Behind the scenes of a life in literature: Michael Ondaatje interviews Eleanor Wachtel
Over the 30-year history of Writers & Company, host Eleanor Wachtel has talked to acclaimed Canadian author Michael Ondaatje eight times — about his poetry, his fiction and his love of film. In this one-of-a-kind episode, Ondaatje turned the tables on Wachtel, interviewing her in front of a packed house in Toronto in 2010.
From her childhood in Montreal, to her early years in broadcasting, to the inception and evolution of Writers & Company, Wachtel opened the book on her life and career. She shared memorable moments from her conversations with great writers such as Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth and Mavis Gallant.
The event marked Writers & Company's 20th anniversary in 2010 and took place at the Toronto Reference Library.
Eleanor's earliest memories
"I grew up in Montreal. My first couple of years were in the St. Urbain Street area of Montreal that Mordecai Richler describes in The Street. It wasn't actually St. Urbain Street, but it was in that neighborhood.
"I remember crawling down a very long hallway. Subsequently, I remember I never knew how to describe that environment. But when I interviewed Maureen Forrester, who also grew up in Montreal, she called it a railroad apartment. That's what I realized it was. There was this long hallway and there were a series of rooms connecting to each other in a line. I remember it seeming very far away and crawling, crawling down there.
I grew up in Montreal. My first couple of years were in the St. Urbain Street area of Montreal that Mordecai Richler describes in The Street.
"But I have an adjacent memory, which is pulling out pots and pans from the bottom cupboard of the kitchen. I'm playing with them, and there's a certain percussion. This all had to be before I was two-and-a-half, because then we moved to a different neighborhood.
"I also remember that my sister had the German measles when we were young, and then she gave it to me. I had a milder case and would spend a lot of time reading and having my friends come over.
"My German measles story is funny because it has a lot to do with memory — and that's a subject that comes up frequently with a lot of writers. I was thinking about that period when I started reading about people's lives and biography and some of these original thinkers.
"But when I checked with my sister, it turned out it was the other way around — and that I had the bad measles and she had a great time with her friends who came over!
"I remember once interviewing Frank McCourt, and he also said he appropriated somebody else's memory. He heard this vivid story about a runaway horse, and he wrote it as if it was his own story, but it wasn't."
My life in books
"In a sense the biggest influence, in the formative shaping of my life, were my two older siblings because they were the readers in the family.
"I was introduced to the idea that this is what you did: You read on Saturday mornings. You'd lie in bed and read and you wouldn't get up and do errands and things. They won scholarships throughout high school and also went to honours at McGill, so I knew that's what I would have to do. It was very shaping; it's very influential that way.
"But in terms of actual books, there weren't a lot of books in the house. My parents weren't big readers. My mother, as far as I know, she read one book, which was Gone with the Wind, because she loved Clark Gable. There weren't a lot of books in the house — there was Reader's Digest, there were Reader's Digest Condensed Books — but books came from the library. Libraries were the source of all reading.
"Montreal did not have a very good public library system. My mother would take my sister and me, on the streetcar and then a bus, to go to the library.
"Then, when there was a local branch of the library that opened up around the corner from where I was living, that's where we would go.
There weren't a lot of books in the house — there was Reader's Digest, there were Reader's Digest Condensed Books — but books came from the library.
"In fact, when I put together my first book of interviews, I dedicated it to the Snowdon branch of the N.D.G Boys and Girls Library, because I would go there myself and take out books. And at that point, I would be reading things like Sue Barton: Student Nurse.
"I remember interviewing people whose childhood reading is scrappy. In my case, there were a lot of gaps in terms of classic children's reading. There are a lot of books I didn't read because I just went to the shelves and just pulled stuff out."
When I grow up
"I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I knew what I didn't want to be. I knew I didn't want to be a teacher — and then I realized later on that I didn't want to be a university professor. I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do, and it troubled me for a long time.
"I think of myself as a late starter. When I look back now, it doesn't seem like it was that late, but at the time I didn't know.
"I wasn't interested in hard news. But I was interested in writing, and I thought I would do magazine journalism. When I moved to Vancouver, there were a few small magazines. They didn't have jobs, but you could freelance.
I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do, and it troubled me for a long time. I think of myself as a late starter.
"Then I heard that there was a job at CBC Radio on the morning show as a producer. So I went down and it turned out that the job was already filled, but I could freelance.
"I thought, 'OK, that's what I'll have to do.'
"In order to freelance for the morning show, you had to do something that the regular host couldn't do. Something quirky, I think, is how they said it. I had a list of ideas, and I had a little tape recorder and a microphone, which weren't very good.
"I showed it to the producer, and then he ticked off a few of them. The first thing I did was interview a Mexican mime who was performing at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Then, there was a sociologist at UBC who was studying sign language in sawmills — apparently the noise from the sawmills was so loud that the workers would tell jokes in sign language.
"Clearly, I hadn't yet grasped the nature of the radio medium!"
The idea behind Writers & Company
"When we started Writers & Company, the idea was to have more than one interview per program, and it was also going to have a little bit of performance. The program would be more of a magazine format. I think the first interview that became a whole show was with Nadine Gordimer.
"I remember in the introduction saying, 'This is, today, a special program with Nadine Gordimer.' It was also special because Nadine Gordimer was special to me — I was a huge admirer of hers.
When we started Writers & Company, the idea was to have more than one interview per program, and it was also going to have a little bit of performance.
"We devoted a whole program to one person — and then gradually realized that these 'one-person shows' were getting a bigger response from listeners and were more gratifying. They had more stuff in them — more depth and more entertainment and more to talk about. And so it evolved.
"To me now, it's the ideal format."
Eleanor Wachtel's comments have been edited for length and clarity.