Writers & Company

30 years of Writers & Company: highlights from the first season

This special episode revisits memorable interviews from the 1990-91 season: conversations with Alice Munro, A.S. Byatt, J.M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka and Eduardo Galeano.
Eleanor Wachtel has interviewed many notable authors on CBC Radio's Writers & Company, including Alice Munro, A.S. Byatt, J.M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka and Eduardo Galeano. (Michel Vauris-Gravos/AFP via Getty Images, Michael Trevillion, Niurka Barroso/AFP via Getty Images, Alejandro Guyot, Peter Muhly/AFP via Getty Images)

The year 2020 marks the 30th anniversary season of Writers & Company

As part of the celebrations, the show is revisiting some of the best interviews from the very first season, which launched on CBC Radio in the fall of 1990. 

Alice Munro

Friend of My Youth is a short story collection by Alice Munro. (Kristin Ross, Penguin Canada)

Often described as Canada's Chekhov, Alice Munro is a master of short fiction. Many of her stories are set in the rural landscape of Southwestern Ontario, where she was born in 1931. 

Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 2009 International Booker Prize, and has been honoured with two Scotiabank Giller Prizes and three Governor General's Literary Awards. 

She spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in the fall of 1990 about her new book Friend of My Youth.  

Origin stories

"I was about 10 or 11 when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Before that, I would tell myself a lot of stories and I would make up endings for stories that didn't satisfy me. The Little Mermaid is the one I can chiefly remember because that has a horribly unhappy ending — she changes into foam on the sea and she doesn't get the prince or a soul. 

I was about 10 or 11 when I knew I wanted to be a writer.

"I thought that was just very hard luck. I think I gave her the prince in my story; I don't think I worried about the soul."

The bitter lump of love

"Friend of My Youth is dedicated to the memory of my own mother. Mothers and daughters generally have fairly complex relationships. My relationship with my mother was made much more so by the fact that she was ill. She had Parkinson's disease, which was not diagnosed for a long time — and which has very peculiar symptoms anyway, so that it can seem in the beginning like a neurotic, self-chosen affliction.

It made me very, I suppose, self-protective. I couldn't allow pity to enter into the relationship. For one thing, I didn't want to get trapped in families like ours. It is the oldest daughter's job to stay home and look after people when they're in this situation until they die. I instead got a scholarship and went to university. 

Mothers and daughters generally have fairly complex relationships.

"There is enormous guilt about doing that. But at the time, you're so busy protecting yourself that you simply push it under — and then you suffer from it later on."

A rare conversation with Canada’s first winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In this interview from 2004, Eleanor speaks with Munro about her Giller Prize-winning collection of short stories, Runaway. 52:46

A.S. Byatt

Dame Antonia Susan Duffy, known professionally as A. S. Byatt, is an English novelist, poet and Booker Prize winner. (Everyman's Library, Michael Trevillion)

England's A.S. Byatt was best known as a literary scholar before her breakthrough novel, Possession, was published in 1990. A multi-layered story combining poetry, romance and literary sleuthing, it became an international bestseller and was adapted into a 2002 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. 

Byatt has received Europe's Erasmus Prize and Montreal's Blue Metropolis International Grand Prix. In 1999 she was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire. 

She spoke with Wachtel just weeks before Possession won the 1990 Booker Prize. 

The definition of a word

"I was inspired by the word 'possession,' which is the title of the book. The word slowly began to develop all sorts of other resonances. I started thinking about how obsessed the Victorians were with seances and spiritualism and the voices of the dead speaking through the voices of the living medium in that sort of way. 

"I then thought of the poet Robert Browning, who is one of the people I most admire and love, and how he wrote poems about many, many periods and many, many voices, all of which he felt was somehow speaking through him. And I thought that you could sort of compare the spiritual sounds with Browning's poems as a way of the voice of the dead, speaking through the living. 

The word slowly began to develop all sorts of other resonances.

"And then, of course, there's also the sexual term of the word. And I thought if I had not one poet, but two poets, male and female, in love with each other, then there would be that sense in which they came to possess each other."

The tenacity of the past

"I favour the Victorians and this is part of the whole joke of the novel — the dead people are actually much more alive and vital than the living people. This is for various reasons, one of which is that the living people are possessed by particular modern literary theories, whereas the Victorians were quite sure that they were real people. 

"They didn't have modern theories of there being no concrete personality, of everybody being just a kind of mixture of moments in time and voices of the language speaking through them. They really believed that they were important people and that what they did mattered in the eyes of God and in their own lives. 

I favour the Victorians and this is part of the whole joke of the novel — the dead people are actually much more alive and vital than the living people.

"Whereas the poor moderns are always asking themselves so many questions about whether their actions are real and whether what they say can be thought to be true, given that language always tells lies — that they become rather miserably aware that they may be rather papery. They, of course, then become possessed partly by the passion of the Victorians."

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with English writer A.S. Byatt about her big, ambitious novel, The Children’s Book. 52:15

J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is a South African-born Australian novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. (Alejandro Guyot, Viking)

One of South Africa's most famous writers, J.M. Coetzee was the first person to win the Booker Prize twice: in 1983 for Life and Times of Michael K. and in 1999 for Disgrace, which also won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  

Though Coetzee rarely gives interviews, Wachtel has spoken with him twice. When they first met in 1990, they discussed his book Age of Iron — a spare, powerful novel about mortality, shame and the expression of rage. 

Understanding of self

"It's a question of authenticity: one must come to one's own realizations. If one is a writer, one must express one's awareness, not in someone else's words, but in one's own. Those are the only authentic words. They are one's own words. They can't be borrowed.

"These times require heroism. For Age of Iron protagonist Elizabeth Curren, it's a particularly difficult dilemma for her because, of course, she sees plenty of examples of heroism around her. But there are forms of heroism that involve violence that she can't find it in her to imitate. And she's thinking here, of course, particularly of the heroism of young Black revolutionaries. 

If one is a writer, one must express one's awareness, not in someone else's words, but in one's own.

"She's torn between outrage at children who not only have not yet lived, but really don't know the meaning of life in the sense that they, as she understands it, are incapable of imagining death. 

"And she feels herself all too capable of imagining death." 

Betrayal of a generation

"I see Elizabeth Curren as representative of a generation that was born around 1910 and 1920. 

"Mrs. Curren is a representative of a generation that was particularly betrayed by its leaders and she really didn't live long enough to do anything about it, but instead lived long enough to understand that a) it had been betrayed and b) it had no excuse for having been betrayed. It should have known better."

A rare conversation with the South African writer and Nobel Prize laureate about his novel Disgrace. 52:27

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist and critic. (Vintage, Michel Vauris-Gravos/AFP via Getty Images)

Nigerian Wole Soyinka is a politically engaged playwright, poet and essayist. In 1986, he became the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

During Nigeria's civil war of the late 1960s, Soyinka was imprisoned twice without trial, spending nearly two years in solitary confinement. He wrote about his experiences in a book of prison notes, The Man Died. Soyinka is also widely acclaimed for Aké, an engaging memoir of his childhood in a Yoruban village in western Nigeria. 

Soyinka spoke with Wachtel about his time in prison — and the work that came from it. 

The effects of solitary confinement

"I was denied reading material. I was denied human contact for nearly two years. This, for me, was the most pernicious aspect of it.

It was the end of my stay that some books were brought in. But for at least one year or eight months, there was nothing of the sort. So what I did was manufacture some ink, used the bones from my food to make a quill, saved toilet paper and began to scribble on toilet paper. 

I was denied reading material. I was denied human contact for nearly two years. This, for me, was the most pernicious aspect of it.

"I did most of my, shall we say, preliminary drafts on the ground, the soil. I tried to resurrect subjects which I loathed in school, like mathematics, and drawing on certain mathematical principles that I studied before, worked out a whole series of mathematical exercises and grew to love maths. It was an instructive period."

A time of innocence

"What I wanted was to write about a period, a certain unique post-colonial period, which is vanishing very, very fast. I wanted to centre it around my uncle, the Reverend 'Daodu' Ransome-Kuti, a very remarkable individual. He was just a big, huge complexity of a man. 

What I wanted was to write about a period, a certain unique post-colonial period, which is vanishing very, very fast.

"I wanted through him, by writing his biography, to retrieve that period. Because so many portions of that landscape, of that ambiance and values, is vanishing very, very fast.

"My uncle died, unfortunately, before I could begin this work. So the hours that I planned to spend with him became impossible. And finally I thought that the only thing to do is just to write about my childhood — and rely on just my memory to write a proper childhood biography."

Nigerian playwright, poet, novelist and essayist Wole Soyinka on his memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn. 52:28

Eduardo Galeano

Eduardo Hughes Galeano was a Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist. (Niurka Barroso/AFP via Getty Images, WW Norton)

Uruguay's Eduardo Galeano is best known for his 1971 book Open Veins of Latin America, which was famously presented by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez to U.S. president Barack Obama in 2009. His remarkable trilogy, Memory of Fire, is often described as a powerful literary indictment of colonialism in the Americas.  

Born in 1940 in Montevideo, Galeano was forced into exile during Uruguay's military dictatorship,  fleeing first to Argentina and later to Spain. He died in 2015 in Montevideo, at the age of 74.

Galeano spoke with Wachtel in 1991 about his latest title, The Book of Embraces.

The nature of memory

"Memory changes everything it touches. Memory is changing with you while you are changing. That's why I feel this certain urgency to write certain things, because I know that I will change and that this memory of experience will also change. 

Memory changes everything it touches. Memory is changing with you while you are changing.

"I try to share my memory with other people as soon as I think that my memory is full of other people's memories. There is a lot of marvel and horror and beautiful and terrible things inside it. The Memory of Fire trilogy was, in a certain way, a conversation with a memory of the Americas. It was a long conversation."

The idea of embracing

"For me, writing is a way of embracing others. I really don't believe in these writers that say, 'I write for myself.' 

"I give myself writing. I give all of me. All my insides are flowing through the hand that writes —and the words that get printed over the paper and then reach the reader. 

I give myself writing. I give all of me.

"I feel it's like embracing other people, because I'm giving myself. So it's a way of embracing them."

Eleanor Wachtel's 1991 conversation with Eduardo Galeano. 28:42

The author comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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