Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Nino Ricci

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Nino Ricci

Nino Ricci is the author of Lives of the Saints (Cormorant Books), which was recently published in a special 20th anniversary edition. He has been the recipient of the Governor General's Literary Award, the Trillium Prize and the Books in Canada First Novel Award, amongst many others.

This fall, the three books in the Lives of the Saints triology (The Lives of the Saints, In a Glass House and Where She Has Gone) will be published as ebooks through DropCap Literary, an initiative launched by Chris Bucci of Anne McDermid & Associates Ltd. and Amber Mac.

Nino Ricci talks to Open Book about looking back at his first book, his influences and his upcoming projects.

Open Book:

A 20th anniversary edition of the The Lives of the Saints was recently published. What was that experience like for you?

Nino Ricci:

It's certainly gratifying to think that the book has already lasted a whole generation, even if that makes me feel a bit older than I like to imagine myself. It is also a thrill to see it in this beautiful new edition, with some truly stunning artwork from Tony Urquhart and a very heartwarming and very funny introduction by Steven Hayward. And in some ways — and this is something I talk about in an afterword I wrote for this edition — I feel more able to celebrate the book now than I could when it first came out, because even when it started doing well back then there was always a part of me that was convinced all the accolades were part of an elaborate practical joke, that the moment would come when they would all be taken away.


Do you feel your writing has changed over the years? If so, how?


Yes, my writing has definitely changed over the years, though the “how” part of the question is harder to answer. Certainly with each book I tried to let the material find its own voice and style, even within the Lives of the Saints trilogy, rather aiming for some kind of consistency, partly because each book seemed to require its own approach and partly because I’m always wanting to push myself as a writer, to pose new problems for myself. I would like to think that this kind of striving has made my writing more accomplished and more layered as I’ve gone on, but I’m not entirely sure the creative impulse works that way.

Certainly my worldview had grown more nuanced as I’ve gained more life experience, and I hope some of that gets reflected in my work. But then occasionally I’ll read something I wrote when I was younger and think, How did I know that then when I don’t even really know it now? The other curious fact is that even if my literary vision, if anything, has only grown darker over the years, my personal life has got brighter and brighter. It’s as if getting the darkness out in my novels has been a way of keeping it from infecting my life.


What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your writing?


I suspect my recurring themes and obsessions are not so different from those of most other creative writers, from the little questions like what makes a good image or a good sentence or whether semi-colons are still viable in the digital era, to the bigger ones about living and dying and why we are here, and what systems we have invented to deal with how anxious those big questions make us. I think that would cover it.

All the rest — the bad effect of religion on our sex lives, say, or its paradoxically good effect, in many regards, on our imaginations; the quest motif in the immigrant experience; why we strive to be like gods but act like animals; the similarities between the peasant cultures of 1st century Galilee and of 1960s rural Italy — should fit in between there somewhere.


You recently wrote a biography of Pierre Elliot Trudeau for Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series. How did you approach the project?


I approached the project very personally. I immediately asked for Trudeau when I was first invited to take part in the series, not only because I had already been doing research on him for my novel The Origin Of Species, where he serves as a sort of hero figure for the protagonist, but because he had been tremendously important in my own life, as he had been for many people of my generation, as someone who had actually made being Canadian seem sexy, something to be proud of. So I wanted to bring out that role he had played for me and for so many others.

The other thing about Trudeau was his appeal to the fiction writer in me. He was a man of so many contradictions and paradoxes, of so many layers — exactly the sort of character, in fact, that makes for great fiction. So the challenge of trying to get at him, of trying to make those contradictions hang together in a way that felt right, was one that the novelist in me found very appealing.


How does your work as a writing teacher and mentor affect your own writing process?


In the short run, too often, the most obvious effect teaching has on my writing is that it entirely precludes it. Whether I am teaching five students or fifty, grouped into one class or three, spread over a month or a year, it is the same: somehow the teaching seems to use most of time I would otherwise have been putting into writing. I’m sure this is mainly due to inefficiency — Anthony Trollope managed to produce 700 page novels almost yearly while more or less running the whole of England’s postal service — but there it is.

This is not to say, however, that I would give up teaching if I could, as it remains one of the few ways in which I continue to have meaningful concourse with the rest of humanity. And as it happens, I usually learn a lot, not only about people but about writing.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


There are quite a few people on this list. I would have to start with my oldest sister, Margaret, who was the first person to encourage me to read. Then there was my grade one teacher, Mrs. Collins, who made me read Green Eggs and Ham to her one day during lunch; and my grade four teacher, Mr. Rocks, who told us stories about his days in the seminary during his abortive bid for the priesthood; and Mrs. Jackson who read us Les Misérables in grade eight, long before it was a musical; and Mr. Dumochelle, who in grade eleven made us write in the style of Hemingway and Orwell. Not least on the list would be W.O. Mitchell, who informed me after I’d spent three weeks in his workshop in first-year university that I would never be a writer and should drop his class at once, but whose lessons from those three weeks I lasted have come back to me almost every day of my writing life.

And Terence Byrnes, my thesis advisor during my Master’s program in creative writing, when I wrote Lives of the Saints, would certainly figure very prominently on the list, as someone who for many years afterwards was like a small presence of my shoulder whenever I wrote, raising an eyebrow or pursing his lips whenever I grew self-indulgent or sloppy or looked for the easy word instead of the true one.

And that only gets me as far as the age of twenty-seven or so, and is not even to begin to name all the writers who have influenced me through their books.


Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?


Well, Green Eggs and Ham, of course, which I like to get back to every few years or so, and maybe — all for different reasons — Galore by Michael Crummey, or The Golden Mean by Annabel lyon, or The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or Fall by Colin Macadam.


What are you working on now?


I'm working on a novel about someone going through a mid-life crisis, which I suppose is my way of trying to avoid having one.

Nino Ricci is author of the Lives of the Saints trilogy, which includes the novels Lives of the Saints, In a Glass House, and the Giller Prize finalist Where She has Gone. He is also the author of Testament (2002), winner of the Trillium Prize, and The Origin of Species (2008), winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Nino Ricci lives in Toronto with his wife Erika de Vasconcelos and their children.

For more information about The Lives of the Saints please visit the Cormorant website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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