Nino Ricci is a superstar of Canadian fiction. He has written some of the most powerful and award winning novels of the last decade. His first novel, Lives of The Saints, won the Governor General’s Award and its trilogy was adapted into a television series starring Sophia Loren. His novel, Testament, won the Trillium Book Award and with his last novel, The Origin of Species, Ricci became a two-time Governor General’s Award winner. He was also appointed a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to Canadian literature.
In his new novel, Sleep, Nino tells the story of David Pace’s struggle with sleep issues. We watch as he falls to the darkest depths of his personality. Much like Donald Draper and Walter White, David Pace is a man whose complexity and struggles blur the line between what is right and wrong. No matter how difficult, we want to know what he will do next in order to understand him, and ultimately ourselves, better. Sleep is a stunning, fast-paced, often uncomfortable novel that will keep you up at night reading and leave you wide awake wanting more.
What is your new novel Sleep about and where did it come from?
Well, you know, it came from a lot of different sources. I wanted to write because I’m sick of getting comments that my main characters are not likable enough and not only from readers but from editors. I hear this from a lot of writers. It seems to be, and maybe it’s always been, the mindset that the most popular literature is the literature that makes you feel good and has lovable characters and characters that you can feel you can identify with. Although you identify with them because they’re good not because they expose your own faults or flaws or make you think deeply about yourself. That’s what I try to do in literature, to get people to look at themselves more analytically and see into their own darknesses and so I thought okay so they don’t like the characters I’ve been coming up with maybe I should do it in spades. Just push it further. So I wanted to work with a character who is essentially not despicable but very much on the border of someone you could like or aspire to be and yet who seems to be trying to push certain boundaries and get at some kind of a truth. That was one of the starting points. In my last book I was dealing a lot with notions of consciousness and how we think of ourselves. The whole thrust of evolutionary psychology is that consciousness is not this light on the world through which we know ourselves. It’s this fortress we surround ourselves with to deny our dark side. It’s this self image we create that allows us to live with ourselves. That theme is coming through in this book as well and in this case I’m coming at it from the perspective of sleep. Part of the impetuous is that I came down with some sleep problems. I started looking around and noticing that almost everyone seems to have sleep problems in our society and we’ve created this society where we equate sleep with slothfulness and being unproductive and yet it performs so many crucial functions in the human body. It has only been in the last twenty or thirty years that there’s really been a kind of scientific study in even understanding what goes on like memory consolidation, learning consolidation, self-image, repair of tissue. There is a whole long list of things that if you didn’t sleep you would die.
Where does the gun come from?
The main character’s sleep becomes disrupted in a major way. His self starts to fragment and it’s like the boundaries that normally separate you from those darker sides of yourself start to fray. He starts to move amongst them and at the same time is kind of craving ever more outrageous stimulation as a way of fighting this fog of sleep depravation that surrounds him because he’s unable to get satisfying sleep. It keeps pushing him further and further to the extremes of behaviour. There is also a metaphorical reflection on the kind of world we live in. We are faced with how things move faster and faster. It becomes a kind of addiction. You cannot leave the house without the phone. If you have the phone you have to look at it. You need it to do something. You need it to move, to do something, to show an image. You need to give you some kind of little hit on an ongoing basis and the more of that you get the more you need it.
You’ve written some of the most powerful works in Canadian fiction in the last decade and won some major awards. Is it difficult to work on the next project after this attention?
Well, not maybe in the way you are suggesting. It’s difficult because it’s always difficult to write anything. Your powers fade or certain powers fade. The quickness of mind, the memory starts to go. The ease of language that I had at twenty-five, I don’t have now. It’s hard to know if just my standards have gone up now or there’s so much in there that it’s harder to be playful.
Some writers when they complete a novel say they feel like they are finished writing and may never write again. Is it like that with you?
No, one of the ways that I keep myself growing is that I always got a better project. The next project is always the great project. I’ve got a list of twenty now and they keep coming.
What is your writing process? Do you write everyday, late at night? Do you write in a special shirt?
I have no special shirt. I write whenever I can. Given that I am in a marriage and have children and a domestic life that tends to determine my schedule, after my son’s gone to school and I’ve done whatever little chores I need to do in the morning then I start writing, usually by nine. Then there’s usually a bit of interruption when he comes home from school and then sometimes I have to take him to extracurriculars. I just try and work sort of nine to five and that’s something that I consciously strove to do even before I was married and had children because I was finding that otherwise the writing life just sort of bled into every hour and I felt guilty every moment of every day. So if I could just say, okay I’m gonna work these six, seven hours whatever I can get in. I can feel like I have done a day’s work and I can relax and I don’t have to feel like I have to make notes after or have to think about my writing.
How is your actual writing routine? Do you edit as you go?
I often do a rough first draft where I might get two or three pages in a day but in the later stages a page a day is good. In revision, my goal is five hundred words, but that might be five hundred words that in the next revision will disappear.
It seems that Canadian fiction is still very preoccupied with the ethnic culture we write from. Does you cultural background still factor into what or how you write? Does it guide or affect you?
Well, why wouldn’t it? If you grew up in the Rocky Mountains and you never wrote a word about the Rocky Mountains and that landscape never figured into your writing that would be weird because it has formed you in some way. So even if you are writing science fiction, chances are there’s going to be a range of mountains on Alpha Centauri that’s going to be somehow reminiscent of it. But at the same time the other side of the question is do you need to sort of be pigeon-holed by that or defined by that. I grew up in an immigrant family. Immigrants shared a lot of similarities whether they were Lebanese or Portuguese or Italians. So there’s that. Then there were things that were specific to us because we were Italian and specific to us because we were Molisani and because we were peasants, which connected us to other peasant cultures across the world, and then because we lived in a border town and watched the Detroit news and because I was born after Vatican II and had a different Catholicism than my parents had, a sort of non-Italian Catholicism because it was then translated through and filtered through a Canadian environment. So when you think there is all that complexity, how can you pick out that one thing and say, that’s the defining thing? It’s untrue to the lived human experience.
Did you feel pressure after writing the Lives of The Saint’s Trilogy to continue to write about the Italian Canadian experience?
I never really did. It’s not like they are there in your living room or office. My ideas develop in isolation. It’s much easier as a writer to be true to your vision because most people don’t care while you’re working they are not there saying, change this, fix this. So you have three of four years to work it out on your own alone. Even when Lives of the Saints did well, no one was there really demanding something. In fact, the Italian community paid very little attention to me when Lives of the Saints came out. I remember my publisher trying to get an interview on Chin Radio. She tried a lot and they just told her, we don’t interview authors. That’s not something we do on Chin. She was never able to get me on Chin Radio. Immigrant culture does tend to become very calcified and nostalgic. People who are in Italy are not living that culture. They are evolving with their culture because they have deep roots in that culture and they move with it. Whereas when you emigrate you lose those connections and you don’t develop new roots in the new culture and you become a time capsule of nostalgic culture, and that’s a problem particularly in immigrant communities that are primarily of a peasant background. I think that’s why the Italians have been very slow to embrace their own artists and to understand that culture is your confrontation with the new. It’s not your regurgitation of the old. Immigrants have created new things. Nobody lives in an Italian monster home in Italy. That’s a uniquely Canadian creation and it’s an innovation. They think of it as nostalgia. Buildings have arches in Italy, but the rest of buildings don’t look like that. There has to be the next level. The conscious confronting of what it is to be this mongrel person in this mongrel society.
Have you ever felt like writing plot-driven thrillers or action-packed science fiction novels?
Yes, I have a series of young adult novels planned out. I don’ know if I will ever get to them. I guess partly what appeals to me about young adult novels is that they have to have plot. They have to be engaging and it would be really releasing to just be able to say, okay I’m just going to tell a rip-roaring good story and still try and build in a level of significance, meaning and character. In some ways I feel like my first novel was almost like that. It’s curious that it remains my most popular book. When I wrote it I was really disappointed with myself because at the end of the day I had a really grand scheme in mind. I had just finished reading Gravity’s Rainbow and I wanted to do this really big encyclopedia and in the end I couldn’t pull it off. So I thought, let me at least get the basics right, good story, strong character, well laid out plot and setting. Let me get that right in this apprenticeship novel. People respond to the basics. They like a good story with colorful characters, a bit of an exotic setting and storyline. People like that but as a writer it is not what I want to keep doing. At the end of the day you are also trying to get somewhere, you don’t know where, but further for some kind of understanding. That’s the hope.
Do you keep the reader in mind when you are creating the plot?
You always keep the reader in mind. You wouldn’t write if you weren’t trying to communicate. I mean that’s the whole point of language. You are trying to get them to that place that you think is out there. That might be somehow illuminating or might show things in a different light otherwise what’s the point? Which is what irritates me about this tendency toward the likable novel because it seems that the end goal of the likable novel is just to make you feel okay about yourself. Okay, fine, we all need a little bit of that but it doesn’t challenge you or open up your view of the world or of yourself.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
It’s always been tough in one way or another. Forty years ago there was no Canadian literature. To be a Canadian writer was a death warrant and that’s changed dramatically in forty years. In some ways we are in a golden era now in Canada in terms of the past and now there are other new challenges, but it’s always been hard to publish. It’s always been hard to get known. You can self-publish now, but does that mean anybody is going to read what you’ve written? There are new avenues out there but at the end of the day, you have to write well and you have to have something to say. The best way to do that is to read very widely and to write a lot.
What would you suggest to read?
The more challenging the stuff you read, the more you are going to grow. If you are reading strictly plot boilers or James Patterson or pure plot driven entertainment, then that’s what you’re going to produce. You might do it well enough to make a living at it but you’re going to have to decide what you’re aiming for yourself. I can’t discourage people from writing popular fiction. I have a very low opinion of a lot of fiction that gets written and particularly of the best selling fiction. It’s almost universally true that the better the fiction sells the lower the quality. It’s not strictly true, but it’s often true. If that’s what you want to do then read as much of it as you can and write as often as you can, regularly. The more you write the better you get. It’s like being a carpenter or a hockey player or any other profession.