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Last word: Andre Alexis on a matter of style

The impetus for a new novel sequence arose not out of exile or grief or post-traumatic stress, but out of the pure art of storytelling, writes André AlexisAndre Alexis

Some 30 years ago, I was watching a talk show. Letterman, I think. The guest was Nora Ephron. She was talking about her autobiographical novel, Heartburn, when she said in passing that she thought all writers write about their lives. It’s the kind of thing that someone flogging an autobiographical novel would say. But her words have stayed with me. I’d heard the thought before Ephron expressed it, of course, and I’ve heard versions of it countless times since. But what struck me as I watched was the extent to which the idea was uncontested. It was blithely expressed and then passed over, as if it were obvious. The idea is largely uncontested still. The common assumption seems to be that a writer of fiction inevitably draws from his or her life, adds something like vividness or style and there you have it: a novel, a short story.

But I’m a writer who almost never uses personal circumstances as the basis for fiction. It isn’t that my imagination can’t draw from life. If nothing else, the cities and landscapes in my novels and stories are modelled on cities and landscapes I’ve experienced. But the traumas I’ve lived through – emigration, anomie, grief, racism – are less important to me, as a writer of fiction, than things like plot, characterization, structure, voice, rhythm, and story.

I’m not interested in sharing my life, not interested in being “real” or “authentic.” I am interested in what fiction does, in the imagination, in what happens well away from reality. Some of this, no doubt, has to do with what I love about fiction itself. I’ve always been partial to the dream-like, to folklore, ghost stories, the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Nikolai Gogol, the Bible, and the Odyssey. These works may use “reality” but only in order to go beyond it. The point of “The Bremen Town Musicians,” for instance, is not the mistreatment of animals. The point, if there is a point, is in the pleasure the story gives.

It’s not that I have anything against those who fictionalize their lives, against Benjamin Constant or Charles Bukowski, Nora Ephron or Karl Ove Knausgård. It’s that what I take from their work is not at all what I’m aiming for in mine. Knausgård, for instance, has said that he has – or, for a time, had – problems with storytelling. He was tired of it and this tiredness preceded the writing of his six-volume sequence of autobiographical novels. But I’m obsessed with storytelling, with all of its ins and outs, its rhythms, graces, failures, byways, irreality and, of course, its traditions. Which brings me to a question I was recently asked: why am I using old genres like pastorals and apologues?

The answer is only slightly complicated. First, the sequence of five novels I’m currently writing – a “quincunx” of which the first two are Pastoral and Fifteen Dogs – are the result of a failure. For years, I tried unsuccessfully to rewrite (or re-imagine) a work by Pier Paolo Pasolini called Teorema. In Teorema, a god comes to earth and interacts with the members of a well-to-do family. This interaction leads to madness, despair, grace, and the miraculous. It’s a truly great story and I wanted to retell it, to own it as one does with some stories. I couldn’t, though. I ended up writing inept versions of Pasolini.

Or I did until I finally stripped the story down to its essence – divine visitation – and thought about the ways in which that essential story could be told. Five approaches came to me at once. I wanted to tell it as a pastoral (that is, a tale set in an idealized rural world), as an apologue (a moral tale involving animals), as a quest narrative (with Treasure Island in mind), as a ghost story (like Ugetsu Monogatari), and as a kind of Harlequin romance. The novels were suggested not by personal experience, not by grief or exile or post-traumatic stress, but by the art of storytelling itself.

There’s nothing new in what I’m doing. Any number of writers have played with (or subverted) genre. Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood come immediately to mind. But the one who’s been most influential on me in this regard is the great Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. Gombrowicz once wrote that humans “always, unceasingly, seek form, and we delight in it or suffer by it, and we conform to it or we violate and demolish it, or we let it create us, amen.” By allowing the reader to experience his ideas in different settings and genres (forms of storytelling), Gombrowicz’s thinking is perpetually renewed for the reader, his ideas unexpected because they are met in unfamiliar ways. To me, this is the ideal.

There are other rewards for playing with genre. I think I’ve come to a deeper understanding of narrative, a greater feeling for the nuts and bolts of storytelling. The reward for the reader – I hope – is the pleasure that comes in hearing a story. If, with the novels in my quincunx, I’ve done my work well, the reader, any reader, will feel what one does after hearing a proper story: joy and the longing for another one.

André Alexis is the author of Pastoral, which was nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award for Fiction. His new novel, Fifteen Dogs, is published by Coach House Books.