Writers and Company

Eleanor Wachtel saying goodbye to Writers & Company after 33 remarkable years

The final original episode of the celebrated literary CBC Radio program will air on June 25, 2023.

The final original episode of the celebrated literary CBC Radio program will air on June 25, 2023

Press photo image of Eleanor Wachtel against a white background.
Eleanor Wachtel has been the host of Writers and Company, CBC Radio's flagship literary program, since 1990.  (CBC)

After 33 years hosting Writers & Company, this current season will be Eleanor Wachtel's last: she's retiring in the spring of 2023.

The news was made official on Writers & Company's Sunday, April 30 broadcast. The final episode will air on June 25 and will feature a special live-audience event that will be taped for broadcast.

Wachtel is a Canadian writer and broadcaster. She has hosted Writers & Company, CBC Radio's flagship literary program, since 1990. 

"Writers & Company has been a dream job. So I don't think of this as retirement. Retirement is not a word that I relate to," said the venerable broadcast host. "I see it more as a change of pace. I'm planning to stay in the game. I'm hoping to use the wealth of my experience to take on different projects." 

Eleanor at work in the studio in this undated photo.
Eleanor at work in the studio in this undated photo. (Submitted by Eleanor Wachtel)

Throughout its 33-year run, the one-hour show presented an in-depth look at works of remarkable writers, filmmakers, photographers and artists from around the world. 

Wachtel's interviews for Writers & Company have included literary names such as Carol Shields, Mordecai Richler, John le Carré, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Zadie Smith and many more.

Leaving the show is "a very bittersweet moment," said Wachtel. 

Originally, the show was structured in a magazine-style format to cover several authors on each episode. But after the strong reception of a one-hour interview in 1991 with South African author and Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, the show transitioned into its current in-depth profile format that listeners have come to know.

It's been a privilege to engage with the finest minds in the world, and my life has been enriched beyond measure.- Eleanor Wachtel

"I co-founded the program in 1990, with my extraordinary producer Sandra Rabinovitch, and we've had a terrific run. It's been a privilege to engage with the finest minds in the world, and my life has been enriched beyond measure."

A man and woman speak onstage in front of a multi-coloured background.
Malcolm Gladwell speaking to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Toronto Reference Library in 2012. (Toronto Public Library)

A love of books and journalism

Wachtel was born in Montreal and from an early age learned to love books, words and reading novels, short stories and comic books. It was a Grade 8 teacher who introduced her to the works of Shakespeare and Emily Brontë. 

She attended McGill University, where she studied English literature. While there, she worked for the student newspaper — as editor for a weekly book section — and was on the executive team of the Undergraduate Literary Society.

Following McGill, Wachtel enrolled in a master's in journalism at Syracuse University. Wachtel lived in the United States and Kenya, and then in the mid-1970s worked as a freelance writer, editor and broadcaster in Vancouver. During this time, she was adjunct professor of women's studies at Simon Fraser University.

"For quite a long time, I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do. I wasn't interested in being an academic. That's why magazine journalism seemed like something that would fit. I wasn't keen to necessarily work for a newspaper or to cover hard news. I was more interested in writing in-depth pieces and profiles," said Wachtel.

She was a freelance literary writer for publications such as the monthly magazine Books in Canada, where she wrote profiles of authors such as Phyllis Webb, P.K. Page, bill bissett and more. 

The rhythm of radio just appealed to me. It was totally seductive.- Eleanor Wachtel

Radio wasn't even on her radar — yet. 

"As much as I enjoyed having written these pieces for magazines, I found that the rhythm of radio was much more gratifying, even though it was ephemeral — you were on the air and it was mostly gone," she added. 

"The rhythm of radio is you get out there, you do the story, you grab the interview. The rhythm of radio just appealed to me. It was totally seductive."

Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel has interviewed John le Carré three times.
Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel has interviewed John le Carré three times. (Jane Eustace)

The rhythm of radio

In the fall of 1987, Wachtel moved to Toronto to work full-time as literary commentator and critic on CBC Stereo's State of the Arts, and then as writer-broadcaster for The Arts Tonight, following that with a stint as a local reporter for The Arts Report. She was host of The Arts Tonight from 1996 to 2007 and was featured on CBC Radio's Wachtel on the Arts on Ideas.

In 2004, Wachtel was named to the Order of Canada. In 2014, she was promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada. The citation recognized "her connecting Canadian readers with the worldwide literary community and for her insightful contributions to our appreciation of contemporary literature." In 2015, Wachtel was named to the Women's Executive Network's 100 most powerful women list in the arts & communication field.

A selection of Wachtel's interviews from Writers & Company were published by Knopf Canada as a book of the same name in 1993; a sequel titled More Writers & Company was published by Vintage Canada in the fall of 1996. In 2003, HarperCollins published another selection of her interviews, titled Original Minds. In 2016, Biblioasis published The Best of Writers & Company.

Wachtel has been awarded nine honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Literature from Carleton University, a Doctor of Laws from Concordia University and a Doctor of Letters from her alma mater McGill University. 

A white woman with brown, curly hair wears a blue cardigan and black pants. She sits in a beige armchair on stage across from a man in a blue suit and glasses who also sits in the same kind of beige armchair. He is bald, except for hair on the sides of his head. He speaks with hands motioning wide to the woman who holds a handful of papers.
Eleanor Wachtel interviews Salman Rushdie on stage at the Banff Centre on Sept. 26, 2015. (Donald Lee/ The Banff Centre)

Radio conversations that engage and excite 

Writers & Companys in-depth interviews are the result of a meticulous and exhaustive research process involving Wachtel and her producer team. Before each weekly interview, Wachtel immerses herself in virtually everything there is to know about an author's life and work. From there, conversational questions are developed that explore, illuminate and reflect on how life informs art — and vice versa — for an engaging and compelling 60-minute interview. 

The show has earned a loyal fan base, who tune in each week to hear intimate, erudite and often spontaneous conversations that build rapport — and respect both subject and listener. Writers & Company has also been no stranger to awards and accolades: Writers & Company won the 2011 New York Festivals Prize for the World's Best Radio Programs; it has twice won the coveted CBC Award for Programming Excellence for the best weekly show broadcast nationally and also won the CBC excellence award in 2003.

I'm most proud of creating something that has been so meaningful to audiences.- Eleanor Wachtel

The show has featured special series which took Wachtel to various international locales — including the U.K., the Netherlands, South Africa, India, New Zealand, Argentina, the Middle East and Australia — to interview writers on-location.

"What I'll miss about Writers & Company is almost everything: the stimulation, the engagement with colleagues and the discovering of new writers and their work," said Wachtel.

Despite the often tight deadlines and the pressures of producing a weekly radio show, Wachtel added she will always remember the listeners and her producing team who helped craft the many hours of radio along the way.

"I'm very grateful to my colleagues over the years, including Sandra Rabinovitch, Mary Stinson, Nancy McIlveen, Katy Swailes, Melissa Gismondi and Tara Mora. I'm most proud of creating something that has been so meaningful to audiences. The response of listeners, and the way they've responded so warmly to the programs, has meant everything to me," said Wachtel. 

As she prepares to sign off on over three decades of Writers & Company, Wachtel noted that she truly does plan on "staying in the game" with new initiatives and projects that will be confirmed and announced at later dates.

But the power of arts and literature to connect and build community is something that always will be front and centre for Wachtel. 

"I'm very optimistic about books and reading. There still remains such an appetite — the intimacy and interiority of both reading, the relationship between a person and a book and radio or podcast."

The final season of Writers & Company ends in June 2023 and will feature interviews with Leïla Slimani, Ada Limón, Lorrie Moore and more. 

The special finale episode will feature a live-audience event that will tape on June 16 at Glenn Gould Studio, in association with Luminato Festival Toronto, and will include special guests and surprises. More details and ticket information will be announced soon.

A look back at Writers & Company in photos:

Written by CBC Books producer Ryan B. Patrick.

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