Writers & Company

Dionne Brand, Margaret Drabble, Deborah Eisenberg & Andrew O'Hagan reflect on life and writing

2020 marks the 30th anniversary season of Writers & Company. This 2010 episode takes a look back at the 20th anniversary of the CBC radio program with a discussion moderated by Eleanor Wachtel.

2020 marks the 30th anniversary season of Writers & Company

CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel (centre) with authors Deborah Eisenberg, Andrew O’Hagan, Margaret Drabble and Dionne Brand. (TIFA)

2020 marks the 30th anniversary season of Writers & Company.

Writers & Company 20th Anniversary Celebration at IFOA 2010, featuring Deborah Eisenberg, Andrew O'Hagan, Eleanor Wachtel, Margaret Drabble, and Dionne Brand. (Toronto International Festival of Authors)

Hosted by Eleanor Wachtel, Writers & Company carves out a space for intimate, in-depth conversations with the world's best writers, creators and thinkers. Wachtel has earned a reputation for being one of the most respected interviewers of high-profile authors. Writers & Company is Canada's home for insightful discussion with literary stars, from Nobel Prize laureates to exciting new voices. The show aired its first episode on Oct. 7, 1990.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary season, Writers & Company is revisiting its 20th anniversary special, featuring acclaimed writers Margaret Drabble, Dionne Brand, Andrew O'Hagan and Deborah Eisenberg. 

The four writers joined Wachtel on stage in 2010 at the Toronto International Festival of Authors. 

Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O'Hagan with Eleanor Wachtel (CBC)

Andrew O'Hagan, a Scottish novelist and nonfiction writer, has been called the best essayist of his generation. Three of his novels have been nominated for the Booker Prize, including his first, Our Fathers, and his third, Be Near Me, which also won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. 

His next book, Mayflies, will be available in Canada in March 2021.

His father's chaos

"My earliest memory is to do with my father's chaos. So many of my memories are to do with my father's chaos. He was always disappearing into this rather strange, dreamlike place called England. 

"He'd leave Scotland for months at a time and he would come back, usually with a new dog or a new car — neither of which had cost him any money, he would tell us very proudly. My earliest memory is of my father driving into the square on this housing estate we grew up on in Scotland. Well, not quite driving: he was being pushed by three other men with him at the wheel.

My earliest memory is to do with my father's chaos. So many of my memories are to do with my father's chaos.

"I've never seen anyone so proud in the midst of desolation, as my father was driving that blue van into the square. That's my first memory. I think I was about four. 

Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan will be available in Canada in March 2021. (Random House)

"He wasn't very good at holding down a job, though. He liked to drink too much. He had the national habit of finding both solace in drink; he would get drunk and go on adventures that sometimes lasted for months.

"I rather admired that in him, actually. He regrets it. But I don't. It made him exciting, like a person in a film."

The greatest cliché

 "I was a beneficiary of the greatest cliché and the most beautiful cliché known to educational experience, which is the great teacher. I had one great teacher. She supported me, despite being a fool and a clown. 

"I always smoked. I smoked and I was really young. She said, 'You're one of those smokers who give cigarettes at the corner.'

"She was right about that. I had lots of friends and I was always entertaining them. I saw my role in life as to give people a sense of fun and all that, even from a young age. 

"She took me aside and said, 'You know, you're a clown and everything, and you're quite likable, but actually you're much more intelligent than you think.' And I said, 'Don't be daft.' She said, 'No, seriously, you've read more books than me.' 

I was a beneficiary of the greatest cliché and the most beautiful cliche known to educational experience, which is the great teacher.

"I thought she was quite old at the time. But now that I think about it, Mrs. McNeil, the flame-haired Mrs. McNeil, was probably about 25.

"She said to me, 'You're in one of those houses where nobody reads and everybody's about being stupid.' I said, 'They're not stupid. They just know how to enjoy themselves.' 

"She said, 'Well, the thing about you is that you could go to university.'

"She started keeping me after school — and this was a very cold Scottish winter. I'll never forget it. She would keep me in a class, with the lights burning, to prepare me for university. I'll never forget her. 

"I loved her for that. She saved my life. Somebody asked me what I was thinking about in the car going to the Booker Prize, when I was nominated the last time. 

"I said in an interview that I thought of Mrs. McNeil."

Eleanor Wachtel's conversation with Andrew O'Hagan about The Illuminations from Feb. 2015. 53:03

Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand and Eleanor Wachtel in 2018. Brand's novel Theory was published in 2018. (CBC)

Dionne Brand, a Canadian poet, novelist and essayist, is a powerful voice of insight and identity. She won the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize for Ossuaries. She has also been honoured with the Governor General's Literary Award and the Pat Lowther Prize. In 2017, she was named to the Order of Canada

Her latest books are the novel Theory and the poetry collection The Blue Clerkwhich was a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry.

Growing up in Guayaguayare

"I think I was around two or three at the time. I was born in this small village called Guayaguayare in the very, very south of Trinidad. 

"From that village, you could sort of look out at the ocean and you could see Venezuela. This was the big thing on a clear day. 

"I remember we had a house, there was a small house. I lived with my grandmother and my grandfather and a number of siblings. The back of the house was the ocean. And at the front of the house, there seemed to me to be a row of orange flowers. I'd set off each day to walk toward them. And I never got there. 

"Somewhere in between the house and the grove of flowers, I'd stop and start wailing for somebody to come get me because I didn't seem to be able to get there. 

From that village, you could sort of look out at the ocean and you could see Venezuela. This was the big thing on a clear day.

"I remember that. I remember standing in the path between the house and the flowers, crying. I wanted to get there, but I couldn't get there and I couldn't get back to the house. It's a recurring memory. 

Dionne Brand's novel Theory came out in 2018.

"When I was about 24, having emigrated to Canada years and years before, I decided I'm going to go back there and see what that row of flowers were. 

"I went back and I couldn't find them. When I looked around and looked around and saw a little orange heliconia and I thought, 'Was that the big field that I had seen?' Because maybe it was. Maybe that's my life, looking at something very small, thinking it's very large."

Writing to be seen

"I had a Miss Scarlett. What was beautiful about her was she came along around 1968 or 1969. I must have been about 13. It was also the height of a lot of upheaval in the Black power movement in the United States, but also in the Caribbean.

"There was a lot of anticolonial movement. She had an afro. That was her resume for me, that was the CV. Immediately she walked into the school and I just loved her. I was in her English class and she had us write an essay about civil rights. 

"I wrote my essay and she took me aside and said, 'You know, you can be a writer.' I think it was the first time that I had been pointed out in any way, throughout my whole primary school or high school life as a particular being, the being with things that might happen to her that were extraordinary, possibly.

I wanted to write for someone like me to read, and to read themselves in a work of literature.

"That buoyed me for the rest. I was incredibly grateful to her. It sustained me for a long time that one could, in fact, write oneself. 

"In the same way that we were not contained in books, in any of the books that I read as a child or any of the books that I read in the school or any of the stories or any of the histories or any of those things. 

"I wanted to write for someone like me to read, and to read themselves in a work of literature. I think she started that with me. She said I could do it."

Eleanor Wachtel hosts a panel with Dionne Brand, Teju Cole & Madeleine Thien on-stage at the Toronto Reference Library in Sept. 2018. 58:10

Deborah Eisenberg

Deborah Eisenberg is an American short story writer, actress and teacher. Her novel Your Duck Is My Duck was published in 2018. (Diana Michener)

Deborah Eisenberg, an American short story writer, has won six O. Henry Awards, the Rea Award for the Short Story and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, she is celebrated for creating worlds that are rich, layered and subtly political.   

Her latst novel, Your Duck Is My Duck, was published in 2018.

Flashes from childhood

"I have a few flashes from childhood. I have two memories of asking my mother what word represented the feeling that I was experiencing. I remembered those words, one was 'embarrassment' and one was 'retrospect.' 

"How much retrospect could I have? 

I have two memories of asking my mother what word represented the feeling that I was experiencing. I remembered those words, one was 'embarrassment' and one was 'retrospect.'

"Then I have just one other memory from childhood. That was of being in, I think it must have been a playpen, with those bars, that cage that children are in — and looking at the marvellous spectacle of the dust in the beam of light from the window. 

Deborah Eisenberg's Your Duck Is My Duck was published in 2018 (Ecco)

"It went on and on and on and on. And I thought, 'When will this ever end?'"

Her ambition

"My ambition in life, really, was to do nothing. Almost all the books around me were about people like us — middle class, suburban, that sort of thing. 

"Well, not all of them: I mean, Dostoevsky is an exception. 

"But it was expected of the children who grew up, where I grew up, that we would be — if we could do anything, we could be anything — we would be successful. 

"This idea, I found in regard to myself both offensive and amazingly improbable. I wanted no part of any kind of prestige or credentials or anything of the sort. I was very fortunate to have started living with a wonderful man who was a writer. 

"I was a very, very heavy smoker. I smoked three packs of Gauloises a day, and loved every minute of it. I adored it. 

"He was very asthmatic at that time. I thought, 'Finally a great guy. Do I want to kill him? I don't think so.' I decided that I would stop smoking. 

My ambition in life really was to do nothing. Almost all the books around me were about people like us —middle class, suburban, that sort of thing.

"For years he had said to me, 'You've got to find something that you like to do. And I said, 'Well, I like to do nothing. That's what I want to do.' He said, 'No, no, you're wrong. You're not going to be happy.' 

"I did quit smoking — and the accumulation of rage that came forward, without the narcotic, was terrifying. I think that indignation and rage are an immense stimulus to write. 

"This wonderful man I live with handed me a piece of paper and a pencil and he said, 'Well, you have nothing to lose now.' 

"I had always thought, if the world is filled with writers — and I've heard other writers say exactly the same words — unless I'm as good as Dostoevsky, why should I do it? 

"That's what I always had felt up until I stopped smoking and became so desperate and crazed. At that point, I just thought, well, it's true. It doesn't matter how terrible I am. 

"So that's how I began."

Eleanor Wachtel's conversation with Deborah Eisenberg about Twilight of the Superheroes from Nov. 2006. 53:16

Margaret Drabble

The Dark Flood Rises is the acclaimed author's 20th novel. It was published in 2016. (Ruth Corney)

Margaret Drabble, a British novelist, has been writing fiction for 45 years. In novels such as A Summer Bird-Cage, The Radiant Way and The Peppered Moth, she engages with the changing lives of women, and with British society as a whole. In 2008, Drabble was made a Dame of the British Empire for her contributions to English literature.

The Dark Flood Rises is the acclaimed author's 20th novel. It was published in 2016.

Perspectives from my pram

"My memories of being in my pram. I know you're not meant to be able to remember that, but I know I can. 

"I was in my pram and it was in the South Yorkshire town called Pontefract, a small mining town to which we were evacuated during the war. 

My memories of being in my pram. I know you're not meant to be able to remember that, but I know I can.

"I was sitting in my pram in the high street and another child came and looked at me. I didn't like it at all. This other child was a walking child and I was strapped into my pram and I felt, 'Go away, leave me alone, go away.'

The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble's 20th novel, was published in 2016.

"I'm sorry to say that my earliest memory is of indignation." 

Writer by default

"I became a writer by default, really. I did indeed want to be an actress. 

"My first husband was and is an actor. He got all the parts and I was doing all the understudies. I started to write a book in the evenings when he was on stage and I wasn't doing anything very much and it kept me company. It became my life. 

"Years and years and years, I would have much preferred to be on stage. But gradually it became what I did. I didn't long to be a writer when I was a child. It was not something I dreamed of. I loved reading.

I became a writer by default, really. I did indeed want to be an actress.

"My parents were the first generation of educated people in my family and we did nothing but read. We weren't allowed to do anything else. We didn't go to art galleries. We never went to the theatre. I reacted slightly against the reading and writing thing. That wasn't what I wanted to do. 

"But when you're trapped in a house with small children, as various feminist critics have pointed out, there's not much else you can do. And I started to write and now it is what I do." 

Eleanor Wachtel's conversation with Margaret Drabble about The Pure Gold Baby from Nov. 2013. 1:00:00

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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