Here’s a fascinating interview with the great Canadian ex-pat (she lives in Paris) short story writer Mavis Gallant. Gallant’s stories used to appear regularly in the New Yorker; she was one of those blessed few (like her fellow Canadian Alice Munro) to be “on retainer.” This splendid addition to NC’s growing collection of interviews comes courtesy of Jason DeYoung—it was originally published in Writer’s Carousel, May/June, 2004. It’s a pleasure to be able to make it widely available. (Find Gallant’s books here.)
Knowing What Happens: an Interview with Mavis Gallant
Interview by Jason DeYoung
Jason DeYoung (JD): How did Paris Stories and Varieties of Exile come about? What was the thought behind getting those books together since both books contain mostly stories you’ve published in previous collections?
Mavis Gallant (MG): I didn’t have anything to do with it. They were edited. One was edited by Michael Ondaatje [Paris Stories] and the other by Russell Banks [Varieties of Exile]. They are published by the New York Review of Books. They publish books, you know, as well as putting out the journal. And, they asked if I would be interested, that Michael Ondaatje would write the introduction and choose the stories. I said yes. I had nothing to do with it or complain about.
The second book was to be called “Montreal Stories,” but that doesn’t work in the United States because people won’t read anything that has Canada in the title. With any suggestion that it’s Canadian they’re allergic to it. So in the US they chose the title [Varieties of Exile]; in the Canadian edition—because there’s a Canadian publisher, too—they used the title I wanted. I wanted “Paris Stories” and “Montreal Stories” because they seemed to go well.
I was the one who suggested Russell Banks because with something about Canada in the United States you have to be very careful. I knew that he had Canadian connections. He has three Canadian grandparents. I wanted an American whose work I admired, which is the case with Russell Banks, and who knew something about Canadian writers and Canadians.
JD: As an American, I had no idea that there was such an “allergy” to Canadian writers.
MG: Well, the Canadians have the reputation in America of being very dull. If people know my name at all, they know I’m a writer—and that’s forgivable. (Laughs) But when I used to say I’m Canadian, people would look trapped. And there’s that feeling that they’re very dull and that Canada is a very dull place. Actually it was true years ago, but it’s not true now, so they haven’t kept up.
JD: In your short story, “Varieties of Exile,” Linette says that “anything I could not decipher I turned into fiction, which was my way of untangling knots.” How autobiographical is this line?
MG: Well, (hesitates) I think it is probably greatly autobiographical. I’ve never thought of that to tell you the truth. You don’t think of the meaning of everything you write. You just write it. I think that stories that tend to be autobiographical are things you somehow explain to yourself more clearly.
JD: Do emotional currents that drive your writing today remain similar to those that drove you to write fiction in the first place?
MG: I should think not. Although, they’re basically the same. I’m less and less in them, the stories.
JD: But you’re still working on stories currently?
MG: Yes, I’m working on one now and I’m not in it at all. It takes place in Paris with Parisians.
In a sense you are in your work because the rhythm of the prose is your own. It may even be the way you speak, although that’s not often. When you meet writers they don’t speak as they write—or write as they speak. But there is a way sentences are formed in your mind that is individual to every writer. Unless they have been to some writing school and had it flattened out.
JD: Do you think MFAs flatten writers’ uniqueness?
MG: I think it can. If it is a very good writing school and if they have an excellent teacher—preferably a writer—then perhaps not. Although, a writer might only like what he writes or what his friends write and discourage anything else—it’s hard to tell, people are people, you know; they’re not angels. But there is a tendency to say your first sentence should be this or that.
JD: So do you admire writers that are self-taught more than those who have gone through MFA programs?
MG: No, no. I don’t know whether they are self-taught or whether they are not. But I don’t think that most writers are taught to write; they are taught the language they are going to write in and if they don’t read they’re lost.
You have to read. You have to read, not to copy anything, but to get the sense of English prose. We’re talking English language now, not British, which they drive me crazy in Europe by calling American. There’s no American language, it’s English. (Laughs)
JD: Michael Ondaatje has said that within some of your short stories there are more things going on than in five novels. Also in stories like “The Moslem Wife” and “Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( ),” 20 or 30 years of a character’s life are covered in a short story. What’s the difference for you between writing a short story versus a novel?
MG: It’s the shape of the story itself as it arrives. I wouldn’t start to write something without getting at the length of it pretty well. I know what [the story] is going to contain. And to me—and I’m not basically a novelist—the novels I have written couldn’t be contained [in a short story]. They needed the space. And so I gave it. Of course, I could work on a novel for about a hundred years (laughs) take it out, put it back, then start over.
In Varieties of Exile the last three stories in the book are from a manuscript of a novel. They had been published in the New Yorker, but I had never allowed them to be collected in a book because I thought if I finished the novel it would be a sort of cheat on readers if they find long stretches they had read before.
JD: In previous interviews you’ve spoken about how your stories begin as an image in your mind.
MG: They begin generally with an image like a still in a movie and then it begins to move or it just disappears but I still have the characters. It just happens very quickly: I suddenly see something the way you see a still outside a movie theatre that shows you what the movie is about. Or the film stops and you see a static image and this might not even be in the story. I know who all these people are. I know their names and a lot about them that doesn’t even come in to the story. I have to know. I have to know more than the reader knows.
JD: How long is it before you begin to write when the first image appears? Do you let it incubate?
MG: Oh no, I write it down right away. That’s important. You can be brushing your teeth, but you drop everything—drop the toothbrush and run. (Laughs) Get it down. And that can go on for pages, or it might be just one page, but you must get it down. You might change the names, though. Mostly because they might be the names of someone you know and that’s all hell breaking loose afterwards. The name business is terrible. People identify very quickly.
JD: Speaking of characters, some authors say their characters drive them while others say they drive the characters. Where do you stand with your character?
MG: No, I know what’s happening. No, the characters don’t drive. You’re telling about them. I’ve had writers say they actually hear the words they’re going to write. I’ve never experienced that. I know what my characters are talking about, that’s all. I know what they’re saying, which is a different thing. But I don’t have that aural hallucination that some writers have told me they have. One writer even, pointing to her ears, said it physically comes in through her ears, saying, “I hear it.” But I don’t have that.
But I know what they’re saying. Or if I’m writing about foreigners—I’ve written a lot about Germans, Spanish, French—the story is written so that characters are speaking the way a French or German or an Austrian person would speak. But not making it sound foreign and cute. Though I’m bilingual, I only write in English, you know, I don’t write in French at all.
JD: Have you ever tried to write fiction in French?
MG: No, and I don’t want to. I’m an English speaking writer. Nothing ever imaginative or creative occurs to me in any language but English. English has always been my language of imagination.
JD: You seem rather frugal with presenting your character’s dialogues, opting for indirect dialogue and more narrative. Can you speak to your reasons behind this?
MG: I don’t analyze. I’m not an analyst of my work. That’s the way I write. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful. I leave that up to critics.
JD: You’ve written that “stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” Why can stories wait?
MG: Well, they can wait—they’re there. (Laughs) They are complete in themselves, you see. Even if I’m reading something I’ve read a million times, like [Anton] Chekhov, I read just one story.
Many people cannot read short stories, they will tell me that. They can’t read them because it gets on their nerves. It’s because if they’re reading one after another there’s a change of background all the time and they have to start over and [the stories] becomes like vegetable soup in their mind.
JD: And do you think that’s why publishers steer away from publishing story collections?
MG: Hardly anybody ever made a living out of writing short stories. And the publishers are always hoping you’ll turn in a novel. Why, I don’t know. I’ve been really lucky, because most of my stories have been published in the New Yorker. And I was lucky because the New Yorker took an interest in me. But writing is not a piece of cake!
I was writer-in-residence one year at the University of Toronto in the mid-80’s because I wanted to see what it was like. I never went to any university; I just started living my life. I encouraged students perhaps too much, but I didn’t think I had any right to snub their work. And there were a couple who in fact dropped out, having been encouraged by me.
I remember saying to one student, “Look, you’re from a really long line of lawyers and your father wants you study law. Do that and just finish. You don’t have to practice.” And I gave him names of writers who had their university then never used the degree, but they got it and their families were half-satisfied. Several years later he came up to me when I was giving a reading. He had dropped out. I don’t know what he was living on—maybe he was selling boot laces, I don’t know. He said that at last he was publishing a paperback. He put it down and after he left I saw that he hadn’t even written it alone. It was he and… Mary Fiddlesticks or somebody. I read it out of loyalty because he’d been my student. I was very angry with myself. Yet I’d told him, don’t do it, don’t do it. But I’d praised him more than if he had been a professional writer.
JD: You’ve said in the past that knowing too much about an artist’s life kills interest in the work. And you even touched on this in your story “Scarves, Beads, Sandals.” Could you expand on this for those who haven’t read this story.
MG: Oh, it does kill interests in the work. The kind of biography that is published now about writers always demolishes or demean. Sometimes the person writing the biography barely even mentions the work and the writer is so torn down or so crushed that readers lose interests in the work. They say he was awful to his five wives. It makes me so angry, because they’re usually for the biographer’s flash in the pan: this obscure academic from…Mousejaw or Medicenhat will have his fifteen minutes from his near bestseller, but with the biography they’ve killed the writer, murdered him.
It happened with Katharine Ann Porter. There was a mean biography of her. What did it matter whether she was nice to her various lovers or not, it’s got nothing to do with us. And with what was written about F. Scott Fitzgerald—well, I don’t know if he’s read much at all now. The fact that he was an alcoholic outweighs everything.
There are very few writers that can stand up to these texts. And I think the reason why such biographies are so popular is that it comforts a certain a type of reader, who perhaps didn’t have the nerve to let go and live life. He reads and thinks, “Well, if this is how these guys live, ha ha, I’m very glad I have a dull, boring job and I’m hanging on for my pension for no other reason and that I’m in my marriage because you pay more income tax if you separate.” (Laughs) And it makes up for them in some way that they never took a chance at anything, because any creative artist at anything is taking an enormous chance. They lay their guts on the line.
JD: What of the future? Can we expect more story collections or novels or nonfiction?
MG: Well, yes, as long as I can push a pen. I don’t know about any more story collections. But those things are suggested by publishers—I don’t bring it up.
I’ve kept a diary since I came to Europe in 1950. So there is a monstrous pile of notebooks. A Canadian publisher wants to publish them. It will be in five volumes, ten years to a volume: the 50’s through the 90’s. And we don’t want more than 500 pages to a volume. I absolutely don’t want a book that people have to put on a stand to read. I’m starting with the 90’s and working back.
MG: Yes, because when you get back to the 50 and 60’s…well, the 60’s are very crowded—there’s an awful lot, it will take me ages. And in the 50’s a great deal was lost and some were stolen, believe it or not, when I was writer in residents at the University of Toronto.
So I’m going to have a lot of work on the 50’s and I’d rather leave it. Anyway, by that time I’ll be 95.
Jason DeYoung lives in Washington, DC. His work has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in Harpur Palate, Gargoyle, Monkeybicycle, Numéro Cinq, Marco Polo Quarterly, and New Orleans Review. See his story “Mariska’s Tongue” published on NC.