André Alexis puzzles himself and others on the illusive concept of storytelling

Keeton Wilcock | Fulcrum Staff

OVER THE YEARS, the University of Ottawa’s faculty of arts, in conjunction with the Canada Council, has sponsored more than a dozen authors to spend a semester on campus and fill the role of writer-in-residence. In 2010, Robyn Sarah was the university’s writer-in-residence, while Steven Heighton held the position in 2009.

This year, the university’s writer-in-residence is André Alexis, a short-story writer, playwright, and novelist originally from Port of Spain in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

Alexis grew up in Ottawa and has written about the city in many of his works, including his first novel, Childhood, which won the Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Book Award in 1997, and his most recent novel, Asylum, published in 2008. Alexis explained that it was a brief run-in with Canadian writer Norman Levine that spurred him to begin writing about the capital.

“There are very few people that actually write about Ottawa,” Alexis said in an interview with the Fulcrum. “Norman Levine was one of the people who wrote about Ottawa. So when I was reading his work, I would read about Waller; I would read about George. You know, the streets and what they look like and what they feel like. It was the first time that I’d had a sense that it was OK to write about this thing, Ottawa, that really interested me.”

Since Alexis’s early writings about Ottawa, he has carved out a successful creative writing career that spans several decades and multiple genres. Alexis has published various plays, short stories, and novels, produced work for the CBC, spent time as a contributing editor for This Magazine, and served as writer-in-residence at McMaster University, Western University, and now the University of Ottawa.

When not spending time on his own written work, Alexis will be available for the duration of the fall semester to pass on some of his knowledge to U of O students through an advanced creative writing class he is teaching.

“It’s a chance to scratch my head about the things that make up writing,” Alexis explained. “It’s like, what is a story? We start from that. I’ve had a lot of experience thinking about it, so I may be a little further along the road of being puzzled.”

The Ottawa writer is also holding office hours throughout the week in order to meet with students and provide them with constructive critiques of their work. While Alexis will be able to provide much more personalized information through one-on-one meetings, he still has a few general tips for burgeoning writers.

“First of all, you want to really consider whether you want to [be a writer], because it’s not an easy life at all. For all my belief in the importance of the arts, I know that I’m living in a time in which that influence has been very much contested,” said Alexis. “But, if you really have to do that, then the next question becomes what is it that you’re doing. Find out about your art form. What is it like, what does it do, what are its traditions, what are the questions that it brings up? Because those questions and your answers to them are the things that are going to be most valuable.”

Alexis’s office is located in room 349 of the Arts building. His hours are from 9 a.m.–3 p.m. on Mondays and 9 a.m.–2 p.m. on Tuesdays.