Writers on Writing: Nino Ricci

In 1990, Nino Ricci burst onto the Canadian literary scene with Lives of the Saints, an international bestseller that won multiple titles, including the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, which he won again in 2008 for The Origin of Species. In 2015’s Sleep, Ricci explores narcolepsy and our complex relationship with the time we spend unconscious. His writing is characterized by complex sentences, distinctly authentic settings, and a high level of psychological realism. Ricci is currently in the early stages of writing a new novel set in England at the turn of the 20th century.

I wanted to start by talking about your first novel, Lives of the Saints, which is very much an immigration story. I understand your parents immigrated to Canada from Italy. How did your family’s experience inform your early writing?

Through a back door, really. When I started writing, the last thing I wanted to do was write about the immigrant experience. This was a period in Canadian literature when multiculturalism hadn’t taken root in any real way. I didn’t see myself as an Italian-Canadian writer, and I wrote a lot of short stories that took place in a kind of cultural void because of my avoidance of my own background.

I think it’s often the case with young writers that they feel anything that’s happened to themselves can’t really be fit material for literature. But when I came to start something longer, I realized that I was going to have to dig into something I could have some authority over. That was how I came to the Italian material.

Once I started digging into that world, I saw the ways my own immigrant background tied into so many other motifs in literature: the quest motif, the search for the promised land, the ways we structure our own consciousness in terms of the stories we tell ourselves. By the end of the process, I had discovered a richness in my own background that let me re-own it.

It was almost a way for me to reinterpret ethnicity outside of the discourse that begins once you become an immigrant — which, in many ways, always feels limiting. I was able to understand my characters outside of that immigrant rubric and, in some ways, understand myself outside of that rubric.

One of your few non-fiction works is a book-length profile of Pierre Trudeau. Did anything about your style change in the shift from fiction to nonfiction?

I found it much easier to write non-fiction than fiction, because so much was already given to me. You knew that it was true. One of the biggest fears in writing fiction is that you’re out there in the dark, and you have no authority to go by — you’re just making this stuff up, and you could be totally off. Whereas, with non-fiction, there’s a framework there.

You obviously did a lot of research for the Trudeau piece, but how much research do you typically do for a work of fiction?

I probably do more research for fiction because of that fear. I usually spend about six months before I start. At a certain point I have this feeling that I have enough authority to jump into the story, and I do. The danger is to do so much research that it overwhelms you, and you lose perspective of the story you were trying to tell.

At the same time, to really get a feeling of authenticity, it’s never the obvious detail. It’s always the third or fourth order of detail, the thing that no one would think of first but, the instant they see it in print, it immediately brings up that feeling of “Oh, yes, this seems real.” To find those details is not easy, and it’s often a very circuitous process. It’s not just reading books — it’s going places, walking the streets, speaking to people, and trying to find those gaps where truth lies.

There’s a preference among many writers, particularly in the sphere of journalism, to avoid long, winding sentences for the sake of clarity. What can you say in defence of the long sentence?

There are things you can do in a long sentence that you cannot do with short sentences — clauses get subordinated, ideas get subordinated, one idea adds onto another or comes off of another. Those kinds of relationships you just can’t indicate in short, sequential, declarative sentences. A long, circuitous sentence will give you an idea of the layering of meaning and the way in which one meaning might half-contradict itself even as it’s asserting itself.

Yes, sometimes the short sentence is just the thing. It’s great for clarity, it’s great for drama, and it’s great for impact. But it’s not always great for getting to those places where fiction lives — those things that really can never be put into words, but which words can only imply or hint at.

Another thing most writers will insist is to stay out of a character’s head, or avoid writing thoughts and feelings in favour of action and dialogue. But your balance leans more toward the former. Why is this?

I guess it’s a similar answer. There are things you can do from a purely objective lens — I mean, Hemingway has always been the most extreme example of the objective writer, and he often does it brilliantly. With a Hemingway story, you feel that there’s a camera observing the action, as in a film, and clearly that can be a very effective way of storytelling. But it’s not the only way.

The more deeply you want to go into human character and psychology, the more that can require going into people’s heads, following their thoughts and understanding the ways people create their sense of self, the ways people lie to themselves, the ways people do one thing and mean another. There are all kinds of territories in there.

Of course, it’s always going to be more involving for a reader if you can pull them into the scene and avoid forcing meaning on them. But there’s also a way you can enter a character’s thoughts and still imply meaning rather than giving it away.

You have to avoid self-indulgence. In entering a character’s thoughts, it’s really about what that character is seeing, how they’re seeing the world and the particular interpretive lens they’re giving it. It’s got to be interesting, it’s got to be compelling, and it has to have its own level of mystery to it.

I wanted to talk a bit about the novel you’re working on now. I understand it’s going to be set in Edwardian England — a bit of a departure after two distinctly Canadian novels. What drew you to this time and place?

One of the things I find about the turn of the 20th century is how many similarities there are to the turn of the 21st century. People felt like technology was changing at this incredibly rapid pace. Mass-circulation newspapers gave sudden rise to popular opinion as a real force in politics, and the massive growth of consumerism gave the feeling that all spiritualism had been left behind and all people cared about was money.

And setting it in England just made sense, as it was very much the centre of the world at that time. But there will be a Canadian connection, and there will be Canadian characters in the novel, so that’s how I’m getting my own angle into it. There will probably be an Italian connection in there as well.

Why is it important to be able to get your own angle into a story?

It’s partly a question of feeling you have some authority. Alice Munro has a wonderful essay called “What is Real?” where she talks about how she often starts with some point of fact, something she can go back to, which she calls the starter dough of the story — the one thing she can say for certain is real, from which the rest of the story can spring.

I think that’s part of it, for me — just feeling like there’s one entry point I have real authority over that I can then imagine the rest from. And, beyond that, there’s whatever obsession it was that drew me to that material in the first place. Most of my novel ideas are ones I’ve been sitting on for 10, 15, 20 years sometimes. If they’ve stayed with me that long, it’s because of that deeper connection. At some deep, emotional level, that material is important to me.

Featured image courtesy of Rafy Photography