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30 facts you might not know about the renowned short story writer Mavis Gallant

Born Aug. 11, 1922, the Canadian literary legend would have been 100 this year. Mavis Gallant spoke to Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel in Paris in 2008. A reprise of their CBC Radio conversation will air on Aug. 7, 2022.

Born Aug. 11, 1922, the Canadian literary legend would have been 100 this year

Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant was born in Montreal and later spent most of her life living in Paris. (Canadian Press)

The late Mavis Gallant was a Canadian short fiction writer whose work is internationally celebrated. A technical master, skillful in pushing the boundaries of the form, Gallant is widely admired as one of Canada's finest short story writers.

She wrote over 100 short stories, most published in The New Yorker magazine before appearing in well-known collections such as Montreal Stories, Going Ashore and From the Fifteenth District. Often within her narratives are themes of dislocation and dispossession, conveyed with sensitivity and powers of observation derived from Gallant's unique life and upbringing.

This year marks the centennial of Gallant's birth, as she was born on Aug. 11, 1922.

In 2008, Mavis Gallant spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in Paris when her book, From the Fifteenth District, was a Canada Reads finalist and championed by Canadian author Lisa Moore. A reprise of their conversation will air on CBC Radio's Writers & Company on Aug. 7, 2022, in honour of Gallant's centenary.

In memory of Gallant's life and work, check out these 30 facts you may not know about the Canadian literary legend.

1. Mavis Gallant was born Mavis Leslie de Trafford Young in Montreal on Aug. 11, 1922.

2. She was the only child of Albert Stewart Roy de Trafford Young and Benedictine Wiseman.

3. Gallant studied at 17 different public, convent and boarding schools while growing up. At four years old, her parents sent her to board at a French convent school located down the road from their home.

4. Her path to writing took form at a young age. In a 2009 interview with Shelagh Rogers, Mavis Gallant said her love for literature was led, in part, by the fact she was an only child. "If you're an only child, you're there like the dining room table," she said.  Gallant noted that as a child she read often and heard a lot of grown-up conversations. 

Fact #5: When Gallant began writing, she wanted to become a poet. Her writing progressed from poems at a young age to plays and short stories as she grew older.
(Ian Barrett/Canadian Press, Fact: CBC-TV's Telescope)

6. Her father died when she was ten years old. Shortly after, her mother remarried and left Canada, leaving her in the care of a guardian. Gallant was told her father was living in England and was unaware of his death until she was 13, when a friend of her mother mentioned his passing.

7. She spent most of the years from 1935 to 1940 — up until she graduated high school — in and around New York City, the setting for many of her early stories.

8. She had no post-secondary education. "I never went to any university; I just started living my life," she said.

Fact #9: Her name was Mavis Leslie Young before marrying Winnipeg musician John Gallant in 1942. The marriage was short-lived; she kept his last name after they divorced amicably in 1947.
(Canadian Press, Fact: New York Times)

10. From 1944 to 1950, she worked as a reporter for the Montreal Standard. In her 2008 interview with Eleanor Wachtel, she recalled how she marched into the newspaper's office: "I went and said I was looking for a job at a newspaper, but I don't want to do women's work. So I was interviewed standing in a corridor by someone who I don't think could even have hired me." She was told she was too young, but joined the paper on a contract the following year.

11. Before that, she worked for the National Film Board in her 20s, but hated it, noting women weren't given much responsibility.

12. Her earliest published stories appeared in Preview (1944), the Standard (1946) and Northern Review (1950), according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

13. Gallant has been hailed for the precision of her writing. She would often rewrite a whole page because a single sentence was not right.

14. She was determined to make a living from her writing and had planned to scrap all her drafts and notebooks if it didn't work out, she told the Paris Review.

(McClelland & Stewart, Fact: CBC.ca)

16. She was fluent in French and English — that bilingualism proved an advantage, allowing her to move to Paris.

17. Upon leaving for Europe, she destroyed all her journals and most of her notebooks — with the exception of anything converted into dialogue because she worried she would forget how Canadians spoke.

18. Before Paris, she briefly lived in Spain, teaching English lessons while she waited for cheques to arrive for her published New Yorker stories.

Watch | Mavis Gallant on CBC:

Mavis Gallant: a Canadian in Paris in 1965

19 days ago
Duration 45:06
In 1965, expatriate short story writer Mavis Gallant shows viewers the adopted city she calls home. Aired on CBC-TV's Telescope on Jan. 22, 1965.

19. She settled in a small apartment on the Rive Gauche in Paris, where she remained until her death.

20. Many of her stories were published first in The New Yorker magazine, which nurtured her early career long before she was widely recognized in Canada.

21. Her first internationally published short story, Madeline's Birthday, appeared in The New Yorker on Sept. 1, 1951.

She contributed more than 100 stories to The New Yorker, later publishing them in collections such as From the Fifteenth District, a contender for Canada Reads in 2008.
(McClelland & Stewart, Fact: CBC.ca)

23. Some of Gallant's later short stories were accepted by The New Yorker without her knowledge. Her literary agent pocketed the royalties for some of her stories, telling Gallant the magazine had declined them. It wasn't until she came across a copy of The New Yorker in a library in Madrid that she discovered those stories had indeed been published.

24. Despite living in Paris for most of her life, she never surrendered her Canadian citizenship nor applied for French citizenship.

25. In addition to her short stories, Gallant published two novels, Green Water, Green Sky and A Fairly Good Time, and a play, What Is To Be Done?, which premiered at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre on November 11, 1982. She was known to have a preference for writing short stories.

26. She returned to Canada as writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s. She told The Guardian that it as "completely a useless job. You are with people who have no talent whatsoever, and if they had, they wouldn't come to me." However, the one advantage was getting a 20 per cent discount at the campus bookstore. She would give away copies of Em Forster or Vladimir Nabokov — which she said were "good for the soul" — to promising students.

Fact #27: In praise of Mavis Gallant, American writer Fran Lebowitz once said, “The irrefutable master of short story in English, Mavis Gallant has, among her colleagues, many admirers but no peer. She is the standout. She is standard-bearer. She is the standard.”
(Random House Canada, Fact: New York Review of Books)

28. In 2006, Gallant became the first English-language writer to receive the prestigious Prix Athanese-David lifetime achievement literary award presented by the Quebec government. Previous recipients include Félix-Antonine Savard, Michel Tremblay and Jacques Poulin. 

29. Mavis Gallant was awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts in 1996. The jury citation read, "For more than four decades, Mavis Gallant has provided for more than one generation of writers an example of the dedicated writer who has committed her life and her writing to the pursuit of excellence. Without her, Canadians would not have the literary culture they now have. She has done extraordinary service to her country and its culture."

30. Mavis Gallant died on Feb. 18, 2014. She was 91.

Mavis Gallant, 1922-2014

8 years ago
Duration 2:25
Short story maven dies in Paris at age 91

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