Talking with a master storyteller: Eleanor Wachtel on interviewing Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant

At 85, Mavis Gallant may move slowly, but her mind is as quick and engaged as ever. Her memory, like her writing, boasts a remarkable precision, an attention to detail that goes back to her days as a journalist for the now defunct Montreal Standard. When I saw her in Paris last month, I asked her about the interview she had done with Jean-Paul Sartre when he came to Montreal in the early '50s. She had written about how kind he was to her, how patient and good, how she vowed that if she ever became a famous writer, she too would be generous to young journalists. So, I said, you'll be nice to me? "You're no kid!" she shot back. But, in fact, she was very expansive, candid and warm in a conversation that ran well over two hours.

I first interviewed Mavis Gallant 15 years ago. She was full of stories and observations such that when I came to put together my first book of interviews, Writers & Company, I wanted to include her (alongside Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, among many others). She asked to see the edited transcript and proceeded to mark it up extensively - until about three-quarters of the way through, she stopped and wrote, "It's hopeless, I sound like Dan Quayle." For her, the spoken word was one thing; once it was written, it had to be perfect.

Mavis Gallant does have a daunting reputation. When TV journalist St├ęphan Bureau came to interview her for his documentary film, he said: "I must confess at the outset that I was rather terrified of interviewing Mavis Gallant." And I do remember once, years ago, when I asked her about love - one of her characters had compared it to practising scales on the piano - she said, "Eleanor, are you asking me if I think that? I'm ashamed of you." This was in front a TV crew that flinched en masse and yet I knew even then that she would continue and elaborate on the question and the story (from Across the Bridge).

Talking to Mavis is not exactly ask, then duck and cover, but rather ask, back it up and wait. She's there. In some instances, especially during this recent conversation, she was so eager she would scarcely wait for me to finish my question. And although in one way she doesn't like to talk about her work or her working methods, in another, she is very forthcoming about the germ of a story, its opening image or an actual incident, someone she knew or a story she heard that launched it in her mind. She will give you every detail.

Or she'll recount some experience from her past with a vividness that is compelling. Mavis Gallant has been keeping journals since her arrival in France more than 50 years ago. She's been going through them, with an eye to publishing excerpts. I was asking about what it's like for her to look back on some of this material. She said that what she reads now isn't exactly what rose to the surface at the time. Then she launched into a long account of Christmas Day 1962.

It wasn't a happy time. She'd been invited to Germany by a quite close friend, a journalist, who had recently married. She and her new husband had bought a house and she wanted Mavis to meet the new husband and see the new house. Mavis described how she'd been ill but had recovered. So what would be better than to buy some new clothes and go to a place she hadn't seen? The trip was a disaster: her friend's mother took an instant dislike to her. The husband's family wouldn't receive foreigners. Mavis was left on her own on Christmas Eve while the friend went to her husband's family and the mother went to Midnight Mass without her.

So there she was, alone in a strange house with huge picture windows and the blackness outside. "I couldn't draw the drapes," she said, "and I saw every ghost. I was frightened, I was scared to death. There were two huge sheep dogs growling." (She growls.) The parrots' cage was open and two parrots hopped and flapped about (their wings had been clipped). "I was terrified. I kept seeing headlines in the Globe & Mail: 'Canadian writer mauled to death by dogs, parrots and man with a knife!'"

Finally, she got to her room and locked the door, called the airport to book the next flight out, but got only an answering machine saying everything was shut down for the holidays. At the end of the tale, Mavis said, Of course you can't use this. (This happened repeatedly - during another story she added, You know, I'm just talking.) Later, which is why you're getting to read this, she revised her view, concluding that her friend and her mother were likely dead and she didn't care about the husband anyway.

I dearly hope she will publish some of those journals. Paris Notebooks, which first appeared in the New Yorker magazine, was her account of the events of May 1968 in France. Since her Montreal days as a journalist, she has been politically astute, with an openness to the world, and especially Europe. She's told me that she found the postwar European refugees and exiles to be the most interesting people she had ever met. "The anti-Hitler wave of refugees was a revelation to me - of culture, of politics. I couldn't get enough of them. They were the first truly cultivated bourgeoisie that had come to Montreal."

It formed the seeds of her attraction to Europe. I had talked to her in Paris a couple of years after the Wall came down in Berlin; she said then that like everyone, she had felt euphoric, but that that was the last time she would allow herself to be so optimistic. This time, when I asked what she thought about France's new president, Nicholas Sarkozy, she said, "Do you have five or six days?"

When I was looking over some articles about Mavis Gallant, I started to feel that there are two camps or perspectives on Canada's two master storytellers, Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, as if you needed to champion one over the other, like favoring the Rolling Stones over the Beatles, or Jean-Luc Godard over Francois Truffaut. I don't know why that should be, but the absurdity of it hit me as I reflected on what a lucky place we are to have produced and been the beneficiaries of such extraordinary talent.

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