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The best advice Alexi Zentner’s ever received? Don’t wait: start the next book now

Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Drawing on Shakespeare as an influence, in his second novel, The Lobster Kings, Alexi Zentner brings to life the Kings family, residents of a fictional maritime community who are fated to lose a firstborn son in every generation.

Why did you write your new book?

I was drawn first to the landscape, the ruggedness down east, how beautiful and unforgiving it can be at the same time, and I wanted to write a book set in the kind of small, closed-off community that both needs change and fights against it. And once I realized that the family struggle was really about fathers and daughters – I've got two daughters, so that's a constant question for me – King Lear seemed like a natural jumping-off point. The Lobster Kings is not a retelling of Lear, but rather a riff on it. I wasn't interested in the question of what it meant for the king to give away his kingdom, but rather what it meant for Cordelia to try to live up to her inheritance. Her voice is what drives the novel.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

I read really widely, and I love the nuanced, layered, obviously complex, poetic language of writers like Michael Ondaatje, but ultimately I keep coming back to Alice Munro. Those are the two writers – along with Margaret Atwood – who I first read when I was starting to think of literature as something that could be serious and wonderfully entertaining at the same time. I love Munro because her sentences are so deceptive. So much of her writing seems clean and almost simple, and yet it's endlessly deep. Consider how much is given in just these two sentences from early in the story, Carried Away: "Louisa was twenty-five years old and had been in love once, with a doctor she had known in the sanatorium. Her love was returned, eventually, costing the doctor his job."

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Don't wait: start the next book now. It took me a very long time to understand that there is a huge difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write. You don't get the former without the latter. I'd like to believe I have some talent, but what I know I have is the willingness to work hard. There is a lot of noise that comes with publication, but to get to the point where people want to read your work, you have to spend most of your time alone, working. Plus, honestly, the thing I've always enjoyed more than anything else is the act of writing.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

Well, given that I need glasses and the occasional dose of antibiotics, I'd say now is pretty good, but that's not a very interesting answer. Maybe this is just reflecting that with The Lobster Kings coming out I'm talking about the influence of Shakespeare, but I'd love to have lived through the period that Shakespeare was at his height in London. Dirty and full of pestilence, but also vibrant and all sorts of interesting turmoil. Though, of course, what's that curse? May you live through interesting times?

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

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I know what the answer is supposed to be, but come on. I'd rather be successful now. The only way I can be happy as a writer is to write what I want, and I hope that brings me a certain amount of success. Sure, I would love to be the kind of writer that is read for generations and generations, that changes the direction of the literary conversation, but I've got two kids and a mortgage and all that sort of stuff. It's nice to know that people are reading – and, ideally, loving – your work. But, if we are being honest, I want both. I'm greedy that way.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

I was soured by Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. I know that a lot of it was that I had to read it for English class at the time when I was in the middle of sort of flunking out of high school, and I feel guilty for not having given Dickens a second chance. But not guilty enough to do anything about it.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Owen Meany. To pull off a character whose voice is so singular that he speaks in all-caps? That's pretty impressive. But also, of course, Anne Shirley. Anne of Green Gables kind of wins it all.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

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Sadly, I'd probably pick a superhero. I was a fan of the X-Men comics as a kid – I was fortunate enough to have a friend who was a collector and who let me read his collection – and loved Wolverine. He's not exactly the happiest guy, but he is badass. But also, and this one overlaps with the fictional character I wish I'd created, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables. She's a cool kid.

What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don't ask)?

That's cheating! Okay, I wish that people would ask me more about what I always see as the central theme of my work, which is the conflict between what we want to do for our families and what we want to do for ourselves. Though I learned a long time ago that authors are always the worst at seeing what the central theme of their work is.

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