Eleanor Wachtel in the hot seat at Blue Met

For 25 years, Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel has delighted CBC Radio listeners with her conversations involving some of today’s most important writers.

Beloved CBC Radio host will tell stories from her 25 years as Canada’s best-known literary journalist

On Monday, November 6, Eleanor Wachtel will be at MAC for a Writers & Co. "In conversation with" event with Leonard Cohen biographer Sylvie Simmons. (Eleanor Wachtel/CBC)

For 25 years, Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel has delighted CBC Radio listeners with her conversations involving some of today's most important writers.

The Montreal native has also attended every edition but one of the annual Blue Metropolis literary festival in Montreal.

This year's Blue Met festival coincides with the release of Wachtel's fourth book of interviews from her show. It is also the 25th anniversary of her years as host. In honour of this, she will herself be the subject of an interview.

This Friday evening, Montreal author WIll Aitken will join Eleanor on stage, inviting her to share stories from her 25 years as Canada's best-known and loved literary journalist.

​The Other Side of the Mic: Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with Will Aitken

  • When: Friday, April 15 at 5:30 pm
  • Where: Hotel 10 (10 Sherbrooke St. West, Montreal)

CBC Montreal asked Eleanor to reflect on those years ahead of her conversation with Will. Here are some of the thoughts she shared with us.

Q: Take us back 25 years ago, when you started hosting Writers & Company. What was your vision for what the show could be?

A: I inherited a weekly, hour-long book show that was produced by Sandra Rabinovitch.  I fought to get a new, inviting, embracing name for the program. 

Writers & Company evolved quite quickly into the kind of international, wide-ranging, in-depth interview show that it became. 

I was amazed to see who was on during the very first season:

  • From Canada: Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, Rohinton Mistry, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields.
  • From England: Penelope Lively, Angela Carter, Peter Ackroyd, A.S. Byatt, Fay Weldon.
  • From the U.S.: Mark Helprin, Amy Hempel, George Plimpton, Calvin Trillin, Gordon Lish.
  • From St. Lucia: Derek Walcott.
  • From Israel: Amos Oz.
  • From India: Vikram Seth.
  • From Kenya, Ngugi Wa Thiongo.
  • From South Africa:  J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

It was Nadine Gordimer who became the first author to have a whole program devoted to her.

Q: Looking at it today, how do you feel about that vision then and how it has evolved over the last 25 years?

A: I think it happened unconsciously as we pursued the best writers from around the world. 

Then, seven or eight years into the program, we developed the idea of having a special series dedicated to a single country or subject.

It started with two countries celebrating their 50th anniversary of independence: Israel and then India.  We used these occasions as "hinge moments" to capture a complex picture of the country's past, present and future through their writers, thinkers and artists. 

Over the years, we've featured Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Central Europe, Argentina, Spain, Australia with an emphasis on its aboriginal writers, the former Yugoslavia, "Writing in the World of Islam" following 9/11, Chile, and many more, leading up to this year's focus on a changing Germany.

Q: Which Writers & Company interviews have stuck with you and why?

A: There are too many to count. 

I've now published four books of interviews, and each one features 15-20 stimulating, thoughtful conversations with terrific writers, plus a fifth book: a collection of my interviews with Carol Shields.

When I selected 15 writers for my new book, I realized I could easily select another 15 without any diminishment of quality. I'm not being an adman – just look at the tables of contents.

Lawrence Weschler's biographical memoir Dr. Oliver Sacks is called 'And How are You, Dr. Sacks?' (CBC)
But when you ask about what has stuck, I have to mention Oliver Sacks because of his sheer lovability, and Jim Harrison for his gruff sensitivity – two men who died just in the past year . And also Zadie Smith because of her relentless intelligence and remarkable candour. And on it goes.

Q: Montreal's Blue Metropolis literary festival has been going on for almost as long as Writers & Company - 18 years. And you've been a presence at the festival for 17 of those 18 years! How is Blue Met different from other literary festivals that you attend?

A: Just being in Montreal with its tremendous joie de vivre and savoir faire and je ne sais quoi confers a different atmosphere from other festivals.

Not to mention that Montreal is my home town so I'm always running into people – friends, new and old – I feel connected to. 

Blue Met also emphasizes languages and cultures in addition to French and English so I've had the pleasure of interviewing past prize winners, such as Mexican writers Luis Alberto Urrea and Carlos Fuentes, and Egyptian author  Alaa Al Aswany.

Q: What have been some of your best/most exciting or most memorable moments at Blue Met? Why?

A: Grabbing Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott's hand to make sure he accompanied me onto the stage since moments earlier, he demurred. 

Talking to Grand Prix winner Joyce Carol Oates, who was surprisingly funny for such a dark writer. 

Spending time again with winners A. S. Byatt and Colm Toibin.

Meeting former Gourmet magazine editor and remarkable memoirist Ruth Reichel who had just done a special issue on food in Montreal, with audience members debating where the best smoked meat was to be found. 

In 2001, hosting the announcement of a brand new poetry prize, the Griffin Award.

Q: What are you most looking forward to at this year's Blue Met festival?

The opportunity to talk to one of our best poets, Anne Carson, again and the chance to meet with Montreal audiences who are pretty great.


  • Blue Met's 2016 Grand Prize Event: Anne Carson Interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel, host, Writers & Company
  • When: Saturday, April 16 at 4:00 p.m.                   
  • Where: Main Auditorium of Montreal's Grande Bibliothèque (1746 Avenue Savoie, Montreal)

​Q: After conducting hundreds of interviews with authors, you will be the subject of an interview at one of this year's festival events. Montreal writer and critic Will Aitken will interview you about your 25 years on Writers & Company. How are you feeling about being in the hot seat this time?

There's a reason I prefer the cool seat, where I don't have to actually answer anything. 

Will has assured me he's busy preparing "ferociously difficult questions," not only about 25 years on Writers & Company but also about my new book of interviews, so I think I may have to hire someone to stand in for me. 

Luckily, I work in radio so no one really knows what I look like.