Ricci didn’t start out wanting to be a writer, however. “Initially, I wanted to be a priest,” he admits. “But already by the third or fourth grade I had a reputation for being a reader and also a writer. I wrote stories.”
Earning his first Governor General’s Award for Fiction for his 1991 breakout novel, Lives of the Saints, Ricci’s career as a writer and teacher hit the ground running. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate and privileged as a writer,” Ricci says. “It’s very rare that you get to follow your dream and do exactly what you want in life, and I’ve mostly been able to do that.”
Since the success of Lives of the Saints, he has published four more novels, two non-fiction books, and has taught writing and been the writer-in-residence at a variety of institutions, most recently at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “[Teaching] is the one job my résumé qualifies me for,” says Ricci. “I love being with the students and it’s the one thing that gets me out in the world.”
But dedicating some time to teaching hasn’t stopped him from writing. The author’s newest novel, Sleep, hits bookstores on September 22. In it, Ricci recounts the story of David Pace, an Italian-Canadian professor and writer who finds himself on a collision course after he is diagnosed with a sleep disorder. The novel follows David in his increasingly difficult and dangerous struggle to both literally stay awake, but also live his life in a state of engaged wakefulness – a challenge that in this day and age, according to Ricci, many people face.
If there seem to be some cursory similarities between Ricci and his newest protagonist, it’s because there are. When asked where the idea for Sleep came from, he answers: “It was a combination of different things,” citing, among other things, the difficult life writers face and his own frustration with the book world.
Additionally, “I had been diagnosed with this mild sleep disorder,” he explains, “and it got me thinking about sleep and some of the metaphorical senses of being asleep. There’s the sleep of life that so many people lead, the increasing need for outrageous stimulation.”
“I HAD BEEN DIAGNOSED WITH THIS MILD SLEEP DISORDERAND IT GOT ME THINKING ABOUT SLEEP AND SOME OF THE METAPHORICAL SENSES OF BEING ASLEEP. THERE’S THE SLEEP OF LIFE THAT SO MANY PEOPLE LEAD, THE INCREASING NEED FOR OUTRAGEOUS STIMULATION.”
Fans of Ricci’s know that most of his previous work has an historical aspect to it; but not so with Sleep, which is set in the present day. This latest work is the fruit of his desire to “write something contemporary” and “capture something about how we’re living today.”
But he’s quick to point out that despite his ideas and planning, “Most books are not a matter of choice, really.” He likens his ideas to seeds growing into plants. “They might be weeds – you don’t know – but the only way to get rid of them is by writing them. Sometimes it’s a way of getting to the next book.”
And getting to the next book is exactly what he’s done. “I’ve already started on another novel,” Ricci notes. Although he won’t reveal what it’s about, he says he hopes to finish a draft of it soon. “It’s good to have something on the go when you have something else coming out,” he says.
But does his work leave much time for anything other than writing? Ricci admits that it doesn’t. “When I think of my non-writing activities, they’re ones that revolve around my family,” he explains, “like taking my son fencing and going on vacation.”
He and his wife, Erika de Vasconcelos, who is also a writer, have three children. “We try and do a big summer vacation every year, go to Europe every second year to get some culture. I enjoy going to Molise because it’s untouristed. It’s great food and great weather,” Ricci says. “I love going back to my home region whenever I can.”
When asked about his plans for the future, “I’d like to retire for a while,” is Ricci’s answer. In the next breath, however, the author pushes that idea aside. “But I have about 15 or 20 writing projects sort of sketched out,” he admits. “This lifetime won’t be enough to finish them all.”
by Nino Ricci
International Edition | September 22, 2015 | Hardcover
written by Sarah Mastroianni