Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Alexis von Konigslow

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August 31, 2015 - We are thrilled to welcome debut author Alexis von Konigslow as our September 2015 writer-in-residence. Alexis' hotly anticipated first novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness (Wolsak & Wynn) combines math, family history and a mysterious lodge (that rates a visit from no less than Harpo Marx).

We talk to Alexis today about The Capacity for Infinite Happiness and how her own family history shaped the narrative. She tells us about the book's themes that took her by surprise, how having a toddler affects writing life and her next novel, a radioactive love story.

Stay tuned to the site throughout the month of September to hear from Alexis!

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Alexis von Konigslow:

The Capacity for Infinite Happiness is about Harpo Marx and a mathematician. In the current time, Math student Emily Kogan returns to her family’s lodge to finish her thesis, and decides the research the family instead. In the 1930s, Harpo Marx visits the lodge after the death of his father and the failure of Duck Soup, and becomes intrigued by the mysterious owner. In both time-lines, the family’s story is uncovered. The book was inspired by my grandmother and my great Aunt and their stories about the Muskoka Lodge, a real resort for Jewish people that was operated at the turn of the century and was owned by their family. I grew up listening to these stories. They changed as I did: they grew darker and more truthful as I got older. I loved that about them, the way they gradually transformed and the way I got more involved by asking questions. I felt like I was sleuthing at every telling. I thought about them a lot and eventually started writing this fictionalized account.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

AVK:

When I started writing, I was very taken with questions of resilience and survivability: I knew that people can sometimes recover after suffering tremendous hardship, and I wanted to write a story in which that happened. I think now that the book’s central themes are connections, and the love that can travel through connections. I think that these themes emerged as I was writing. I was rather surprised to discover them after coming back to a draft after a long absence.

OB:

Did the project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

AVK:

This project has changed a remarkable amount. I started by collecting true stories from the Muskoka Lodge, but eventually wrote only fiction. The drafts themselves changed a lot as well. The first drafts were very messy: I considered them to be reconnaissance missions, to see what would be possible in the universe that I’d created. The story that I wanted to tell took shape only gradually. I had help to do this, from mentors who were so generous and kind and patient, and who I’m so lucky to be connected to. The book took seven years to write.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

AVK:

I write anywhere and everywhere. I wrote this novel at home, at coffee shops, going to and from work. I used to need to clear out other tasks, and to know that I would have some uninterrupted time. I now have a toddler, and I work at night, so I take any scraps of time that I can find. I do a lot of thinking now, as my son and I walk to and from the park or classes or playdates, and transcribe later, whenever I can find time.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

AVK:

I like to walk, and let my mind wander. I find that this helps. I start by thinking about anything else, and eventually get back to whatever knot I’m trying to unravel. I also like to juggle multiple projects, and I find that switching into another creative venture also helps. I find that I think about the major project without knowing that I’m thinking about it, and resolve problems without letting myself get frustrated.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

AVK:

I look for expansive imaginations and inner worlds, universes that draw me in and that I have trouble escaping once I’ve put the book down. That’s what got my wanting to write, I think: that feeling of not just immersive transportation, but yearning to get back into a book’s inner life, of wanting to re-read just to visit again. I know so many great books. One is Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I mention this one because it’s one of the very first that I had to read and read and read again. The people were so real to me, when I was very young and read it the first time, that I felt a sense of loss when I finished the book. (Imagine how excited I was to find out that there was an entire series!) Another great book is Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It drew me in, but in a very different way. I was transported by the story and the characters, and so much by the writing itself, but in a way that I didn’t find distracting. This is hard to pull off. The sentences, the prose are inescapable. There were lines that I couldn’t get out of my head. It may be illegal, but I’m going to mention two more great books that I read recently: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and The Boneclocks by David Mitchell caught me in their scenery, and changed the way I looked at my own landscape after.

OB:

What are you working on now?

AVK:

I’m working on another novel. It’s the story of a Nick and Renya, a husband and wife who have recently been through a difficult point in their marriage, have just faced their first real scare together. To exacerbate the recent crisis, Renya escapes to Chernobyl on a research mission, and Nick follows. It’s a radioactive love story.

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