André Alexis: ‘Shut up and keep writing’

André Alexis, who won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, gives advice on writing and discusses the link between the pen and the mind

Andre Alexis in his home. (Photograph by Jaime Hogge)

Andre Alexis in his home. (Photograph by Jaime Hogge)

The 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most distinguished literary prize, awards $100,000 annually to the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English. In this series, Maclean’s highlights the work and artistic process of the five nominees. Here, André Alexis, author of Fifteen Dogs and the winner of the prize, discusses the writing process, in particular, the role the conscious mind plays. Click here for an excerpt from Fifteen Dogs.

At age 58, André Alexis is literally in the middle of an ambitious project, writing the third of his “quincunx,” a series of five novels which have not, as yet, shown obvious signs of linkage. Other, that is, than in the way the first two have impressed literary juries. The first, Pastoral, which tells the tale of a young city pastor who moves to a rural parish, made its way onto the Rogers Writers’ Trust shortlist last year. Now, the second, Fifteen Dogs, about canines imbued with human consciousness—primarily meaning awareness of death—has followed its predecessor onto that list, and become one of the nominees for the Scotiabank Giller award.

Fifteen Dogs, in fact, is one of the books of the year in Canada, one of only two novels—the other is Outline by Rachel Cusk—found on more than one of the three national-prize shortlists. Alexis’s book resonates with all the themes observers have seen in the works that have appealed to jurors this year: a touch of the fabulous (more than a touch, in Alexis’s case—it’s an allegory); an internationalist, a not-specifically-Canadian feel (despite its Toronto maps and other local references); and the kind of experimental writing increasingly coming from smaller presses, not the major publishing houses. (Fifteen Dogs is published by Coach House Books.)

“We’ve been going through a period where real-life experience, actual human trauma, have been valued above pure imagination,” says Alexis. “Now we’re seeing a kind of counteraction, not just in genre—vampires, etc.—but in literary fiction, where it’s acceptable again to use fantasy to talk about deep things.” Alexis welcomes, too, an emphasis on writing that simultaneously de-emphasizes the writer—his or her origins, or identity. “I think of my writing as very Canadian,” says the Trinidadian-born author, who came to Canada as a very young child, “but I was once nominated for a Trinidadian literary prize.”

But nothing pleases him as much as the continuing surge in small-press fortunes. “It felt, to me, a few years ago, that we were witnessing the death of small presses, but it’s not proved so, which has been great for the literature of our country. I published my first book with Coach House 21 years ago. With the Giller nomination, their first, in some ways, I’m more pleased for them than for me.”

As for the question left hanging by Alexis’s cliffhanger of an essay below, the answer to which might come “later”? For the record: not yet. “Not until I’ve finished all five of the quincunx.”

The following is an essay by André Alexis.

I was speaking to a fellow writer, recently, when I told her about my newest project, a series of five novels I call “a quincunx.” I mentioned “a quincunx” because, while writing one of its novels, I had the strange experience of hearing my inner voice tell me to “shut up.”

Most writers, I think, learn to turn off their conscious minds while writing a first draft. Your job—in the early stages of writing a novel—is to listen and record. That is, you follow a narrative or a voice or a situation as it exists (or unfolds) in your imagination. For instance, one character will say to another,

—Buy me some soup!

Rather than trying to work out logically what the “correct” response is, the writer allows a response to come through him or herself.

—Buy your own damned soup, you cheap bastard!

Once you’ve got what you think is an appropriate response, you go to the next line and the one after that, and so on. Every once in a while, a response or a line will strike you as “wrong,” somehow. Then your job is to decide if you’ve got to

a. change the line (but if you stop to change it, you might interrupt the flow of the words within you)


b. leave the line as is (if you leave it, it may create problems for you later, since you’ll be building on what may be a faulty foundation).

Every writer faces these kinds of decisions dozens of times a day, hundreds of times a book. With experience, you learn not to panic, to accept that a first draft is not, after all, meant to be perfect. So, you choose between a. (change) or b. (don’t change) and you go on. Or, having made a choice, if you can’t go on, you deal with the problem by trying to figure out why this word or sentence, this passage or voice, is giving you trouble.

I think what writers speak about when they speak about “inspiration” is when, during the course of writing a work, there are very few moments when a conscious decision is called for, few moments when you have to decide to change something or leave it as is. (It’s conceivable that one could write a novel without ever putting a foot wrong. But it’s never happened to me.)

What happened while I was writing The Hidden Keys, a novel in the quincunx, is different, though. I came to a moment when I was unsure if what I’d written had to be changed. Something seemed to be amiss or, at least, awkward. As I began to wonder what it was, my psyche told me to shut up. More than that, for a moment, it almost convinced me that questioning its decisions was not my right.

This was my first encounter with a different kind of  “inspiration.” It had nothing to do with being happy with what was on the page. It was not about an absence of questions. It was, rather, the feeling that what was on the page had a necessity that I couldn’t grasp, a necessity that I might come to understand later, if I were lucky, a necessity that transcended my doubts and anxieties.

And, naturally, I did what my psyche asked. I shut up and kept writing.

The following is an excerpt from André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs.

One evening in Toronto, the gods Apollo and Hermes were at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Apollo had allowed his beard to grow until it reached his clavicle. Hermes, more fastidious, was clean shaven, but his clothes were distinctly terrestrial: black jeans, a black leather jacket, a blue shirt.

                  They had been drinking, but it wasn’t the alcohol that intoxicated them. It was the worship their presence elicited. The Wheat Sheaf felt like a temple, and the gods were gratified. In the men’s washroom, Apollo allowed parts of himself to be touched by an older man in a business suit. This pleasure, more intense than any the man had known or would ever know again, cost him eight years of his life.

                  While at the tavern, the gods began a desultory conversation about the nature of humanity. For amusement, they spoke ancient Greek and Apollo argued that, as creatures go, humans were neither better nor worse than any other, neither better nor worse than fleas or elephants, say. Humans, said Apollo, have no special merit, though they think themselves superior. Hermes took the opposing view, arguing that, for one thing, the human way of creating and using symbols, is more interesting than, say, the complex dancing done by bees.

                  – Human languages are too vague, said Apollo.

                  – That may be, said Hermes, but it makes humans more amusing. Just listen to these people. You’d swear they understood each other, though not one of them has any idea what their words actually mean to another. How can you resist such farce?

                  – I didn’t say they weren’t amusing, answered Apollo. But frogs and flies are amusing, too.

                  – If you’re going to compare humans to flies, we’ll get nowhere. And you know it.

                  In perfect though divinely accented English – that is, in an English that every patron at the tavern heard in his or her own accent – Apollo said

                  – Who’ll pay for our drinks?

                  – I will, said a poor student. Please, let me.

                  Apollo put a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

                  – My brother and I are grateful, he said. We’ve had five Sleeman’s each, so you’ll not know hunger or want for ten years.

                  The student knelt to kiss Apollo’s hand and, when the gods had gone, discovered hundreds of dollars in his pockets. In fact, for as long as he had the pants he was wearing that evening, he had more money in his pockets than he could spend, and it was ten years to the instant before their corduroy rotted to irrecoverable shreds.

                  Outside the tavern, the gods walked west along King Street.

                  – I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.

                  – I wonder if they’d be as unhappy as humans, Apollo answered.

                  – Some humans are unhappy; others aren’t. Their intelligence is a difficult gift.

                  – I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.

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