What in the world is a “mahaha”? According to Alexi Zentner’s imaginative debut novel, “Touch,” it’s a creature that tickles you until you suffocate. Such fantastical animals roam around this story of faith, romance and logging set in the mountainous wilds of Canada — a place so cold that the school’s thermometer shatters and with a terrain so strange that it’s full of singing dogs and sirens that lure children out onto thin ice.

Zentner, pictured above, calls it “mythical realism,” a term he devised to explain how these magical elements affect the book’s very realistic and sympathetic characters. “I’m trying to weave the story so these myths become an ongoing part of the characters’ lives, as opposed to a sleight of hand that’s just thrown in to be exciting,” says the Canada native, who now lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife and children.

One of the biggest and most original literary debuts of 2011 (critics are already suggesting the book will take home some major awards), “Touch” began life as a short story, though Zentner envisioned it as a novel even then. “I’d only been writing seriously for a month when I started the story,” he recalls, “and I knew I couldn’t write it as a novel the way I wanted to. I just wasn’t a good enough writer at the time.”

He soon received some strong feedback on that original short story. “I’d given my wife a copy of the story, and I went down downstairs to work in the basement,” he says. “After about 20 minutes, I came back upstairs and she’s sitting on the couch crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she holds up the pages and says, ‘It’s the story.'”

“Touch” has already inspired a similarly emotional response in readers, Zentner says. “I’ve had people tell me how certain pieces of the magic have stuck with them or how they cried when they read the book. It’s gratifying, especially since being a writer is essentially being alone in a room.”

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Written by Express contributor Stephen Deusner
Photos by Laurie Willick