Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Alexander Zelenyj

Share |
Alexander Zelenyj

Alexander Zelenyj packs 34 stories into his new collection, Songs for the Lost (Eibonvale Press). Characters as diverse as garage bands and farmers, Roman legionnaires and alien children populate the pages, but they soon seem to have more in common than expected — because all these characters, despite their external differences, are connected by their loneliness and a yearning desire for more. Crackling with energy and creativity, Songs for the Lost showcases Alexander's versatility while packing an emotional wallop.

Today Alexander speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Alexander tells us about slipstream literature and how happiness helps with writing, and offers an amazing recommended reading list full of books that tell old stories in new ways.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Alexander Zelenyj:

Songs For The Lost is a short fiction collection of 34 stories, published by Eibonvale Press. Genre-wise it might be classified as “slipstream literature”, in that the stories combine many different genres, with a foundation in realism. It came together in the years following the release of my previous collection, Experiments At 3 Billion A.M., (2009). The first few years of that period were difficult ones, culminating with the death of my mom. The overwhelmingly melancholy atmosphere of those days seems to have seeped its way into the greater collection in terms of mood and theme. But, as in real life, there are also more optimistic moments throughout the book, these little hopeful islands surfacing among all the darker stuff.

I also have a second new book release, an essay, poetry and photography collection and companion volume to Songs For The Lost. It’s called Ballads To The Burning Twins, and grew out of some of the recurring themes and characters of Songs. The photographs are by Elizabeth Walker.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


Thematically, the stories of the new book are woven together by recurring themes of loss of innocence in a difficult and uncompromising world, and the individual’s subsequent need for escape from emotional pain. The stories examine damaged characters embarking on redemptive quests while living lives of woe, regret, and fury, and their desperate efforts to escape the trauma of their lives for a better place, a Paradise of some kind. These are the collection’s central and unifying themes, as well as the tenacity of the human spirit to persevere despite tremendous hardship, a spiritual need for seeking solace and redemption at the end of a difficult life, often through the embracing of a higher power. This kind of desperate spirituality permeates the stories, and lies at the heart of the book, always from the perspective of people who have no organized religious background, who sort of give themselves up to an innate belief in a higher power as a desperate and final means of salvation from their tragic lives, although often this salvation comes in a very dark and destructive form.

My poetry collection, Ballads To The Burning Twins, deals more specifically with the types of often dangerous fringe spirituality that lure in people in great distress. It deals with troubled people seeking escape through the promises offered by cults and other deviant sources; it looks at some people’s spiritual connection to the rural and natural world, as opposed to the decadence of the city; and the perpetual struggle of human beings to find redemption for their past sins, and their seeking of a place where they can reclaim their fractured lives and sullied moral goodness.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


I think that the difficult period during which the book was written helped nurture its overall mood and atmosphere, and its themes, being as dark as they are, helped to develop that tone. The diversity of the genres in the book changed a lot over time — it’s a much more eclectic collection even than my previous book.

The whole thing came together roughly between 2008/9 to mid-2014.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I prefer peace of mind while writing — I write my best when I’m happy, and content. Or at least I enjoy writing the most when I’m feeling this way — writing when I’m feeling down is a more arduous process, although it can be just as productive. When it comes to specific things I like to have on hand: a giant mug of coffee or tea, and cookies, because I’m addicted to cookies. I usually work on an ancient Toshiba laptop, the kind that looks like a suitcase when it’s closed.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I just plug away at the project at hand. Sometimes you just have to persist at the work until you clear a path through whatever obstacle is there. There’s always an end to the story, and at some point I’ll find my way to it.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


While having some kind of sub-textual quality is by no means essential for a book to be good, I find that my favourite books tend to operate on multiple levels, on one level telling the story at hand while simultaneously offering some kind of insight into something a little deeper, with a little more scope. That way, if the reader wants there to be something beyond the narrative itself then it’s there, but if they don’t then they can just enjoy the escapist nature of being immersed in a compelling story.

As for specific books: off the top of my head a couple of the greatest novels I’ve ever read would be Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Magus by John Fowles, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, The Last Bongo Sunset by Les Plesko, and The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin. They tell the oldest kinds of stories in new, perpetually exciting and lyrical ways. They build their worlds effortlessly, contain worlds within worlds, and operate on different levels.

In terms of fiction collections I’d have to say The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World by Harlan Ellison, The Hounds Of Tindalos by Frank Belknap Long, The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson, and Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard are among the best I’ve read, because they’re so diverse in genre, style, theme and sheer boldness of invention. They read really fluidly too.


What are you working on now?


I recently finished work on two manuscripts — one a collection of magical realism-influenced literary short fiction, the other a novel in the same vein. I’m really excited about them — I think it’s my strongest writing yet, and very different from my previous books. The prose style is more refined, the surreal motifs woven into the gritty, realistic backdrop more subtly.

I’m also a good ways into another collection that’s more in line with the type of material of Songs For The Lost, very slipstream in style and pulling in influences from many different genres. I’m also finishing up work on an expanded version of my first novel, Black Sunshine, due for re-issue in 2015 as a joint release from Fourth Horseman Press and Eibonvale Press to celebrate the book’s 10th anniversary.

Alexander Zelenyj is the author of the short fiction collection, Experiments At 3 Billion A.M., published by Eibonvale Press, and the novel, Black Sunshine, published by Fourth Horseman Press. Songs For The Lost is his third book. He lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and sings songs of joy and woe in equal measure. His online home can be found at

Related item from our archives

Related reads

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


Open Book App Ad