He was appointed his own personal stylist, hairdresser, and makeup artist. The TV special went down after a six-week-long press junket, without a day's break, that had the five short-listed authors touring the entire country, soapboxing and sharing the love.
Thanks to the Giller, sales of Fifteen Dogs has sweat pouring off the gloss-black 1965 Heidelberg press at Coach House, the Toronto-based independent publisher that's famous for printing their own books on dated machines that few can fix. On a recent Friday evening past normal work hours, editorial director Alana Wilcox and her small production team were upstairs shouldering lamps and answering more emails than ever, while downstairs a four-man assembly line was printing, folding, collating, and trimming the edges of copies of Fifteen Dogs , all by hand. When asked about figures, Wilcox admitted they'd lost track of print runs, but have put at least 73,000 copies of Fifteen Dogs "out there," a delightful, shocking figure for independent presses, where 2,000 copies of a novel sold is pretty good, and anything over 5,000 is considered a great success.
After visiting Coach House and seeing all the ruckus Fifteen Dogs has caused, I wanted to speak with Alexis about it all. I caught up to him while he was in Banff, Alberta, on a two-week writer's residency.
VICE: Writers and artists tend to put projects behind them quickly. Did the months-long spectacle of the Giller put you in limbo?
André Alexis: No, you know, it really didn't. Because by the time Fifteen Dogs was published, I'd almost finished a draft of my next novel, The Hidden Keys, which is coming out next year. So, my focus was already elsewhere. The Giller was stressful and strange, but it didn't really impinge on my imagination.
Crossing the country and holding it down at so many celebratory events, did it feel good and reassuring?
No, the whole Giller thing felt strange. Like a play I'd wandered into where my role was determined, but no one had told me about it. For months after the Giller nomination, I became a "Writer." It's one of those moments when your society tells you you're something and expects you to embody it. Of course, my society's idea of what a writer is is different from mine. For one thing, my idea of being a writer involves pseudo-bunkers, isolation, and loud music. No cocktail parties!
The best thing about being a Giller nominee was meeting the other candidates. Rachel Cusk said this. So, I'm echoing her sentiment. But it's more than that. I feel fortunate to have met Rachel and Samuel Archibald, Anakana Schofield, and Heather [O'Neill], not only because I liked them personally, but because their work is so good. The first chapter of Rachel's Outline is among the best writing I've ever read! The novel itself is great, but the first chapter was a kind of shock to me. I'm only sorry that I hadn't read it when we met. I'd have liked to tell her how moved I was.
What were the earliest influences on your writing?
That's an easy one to answer: Trinidad, the way Trinidadians speak, the rhythms of storytelling, the repetitions, the simplicity of language. It isn't that I necessarily write so that a reader can see or hear those things in my work. But they're where I start from. My ideal is the simplicity and beauty of the folk tale. My whole writing life has been one long, fairly amusing failure to meet my own ideal. I'm surprisingly OK with this.
What's your latest influence? Do you tend to be self-aware, or even self-conscious, of allowing something to become an influence?
Hard to say what my latest influence is. My guide is Walt Whitman, when it comes to influences. I'm happy to take everything in as deeply as I can. So, I'm as likely to be influenced by Sharon van Etten's lyrics as a poem by Ted Hughes or The Song of Roland. I suppose the one influence I should mention, though, is Harry Mathews. He's the one who told me about "poems for a dog," an Oulipian invention. So, he's partly responsible for Prince's poetry. Beyond that, he's a constant inspiration to me. I mean, his work is inspiring, but so is his commitment to art and literature.
There's a writer's gospel hidden in Fifteen Dogs. Out of the chosen 15, it's only the dog-poet Prince who dies happy in the end. Was this always part of the book's plan?
Hmm... you know, I sometimes wish I hadn't made Prince a poet. But, to answer your question, he was always going to be one—he's somewhat based on the blind poet Homer—but I wasn't sure at the beginning that he was going to be the one to die happy. That became clearer as the book became more and more a kind of meditation on love and power.
It strikes me as a writer's privilege to imagine that the only one who will scrape through this life, spiritually speaking, will be... the writer! This is a pointed case too, since all the rest drop off in heaps of pain and suffering.
And this is why I wonder if I shouldn't have made Prince a visual artist, say. It wasn't his being a writer per se that allowed him happiness. It's his being an artist. And what's important about the artist is the ability to transform words or material into things of lasting beauty or communal value. And the thing that was important about that transformation is that Prince (the artist) is able to take a curse—and I do think the gods curse the pack of 15—and turn it (that is, turn language, the new way of thinking) into something precious. Is Prince's work precious to others? To some others, yes, but it's the transformation that was important to me. I don't think, in so-called real life, that artists are necessarily better at this alchemy than anyone else, but they make a good symbol for it. At least, that's what I thought while I was writing the novel. And that's the moral I was hoping to convey: That in this transmutation—of a curse, of loss, of self-consciousness—there's the possibility of happiness. Whatever "happiness" is when it's at home...
"In a way, I do think of myself as a product of my publisher."
Back to Prince, the dog-poet. His verses really warm up and get quite good. But I kept thinking, This poetry is just not messy enough for a dog. Can you defend the tidiness of his stanzas?
That's very funny. You think canines would write poetry more like Alvaro de Campo than Ricardo Reis? You might be right. But I think I can defend the tidiness. Two things: First, the poems become more sophisticated as the novel progresses. That was a way of showing Prince's changing, deepening relationship to language. Second: I wanted to emphasize the art, the artistry, the manipulation. Prince is an artist first. The tidiness or formal precision was a way of pointing to that artistry.
Your publisher Coach House makes their books on the first cramped floor of their quaint and curious offices. Your success really has them sweating, albeit happily, but still. Have you chipped in on the production line? Done any late-night collating?
The answer to that is: Well, yes and no, I guess. I mean, the guys in printing actually allowed me to "make" copies of my previous novel, Pastoral. The whole bit: glue, cover, cutting. So, I can, technically, say I've "helped" them. Just not with Fifteen Dogs. As for the late-night collating. I don't like rats, so I'm not late-night anything-ing at Coach House!
What do you love best about Coach House?
Alana Wilcox, my editor. I'm more faithful to people than institutions. So Alana is first. Besides, she's a great editor. But I'm also a fan of Coach House. I recently wrote a short article about Michael Ondaatje's Long Poem Anthology. It's one of a number of Coach House books that has influenced my writing. So, in a way, I do think of myself as a product of my publisher.
That building is packed with mementos and Canadian literary history. Do you have a favorite object or image, something you look at each time you go there?
Yes: the full-sized cut-out of bpNichol that you see as you enter the press. bpNichol was one of the most adventurous and thoughtful and inventive Canadian poets. His nine-book-long, epic poem The Martyrology is a work I think about constantly.
It seems like we as Canadians are somehow better at exporting our bands to the US than we are our books and writers. Why do you think this is? I haven't seen anyone on the L train reading Fifteen Dogs, and I'm waiting impatiently.
Well, I suppose some of that has to do with Coach House Books. They're trying to establish themselves in the US. But their presence isn't as significant as Random House obviously, or even smaller American presses like Tin House. It'll be a while before they break into the market in a significant way, I think. But Canadian writers with larger presses seem to do OK. Atwood, Ondaatje, Munro, Yann Martel—they all sell in the US. But so do newer writers like Miriam Toews and Patrick DeWitt. Interesting question: Has The Life of Pi made as big a splash in the US market as Arcade Fire's Reflektor? Also: Do Americans even know that Arcade Fire is a, largely, Canadian band? Or do they assume they're American because Win Butler is?
You have had to talk about Fifteen Dogs a lot. This seems like it might be hard for a writer who never repeats himself. Do you have fallback lines or are you always making it new?
Actually, I'm a writer who repeats himself constantly! I'm always talking about the same four or five things, but I do it in different genres, so maybe it's not as obvious. When it comes to interviews, though, I try to keep things new and I lie constantly. Well, not "lie." Maybe "mislead" is a better word. But it's because I often mislead myself. I tend to disagree with everything I've said as soon as I've said it. You know, I probably disagree with the first answer I've given you here. But I meant it while I was saying it.
Have you ever seen stray dogs in Toronto? I haven't, but maybe I will now.
Easy answer: No, I haven't.
After you've written about a place, does it stay the same or feel and look different? Have High Park or the Beaches taken on new kinds of light?
Yes and no. While writing about Toronto, I was able to feel a new attachment to the city. I'd previously only been able to write about Ottawa, so writing A and Fifteen Dogs was new territory for me. They're the first long pieces I've set in Toronto. On the other hand, High Park and the Beaches are parts of Toronto that were emotionally and sentimentally meaningful for me before I wrote about them. I associate both of those places with women I've loved. So you could say writing about them was only a way of making concrete the "light" they already had on them.
I keep thinking about the "tang" of Lake Ontario you describe. I'm pretty sure next time I smell it, it's going to be more tangy.
The lake is pretty interesting, smell-wise. I've always wanted to talk to someone from, say, Milwaukee and ask them what the lake is like for them. I wonder if we don't have some kind of lacustrine connection with cities, like Milwaukee or Chicago, on the Great Lakes. I also wonder if and how we're different from cities on the ocean. "Tang" probably does come into it. I wonder: Does the ocean create different versions of desire or longing than lakes do?
I've heard that you write with big headphones on, blasting music. If so, why do you do this? And, if you're willing to share, what was the soundtrack to writing this book? It's such a quiet book in many ways, so contemplative.
On YouTube, there's a long conversation —four hours long!—between John Cage and Morton Feldman. In the first 30 minutes or so, the two composers talk about how to deal with the noise of (then omnipresent) radios when there's the need for silence. Cage talks about accepting the radio noise by thinking of it as belonging to his universe of sound. Taking it in, claiming it, was his way of overcoming the distraction. He then talks about meditation and how some mystics look for difficult situations—situations with maximum distractions—in order to improve their ability to meditate. For instance, he mentions a mystic who tried to meditate while having sexual intercourse. I have to say, writing while listening to loud music was almost certainly easier.
What music did I listen to while writing Fifteen Dogs ? Loud music, pop songs, things that make it difficult to concentrate while forcing me to concentrate if I wanted to get anything done.
There's a new to me and, I think, very beautiful definition of love in this book. It comes from Nira, the woman who develops a huge, nuanced friendship with the black poodle Majnoun. Love is defined as no idea, but rather as the collection of every single thought and memory, and every experience of love, that she has had. Nothing excluded. Does this idea have a source for you or is it a personal definition?
The idea that the ultimate meaning of a word is in the sum of its nuances comes from Wittgenstein, I think. Or from semiology... In any case, it doesn't originate with me, but I agree with you: It's a lovely idea.
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Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis is available in bookstores and online from Coach House Books.