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Author Nino Ricci sheds light on life with narcolepsy in new thriller novel

Despite being diagnosed with a sleep disorder, Nino Ricci says his latest novel is not autobiographical.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Not long after the birth of his son, and while scrambling to finish his 2002 novel Testament, the sleep problems that had plagued Nino Ricci for years came to a head. He was getting up in the middle of the night to take care of Luca, and editing his retelling of the life of Christ during the day.

"My sleep was completely ruined," he says. "I suddenly couldn't sit at my desk for an hour or two at a stretch without falling asleep."

There was also, Ricci noticed, "this other weird symptom" he describes as "this funny kind of fluttering at the back of my neck" that occurred whenever he cracked a joke or his emotions ran high. Ricci consulted his family doctor, who put the author on the waiting list for a sleep study. Researching it on his own, he learned it was called cataplexy, one of the primary symptoms of narcolepsy, with which Ricci was eventually diagnosed. "It's a malfunctioning of the REM switch," he explains. "When we dream our brain shuts our muscles down – we're essentially paralyzed, because otherwise we'd try and act out our dreams." Cataplexy occurs if that happens while you're awake. "Suddenly you will lose all muscle tone, often in an instant," he says. "It's like becoming a quadriplegic."

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Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that sleep is a topic Ricci explores in a new novel of the same name. Sleep tells the story of David Pace, a former rising star in the world of academia who, at the novel's outset, is trapped in a volatile marriage and is struggling to get his career, which has never lived up to the promise of his first book, back on track. Many of his troubles can be traced to his sleep problems, which he keeps hidden from his family despite the fact they're growing worse – on the opening page he's nearly involved in a high-speed collision after momentarily falling asleep at the wheel of his car; only the cries of his five-year-old son, sitting in the backseat, saves them both. Still, Sleep resembles nothing so much as a car crash in slow motion, played out over the subsequent 200 pages, as David's life disentegrates both professionally and personally. "I can honestly say it's not autobiographical," says Ricci, who is married to the writer Erika de Vasconcelos, though in Sleep's acknowledgments he thanks his children "for helping to spare me the fate of the protagonist in this novel."

Ricci was raised in a household where there weren't a lot of rules about sleep. His father, he says, would often head out after work to a club to play cards; after their mom fell asleep in front the television, Ricci and his siblings would stay up to watch a movie or The Tonight Show.

"As long as we slipped into bed as soon as we heard the car come in the drive at 1 a.m., we were okay," he says. "We did not have good sleep hygiene as children, the way children do now, where it's enforced religiously. And that was something that carried through the rest of my life, to the point I developed a sleep disorder. I saw sleep as something evil that I was constantly fighting. I was constantly enjoining myself to sleep less, to get by on less sleep. I was going to bed every night at 1:30 and setting my alarm every night for 7:30 or 8, even though I couldn't get up."

It was appropriate, or perhaps ironic, that Ricci and I were sitting on the patio of a coffee shop near his east-end Toronto home, both nursing a caffeinated beverage. For many, coffee's primary (if not sole) purpose is to ward off sleep or, in the morning, to shake off the effects of the previous night's slumber. Ricci, who used to drink "six, seven cups of coffee a day," now manages his sleep disorder with the same mixture of drugs that David is prescribed, including methylphenidate (Ritalin), fluoxetine (Prozac) and sodium oxybate.

"The sleep drugs that I take are powerful, very controlled substances that produce what they think is a version of deep sleep," he says. "What I'm essentially trying to replicate with my pharma regime is what my body would do on its own if it was working properly."

From an outside perspective it doesn't seem to have had any adverse affects on his career; the 56-year-old Ricci is a past winner of the Trillium Book Award (for Testament) and has won the Governor-General's Award for fiction twice since publishing his debut novel, Lives of the Saints, in 1990 – second only to Michael Ondaatje during that span. But Sleep, his sixth novel, is unlike any of his previous books, a mean and lean psychological thriller that his long-time editor, Martha Kanya-Forstner, describes as "a kind of a breakthrough. He's had such an incredible career, and his books have all been extraordinary accomplishments in their own right, but there's an intensity to this book, and a pulse and an energy, that I think just reveals this whole other side of who Nino is as a writer." There's a fragmented, dreamlike quality to the prose – a chapter will end, a new one will begin, and untold years will have elapsed, with little by way of explanation. The experience of reading Sleep is like waking from a vivid dream and being able to recall only snippets, flashes, of what transpired. For a novel that highlights the dangers of not enough sleep, Ricci's latest will cause a lot of sleepless nights.

Still, he seems slightly annoyed when I suggest Sleep is an outlier, wholly different from anything he's written before.

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"I think a lot of my books were unlike previous books in certain ways," he says. "I'm always trying to set a new challenge for myself. I don't think [The Origin of Species, his last novel, in 2008] is really like Testament. Testament was not really like the trilogy [about an Italian immigrant family in Canada]. Even the books in the trilogy – the tone between Lives of the Saints and In a Glass House was quite different."

While writing Sleep, he says, he kept thinking of Franz Kafka, who once remarked, "We ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading it for?"

"What are we reading it for? Well, what are we writing it for? It really felt like, okay, I'm writing these books, they're getting prizes, they're getting critical praise, but I meet a lot of people who would never read them," he laughs. "Who pick them up and say, 'Oh, this isn't for me.' I don't know what's off-putting about them, but there's something. And it's not that I want to be this populist writer, but I want readers. I want to be speaking to people. I want to be writing in a way that is actually affecting people. So that was kind of the challenge for this book: How can I hit people over the head in a way that will maybe shake them a bit?"

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About the Author
Books Editor

Mark Medley is the Globe and Mail’s Books Editor. Prior to joining the paper he spent more than seven years at the National Post, where he served as an arts reporter and books editor. More

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