Andre Alexis, author of Fifteen Dogs & The Hidden Keys, interviewed by his editor

11 September 2017

André Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His previous books include Asylum, Beauty and SadnessIngrid & the Wolf, and Pastoral, which was also nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Fifteen Dogs, which we published in 2015, won the 2016 Giller Prize, and The Hidden Keys was published in 2017.

His editor Rebecca Grays asks him the pressing questions about The Hidden Keys, for our August newsletter.

Rebecca Gray: This book is one of five novels you’re writing as a single project – could you explain what that project is, and what inspired you to embark on it?

André Alexis: The five novels I’m writing came to me after years of trying – and failing – to do my own version of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, a movie that fascinated me. What fascinated was not the erotic geometry (the “theorem”) but the idea of the influence of the divine. Once I’d stripped the movie down to that idea, a number of scenarios came to me at once. And The Hidden Keys is one of them. The Hidden Keys is the most unusual of the variations because it’s a story in which no god directly appears. God is a kind of absence, but the idea of chance or fate steps in to fill the place of the divine. The Hidden Keys is a story in which chance is omnipresent and omnipotent, almost to the point of being worthy of worship.

RG: On one level, this book is quite a traditional puzzle. Did you find that using Treasure Island as inspiration made the puzzle and plot aspect of the book easier, or more difficult? Did you have a path to follow, and what happened if and when you needed to diverge from it?

AA: I’m more of a “literary” novelist – more often concerned with theme, concision, characterization and psychology. So, the puzzle/plot aspect of The Hidden Keys was sometimes excruciating – throw-yourself-down-the-stairs-so-you-never-have-to-write-again excruciating. My first draft was a long-ish working out of the plot. It was only with the second draft that I could relax and work on the things that come more easily to me: theme, characterization, etc. But if the first draft was tough, each subsequent draft was easier and more amusing. So much so that, of the novels I’ve written, I sometimes have the fondest memory of The Hidden Keys.

RG: How consciously have you made Toronto a key element of both The Hidden Keys and Fifteen Dogs?

AA: Very consciously. In fact, one of the guiding ideas – while I was writing the novel – was the question: if you could never see Toronto again, what about the city would stay with you? In Fifteen Dogs, Toronto was like a “territory”, an environment the dogs experience sensually and mark off, claim for themselves. In The Hidden Keys, Toronto is a place in the mind – intensely felt, intensely held. Though all five of the novels I’m writing are related, The Hidden Keys and Fifteen Dogs are sister novels.

RG: What inspired the famously impregnable building in the book?

AA: The Hidden Keys was principally inspired by Pasolini’s Teorema and Treasure Island, it’s true. But it was also inspired by stories of quests for the holy grail. I read Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance while I was writing Hidden Keys. So, some of the stranger elements in the novel come from grail mythology. The “impregnable building” – or Castle Rose – was my way of alluding to the hidden castle, the place in grail mythology that is can’t be found, except of course by a pure knight.

RG: I have worked with enough authors to know that writing any novel is difficult, but is it particularly, or specifically, challenging to write a novel that is both plot-driven and philosophical?

AA: As I mentioned, it was difficult for me, as a philosophically-minded writer, to write with a fairly strict plot. But, in the end, the structure came first, then came the philosophical elements. So, the structural problems had been resolved – more or less – by the time thematic ones reared their heads. I’d love to know if this is how John Grisham works. (This question reminds me of the one we ask songwriters: do words come first or does the music?)

RG: What’s particularly stayed with me is how the structure and form of Fifteen Dogs and The Hidden Keys manage to be both strange and familiar. Was that something you consciously wanted to achieve?

AA: Yes, very much so. I sometimes think the dance done by the familiar and the strange is my only real subject.

RG: Both Fifteen Dogs and The Hidden Keys are very short, yet contain so much. What’s your editorial process? Do you write very long and then condense, or are you concise by nature?

AA: I’m concise by nature, but also by inclination. I usually have to add, rather than subtract, to finish a work. This has to do with my close friends, who tend to be poets or playwrights. One of them, Roo Borson, is a great poet and I love talking to her about poetry. But at times, I feel like such a windbag when I write.

RG: It’s probably a horrendous question, but what do you want the five novels to say when they’re all put together?

AA: I’d like to think of them as a prolonged invitation to think about place, love, power, and the nature of the divine. My ideal would be that the reader finishes The Quincunx – my name for all five novels – with a heightened sense of the mysterious, the in-between, and the delicacy (and power) of certain ideas. Beyond all that, there is a portrait of the country I live in, Canada. I love it deeply and find it deeply weird. The Quincunx is a kind of testimony to how Canada lives in the mind. Or in one mind, anyway.

Intrigued? Read an extract from The Hidden Keys, which is out now.

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