Award-winning author, teacher, environmentalist and Bullfrog Founders Club member
Nino Ricci’s first novel, the best-selling Lives of the Saints, received international acclaim. It was published in over a dozen countries and won various awards, including the Governor General’s Award for fiction. In A Glass House and Where She Has Gone followed, the latter of which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize for fiction. In 2004, the Lives of the Saints trilogy was adapted for a television miniseries, starring Sophia Loren, Nick Mancuso, and Kris Kristofferson, that aired on both CTV and Italy’s Canale 5.
Ricci’s fourth novel, Testament, was co-winner of the Trillium Award.
His most recent work, The Origin of Species, was awarded the Governor General’s Award for fiction in 2008.
According to the Toronto Star, the novel is “Ricci’s masterstroke to date…an ambitious, thrilling novel that resists encapsulation and takes not a single misstep.”
A past president of the Canadian Centre of International PEN, a writers’ human rights organization that works for freedom of expression, Ricci has taught both in Canada and abroad.
When did you first develop a passion for writing?
It was quite a while ago—probably when I was about eight or nine. I started off as a bit of a wallflower, but I always had this propensity for storytelling. One of the things that appealed to me about writing was that it was a way for me to make a name for myself in a way I wasn’t able to do socially through things like sports.
How did The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin influence your work?
I have been interested in evolution theory since my first year of university. We studied a section of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in one of my classes and talked about Darwin’s influence on the shift in world view that started occurring in the 19th century. It was something I always wanted to work into my fiction.
In conjunction with that, there was a woman in my life named Esther, like the character in the book, whom I had known in the mid 1980s when I lived in Montreal. She was someone who was suffering from multiple sclerosis and in fact died of complications from MS. I knew Esther was a special figure in my life and that at some point I would want to deal with her in my fiction—partly as a tribute to her and partly because I felt her story was a gift that had been given to me and that it deserved to be brought to life in fiction.
I had not initially connected those two things in my mind but at a certain point I began to see the interrelations between them, and I found a way to work them into a novel.
Is there a connection between The Origin of Species and the environment?
When I set out to write this book, I wanted the environment to be a primary issue because I felt it was taking the world a long time to wake up to some very important issues. I remember that back in the 1980s, people—albeit the minority—were discussing the very concerns at the forefront of today’s environmental thinking. They were speaking out about the need to change the way we do things. Yet it seems to have taken 25 years for the majority to realize these voices were right. I wanted to find a way to bring these issues in.
At the same time, as a writer, I’m careful to not write for a cause, or about a cause. I try to capture the complexity of situations. The environmental theme in The Origin of Species is there at a buried level. It comes up in references to Chernobyl and metaphorically in the case of Esther, who is an example of an eco-system experiencing challenge. There’s a parallel between the way bodies turn against themselves when their immune systems fail—and our current situation with the environment. We’ve reached a point where we’ve so impacted our natural habitat that our systems are turning against us.
When did you first become concerned about the environment?
I think my environmentalism goes back to my childhood, and my upbringing in an immigrant household. My parents were very aware of the scarceness of resources—they understood water and power were precious resources. This thinking was ingrained in me and surfaced again when I taught in Nigeria for two years. Water could be off for four or five days at a stretch and we would have one bucket of water from the river or trucked in, which would have to last a week. The electricity would go off daily. These experiences reinforced in me a sense that what we tend to take for granted in the West is not a given.
How has your concern for the environment influenced your writing?
There seems to be a growing consensus that if we don’t make major changes, what we now take for granted in terms of social order could break down. Studies show how quickly civilizations can deteriorate when basic resources that people depend on—like running water and electricity—disappear. So in my writing now, I tend to think much more about that big picture and the larger laws by which we live as humans. I don’t want to end up in a situation as a writer where everything I’ve thought was important is beside the point because we missed the big issues.
What have you done in your personal life to reduce your environmental footprint?
I do simple things such as turn off the lights, keep the heat down and avoid wasting water. When I can, I walk instead of drive. It’s easy to choose the convenient route rather than the more inconvenient one, yet I try to make small changes on a daily basis. Another thing I do to help the environment is choose green electricity.
Why did you decide to bullfrogpower your home?
When it was recommended to me by a friend, I looked into it and thought, “If this is really available, then why isn’t everybody doing this?” It means I pay a little more for my electricity—but it’s not an amount that changes the quality of my life in any way, so the price is not a deterrent. It just seems like a no-brainer to me.
Do all of the little things we do really make a difference?
They are the only things that will make a difference. Will we do it quickly enough? It’s hard to know. If we don’t do it quickly enough, our children will have to make the deeper sacrifices that we haven’t made.
Are you working on anything at the moment that you are able to comment on?
I’m working on a novel in which these issues will arise—in a different form than in the last book—but they will be there.
>> Mr. Ricci’s interview was originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of the Bullfrog Buzz.