Early last year, André Alexis found himself behind on his taxes. So he dutifully gathered his receipts, bills, and other financial ephemera and sat down with his mother, someone “much better” at handling matters of money.
As she sifted through his records, she started to laugh. Confused and feeling less than frivolous, Alexis – in his mid-50s with nearly two decades of published work behind him – asked what was so funny. “She was laughing because I had made something like $5,000 that year,” he recalls. “She said, ‘How can an adult live on that little money?’ I realized I didn’t know. You get used to doing the work. I didn’t allow myself to think too much about how distressing it was to not have any money. But it was distressing.”
And then, Alexis’s fortunes turned. In April, he published Fifteen Dogs, a profound and deeply appealing apologue about a cluster of canines bestowed with human consciousness, which captured imaginations like nothing he had written before. In November, Fifteen Dogs won the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, followed by the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize, a stunning coup both for Alexis and for Coach House Books, his boundary-pushing publisher, which marked its 50th anniversary that year.
Alexis had been lavished with praise and prizes before (his 1998 debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, shared the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller), but not recently, and not on this scale. When his name was announced at the Giller, he went completely blank. The reality of the honour only connected when his daughter, sisters, and nieces “attacked” him in excitement. “I’m naturally kind of skeptical,” he says, “but when my [family] is there, crying, grabbing me – that was when it hit me.”
That surreal night made Fifteen Dogs Alexis’s first bona fide hit, a fact that wound up weighing on him to a degree he didn’t expect. As interest in Fifteen Dogs soared, both he and Coach House strained to meet the demand. Even backstage after the Giller, the Trinidad-born, Ottawa-raised Alexis admitted he was eager to return to writing The Hidden Keys, the follow-up to Fifteen Dogs and the next title in his planned “quincunx” of five thematically linked works. As glowing international reviews and press requests rolled in over the next months, however, solitude was scarce.
“Success means the accomplishment of a vision; it doesn’t mean that people pay attention to it,” he says. “What happens when you have the kind of success where a novel starts selling a lot is you’re forced to think about that thing behind you, and your changing role. Now I’m a writer, officially. It’s a change in my sense of myself.
“I found Fifteen Dogs to be a distraction,” he adds. “But I’m 59. I wouldn’t [have known] how to deal with all this stuff [when] I was 20. Now I do: It’s not going to last. And I’m on to the next book anyway.”
That next book is a fleetly paced adventure that demanded a new level of storytelling precision.
Steeped in the fading grit of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, The Hidden Keys centres on Tancred Palmieri, a chivalrous thief who befriends a heroin addict named Willow Azarian. When he died, Willow’s wealthy father bequeathed each of his five children an enigmatic gift, and Willow believes the cryptic baubles – including a Japanese screen, a bottle of aquavit, and a metallic model of the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed house Fallingwater – are clues to a grand riddle, so she asks Tancred to steal each of her siblings’ artifacts.
Along the way, Tancred encounters a colourful cast of characters including Willow’s eccentric siblings, a tight-lipped taxidermist, a detective who doubles as Tancred’s dearest friend, and a pair of thuggish drug dealers certain there’s a fortune to be found. It’s a tightly written tale, which Alexis took on as a challenge.
“What was difficult about this was not being used to the mechanism of storytelling: finding the first plot points and then the rhythm at which they’re revealed and then the overriding characterization,” he says. “For me, this was the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”
Alexis was inspired in part by Treasure Island, a book he first read in his early teens. The Hidden Keys includes a bibliography of 14 other inspirational texts, including Harry Mathews’s comedy The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, though Alexis slyly notes that five titles on the list don’t exist. Red herrings abound in his book, too, with some details included for Alexis’s amusement (Psalm 137 figures in the story because the numbers add up to 11 – representing his initials, “AA”).
“Everything’s a clue and nothing’s a clue,” he says.
Though brisk, The Hidden Keys has much on its mind. Where sister novel Fifteen Dogs wore its philosophical contemplation on its sleeve, The Hidden Keys touches on themes of faith, family, race, and identity with enough subtlety that Alexis wonders whether readers will need to read it twice.
“The novel is profoundly about fathers and daughters, families, absent parents, dead mothers,” Alexis explains. “Here the absence of God, rather than the presence of God, is very strong. [Tancred’s] name is the name of a knight and the novel is in some ways a quest. What would it be to have a code but no god, which is the knightly thing?”
Alexis dedicates the novel to his daughter, Nicole, who shares his Parkdale townhouse. Now that she’s 23, the two are “like roommates”; they’re close, though Alexis says Nicole has no interest in his writing.
“She refuses to read any of my work,” he says. “I said, ‘When I’m dead, you’re going to have questions you’ll want to ask me.’ She won’t read it. She said she’d read this one because it’s dedicated to her, but she won’t. It’s too personal. You don’t want to know that much about your parents. Maybe when I’m gone, she’ll want to know what her father was about.”
It’s tempting to draw a connection between Alexis dedicating a clue-infused novel to a daughter who might not read it until he’s gone, and Willow’s dad posthumously sending her on a scavenger hunt.
“The dedication is pointed in that in the narrative, the father is dead and talking to his daughter, and to an extent, that’s me talking to my own daughter,” he says. “It’s probably got something to do with that, but I don’t allow myself to think too much about it. I’m not someone who’s interested in the autobiographical elements in my work that much.”
Alexis also has never been particularly interested in literary economics. He found it “very amusing” as sales of Fifteen Dogs multiplied in the rush toward Christmas and Coach House laboured overtime to meet demand. (“Amused” isn’t the word to describe editorial director Alana Wilcox’s reaction; she recalls daily hour-long calls with her distributor).
The average Coach House title sells around 2,000 copies. To date, Fifteen Dogs has sold 110,000 print copies and another 20,000 ebooks, twice as many in total as the publisher’s closest bestseller, Christian Bök’s Eunoia. Alexis muses that the Giller win was “probably more significant for them than me.”
“My submissions immediately tripled,” Wilcox says. “Agents who never used to call started calling – internationally especially, because we were able to sell the rights to 15 countries. It opens the door to be looked at with greater credibility.”
No one knows quite what to expect for The Hidden Keys, which Coach House published in September. Wilcox would say only that the initial print run is in the five figures. “Stores have been enthusiastic but not overly ambitious,” she says.
Alexis’s outlook is more modest still. If the self-identified agnostic has faith in something, it’s the work. He laments that promoting The Hidden Keys is interrupting work on the fourth book in his series, Days of Moonlight, a ghost story and “journey through southern Ontario” featuring illustrations of fantastical plants. He hopes to have the time to write more seriously in November.
Once Alexis has written the fifth book in the quincunx – a romance with elements of the other four novels – he plans to re-write all five to reinforce their connections. It’s going to be a lot of work, and regardless of how The Hidden Keys fares, he’d really like to get back to it.
“I think Fifteen Dogs is, in a way, a fluke,” he continues later. “It touched a lot of people and I’m happy, but I don’t expect that kind of reaction to any of my work. So, if somebody else gets attention this year, next year, that sort of thing, and it goes away for me? I’m fine.” – Nick Patch