Published in Spike Magazine, by Dan Coxon /Interviews Novels, November 1, 2011.
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 … //
… 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 … (full interview text).