Mavis Gallant: celebrating the centenary of the masterful Canadian short story writer
This interview originally aired on January 13, 2008.
Mavis Gallant's short stories are remarkable for their range and depth. Each narrative captures an entire existence — subtle, unsentimental and surprisingly witty.
Her sensitivity and powers of observation may have derived from her unusual upbringing. Born in Montreal on August 11, 1922, she was sent at age four to a French Catholic boarding school, where she was the only Anglophone Protestant. After attending school in Quebec, Ontario and the U.S., she became a reporter for the Montreal Standard, writing feature stories for the paper for six years. In 1950, at 28, she moved to Paris and sold her first short story to The New Yorker, where her fiction and reportage appeared over the next 50 years. In all, she published ten books of stories, two novels and a play. In 2014, she died in Paris at the age of 91.
Gallant spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in Paris in 2008 about transitioning from journalism to fiction, her early struggles as an expat writer living in Europe, and building a life and career marked by independence. Aug. 11, 2022, marks the centenary of her birth.
"I loved journalism — I never looked on it as a waste of time. I loved the experience. Also, what I liked about it was having a lot of freedom.
"I went back to Montreal [after living in New York as a teenager] because that was where I was from. This is not nationalism, and it is not even patriotism. I was Canadian, and I had no desire to become anything else. Speaking two languages was an advantage in this city, and I had to work — I had no money and had to get a job.
"I met someone who was working on a newspaper, and I said, 'What is the best newspaper in Montreal?' And she said, 'Well, the Standard, which is a weekly, is probably the best.' She worked on a tabloid, which came out around noon. 'But they don't take people your age there, and they take people with lots and lots of experience.' And she said, 'You know, it's very hard for a girl to get a job.'
I loved journalism — I never looked on it as a waste of time. What I liked about it was having a lot of freedom
"So I went there — I didn't even call. I went and said I was looking for a job at a newspaper, but I don't want to do women's work. So I was interviewed standing in a corridor by someone who I don't think could even have hired me. And he said, 'Well, you're too young — come back when you're 21, and in the meantime, get some experience.'
"So I thought I'd better get a good CV. As a stepping stone, I got on the National Film Board, which I hated. They really didn't want women there except to do mechanical things. Then when I was 21, I went back [to the Standard] and they took me on for a three-month trial."
An early inspiration
"It was after the war when I interviewed [French writer and philosopher] Jean-Paul Sartre. He was considered the Antichrist in Quebec. He gave a press conference, and the French-speaking press in Montreal was absolutely against him. He never came back to Canada after that.
"I waited until the other reporters had gone. I had read a novel of his — at that time, it was new. I had seen that he'd noticed me, and I went up to him and asked him stupid questions about writing, as I was already writing fiction, but in secret. He was so patient and explained how you are in every character you invent — he was really a sweet guy.
I thought, 'Well, one day they will come to me [for writing advice], and I will be nice to the kids.'
"I saw how a really good writer should talk to someone younger.
"And I thought, 'Well, one day they will come to me, and I will be nice to the kids. I will never snub a young person or anything like that.'
"And it was only afterwards that I said to myself, 'You're crazy — what makes you imagine anyone will even know you're alive by the time you're his age?' But that was the effect he had."
"It's true that the characters just come — they arrive. As I've said, it's like a stage and the curtains part, and there's a phone ringing, and then someone picks up the phone and says, 'The madame, she ain't here.' But you know all about her.
"You know all about this woman who came in and picked up the phone. It's like a movie still. They come with their names; they come with everything. And I always have to keep the name they arrived with, even if I can't use it because if I change it in the middle, I can't do the story.
"Then you get to the end, and when the story is finished, you go back and change the name, which changes the character."
Struggling in Spain
"I was really broke a lot of the time — to live freelance on writing is very difficult because it's either feast or famine. And it's a wonder to me that I did manage — I don't know how I did it; in Spain was where I was particularly broke.
"I had to sell my clothes because I had an agent in New York who sold my stories, kept the money and told me nobody wanted to buy them. And I was surprised at The New Yorker because they had previously taken them — by that time, I'd been in Europe almost a year, and they had stopped writing to me.
I had to sell my clothes because I had an agent in New York who sold my stories, kept the money and told me nobody wanted to buy them.
"I used to go to the library in Madrid when I was broke, and I'd sit there and read magazines. I'd read The New Yorker, and there was a story of mine — a recent story — I couldn't believe it. And so I wrote to [New Yorker editor] William Maxwell, and I asked him not about why they didn't pay me, but why didn't they show me the proofs, because they changed a couple of things and I wasn't pleased.
"And I got a reply by mail: 'Thank god I have an address for you — your agent told us you lived in Capri and that you only gave a general post as your address. So we wrote to the general post and tried to send you the proofs. We sent the cheques to your agent, obviously. Did you receive them for the three stories?' Not even one! I just couldn't believe it — the agent knew I was hard up; he knew I was a beginning writer and all that."
On her own terms
"I would not have [been able to establish a fiction career] in Canada and have people looking over my shoulder — I knew I'd have a hard time. And to give up your salary — I was getting well paid when I pulled out. [The newspaper] had just raised me to $75 a week, which was huge for a girl, as they kept telling me. It started on $30 a week that had gone up gradually, and I discovered it would go up faster if I asked. They raised it to $75 because they didn't want me to go.
I had a feeling of freedom, going to a city where I knew no one. It was absolutely wonderful."
"I gave them six months' notice, which was pretty good. And I felt very free. I remember the flight over the Atlantic in a propeller plane — it was 16 hours. It was burst-your-ears noisy.
"I had a feeling of freedom, going to a city where I knew absolutely no one. It was absolutely wonderful."
Mavis Gallant's comments have been edited for length and clarity.