Set in the harsh forests of the Canadian wilderness, Alexi Zentner’s debut novel, Touch, draws upon mythology as well as literary convention. Dan Coxon finds that its author is rooted in the power of traditional storytelling. Portrait by Laurie Willick.
For a debut novel, Alexi Zentner’s Touch has already earned a startling number of accolades, including nominations for the Giller Prize and the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Awards. These nominations are less surprising, however, once you open the pages of Touch. Zentner has managed to craft one of the most compelling stories of hardship and loss to hit bookshelves in recent years, coloured with mythical encounters that might have been lifted straight from the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The combination of his characters’ bleak, hand-to-mouth existence and the fantastical events that underline their lives is both refreshingly new and shockingly traditional, and has led to the coining of an entire literary subgenre – mythical realism. Canadian by birth, but currently living in Ithaca, NY, Alexi Zentner has handcrafted a new literary landscape for the frosty wildernesses of the North.
How (and why) did you settle on the title Touch? The connection to the narrative isn’t immediately obvious, but it suits it so perfectly!
I usually know the titles of stories or books I’m working on early in the process, and the same was true of Touch. The impetus of the book was an image of a girl trapped under the ice. I was fascinated – terrified might be a better word – by the idea of having somebody you loved so close to you and yet to be unable to help them, unable to even touch them.
When I first started writing Touch, my daughters were younger, and though I think, as a father, the feeling never quite leaves you, I was acutely aware of just how dangerous the world can be, and how little, ultimately, I can do to keep my daughters safe. You never want your kids to get hurt in any way, but it’s almost worse when you can see it happening and can’t quite get there in time to stop it, and that is part of why that image stuck with me.
It’s interesting, because I have been asked about the title, and it was never something that I questioned. I had that title before I was more than a page into it. Almost everybody reacted positively to the title, although my French editors had to change the title to The Woods of Sawgamet, since Touch didn’t really translate well. I do think the title fits well, though. Aside from the image of the girl trapped under the ice – something that almost every reader has said stays with them – there are all of the different ways in which characters touch or fail to touch each other. Obviously, that’s in a physical sense, but also in the way that stories are passed down and changed from generation to generation, and the way that somebody who is long dead and gone can reach out and touch somebody else through myth and memory.
Do you find that your fiction tends to develop from single images in this way? Or do your stories generally spring from a different impetus?
My fiction always comes from an image, a first sentence, or a situation. Very, very quickly, that impetus is surrounded and shaped by characters and settings, but I’ve always had to have that spark to build the fire. I was given an assignment for the Canadian magazine The Walrus to write a story that had to follow five rules selected by another author, and it wasn’t until I had the first sentence that I had the rest of the story. I know that other writers can do it, can pick a theme or a character or even a place and just build a world, but I need something to hang it on to avoid ending up with a character study.
Weather and physical conditions affect a large aspect of what happens in Touch, from the first chapter onwards. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? Is this an important theme for you?
I don’t spend as much time outdoors as I’d like. Part of it is a simple laziness. As much as I love hiking and camping and being outside of the city, I’m not particularly good at getting myself to do it in the first place. It’s usually my wife who suggests we take the dog and the kids for a hike, and after I grumble about it, I end up asking why we don’t do it more often.
Before I had kids, I used to spend a lot more time in outdoor pursuits. I actually met my wife because we both rock climbed, and there was a period of years where I lived in the American Midwest, and going rock climbing outside of a gym meant driving anywhere from three to seven hours. After work on a Friday we would pile into a car and drive to Kentucky. We’d set up camp at three in the morning, grab a couple of hours sleep, and then climb until we could barely lift our arms.
Now, we live in a smaller university town, and part of what I like about it is the ability to find spaces where I can still feel like I might be alone. I try to take trips to parts of North America where there is still wilderness – or, at least, the feeling of wilderness – but the city I live in has pockets that feel more untrammelled. As a writer, the appeal of locations that are more removed from big cities is that they strip things down for the characters. In Touch, and in the novel I just finished, The Lobster Kings, which is set in a lobster fishing village on a small island, the decisions that the characters make have real ramifications. If you are underdressed in a snowstorm in the city, you get cold. If you are underdressed in a snowstorm in the woods outside of Sawgamet, where Touch is set, you can die.
I would never argue that weather or landscape serve as characters in and of themselves, but they can have profound impacts on the decisions that characters make. In a story, setting is simply the stage upon which the characters play their lives, but if that stage is a place where the natural world has a certain dominion, it can amplify the actions of characters. In Touch, in particular, this is true, and I found that the world I created in Touch was one that I was very drawn to.
I should add that, as a writer, I find the natural world is where I prefer to be. I’m not particularly precious in my writing habits – give me a laptop and a pair of headphones and I can write anywhere – but I envy the idea of having some sort of a cottage on the ocean or in the mountains, somewhere hard pressed against the natural world where I could write for part of the year.
A lot has already been made of your use of myth and fantasy in the book, and you’ve coined the term ‘mythical realism’. Can you explain what mythical realism means to you, and why it attracts you?
On a base level, when people hear magical realism, they think Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I admire Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera is still one of my favourite books – but I’m not trying to ape him, and I use the term mythical realism at least partially to distinguish what I’m trying to do from his work. Magical realism is very strongly associated with the landscapes and traditions of central and South America and Europe, and I think that when you take those frameworks of magical realism and just map them over a different culture and landscape you end up with a work that is a palimpsest; the ghostly images of those other cultures and landscapes show through your own work.
There are plenty of writers who have created interesting work this way, but I’m trying to do something new. I’m trying to wrestle with the questions of myth and storytelling, trying to figure out how it is that in my cultures and landscapes – Canada and the USA – stories become myths, how the vastness of the North American landscape and immigrant experience shapes who we were, who we are, and who we will become. I actually think that in the past year there have been a number of books that are experimenting with mythical realism, fumbling with trying to figure out the role of myth in our cultures. I’d argue that as far as literary trends go, we went through a painful period of detached irony as the main driving force for writers, and that one of the things that I want to do is to try to reclaim the sense of wonder that I think all readers strive for.
Look, what I really want to do is to try to tell good stories, to give readers the chance to lose themselves in a book, to remember what it was like as a kid to hear a story and to believe in something greater than ourselves. Mythical realism is something that should be woven throughout a book, in the same way that myth and story are woven through our lives, not just dropped in like a parlour trick. I don’t want a reader to think, “oh, that’s beautiful.” I want them to feel it. And if that means that, as a writer, I need to risk being overly sentimental, I’d rather risk that than risk nothing at all.
Which books stood out to you as being in this vein? Are there any particular writers you admire right now?
I hesitate to speak for other writers, because I think that not all of them would agree with my assessment of their work as mythical realism, but there is a new generation of writers who are including myth and magic in their work in an unapologetic way that is completely different from the way it has been used in magical realism. As for writers who I admire right now, it’s kind of an endless list. One of the great things about writing a book is that it gives you a chance to meet other writers. Both Peter Mountford (A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism) and Alan Heathcock (Volt) had books come out around the same time as Touch, and I both admire their work and was glad to have brothers-in-arms to talk with as the publication process moved forward.
You’ve recently returned from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and while I know that many American writers rate it highly, I’m sure that readers elsewhere have no idea what it is. Can you explain Bread Loaf for us briefly, and give us some insight into what it’s done for you?
I love Bread Loaf. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a conference for writers that takes place near Middlebury, Vermont. The campus – and outpost of Middlebury College – is within sight of Bread Loaf Mountain, hence the name. The conference is about ten days, and consists of workshops in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as readings, craft lectures, and other activities. The entire conference revolves around the written word. It’s a bucolic setting that’s in a part of the USA that I love, and it’s an incredibly intense period of focus on writing. I think, because the campus is sort of isolated, it’s a heightened experience.
I’ve been twice. The first time was as a work-study scholar. The work part of it is that you work as a waiter during the conference, which is pretty demanding on top of the packed schedule, but you become very close with your fellow waiters, all of whom are picked for their “promise” as writers. This past summer I went as a “fellow,” which meant that I assisted the faculty member in workshop, taught a craft lecture, and gave individual consultations. More than anything, what it’s done for me is help me to become close with other writers, so that no matter where I travel or what festivals I attend, there is usually somebody there that I know. It’s a way of making the writing world smaller and friendlier.
Do you think writers are naturally driven to seek each other out? Or are we more private, solitary creatures?
Reading teaches you how to be alone, and any successful writer is also a reader. I need a certain amount of time to myself, and find that when I have house guests or am staying with somebody else for an extended period that I end up hiding out in my room so that I can read or write.
That being said, I also love hanging out with friends and enjoy doing literary festivals. I like doing panels and am comfortable on stage, and I love teaching and being in front of a room. I need a balance of both. I love meeting other writers, because it’s such an odd profession and it’s nice to have other people who understand what it means to be alone at a desk. Part of it is that other writers are also readers, and I love talking about books and literature. I’m not sure that I necessarily seek out the company of other writers – because I have kids and don’t teach right now, I have a large group of friends who aren’t writers – but I do enjoy the company of fellow writers.
Still, after every trip, every conference, every festival, no matter how much I enjoy it, I’m always happy to get home again. To get to the point where people want you to come and talk about your book you have to spend a lot of time in a room by yourself.
You strike me as someone who loves telling a story. What’s the attraction to storytelling for you? Do you think the nature of storytelling is changing at all as we move further and further into the digital age?
I don’t think the digital age changes storytelling. That’s the short answer. That makes for boring columns, however, and it’s a lot easier to freak out and write about how the internet is changing everything, how storytelling is dying – but we are hardwired to respond to stories. I realise that the way that stories are conveyed is changing, but the human need for stories isn’t. Stories are how we figure out who we are as humans, both individually and in the aggregate. We seek out information so that we can know things, but we seek out stories so that we can feel things.
I love telling stories, but honestly, what I like even more than telling them is being told them. I think that most writers – most storytellers of whatever ilk – follow that path because at some point in their development they came across some sort of a book or a movie or even a piece of music that captured them, that made everything fall away. I’d argue that reading in particular is important. Aside from the idea that stories help us figure out who we are, reading teaches us how to be alone, how to be comfortable with ourselves.
For publishers, there are business model concerns. I can’t even pretend to understand the business model of publishing and making films. Speaking specifically about movies, it’s frustrating to me to see the amount of absolute shit that is produced, the number of films where the budget for fake blood has to be triple whatever they spent on writers. I’m personally quite happy to go see an action movie, but I’d say that about half of what I see could have been made a lot better if I’d been given the script and a weekend to rewrite it. Story comes first. Story comes last. True for books, true for movies. The movies and books that stay with us do so because they tap something inside of us. I don’t care how it’s delivered – though an e-reader, a real book, on a movie screen, on your phone – what matters is that there’s something that captures the reader/audience.
I know you’ve just finished writing The Lobster Kings… is it too early to ask for a preview? Will readers see similar themes to Touch, or is it a departure from your first book?
It’s set off the east coast of North America on an island that is actually contested territory, neither Canadian nor American. It’s told from the point of view of Cordelia Kings, a lobster fisherman (though she’s a woman), who is one of three daughters in a line that can trace itself back to the first white settler on the island, Brumfitt Kings, who was both a fisherman and a painter. There are Shakespearian undertones – which is probably evident from the name Cordelia, though this is certainly not a retelling of King Lear – and mythical realism: the Kings carry both a curse and a blessing through the generations. I think that The Lobster Kings is very different from Touch, and yet it will still feel familiar to readers. So it’s both a departure and similar.