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Interview with Nino Ricci

Published on: Wed, 02/15/2017
Last Modified: Thu, 02/16/2017 - 4:39pm

An Interview with Nino Ricci:

U Windsor Writer-in-Residence

by Yanik Gallie


Internationally celebrated author, Nino Ricci is serving as the 2016-2017 Writer-in-Residence with the Department of English at the University of Windsor. He was interviewed about his writing career and experience as a Writer-in-Residence by Yanik Gallie.


Nino Ricci was born on August 23, 1959, in Leamington Ontario. He was born to parents from the Molise region of Italy, and completed university studies in Toronto, Montreal, and Florence, Italy. He has served as a Writer-in-Residence for the Toronto and Kitchener public library systems and for the University of Windsor and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and has held the Mariano Elia Chair at York University, the Chair in Religion and the Arts at Assumption University, the G. M. Hopkins Chair in Literary Studies at John Carroll University, the Killam Visiting Professorship in Canadian Studies at Bridgewater University, and the Pathy Visiting Professorship in Canadian Studies at Princeton. He is also a past president of PEN Canada, a writers’ human rights organization that works for freedom of expression.


Nino Ricci is serving as Writer in Residence and Special Instructor with the Department of English, Language, Literature, and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor during the 2016-2017 Academic year. Nino Ricci’s first novel was the internationally acclaimed Lives of the Saints. It spent 75 weeks on the Globe and Mail‘s bestseller list and was the winner in Canada of the F.G. Bressani Prize, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, and in England of the Betty Trask Award and the Winifred Holtby Prize. In the U.S. it was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book, and in France it was an Oiel de la lettre Selection of the National Libraries Association. Published in seventeen countries, Lives of the Saints was the first volume of a trilogy that continued with In a Glass House, hailed as a “genuine achievement” by the New York Times, and Where She Has Gone, nominated for the Giller Prize. The Lives of the Saints trilogy was adapted for a television miniseries starring Sophia Loren and Kris Kristofferson. Books in Canada commented that Ricci’s trilogy “so amply demonstrates the author’s tremendous talents that we would be foolish as readers not to follow him down whatever road he next chooses to follow.” That road led him to Testament, a fictional retelling of the life of Jesus. Hailed as a “masterpiece” by Saturday Night, Testament was a Booklist Choice for the Top Ten Historical Novels of the Year and a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year. It was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Prize and for the Roger’s Writers’ Trust Award for Fiction and was a winner of the Trillium Award.


Testament was followed by the national bestseller The Origin of Species, which earned Ricci the Canadian Authors Association Fiction Award as well as his second Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Set in Montreal in 1980s, the novel casts a Darwinian eye on the life of Alex Fratarcangeli, who is torn between his baser impulses and his pursuit of the Good. “This novel does so well, on so many levels,” wrote the Toronto Star, “that it’s hard to know where to begin tallying up the riches.”

Ricci’s most recent novel is Sleep, published in the fall of 2015, the harrowing tale of David Pace, an academic whose life unravels after he comes down with a sleep disorder. “A frightening and essential addition to the oeuvre of one of this country’s best and most important writers,” wrote Quill & Quire, hailing the book as “Ricci’s darkest and most thematically daring work to date.” Sleep won Ricci his second Canadian Authors Award for Fiction and was a Toronto Star Top 5 Book for 2015, as well as a Globe and Mail and National Post Best Book. “If endemic narcissism is one of the central pathologies of contemporary culture,” the Toronto Star wrote, “then Ricci has crafted with Sleep one of its holy texts.”


YG: Welcome back as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Windsor. What did you learn from your first experience as Writer-in-Residence here during 2005-06?

NR: I learned that I liked being in this area which is close to my home area. I grew up in Leamington, Ontario and Windsor was the big city for me. When I was a kid, I used to visit my relatives in this area. However, at the age of eighteen, I left Leamington looking for greener pastures, for a wider world. In my early adulthood, I never much looked back to Windsor with any nostalgia. But now I find as I age, that I still have a real attachment to this area and that came home to me last time I was here as Writer-in-Residence. The other thing I learned was that Windsor is a vibrant city culturally and that’s not the common perception of it. Windsor tends to get thought of as an industrial town with an often-depressed economy because it’s so dependent on volatile industries, but being here I felt that cultural excitement and I think that comes partly from it being such a real city. People have real experience to express in their art and that recently came through one of the students I spoke to as Writer-in-Residence. Often, the people who are not sort-of in the cultural centers or what people who like to think of as cultural centers have a more interesting and a more insightful perspective on things because they are coming at them from the margins and from outside that more satisfied center where you think you know everything but as a result you are often limiting your experience.


YG: Among other numerous prizes, you were the recipient of the first Alistair MacLeod Award for Literary Achievement in 2006. Can you talk about Bookfest 2006 and your experiences that year?

NR: I was quite honored to receive that award. Alistair MacLeod was a great role model for me both in his person and in his writing. I discovered his writing early on as a writer and his stories had that kind of exquisite perfection that I think every storywriter strives for. His books are steeped in a very particular kind of reality. All of his work came from his Cape Breton background, but I’m finding universals within his body of work that go right to the heart of what it means to be human. I’d known him for 7 years before being Writer-in-Residence here at the University of Windsor. During that year as Writer-in-Residence, I had gotten to know him better. I had a chance to spend quite a bit of time with him on the road. We did a couple of road trips together. We went down to Atlanta to do some readings there. We went to Chattanooga, and subsequently ended up doing a number of other events across the country. To have received that award was very special to me because it was associated with him and with his name, and because he had been such an important role model and literary mentor to me.


YG: What was it like to discuss literature with Alistair? 

NR: It was interesting. He could be quite forthcoming and opinionated, but he could also be quite reserved. He was never a person to engage in literary gossip or to seek to be critical of a fellow writer’s work. He was very generous in his comments, particularly if it was someone that we knew or was alive. He was interesting to listen to in terms of his own process and his own technique. He was a very slow writer; very painstaking at how he wrote stories. Also, someone who seemed to get the whole of the story in his head, in a way, before he sat down to write his story. I think that was unique to him or to perhaps a handful of writers. The other thing that always struck me when he talked about writing was his emphasis on writing being about something. If you are going to write a story, there should be something that it’s trying to say. It is sometimes unfashionable to talk about literature in that way because you can devolve into this idea of literature as message when in fact the best literature is not really working that way, and neither did his. I think what he was getting at is that there has to be a core or a notion or an idea at the heart of the characters who populate your story that give it weight; a moral weight and significance that makes that material worth exploring. That’s definitely a lesson I took away from him as a writer and one I would subscribe to as well.


YG: How did you go about structuring the narrative to a longer work like Sleep?

NR: I don’t have a formula for structure. I always think of it as, not as my weak suit, but as something I hope will come to me as opposed to something I plan out rigorously. I find it hard when I am teaching writing to teach about plot which is usually the main structuring element in a novel. When I think structurally, I tend to think somewhat more abstractly in terms of ideas and notions that I want to come across or certain motifs that I want to play through a book, but what I always end up coming back to is character. If you start a story with a strong character, then the character will determine the action and move the action forward. Whenever I’m stumbling, if I come back to the character and really try to get to the bottom of that character, then that will usually show me the way forward; that will help determine the structuring of the narrative that will carry the book forward.


YG: What is your approach to language in the dialogue of this novel?

NR: I pose it as a question of voice, tone, effect, mood. Any novel is only going to be a partial representation of life. You just can’t get it all in there, as much as you’d want. Depending on the kind of light you shine on it, it gives you a different slice of the experience. I had in mind for Sleep, a very particular kind of dark irony beneath it. Also, a sense of horror threatening at the sides. All those things we don’t like to think about infringing on a character and him having to confront those things. As I say, the particular kind of coloring that character experiences will inevitably affect language. In other of my books, the language has been more baroque or more playful. In some books, more lyrical. In this one, I was looking for a pared-down and no-nonsense kind of language. Even the story logic is almost condensed so that the connective tissue you normally get in the narrative is gone. We go from scene to scene and we make-believe, as readers, to figure out the missing bits. Each section stands in narrative relation and also in juxtaposition to every other section so that we are getting these different stages in a character’s life without necessarily understanding all of the connecting threads that got him there. That leads to perhaps less use of figurative language than has been the case in other books; an attempt to get back to Anglo-Saxon roots. I’ve always had an attention for the Latinate in the earlier books. In this book, I tone that down even though my main character is a historian of Classical Rome. In the dialogue, I was looking for directness and lack of mediation. There’s probably more dialogue in this book than there tended to be in earlier books to get that feeling of directness, movement, and action. I try to strip away some of the more lyrical elements in Sleep.


YG: Did you know the conclusion to Sleep before you wrote the novel?

NR: With most of my books, I have the ending in mind when I start. I don’t necessarily know how I get to that ending. I don’t know what the story will be. Sometimes the ending is a feeling I have about where I want to arrive emotionally or often there’s a scene or an image that I’m working towards. In this case, the last scene of Sleep was really the beginning for me. I saw the scene and I wondered how I would get there. For me, it helps a lot to have the ending. If I start without an ending I flounder and it’s very hard for me to finish. When I know the ending, it helps to give a shape to things and it motivates me to keep going which doesn’t mean I understand the ending or that I have figured everything out. It just means that I have a sense of what I’m trying to do in the book and then with each draft I refine that more and more…


Nino Ricci was interviewed on the 28th of September, 2016 by Yanik Gallie.

NOTE: Nino Ricci will be available during the 2016-2017 Academic Year for one-on-one editorial consultations through the Writer-in-Residence office. To make an appointment, please contact the Dept. of English Secretary, Krista Tourangeau by phone at (519) 253-3000 ext. 2288 or via email: to arrange for a manuscript submission and an appointment with Nino Ricci.