Jhumpa Lahiri interviews Mavis Gallant
In 1997, I picked up a copy of Mavis Gallant’s Home Truths, a collection of sixteen stories published in 1981, from a library book sale in the small New England town where I was raised. The first story I read, ‘ The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street’, broke something in me – something about my prior understanding of what a story can do, and how. The story was a masterful chiaroscuro at once dense and nimble, urgent and orderly, light-hearted and dark; about experiences both pedestrian and profound. It was virtuosic without fuss, compassionate without sentimentality. It seemed to have been written in a radically different way than any story I’d read before, a live wire that crackled from start to finish on the page.
When my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas that year, I told them to get me The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, published in 1996. They honoured my request, and for the remainder of the winter I read little else but that volume, a total of 887 pages. The stories were mostly about North Americans and Europeans, many of them rootless either by circumstance or design. They were about uncovering the truth, about enduring disappointment and loss, about the recurrent shock of being alive. I was thirty years old that winter, a time when I was beginning to take the writing of stories seriously, but still lacked the conviction to regard myself as a writer. Reading those stories put an end to the questions, put the summit before me and put me on my path.
In November 2005, I met Mavis Gallant in person for the first time. The occasion was a celebration of her work held at Symphony Space in New York, in which I, along with Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks and Edward Hirsch, took part. She had come from Paris, where she lives, to hear our tributes and then to give a reading. Mavis moved to Paris in 1950, when she was twenty-eight years old, in order to write fiction exclusively. Before that she worked as a journalist in Montreal, the city where she was born on August 11, 1922. She lost her father when she was ten years old, and was educated in a total of seventeen different convent, public and boarding schools. She married at the age of twenty and divorced five years later. In September 1951, her story, ‘Madeline’s Birthday’, was published in The New Yorker. Since then, she has published more than one hundred short stories in the pages of that magazine. She has also published over a dozen collections of stories, two novels, a volume of non-fiction and a play. She is a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and among her numerous awards is the Rea Award for the Short Story, the Governor General’s Award and the Order of Canada, which is the country’s highest civilian honour.
By the time of our meeting at Symphony Space, Mavis was a writer I felt intimately connected to, whose work I’d read frequently and repeatedly and devotedly for close to a decade. I had never met a writer who has inspired me so greatly, and towards whom I felt such enormous debt. I was introduced to her backstage, sat with her along with the others and eventually mustered up the courage to ask her to sign one of her books. After the event there was a dinner, but because we were seated at separate tables, there had been no opportunity to talk.
The opportunity came in February 2009, when I travelled from New York to Paris to conduct the following interview over three consecutive days. In preparing for our conversation, I decided to concentrate on three of her works. The first, Green Water, Green Sky, is her debut novel, published in 1959. Written in four parts, it centres on an American mother and daughter living in Europe. It is the first of many examples of the way Mavis has created a hybrid genre of complex narratives that are neither conventional chapters nor isolated stories, that are at once independent and connected and travel back and forth in time. She explores subjects that have remained preoccupations throughout her writing: foreigners in France, parents in absentia, the vicissitudes of marriage and the physical and emotional reality – as contradictory as any of her characters – of Paris itself. Each section unfolds from layered points of view, alighting, without the reader often being aware of it, from one character to the next. The result is a narrative that refuses to sit still, and the reward is the broad psychological perspective of many novels, concentrated in a relative handful of pages.
The second work I wanted to discuss, a long story called ‘The Remission’, published in 1979, is about an English family living in the south of France. Amature, unforgettable portrait of a dying man, ‘The Remission’ is thematically comparable, in my mind, to Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’. The third work we discussed is a quartet of linked stories called ‘The Carette Sisters’, published in the mid-Eighties. Though similar, structurally, to Green Water, Green Sky, the four sections of ‘The Carette Sisters’ do not constitute a novel. The grouping takes place, for the most part, in Montreal, and spans the lives of a widow and her two daughters over the course of half a century. My choice of the three texts was somewhat arbitrary, given that Mavis has written so many stories that may be considered paradigms of the form. Reading them together, I noted in each case, the bond – sometimes volatile, sometimes desperate, sometimes missing – between mothers and children. Representing, roughly, early, middle and late periods in Mavis’s long-ranging body of work, they are three I happen to turn to again and again.
At eighty-six, Mavis remains an elegant woman. Each day she was impeccably dressed in a woollen skirt, sweater, scarf, stockings and square-heeled pumps. A medium-length coat of black wool protected her from the Paris chill and beautiful rings, an opal one among them, adorned her fingers. Her accent, soft but proper in the English manner, evoked, to my ear, the graceful and sophisticated speech of 1940s cinema. Her laughter, less formal, erupts frequently as a hearty expulsion of breath. French, the language that has surrounded her for over half a lifetime, occasionally adorns and accompanies her English. She is a spirited and agile interlocuter who tells stories as she writes them: bristling with drama, thick with dialogue, vividly rendered and studded with astringent aperçus.
We began talking at the Village Voice Bookshop, an English-language bookstore on rue Princesse in the neighbourhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The shop, brightly lit and cheerfully utilitarian, has a winding metal staircase to one side, and is filled on two levels with books organized on black shelves. The owner, Odile Hellier, knows Mavis well, and warmly welcomed us both. Although Mavis suffers from osteoporosis and moves about, these days, with considerable difficulty, she ascended the metal staircase steadily on her own. Upstairs, the two of us sat by a window overlooking the dim, narrow street, on chairs wedged behind two square display tables piled with books. The view through the window was of a building covered with cloudy plastic and scaffolding. A folding table was set up between us, just large enough to hold a microcassette recorder and two glasses of water; a radiator affixed to the wall below the window kept us warm. While we were speaking, customers occasionally wandered upstairs to browse, but the atmosphere in the bookstore was tranquil, enough for us to agree to meet there the following day.
The third conversation was held at Le Dôme, a brasserie on the boulevard du Montparnasse, which is located in the neighbourhood where Mavis lives. She was greeted as a familiar when we arrived, and we were ushered to a yellow marble table set between two banquettes, where we sat beneath the glow of a hanging lamp. The atmosphere of the brasserie is old-fashioned and luxurious, with varnished wood-panelled walls, gold and amber-toned stained glass and wine-coloured velvet curtains. Mavis asked for a large cafe au lait and pointed out a cosy semi-circular banquette on the upper level, close to the bar, where Picasso liked to sit. Most of the other tables inside the restaurant were empty at that time of day and at one point a vacuum cleaner ran over the carpets. The head waiter, coming on for the night shift, also stopped by our table to say hello.
On Thursday, the day before my journey back to New York, Mavis and I read together at the Village Voice Bookshop. This time we sat side by side. Around her neck was a turquoise and dark blue silk scarf, a gift made in Brooklyn that I had presented to her at the beginning of our interview. Mavis read the story ‘In Transit’, followed by a scene from her play, What is to be Done? The crowd filled both levels of the store and each step of the staircase. As I told them before reading, that evening was the most thrilling moment of my life as a writer.
After answering questions and signing books, a small group of us walked a few doors down to have dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. The wine was poured and conversation began to flow. I was seated directly across from Mavis, and though the interview was officially over, I kept asking her questions, about her travels, about certain scenes in her stories, about books we’d both read. When we parted, we promised to meet again one day at Le Dôme, this time for lunch, and sit at Picasso’s table.
Jhumpa Lahiri, March 2009
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Was it winter when you first came to Paris?
MAVIS GALLANT: I arrived in October. I went to a hotel recommended to me by a musician I knew in Canada. It was just around the corner from here. This is only five years after the war, you see. So I lived there. The room was all red velvet. Not very clean, but I knew I had to get over that feeling. It was Paris, and I knew it was dirty. Let’s see, what did I do? I unpacked, and I went for— oh yes, I went for a walk. I was coming from England, which, I have to tell you, I didn’t like at all. Talk about illusion shattered.
JL: What didn’t you like?
MG: I didn’t like anything. I am more English than anything. I had an English father. My mother, being Canadian, was English, with, I think, some French mixed in. And I admired English writers very much, but I admired French painting more. I went for a walk, that’s right, and it was still daylight. I had a large map of Paris in my apartment in Montreal, and had pasted this on my wall and studied it. I studied the Metro stops and all that. I knew them better than I know them now, because I don’t take the train any more. I set out from my hotel down to the Seine and I reached the Ministry of Defence. A French sailor came over and asked for a direction in French, and I was able to give it to him. I said, ‘Vous retraversez la pont, et vous verez le station Métro’, as if I’d lived here forever. I was so proud. And then I decided to have supper in a restaurant called Raffi. It wasn’t recommended to me, I just looked at it. You had to go up some steps. I watched to see what people were eating. And I saw people eating radishes with butter on them, so I ordered that. For the first time in my life I tasted sweet butter, because we only had salted butter in Canada – it was called Jewish butter, and it was sold in the Jewish part of Montreal. I’d never tasted sweet butter. It was delicious! And I remember the radish didn’t taste like our radishes, which were really just used for decoration. The bread was delicious, just lovely with sweet butter. And I had a pork chop.
JL: You remember.
MG: Oh, I do. And French fries. I think I had apple tart, but I’m not sure about that. I just looked at what people were eating. That I remember. Raffi’s is now a Korean barbecue, and I recognize it only because there’s still the steps. I’ve looked in – I’ve never eaten anything there – but the general skeleton of the place is still what it was in October 1950.
JL: Did anything disappoint you when you came here?
MG: I wouldn’t say disappoint. I was very disappointed in London. I didn’t like the people. I thought they were rude. They had a reputation for being polite, but they weren’t. I didn’t really understand. They were still rationed. They were bitter. They thought that we people from across the Atlantic were very well off, very spoiled; that we didn’t know what a war was. And I became something I’m not really, which was nationalist. I don’t like nationalism, and I thought, my God, every Canadian buried in a Commonwealth cemetery in the Second World War was a volunteer. There was no conscription in Canada for fighting. About halfway through the war, conscription was established for desk jobs, but service overseas was filled by volunteers. So there were all these people buried in France and Italy and Libya, taken at Hong Kong, taken at Singapore. I felt defensive of them because they were my generation. I didn’t argue, but I didn’t like it. They didn’t like us. They took me for an American. I don’t consider it an insult, and I was not looking to say, ‘I’m one of these sweet Canadians everybody likes.’
JL: But Paris?
MG: To me it was literary.
JL: More than England?
MG: More than London. I’d read a great deal of French writers. I’d read a lot of Colette. François Mauriac. I’d always read French all my life, but I didn’t prefer it to English, and I still don’t. Not for writing, anyway. Oh, there were things I had to adjust to. I had been working on a newspaper, the Standard in Montreal, and suddenly I was in a large city. I had no more salary; I had no relatives here. I had introductions to people, but I didn’t know anybody. I had all the expats somehow between me and France. It was a great time for expatriates. Five years after the war, everyone was dying to get to Europe. But what I loved in Paris itself – how can I explain it? Montreal at that time was a very cosmopolitan city because of the émigrés and refugees, which I liked, but there was hardly a bookstore you could rely on in English, and in Quebec there was a political oppression that I thought would never change. I had lived in New York so I didn’t want to go back to New York. I wanted Europe. But here, there was a bookstore – many more, they’re closing like mad – on every corner. There was something on every corner that was pleasing to me. I never made a move to meet anyone, to meet a writer. Whereas, when I came back from New York at eighteen, I found Montreal small, but as I lived in it and became a newspaper reporter I began to know the city and it was very complex; the French, the English, the Catholic, the Protestant. I made great efforts between eighteen and twenty-eight to meet every poet, every artist, every musician, because I seemed to need it. Once I got here I didn’t need it. It was just there. I went to concerts, I went to the opera, sitting way up high in cheap seats. But I had no desire to meet them, to meet singers. It was the atmosphere.
JL: You had it.
MG: I had it here. So I got the feeling that Paris was like someone saying, ‘You can have the run of the house, you can wander all over my house, you can open drawers and take books off the shelves, but we are apart.’
JL: ‘We’ being the French?
MG: Yes. But it was like a house where you could do anything you like.
JL: How long after you came here did you begin writing about it?
MG: I don’t keep records, but I wrote a story called ‘The Other Paris’ (published in 1953), one of my first stories, and I wrote it that winter in Paris. It took me a long time to write. I left the hotel after a month because I realized I was seeing too many expatriates. I went to the Canadian Embassy and they had a book there of French people who wanted to rent rooms in their apartments. This was the hard-up French after the war. And they wanted – they didn’t say this–but they wanted Canadians or Swedes or Swiss. Nice clean people. And I found a room that looked all right. The first man I talked to said, ‘If this is a room, it’s for you only, not les copains, les copines’ because people would try to rent a room and squeeze all their friends in. I didn’t like his tone, so I tried another phone number. I wanted a good bourgeois family who had roots in France – in Paris – so I could study them. I sound as if I was collecting butterflies, and I did. They lived on la rue de Monceau on the Right Bank, a very respectable street, infinitely respectable. It horrified the people I knew. ‘You’re going to live over there?’ ‘Yes, I am!’ It was a youngish couple. They had two little boys. All of them became very fond of me. He was a civil servant and they were titled, but they were hard-up. They had beautiful furniture that they had inherited and they were very, very right wing, and if you wonder what I did, I kept my trap shut. I had no desire to argue. They were in their country, and I was friendly with them until they both died. Years and years and years.
JL: How long did you stay with them?
MG: In the spring I went for three months to the south, but I kept in touch with them, and they said, ‘We always have a bed for you.’ I rented something in the south of France because The New Yorker paid me for something.
JL: Were you here when you sold your first story to them?
MG: No, I sold one story when I was in Montreal. I gave my newspaper six months’ leave – six months, what do you call it?
MG: Notice, thank you. It was funny, the men at the Standard were friendly in a brother-sister knockabout way, you know. But they just didn’t want to work with women. One of them said to me, ‘You’re going over there? What are you going to do? What are you going to live on?’ I said, ‘Writing. I’m going to write.’ He said, ‘Write what?’ I said, ‘Stories’. He said, ‘You know, you’re like an architect who’s never designed a garage.’ That was his view of what I was going to do. But I had a lot of stories I’d never shown anyone, so I fished one out, typed it and sent it to The New Yorker. I didn’t tell anyone. There was no note. There was my name and the address of my newspaper on the first page of the manuscript. It was up in the corner: St James Street West. And that came back, but with a letter, a very nice letter, saying we can’t use this – they told me later why they couldn’t – but is there anything else you can show us? So I sent a second one and they took it. They paid me six hundred dollars, which was more than I had ever had in the bank. I couldn’t believe it. And I made the great mistake of showing my colleagues at the newspaper my letter of acceptance. It was a great mistake.
MG: Because they were men.
JL: And they were upset?
MG: They were stupefied, first of all. And then, wishing they had the freedom to go away as I was going to go. They all had a mortgage and three kids. In a suburb.
JL: They were stuck.
MG: Stuck, yes. I had prepared three stories to show The New Yorker. They had rejected one and taken one. The third story, which was also accepted, I sent from Paris. At the beginning I wrote about foreigners, not understanding the French, or looking at them and getting it all wrong.
JL: And what interested you in that? Was it partly that you were going through it?
MG: Well, I’m a writer. That was the way I saw it, and I couldn’t very well write about how the French looked at us. I couldn’t get inside their skin. You have to be here for a long time, in a certain way. There was a story about the Americans in France called ‘The Picnic’. Did you ever read that story?
JL: Yes. The picnic is concocted by an American magazine, an event to symbolize the unity between America and France. But there’s no unity between the French and the American characters in the story. There’s suspicion on both sides. The American woman worries that her children are being corrupted by French waywardness. And the French woman is appalled when the American throws out a wilting cauliflower. Which the French cook retrieves from the garbage.
MG: Those were situations I saw and felt and listened to, but I wanted to get into the French way of looking at us. So it began with ‘The Other Paris’ – the young woman expects so much from Paris and settles for something else. There’s a story called ‘Virus X’ you may have come across. There are two Canadian girls. One of them has a fiancé in Canada. I’ve forgotten what she’s doing here, but she’s doing something.
JL: I believe she’s writing a thesis about immigrants.
MG: The first wave of Asian flu was winter of 1952–53. And I caught it. I was in Strasbourg.
JL: Is that what the characters in ‘The Cost of Living’ also have, living in that hotel? Asian flu? You describe illness in a foreign place so effectively. I love the bit about the sister going out to get soup for everyone in a Thermos. ‘Our grippe smelled of oranges, and of leek and-potato soup.’
MG: Everybody got flu every winter. There was no vaccination in those days. First of all, the symptoms were like pneumonia, but nobody knew what it was. I mean, none of the doctors in the world knew what the first wave was about. That was why in France it was called Virus X. They were treating for pneumonia, which it turns out it wasn’t at all, and there were a lot of deaths. I was in Strasbourg in a little hotel and at that point I had complicated my life with a dog. I was very very sick, had a very high temperature. There was a man in the next room, an elderly French man who lived there, and I was delirious. I thought I saw him walking through the wall. He used to say, ‘Ma voisine, ma voisine!’ and he’d take my dog out. But in the story there’s a girl – not me – and her boyfriend finally comes over together. And she is afraid that if she doesn’t go back with him, she will be adrift. She’s, on the contrary, very pleased to see him, and ready to go into a very restricted life because she’s had a bad time with Virus X. The New Yorker ran that story. They would take a chance on things that others wouldn’t.
JL: I asked you about the winter because I thought in many of those early stories, ‘The Cost of Living’ and ‘The Other Paris’, there’s a very vivid experience of the season.
MG: The winters are rather dreadful.
JL: Differently from Montreal?
MG: In Montreal you’re cold. You have sun on snow there.
JL: So it’s the lack of sun.
MG: Lack of sun. That’s why the first spring, I went for three months to Menton. I had never seen light in the south – I’d never been south of New York. I’d never seen the light that you get in the southern climate.
JL: And this made a big impression on you?
MG: I took a bus so that I could see a lot of France. Through Grenoble. We spent the night in Grenoble. Very interesting. Down, down, down to Nice. It was night when I arrived. I just asked in the bus station where I could find a hotel. I went to this hotel and my bed was facing a mirror, one of these big armoires with mirrored doors where you put your clothes, and the window was behind my head. And when I woke up in the morning, there was this fantastic sun in the window. I’d never seen that kind of light. Then I got a train and continued to Menton which was where my house was rented, my flat. And I carried my things and asked for directions and I found myself in the first old town I’d ever seen. It was medieval. In fact the old Roman road was the main street.
JL: Was that town partly inspiration for the setting of ‘The Remission’?
MG: Much later. ‘The Remission’ is much later.
JL: But was it the same sort of place?
MG: No. I was in the old town. They collected the garbage with a horse and wagon. And the garbage man wore boots and stood in the middle of this unwrapped garbage. Just stood in the middle and people threw it out the window. It was really something. I loved it. I was very thrilled with it. Then I came back to Paris. I always came back to Paris. I spent ten years coming and going. I spent ten years, really, wandering through Western Europe.
JL: Your characters seem always to be comparing two ways of life in their minds. It’s something I’ve grown up with, because my parents came from India and raised me in a place that was foreign to them.
MG: They didn’t go home to live?
JL: No. They go to visit, but they’ve stayed in America. So I’ve been brought up with people who have that exchange rate going on in their brains, always converting and comparing.
MG: I don’t compare.
JL: But your characters?
MG: I don’t know. It depends.
JL: A lot of them have an idea of Paris, say, and then they come, and they’re here, and it’s not matching the image or the ideal, and they struggle with that.
MG: I remember one of the people around in that winter of 1950–51, and who I moved to the Right Bank to get away from, was Mordecai Richler. He was a bit of a brat. He was much younger. I’d met him in Montreal. The person who introduced me to him was the brother of the actor, Donald Sutherland. Anyway, he said, ‘As you’re going over to Europe, Mordecai Richler is going over and I’ll have you meet him. He’s very difficult, I warn you.’ That winter everyone in the world was around Paris that I knew, practically. And I realized he didn’t like it at all. For one thing, he couldn’t speak any French. Though he came from Montreal, he couldn’t say, ‘Pass the salt.’ He couldn’t say anything.
JL: That’s difficult for people, if they don’t have the language. It affects you at every point.
MG: Well, it’s a language you’re able to learn. I mean, I didn’t learn Finnish, I didn’t even try, because it’s not an Indo-European language, not anything I could cope with. I did speak English there, but I didn’t live there. I rented a car, was just travelling along. But I didn’t feel frustrated. It was their country, their language. But Mordecai resented having to speak French. He said, ‘Anyway, what can you do in a country that’s old and rotten and falling down?’ Those were his words. Well at that time, it was burgeoning with writers, French writers. It was really the great period of the twentieth century. Colette was still alive, all these people were still alive, writing, producing. Gide had only just died that year. You breathed the air, the same air as these people I so admired. One day I was sitting reading in a cafe. And Mordecai came drifting over and he sat down and he grabbed the book out of my hand that I was reading. It was The House in Paris, Elizabeth Bowen’s great novel.
JL: Which I just read.
MG: Oh it’s wonderful. And he read some in a mocking voice. A mocking English voice which he didn’t do very well. And he said, ‘You know, if you go on reading this crap you’re never going to get anywhere.’ So I just took the book back.
JL: I want to talk about your first novel, Green Water, Green Sky, which consists of four parts. How did it begin?
MG: I had it pretty well in mind. It was my idea of a novel. The New Yorker published the first three parts. They didn’t publish the fourth because you couldn’t understand the fourth if you hadn’t read the other three.
JL: It moves from Venice to Paris to Cannes, and then returns to Paris. Chronologically, it goes back and forth. Why did you decide to do that?
MG: I can’t tell you. That’s what I wanted.
JL: I find it so much more poignant because it’s out of sequence. We know how things are going to turn out, and that they don’t turn out well. Bob and Flor’s marriage, for example. The first time I read this, I remembered being so haunted by the description, in the second section, of Flor staying alone in the apartment in August, when everybody in Paris famously goes away.
MG: This was someone with schizophrenia.
JL: When I reread it a few months ago, I remembered the moment she’s wandering in the kitchen, looking for something to eat, and finds a sticky packet of dates. As I was reading that section, I suddenly remembered that that detail was approaching, and I dreaded it, because I knew how much it would unsettle me. That happens to me a lot when I read your stories. The smallest details are so incredibly resonant. And so memorable.
MG: Eating with her fingers.
JL: Yes, eating with her fingers. Eating mushrooms out of a tin.
MG: Well you see, that part of it is very dated, because now she would be cured with pills. Then there was no cure.
JL: Even with medication, people still suffer from schizophrenia these days. Flor’s suffering is acute in the second part. She sees a psychiatrist, a relationship that threatens her family.
MG: Well, she has a mental argument with a psychiatrist, who is a woman – you old frump, trying to tell me. . . – and unaware of the way people will react to her. Completely unaware. She speaks to people and they don’t know who she is. Being frightened by a stuffed horse in a window. That actually existed. There was a stuffed horse in a window at an antique store. I don’t think anyone was meant to buy it. It was just there. She slides away.
JL: Did you know that this would be her mental state when you began the novel?
MG: I had roomed at school with a girl with schizophrenia. Her reaction was very different. Though she didn’t like her mother, either. I remember she scribbled all over her mother’s picture. I read Proust later on, and you get the thing about the lesbian making the other lesbian scribble all over her parents’ picture. So I thought, ‘That’s true, that can happen, Mr Proust.’ She ran around the room screaming. She had asked her mother for some money to buy a bathing suit. And her mother had written – I remember the letter – ‘Buy a simple, modest number.’ And she ran around the room.
JL: How old were you when you knew this girl?
MG: I was about fifteen. And I felt I should never tell anyone. I never told anyone about this rampage. I didn’t think I should.
JL: But eventually, this girl inspired Flor’s character.
MG: It was a determined ending. There was no other way out. I didn’t know of any way out but going deeper and deeper. In her case, silence.
JL: The third section, which was published as a story called ‘Travellers Must be Content’, takes place in Cannes. Can you talk a little about the character of Wishart, a bachelor who comes to visit Flor and her mother, Bonnie? He’s so horrible. A snob, a liar, an operator, a misogynist.
MG: I don’t think people try so hard to shed their background now. In fact, they’ll say, my father drove a bus, look where I’ve got. Wishart works to be accepted in America as an okay Englishman, and accepted in England as an okay American.
JL: So much dissimulation.
MG: I don’t know if you’ve ever been with anyone like that. They abound. Then they’ll make some mistake.
JL: He reminded me of a less benign version of someone like Jay Gatsby or Holly Golightly, one of those American characters who try fully to conceal who they are, and where they’re from.
MG: His mistake is when he thinks that Flor’s mother is offering her daughter. That’s his social mistake.
JL: And he has such a terrible impression of the world of women. To him it’s ‘an area dimly lighted and faintly disgusting, like a kitchen in a slum. . . a world of migraines, miscarriages, disorder and tears’.
MG: Well, he’s gay.
JL: I don’t think being gay has anything to do with that.
MG: There are men like that, who have the depths of horror about what happens to women.
JL: Yet Wishart’s also dependent on women, a parasite. He seeks them out.
MG: A leech, socially.
JL: But we can’t fully condemn him. I can’t. He’s vulnerable in his own way, standing on his skinny legs. The story opens and ends with dreams. I like that you write about dreams. I was warned when I was just starting out writing, by a wonderful writer and teacher, never to write about people dreaming. He was against characters having dreams in stories.
MG: Well they’re the people who think dreams are boring. I think they’re fascinating.
JL: Have you kept a journal since childhood?
MG: I’ve stopped, except now and then. Up to 2000, I wrote regularly.
JL: When did you begin it?
MG: I had one when I was still in Canada, but I destroyed it when I left.
I was going to a new life.
JL: So you wanted to destroy the evidence. Did you start it as a child?
MG: I did as a teenager, sporadically. I had to be very careful, living with my mother. She went through my things like a beaver.
JL: But you always wrote in it honestly?
MG: At fourteen I wrote a poem called ‘Why I am a Socialist’. It began, ‘You ask?’ Of course, no one had ever asked me if I even knew what socialism was. I had got hold of A New Anthology of Modern Poetry, published in 1938. I was fifteen and that was the Depression. Left-wing poetry I admired enormously. I liked the marching rhythm. There was Auden and company. There was Ezra Pound, so they weren’t all left wing. I read this stuff over and over, knew it by heart. Muriel Rukeyser; the gang. And this inspired ‘Why I am a Socialist’. It was a better world. And my mother found this. She wanted to know who I was mixed up with. Mothers then were very interested in preserving their daughters’ sexual purity.
JL: Some mothers now, too.
MG: For the marriage market. She drove me cuckoo. She read everything. I never could keep anything to myself.
JL: So you destroyed the journal when you left Canada.
MG: In the building where I was living, in Montreal, you could burn garbage. People just threw things down a slot and there was a fire smouldering. I don’t know why we weren’t all asphyxiated.
JL: You’ve published some parts of your journal. I keep a journal as well, but it’s never seen the light of day. It’s hard for me to imagine having a part of it published. How does that feel?
MG: It feels – nothing. They’re authentic. They sound different because it’s where I am when I’m writing.
JL: One usually writes a journal with a different sensibility. You don’t think of anyone reading it.
MG: But I think some things are interesting to read.
JL: You published a section of your journal in 1988 in the literary magazine Antaeus which I came across. On April 25, 1987 you wrote, ‘I am thankful I do not have to live in a village, anywhere.’
MG: Oh, I would hate it.
JL: I was struck by that.
MG: I remember going to a dreary village outside Paris. They’re very ugly. There’s one street and everything is battle ship grey. Awful colour. But that’s the Ile de France. You go in to buy a newspaper and they all stop talking, to look at you. I love cities.
JL: Me too. But I wasn’t raised in one. I was raised in pretty much a village. It’s difficult as an adult, because I wasn’t brought up in any other place, so all my memories of childhood are connected to a place I feel deeply ambivalent about. It wasn’t until I got to a city, in my case New York, that I felt I could breathe properly and things were normal, even though it was a place that I didn’t know at all. Until that moment, I really did feel that I was holding my breath.
MG: What I have noticed is how much you redo places and houses you’ve lived in when you were young. I think it was James Thurber who wrote a very funny essay called ‘Mind’s Eye Trouble’, because you unconsciously take some house you lived in as a child and you redo it in your mind and there are these other characters, but it’s not where you lived at all. It could be in a different city. Have you ever noticed that?
JL: I haven’t lived in very many houses, but the ones I remember, I remember fairly well.
MG: To me the Chateauguay river, which is outside Montreal, has been everything. Even the Nile.
JL: It stands in for other things.
MG: They stand in. Whereas the characters don’t do that. They come up – I don’t know where they come from. They’re just – they’re there.
JL: In your journals and essays, you’re such a shrewd observer of the world, and of world events. That section of your journal we were just discussing follows the Klaus Barbie trial.
MG: Don’t forget, I was a journalist from age twenty-one to twenty-eight. That’s a big chunk of your life.
JL: And you’ve maintained a journalistic connection with the world.
MG: Less now, because I’m physically hobbled. For example, in that journal – ‘Paris ’68’ – I get up in the middle of the night, I get dressed, I go out to see somebody throwing stones. But now I stay home because I’m physically fragile. I could be knocked over. I could break all my bones.
JL: And yet some of your characters are so shamefully ignorant. I’m thinking of Marie and her mother, Madame Carette, in ‘The Chosen Husband’, who have never heard of Korea while a war is taking place there.
MG: ‘There’s a war on. Where? Not there, in Korea.’
JL: Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a foreigner in France these days?
MG: It’s hard for me to say. I’m not often taken for a foreigner.
JL: But in your observations?
MG: I wouldn’t want to be a foreigner in the US, I can tell you.
JL: Even now?
JL: I actually think it’s somewhat easier to be a foreigner there now. For some groups it’s harder. But for the most part, I think America has gotten more accustomed to the idea of foreign populations arriving and settling and working their way into the culture. When I was growing up, most Americans had no real sense of India. But now, there’s a relatively more informed sense of India, and of other parts of the world as well. And there’s more of an effort, on the whole, to be inclusive. Obama is an obvious symbol for all this.
MG: We were all cuckoo for Obama.
JL: But have attitudes toward foreign populations in France changed or intensified? I was in Italy last summer, and the Italians seem really to be struggling in terms of what’s happening to the identity of their country. There seems to be a real fear of the culture being watered down, tarnished somehow.
MG: In France there will be many, many foreign-born people who can carry on the culture. Which is declining, by the way. It’s not declining because of foreigners. It’s declining because the French school system is declining. I hear the French spoken around me and I say, no! The vocabulary is shrinking. With foreigners in Canada, they were left alone. They were there and they were working and paying taxes, and that’s all. I was writer in residence for a year in Toronto.
JL: When was this?
JL: Did you enjoy that experience?
MG: I would never do it again. I think it’s a dead loss. I’m opposed to it. You can’t teach writing.
JL: Given that you were there, what did you teach them?
MG: They should know their language and read. Read, read, read.
JL: What did you have your students read?
MG: I was considered staff, so I had a markdown in the campus bookstore. I bought a lot of paperbacks, Penguins, with twenty per cent off. I had them on my desk. They’d say, ‘Well I don’t have any money on me.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not selling them. If you like it, keep it. If you don’t like it, give it to a friend or bring it back and I’ll give it to someone else.’ I gave them books I myself don’t care for. I gave them Raymond Carver.
JL: Why did you give them books you didn’t care for?
MG: I thought it my duty to open them up to different things. Otherwise I was there for nothing.
JL: Who was the person who first read your writing and told you that you should keep going?
MG: Just, ‘Have you anything else you can show me?’ Her name was Mildred Wood. She read the first story I sent to The New Yorker. I saw her twice, at The New Yorker, before I went to Europe.
JL: And she was the first person you ever showed your work to? Had you shown your writing to anyone else along the way? Any friend?
MG: Very seldom. I didn’t want them to talk to me about it. There was one friend at the newspaper, Barbara. She wanted to be a poet, so we talked together and showed each other things, but that was it. I don’t think anyone can help, you know. Now Green Water I showed – I had the proofs, and I was in hospital in Switzerland because of my back. I’d gone there instead of France, because in France they didn’t know much about spines at the time. The owner of this clinic had studied psychiatry, this Swiss gentleman, but then he felt that most things are physical and he got interested in the brain, so he worked on brains and spines. And the proofs arrived in that clinic that I had to read and correct. And I still wasn’t sure about the last story. I gave him just the last story to read.
JL: What were you unsure of?
MG: I wasn’t sure if it was clinically correct. I didn’t want something imaginative and poetic where she goes off into a dream. I asked, ‘Do people like that commit suicide?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s another thing altogether.’ So that was really helpful. And I left it as I had it, where she goes into silence. He said she wouldn’t have the initiative to pick up a gun or throw herself out the window. It’s not despair – it’s something up here (points to her head) – but she would have been unable to come to a decision.
JL: There’s a real intimacy to the scenes. I would love for the novel to be reissued so that people could buy it and read it. I’d like to talk about the way you write about children.
MG: I like children. I had no desire to bring up children, that was a different thing. But I like them and I often feel sorry for them. The first time I ever saw children being hit in the face was when I came to France. I couldn’t stand it. You’d go to a park and the mother’s first gesture was to. . . I’d never seen that. The face slap.
JL: You often write about children who are profoundly neglected. Their parents are off doing things, living their lives. I think a degree of that is healthy, but so many children in your stories are just passing the time, wandering around, while difficult, grown-up things are happening, and the grown-ups are oblivious to their needs. The children in ‘The Remission’, for example.
MG: They’re culturally dropped. I see it often happen with writers and artists who take their children to a village in Provence. They put them in the ordinary school, and they’re culturally deprived, because they don’t read what their parents read, and then it’s too late.
JL: I didn’t read what my parents read.
MG: But you had books around you. I can’t remember not seeing books. And my books were separated from the grown-up books because my father had a lot of books of art and reproductions. I thought they were stories, illustrations for something I hadn’t read. One book he was very careful of, an out-of-print book about Egyptian art. The colour pages had white behind them, that’s how old a book it was. And then there were sepia photographs of different things, which were very interesting to me. What interested me was that you could colour this book, and I took it into my room and with wax crayons I coloured all the white sheets and made drawings. Then I tackled the black-and-white engravings and then I tackled the sepia photos and I put the book back. And once he had a friend in for something and he said, ‘I’ll just show you what I mean’ and he pulled out the book, and it was ruined. So from that day on… I wasn’t punished, but I was struck by his distress. ‘You can do what you like, but don’t touch anything else, ever!’
JL: I find children a particular challenge to write about. Do you feel the same way?
MG: In my house in the south of France I had a spare room for friends, and I sometimes had a child or two thrust into my care just so the parents could have a few days if they were travelling; nip down to Florence without them screaming in the back seat. I never had a problem with a child. I would say, ‘Would you like to eat this, or not?’ and they always said yes. We went up to an Italian place on the frontier and they had a choice of spaghetti or pizza, and then ice cream.
JL: I think children just like to be taken seriously. When I read your stories, I think you take them seriously, and that’s the key. Because the parents don’t.
MG: I had one little boy, Olivier. I was very fond of him. He would come up with the most astonishing things. One day – he was a very talkative little boy – I was trying to think of something. And I said, ‘Olivier, sit down, don’t talk, and don’t talk for at least two minutes.’ He didn’t know if he should call me vous or toi. I left it up to him, and he’d say vous-toi. He said, ‘Vous-toi, you’re not nice. Tu n’est pas gentile’, and I said, ‘I’m very nice indeed.’ And he said, ‘You’re not as nice as you think you are.’ Remarkable. And you think, I wonder if that’s true? If they see clearly.
JL: My children teach me a lot. They’ll say something and I really have to stop and look at things differently. The sense of childhood in your stories is really one of being in a prison. The children have no freedom. I felt that growing up.
MG: The prison of childhood used to come into my mind sometimes. Not when I was a child. Later.
JL: It’s a phrase of yours, in the story ‘In Youth is Pleasure’. Nabokov is an example of a writer who looks back on his childhood with such pure fondness.
MG: They had a high life.
JL: But many people, my own mother included, look back on their childhood and think of it as a liberating, dreamy, ideal period. My mother grew up and everything landed on her shoulders. I feel exactly the opposite way.
MG: Oh, me too.
JL: I’d like to ask you some questions about ‘The Remission’. This is a story you wrote in the Seventies but that takes place in the fifties. Can you talk about what inspired the story?
MG: I don’t know. I just had an image of them getting down from the train, which I didn’t use in the story, with the children.
JL: Can you talk about the experience of going back in time to write a story?
MG: They come with their clothes on, and he’s going to die on National Health. No one would say that any more. Meaning social security. I’ve written a lot about the British on the Riviera after the war. I found them highly comic.
JL: In what way?
MG: Nylon skirts came in during that period. You could hang them up to dry and there was no ironing. Miraculous! I had a Black Watch tartan skirt with pleats. I’d wash it and dry it on a line and my British neighbour, whom I was renting my darling cottage from, came up when I was hanging it and she said, ‘My dear, are you a Scot?’Actually there’s a trace of Scot on my father’s side, but I didn’t go into that. And I said, ‘No’ and she said, ‘You should not be wearing that kind of tartan you’re putting up.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Well it’s an insult to the family.’ I said, ‘I don’t know much about Scots, we don’t have them in Canada.’ My dear, we have the largest number of Robbie Burns statues in the whole world! She said, ‘It’s just that the Scots take great objection to the wrong people wearing their tartans.’
JL: You talked yesterday about experiencing the light for the first time in the south of France. When I read this story, I’m always struck by the husband’s and wife’s separate relationships to the sun. Alec initially seeks the sun, moving from England to the south of France for it, but ends up hiding in the shadows. While Barbara is sunbathing nude, like something out of Greek mythology.
MG: She imagines the gardener looking up at her. But you know, she’s not unkind to her husband. I don’t think she’s an unkind woman at all. She sits beside him as he’s dying, she takes his hand. She talks about their future together. The fact that she has a lover doesn’t come into it. She keeps that in another compartment.
JL: This is one of many examples in your stories where at some point or another we’re in every character’s head. It’s an amalgam of points of view. It’s what Tolstoy does in his novels, but you do it in the confines of a story. For me, it was very hard to get to that point. When I first started writing, I always wrote from a single person’s point of view. But in your work, even in something early like Green Water, Green Sky, you’re already dipping in and out of various characters’ minds. Was this something that came easily?
MG: It must have, or I wouldn’t have done it.
JL: I felt that I couldn’t do it. I read your stories and other people’s stories to learn. I didn’t know how to go about it. But for you it felt natural?
MG. I never questioned it. The problem is getting it right.
JL: You’re very funny, in this story, describing assiduous tourists. They struggle up steep hills to look at early Renaissance frescoes. Meanwhile, to Barbara’s eyes, they’re just ‘some patches of peach-coloured smudge’. This must have been a time in Europe when a lot of tourists were arriving?
MG: I’ve never known it without tourists. Not like now, not like these mechanized hordes.
JL: One of the reasons Barbara seems pathetic to me is that she’s so dependent on other people, other family members, for money. Things have changed so much since then, for women of my generation, certainly, in terms of more women being part of the workforce and being able to stand on their own.
MG: The sister-in-law is the pathetic one to me. She gives up part of her capital, which is tiny, so that her brother can go rest in the south of France. I don’t think she’s ever adequately thanked.
JL: Do you remember how long it took you to write this story?
MG: It took a very long time. I’m a very slow writer. There are things I’ve taken out, put away, taken out, put away. Other things, ‘Across the Bridge’, I wrote at great speed.
JL: Your writing is remarkable across the board, but I find ‘The Remission’ particularly first-rate. Do you have a sense of how strong it is?
MG: I don’t compare stories. They’re like the beads on this (fingers her necklace).
JL: But looking back, is there a point when you think, ‘This was my earlier effort?’ Are you aware of a progression?
MG: It’s just a straight line to me.
JL: It’s all connected, one off the next?
MG: I suppose so. There were years when I was doing nothing else. In the south of France I just wrote the whole time.
JL: Where did you work on this story? In Paris?
MG: Mostly in Paris.
JL: It ran in The New Yorker. Was it edited by Bill Maxwell?
MG: Yes. Then he had to leave because he was sixty-five. There’s never been as good an editor. He was prudish, and I had trouble with his prudishness, not to speak of William Shawn’s. They would say to me, ‘Maybe those things go on in Canada, but they don’t go on here.’ The slightest hint of anything. I don’t like pornography. But I’m very conscious of sexual tension. I think that’s the most interesting thing to write about, the tension.
JL: There’s a moment in this story that’s so powerful. The children have come to see their father in the hospital, and he’s about to die. After the visit, there’s a description of them skipping down the stairway now that the obligation is over with, ‘taking the hospital stairs headlong, at a gallop’. To me it’s an example of why I love short stories. You can compress such enormous emotion and human experience into just a handful of words. It happens very seldom in novels. Novels have a more cumulative effect.
MG: There are novels sent to me by publishers to read. And I do try. And I can see where they had to fill a gap. I see it! I think, why did they need that? Take it out and tighten it.
JL: I’m working on a novel now, but I’m always conscious of that, of putting in something to fill the space between point A and point B. I just want to go, AB, not A, A-and-a-half, B.
MG: Exactly. Absolutely.
JL: I think that’s the difference between stories and novels.
MG: Well, in the short story you can’t fiddle around and wander. There are writers who do it, but I don’t like it.
JL: Did you watch the Coronation on television the way the characters do in the story?
MG: Oh yes. I was living in the south. And the man who gets up to watch, the father. . . I realized years later that was my father. He didn’t live beyond thirty-four. I don’t mean he was crazy about the royal family: I never heard him talk about them – he died some twenty years before the Queen’s coronation – but I recognized that he was that man.
JL: Does that happen often when you look back at things? You see something you didn’t at the time of writing?
MG: Later. When I read, I think, my God. That’s so deep in me.
JL: Do you look at your writing if you don’t have to?
MG: If I have to give a reading I read a lot of things.
JL: How is that experience?
MG: It’s completely mechanical, looking at the clock. I time them and I read them. There’s a difference between speaking your work and reading. It’s meant to be read silently, of course. So while I’m reading I’ll change just a few words.
JL: Have you read ‘The Remission’ aloud?
MG: No. It’s very long.
JL: Not even a part of it?
MG: I don’t read parts of stories. Unless it’s an evening where everything is in bits. Then I might. I don’t prefer it, but if that’s what they ask me to do.
JL: ‘They’. The authorities.
MG: The police.
JL: I can’t say I’ve read everything you’ve written, I haven’t.
MG: Of course not. You’re not writing a PhD, for God’s sake.
JL: But every time I go back to one of your stories, it’s absolutely fresh. It never tires. There’s something so alive about your work. I can never just say, ‘Oh, I’ve read that one.’ No matter how many times I’ve read it. That experience is very rare.
MG: That’s very good to hear for my age. My point in life. It’s good to hear that you feel that.
JL: That’s why I’ve read some of your stories literally a dozen or fifteen times. I keep turning to them. I can never fully take them in. I mean
that in a good way.
MG: I had that experience with Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Mysterious Kôr’. I knew it almost by heart. It’s one of her wartime London stories. It’s a couple in the blackout with a bright moon. He’s leaving, he’s got one day’s leave. They go hand in hand, they look at a park. They have nowhere to sleep together is what I’m trying to say. She starts to recite Andrew Lang’s ‘Mysterious Kôr’ by moonlight. He’s probably someone who’s never heard a poem in his life, but he listens. And she is living in London with another young woman whose apartment it is and who is very – I can’t say prudish because that was the period. So this girl is trying to get the girl who owns this apartment to go to a hotel for a night. And she says, ‘Oh my dear, I don’t think your mother would want me to do that. I don’t mind playing gooseberry.’ You know what a gooseberry was? The chaperone.
JL: What do you admire in particular about Bowen?
MG: Oh, I loved her stories.
JL: Did you ever meet her?
MG: I never tried to. But there’s a book of her love letters to Charles Ritchie, and I did know him very well. He was Canadian. I knew his whole family. I was married from his aunt’s house in Ottawa. Bowen was married to the head of the BBC and it was an unconsummated marriage. I don’t know what happened. She wouldn’t leave him to go marry Ritchie, the love of her life and her lover for years. And he got fed up with the situation. In the long run he may have felt it was humiliating for him to hang around.
JL: Have you kept count of how many stories you’ve written?
MG: There are over one hundred in The New Yorker. My files were always a big mess. When did we find out how many stories there were? Oh yes, when they were putting together what I call The Big Book (the Collected Stories, also called the Selected Stories in Britain and Canada). There were over one hundred published in The New Yorker and then those that were published elsewhere. At the beginning they didn’t take everything I sent so they appeared in other magazines like Glamour and Esquire. There weren’t many outlets for fiction.
JL: Now even less so.
MG: I don’t understand why they train students to write short stories when there’s so little outlet for them.
JL: I think they’re easier to respond to. My sense is that it’s easier to tell a student what’s working and not working in ten pages than in two hundred and fifty. When I first started writing, my efforts were just two or four pages. I didn’t write more because I wanted to make sure those two or four pages were okay. I’ve crept incrementally toward longer work.
MG: I don’t approve of writing classes for people with no talent.
JL: I don’t know if I would ever have written fiction if I hadn’t been in a class where someone encouraged me.
MG: Encouragement is different. But to teach them, how can you do that? And your teacher’s only one person. There might be ten other people who read your work in ten different ways. I had a student in Toronto with talent and I had made her swear she wouldn’t go to writing class after I’d gone back to Paris. I said, ‘Above all don’t go to one of those writing classes where other students criticize your work, because they’re only going to look for things to pick on. Just read and read and go your own way.’ It’s not called a class, it’s a writing—
MG: No, that’s easy. Some junkie word.
JL: Do you work on more than one thing at the same time?
MG: Yes, I’ve done that. Unless there’s a point with the story when I can’t do anything else. And at that point the flowers die because I don’t change the water, dishes are in the sink. But that’s when the story is almost ready and I stay with it.
JL: Last summer I visited the home of Marguerite Yourcenar, the Belgian-born French novelist who spent the latter part of her life in the United States. She had a house on Mount Desert Island, in Maine. It’s called Petite Plaisance.
MG: Is it kept as a shrine?
JL: It’s a sort of museum. They have everything preserved. Her rooms, her things, her books, her kitchen. She kept her refrigerator in a closet. It’s a tiny little house, tiny rooms you walk in and out of. Her office is very lovely. She and Grace Frick sat at a single desk, facing one another.
MG: You mean she was able to work with someone else in the room?
MG: What was Grace Frick working on?
JL: She was translating. When I came back from Maine, I read your essay on Yourcenar, ‘Limpid Pessimist’, in the New York Review of Books. You quote a phrase of hers: ‘useless chaos’. And then you write that ‘useless chaos is what fiction is about’. I keep turning that over in my head. I love her work, though I haven’t read her in French.
MG: The translations are uniformly terrible. She would not accept anything that was not a word-for-word translation.
JL: And she collaborated on her own translations.
MG: Yes, but that was a tragedy. I don’t think Yourcenar had a sense of English. Apparently Grace Frick didn’t, either. If you translate French to English word for word, it goes on and on like a dead old spider web in the dust. I think that’s one of the reasons she didn’t have the Nobel. The committee only reads in Swedish translations or English. They probably got lost halfway through every book. Her lovely work was really her autobiographical work. They rang true and were wonderfully written.
JL: You grew up with your two distinct realities, privy to two languages, two ways of life, two sets of attitudes. It reminds me of my own upbringing. When I was growing up with that double life, I felt a lot of anxiety. Did you feel that?
MG: No. I spoke English at home and French when I was going to French schools.
JL: And you accepted it.
MG: I accepted most things like that. I don’t look back at anything being very hard except the death of my father and my mother’s remarriage and her abandonment of me. I found it very hard to be in the world without a father. I had no one to stick up for me. My one desire was to grow up and get away.
JL: Did you feel that you had a certain advantage, being able to speak the two languages?
MG: I remember we spent summers in a house in a town called Chateauguay, outside Montreal. I played with French-Canadian children on the farm where we bought eggs and chickens. Their name was Dansereau. I had English-speaking friends too, but I couldn’t mix them. I remember my best friend was called Dottie Hill. She was so fair she looked albino: blue eyes and little stubby white lashes, flaxen hair. I remember a sister and brother from the farm came, peering through the vines that surrounded the gallery, and I said, ‘Come on.’ They didn’t want to come because we were speaking English, and Dottie said, very prudently, ‘Do you play with them?’ And I said, ‘Yes’.
JL: That’s admirable of you. When I was a child I only wanted life to be a single way. I didn’t appreciate knowing a second language. I wanted to hide the things that marked me as different.
MG: For me it was comme ça. There were things I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to play the piano, I don’t know why. I came from a family where everybody played instruments. My father, as a young man, played cello. He brought it with him from England as a young man. It was behind the sofa chez nous. You’d see the case lying on its side.
JL: Did he keep it up?
MG: By the time I became conscious of it, no, but before, apparently yes. My mother played the violin and my grandmother played the piano. They played together. When my mother was in a good mood and wanted to amuse me, she’d make it speak.
JL: The violin?
MG: I’d say, ‘What is it saying?’ And she’d say, ‘It’s saying it’s time for Mavis to go to bed.’ ‘No it isn’t!’ That was when she was in a good mood.
JL: You were adamant about not wanting to play piano, but you love music.
MG: I love music. It’s been part of my life. When I hear something on the radio in the middle of something, I’m a step ahead of them. I know the notes that are coming, I know the pauses. I just did not want, myself, to do it, and I don’t know why. I was very stubborn about it and I would sit and cry. I married a musician, and he wanted to teach me the piano, but the moment he said, ‘This is middle C, ’I said, ‘Don’t do it! Please, no!’ It seemed to me a lot of fiddling. It wasn’t what I wanted to learn.
JL: What did you want to learn?
MG: I liked to read a lot. I painted with paint boxes. I had lovely paint boxes.
JL: When you were able to get around more easily, did you like going to museums here in Paris?
MG: One of the things I miss now is going to art galleries. Walking and standing – it’s too difficult.
JL: Who are some of the painters you love?
MG: I love Goya. I’m not crazy about all the Impressionists, but I like Manet. I react to certain painters. De Staël I love. There’s not much I turn away from. I don’t like Dalí. It’s fake. To me, anyway.
JL: Do you reread a lot?
MG: I was hospitalized for two months last year, and I was just thinking this morning, I wouldn’t want to be back there, but I missed the time I had to read. Marilyn Hacker, the American poet, told me that every time she came to see me I was either reading or writing. She came two or three times a week. And I thought this morning, I wish I had that time again. My life – I’m not grumbling, I’m just telling you – is not quite in my hands, it’s in the hands of visiting nurses, doctors and all that. It’s chopped up. In the hospital, for hours, I just sat and read. Or I walked in the corridor for exercise, hanging onto something on the wall. I reread Tolstoy. My friends all bought me different kinds of books. As soon as I finished one, I’d take another. I hadn’t read that way since I was an adolescent.
JL: I can’t do that any more myself. I remember, a few months ago, I was on the subway in New York. I had a book in my hands. And I saw a young woman across the aisle with a book in her hands, but she was pouring her whole body into it.
MG: She was living it.
JL: It was incredible. I looked at her and for a moment I felt intense envy, because I can’t attain that degree of connection with books in my life now. It’s too difficult. What are you reading now?
MG: Different things. There’s a pile on my kitchen table. But I can’t just finish a book and pick up another one. I don’t have that kind of time. For one thing, I’m slower physically.
JL: In a television interview you did in 2005 with the Canadian journalist, Stéphan Bureau, you said, ‘One can’t become something.’ You were talking about one’s origins.
MG: I’m not patriotic. Certainly not nationalist. You can’t turn into something. I could have had an American passport. I could also have had a British one.
JL: I feel in my life that I’m always becoming something, because I never felt I was any one thing to begin with. I was born in London, and when my parents moved to the United States we had green cards, and I was appended to my mother’s Indian passport.
MG: How old were you when you moved?
JL: I was two when we left London. My Indian passport always bothered me as a child, because I hadn’t been born there. Then it was time to go to college, and for practical reasons, in terms of what it meant to be a resident alien versus a citizen, I was naturalized and received an American passport. Then eventually it began to bother me that I didn’t have my English passport, because I was born there. So in my late twenties I applied, and the next thing I knew, the maroon thing embossed with a lion and a unicorn arrived.
MG: What do you use when going over a border?
JL: It depends on where I’m going. I always bring my UK passport when I’m in Europe now, since it’s part of the European Union.
MG: In other words, the passport has no meaning any more.
JL: No. Mine never has. Though it does to other people, and I can understand that. I remember when my mother became a US citizen, it was a traumatic experience for her.
MG: She didn’t have both?
MG: They let Canadians have both.
JL: America is full of people who feel they are becoming something. Because it’s such a relatively young country, there’s a process of becoming American. There’s the possibility of it. I don’t know if it happens in the same way in other countries. When I was growing up in the United States, I never felt American because I never felt I could get away with calling myself an American. People would question it, because of my name and appearance, and some still do. It’s taken me about forty years to feel I can say that, and now I do feel more American than I used to, but still with caveats.
MG: Are you married to an American?
JL: An American citizen, yes. My husband grew up in various parts of the world.
MG: I didn’t feel I needed an extra passport. I can go anywhere in the world with a Canadian passport.
JL: You’ve lived here for so many years. How do the French regard you? Does it matter to you, how they regard you?
MG: Canadian. If they ask me I tell them, ‘Je suis Canadienne.’ It is what I am, it’s just a fact of life. It could have been another fact. I could have been something else. It’s part of the deal, one of the cards they gave me when I was born. Then you don’t think about it. That’s that, that’s settled.
JL: It never felt settled to me. I still sometimes wish I had the ability to say I’m from one place. That‘I’m X.’ I always have to say, ‘I’m XYZ.’
MG: I haven’t any desire to get a French passport. I’m not French. I’m not British. You would have had to reject where you were born, and I didn’t want to.
JL: I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my parents had never left India, or never left London. I think I might not have become a writer. Do you ever think about what would have happened if you hadn’t come to Paris?
MG: I would not have stayed in Canada. The government in Quebec at that time was very right wing, under the heel of a particularly repressive Catholic Church. I told you about the Padlock Law, didn’t I? There was a law passed while I was there, working for the Standard, that if anyone had left-wing literature, even private correspondence in their home, the police could enter – they didn’t have to have a search warrant – and they could put you out of your home and padlock the door behind you. I couldn’t get the English Canadians worried about this because it seldom happened to them. No one would come into an English Canadian’s home unless he was poor or unless he was left wing and Jewish. The majority of the French Canadians thought if you were in any way left wing there was something wrong with you. I covered a number of strikes as a reporter. I had very fixed ideas on the subject. And I thought, ‘I can’t go on living here, I’m going to end up with no soul, just me waving my hat or shutting up.’ So I would not have stayed. But it seemed natural. I thought about living in France from the time I was fourteen or fifteen. But it came from films, prewar films, and books.
JL: The idea to come to France?
MG: La vie en France. I would not have been happy if I had not tried. I had to try and I had to do it before I was thirty. I didn’t want to marry again. I travelled alone most of the time. I liked it. When you’re young you meet people very easily. You stand on a street corner and you have to beat them off with a baseball bat.
JL: How did you feel about John Updike’s recent death? Did you like his work?
MG: I liked a lot of it. He didn’t like me as a person. I don’t know why. He once reviewed me nicely. He said I wrote nicely about men. I loved his first book, The Poorhouse Fair, and his short stories. He was a real writer – I mean that he could not have been anything else. I didn’t like Couples. I thought he was a puritan in territory where he didn’t belong.
JL: I liked him for always writing stories along with novels. For not abandoning them.
MG: And he wrote poetry, and he wrote criticism, and wrote about art.
JL: I agree with him that you write well about men. I admire Richard Yates, but when I read Revolutionary Road I thought to myself, ‘This could only have been written by a man.’ Do you ever think that about something you’ve read?
MG: Oh yes. One thing is, men don’t know how women talk when they’re together, just as we really don’t know how men talk among themselves. You have to rather intuit it from something the man will let drop. And you’ll think, ‘Oh, so they do gossip.’
JL: People often ask me a question I find ridiculous. They ask why the main character of my novel is male. They think it’s something radical I’ve done. And I want to say, ‘Well have you ever read any Mavis Gallant? Every other story is from the point of view of a man.’ Or, ‘Have you read Chekhov, where every other story is from the point of view of a woman?’
MG: Not to speak of Flaubert.
JL: People seem to have no context about the history of writing and what writers have done all along.
MG: But you have to be careful. When I wasn’t sure about something I’d written about a man I’d show it to a man friend, but never an intellectual.
JL: And did they ever say anything?
MG: Once. I had one scientific friend I’d ask to be a reader. Someone who didn’t want to write himself. It was a story called ‘Potter’. I wanted to make absolutely sure I wouldn’t fall flat on my face because that was a tricky one. He was not only a man but he was another nationality.
MG: Polish, right. And it was set at the period of the Wall. I was very close to the Polish diaspora in Paris, the intellectuals who’d fled the communists. So I knew how they thought, but how to express their thoughts? So I gave it to this fellow who’s actually German. And I said, ‘If there’s anything there that a man wouldn’t say or do, in your opinion, tell me.’ And there was one thing: it was a man who burst into tears on the street. And he said, ‘I’ve never seen a guy do that.’
JL: What did you do? Did you take it out?
MG: I took it out. I just cut it out with scissors and pasted the page together with Scotch tape. It was just a sentence. I thought, I can’t take a chance with this. But then, imagine what happened. I was in the post office here in Paris, and there was a fellow getting his mail from the Poste Restante. I went over, there was a ledge where you could put stamps on letters, and I was there stamping with stamps I’d just bought. And he was there next to me, and there fell out of an envelope a picture of a very young woman with a baby, and he burst into tears. And his tears were falling, and he didn’t care if I was there or if anybody was there. And I thought, this is somebody looking for a job in France. I don’t know where they come from. Tears were falling and I thought, ‘I should have left it in, maybe.’ On the other hand, many men reading might have said, ‘What kind of person is this?’ We have very little weeping in the streets. I’d never actually seen that myself, but I could imagine it. In ‘Potter’ he sees something that reminds him of her in the street, some oranges marked ‘Venice’. I didn’t mean he was standing there sobbing, just that he brimmed over. I’ve seen men wipe their eyes at funerals.
JL: Once I showed a story to my husband. I don’t think we were married yet. I’d written a story from a male point of view and I wasn’t sure about it. He said one thing. The story is about a husband and a wife, told from the husband’s point of view. At one point the husband is looking at his wife’s shoe. And my husband said, ‘He wouldn’t think of the shoe in such detail.’
MG: I don’t agree with that.
JL: He said there was something too technical about my description of the shoe, something a man wouldn’t know. That he would perceive it in other terms.
MG: So you took it out.
JL: I altered it. I made it less specific. Did you ever work in cafes?
MG: As a waitress?
JL: I meant to write in.
MG: No. People worked in cafes when their homes weren’t heated. Particularly in the war. That’s when you had Simone de Beauvoir and all those people working in cafes, because they had a modicum of heat. There was a cafe near where I lived, on the corner of my street, but now, unfortunately, it’s a restaurant. I used to be able to go in there at any hour and ask if there was something to eat. I could go in at three o’clock in the afternoon and say, ‘Whatever you have, heat it up.’ As long as it wasn’t spinach, which I don’t like. They would save it for me and they would let me have a marble-topped table for four next to a window. I’d bring proofs to correct. I was never bothered by the noise of people talking. But it’s a restaurant now. And I miss it.
JL: I thought we could talk today about ‘The Carette Sisters’. Here’s a case where you group a few stories together, something you’ve done a number of times, something I like very much and tried doing myself in my last book. When was the first time you decided to do that?
MG: My dear, I don’t know. You’d have to ask a universitaire for that. I have absolutely no idea when I thought of this. Usually I thought of a novel. And then I would not do the novel because, as we discussed, there are only certain points in a life that are turning points.
JL: And you wanted to stick to the turning points?
MG: Yes. Those are the important ones.
JL: In this case, did you write the sections as sections?
MG: I didn’t write a whole novel, no. Some of it was already written. And the curve of the thing, I knew who they were, I knew what it was about. There’s space between them, time between them, because sometimes I’d work on something else and come back to it.
JL: These were published in the 1980s. Was there any reason, when you were working on these stories, why you were going back to Montreal in your mind?
MG: I couldn’t tell you. If I knew that I’d stop writing.
MG: Because it has to come from something unknown in you. If I knew that I wouldn’t bother writing. I’d be something else. I’d be a champion cricket player. Maybe I am a champion cricket player, in another life.
JL: The first story begins with an ending, with a husband dying. Madame Carette is twenty-seven years old and left with two young daughters. Yesterday we talked about ‘The Remission’, which is a story about a husband dying, and a soon-to-be widow with children. Madame Carette’s life takes such a different path after her husband dies. She remains a widow and dresses in half-mourning, whereas Barbara, in ‘The Remission’, takes a lover before her husband is in the grave. Not knowing either of those times personally, and granting that they are very different characters, I wonder, how did society change for women between those periods? Specifically, for women who had lost their husbands?
MG: The circumstances are already different because the Carette girls were meant to work. They grew up with the idea of having jobs.
JL: And there’s also the expectation for them to get married.
MG: That was universal in those days. I had it, not the same way, but I saw it. When I was seventeen I had a girlfriend, we were in school together. One day she told me a dreadful secret. She’d ‘gone all the way’, as we used to hear, with an older boy. And this was very secret. I said, ‘You’re not pregnant, are you?’ She said, ‘No’. And I said, ‘You mustn’t imagine your life is over.’ But secretly I thought, ‘Who ever will marry her?’
JL: That was the way it was.
MG: In the first place there was no birth control. There was a terrible risk all the time. To us condoms were for whores and sailors. Or soldiers. And so there was a terrible fear, I mean the fear of pregnancy was very real. There was no question of abortion, it wouldn’t cross your mind. And you were cast out of society, the society you knew. We lived in fear. And it was up to women, girls, to prevent it going that far. If you didn’t say hands off, they wouldn’t be hands off. It was completely unnatural, but the consequences were dire. You can’t imagine now. Babies being born and being given immediately up for adoption, back-street abortions. A girl who had a baby could be sent away, far from her family. So you have to put yourself back in that time.
JL: It’s true that these stories are set in a time I haven’t known. And yet ‘The Chosen Husband’, which is about finding Madame Carette’s daughter, Marie, a suitable husband – arranging the match and chaperoning their meetings – reminds me of some of the old-fashioned expectations with which I was raised.
MG: Because of India?
JL: Because of the culture my parents came from, yes.
MG: But you came into a culture with birth control.
JL: I did. But throughout my adolescence the expectation in my family was for a young woman to remain sexually pure and then to get married, even though I was raised in a time and place when that was no longer the norm, and not at all how most of my peers were raised. The fact that I didn’t get married until I was thirty-three was considered very old and unconventional by much of my parents’ crowd.
MG: And they were worried about that?
JL: I think my parents tried not to worry, but it was there. My relatives in India were distressed when I would visit at the age of twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine… ‘Find her a husband, time’s running out’, etc. So my parents had to decide to trust me.
MG: Did they push you?
JL: There was some pressure, yes. I could never fully ignore it. When I was a teenager the idea of being married off to someone I didn’t know or like was a real terror to me. But that’s why, when I read these stories, I understand some of that attitude. The way the minute Madame Carette sees Louis Driscoll, Marie’s suitor, and notes his ultramarine eyes, she immediately thinks ahead and hopes her grandchildren will inherit that colour. It’s something I recognize.
MG: I can’t imagine writing something that doesn’t have a time attached and I don’t like reading something that could happen anytime, anywhere. For example, in Green Water, the story when they’re on the beach. It’s early morning and the Vespas are starting. A translator who wanted to translate this into French said she wanted to take out any mention that it is the fifties. And I said, ‘No, I’m not making these changes.’
JL: What was her point?
MG: To bring it up to date.
JL: That’s something I don’t understand.
MG: She thought readers would not understand what a Vespa was. But one of the things I remember from that period is when they would start up in the morning. They’d rush along the roads. The Lambrettas too. When I’m reading, I like it if there’s a mention of something that doesn’t exist any more.
JL: I agree.
MG: Like a man giving a lady a light for her cigarette. It was very complex (leans over, imitating the gesture). That was part of the seduction of the period, which I particularly noticed when I came to Europe. I’d been at a newspaper where they’d bang you on the back with the flat of the hand and say ‘Hi, Mavis!’ Then I came here where they were kissing my hand up to the elbow.
JL: The first of these stories begins in 1933, in Montreal. You would have been eleven years old that year.
MG: In 1936 I moved to New York, and when I came back at eighteen, I stayed with my old nurse. No one in Montreal knew I was coming. I got out at the railway station called Bonaventure, which doesn’t exist any more, in Montreal, and I looked her up in the phone book. When I didn’t find her, I searched the ‘Red Book’, a directory of Montreal addresses. I remembered her name and I took it for granted she would take me in. It never dawned on me that she might not even remember me. I had my last five dollars and I got into the taxi. It would have been sixty cents in the taxi. So I took a taxi to that address. It was the east end of Montreal. I went up some steep indoor stairs. Her house was very old and I trudged up those stairs. I was carrying two things: a suitcase and a typewriter that someone had given me. If you wanted to get any job at all, even as a hairdresser, as a woman, you had to learn to type, and I’d done that. I had left a trunk at the station. And she opened the door and she was smaller than I was! In my memory of her in my early childhood, I was always looking up. She didn’t understand who I was, and I told her, and she said, ‘Tu vis?’ ‘You’re alive?’ And she let me in. At that point she did have a phone – I don’t know why she wasn’t in the phone book – and she called her daughter and she called her son and they came rushing to see me. They had been told I was dead. They’d been having a Mass said for me every birthday every year. They thought I was very tall: ‘Tu est belle, tu est grande!’ I was five foot three.
JL: You write about this return to Montreal in the Linnet Muir stories.
MG: In disguise.
JL: But as you tell the story, I remember reading the fictional version, and Linnet going up the steep staircase.
MG: We had tea. She brought out a big pot of honey with pictures of bees on the outside. I remember picking up the honey pot to help her, and it was sticky and I said, ‘C’est collant.’ I was speaking minimal French, but it began to come back. She asked what my plans were, and I said I was going to get a job. The very next day I looked for jobs. She gave me a room on the other side of the kitchen. It was a real room with a radiator, a dresser. It was clean as a whistle – she had a passion for cleaning. I think my rent was two dollars a week. When I started to get my pay we raised it to five. I was perfectly happy with her. We went over the past. I filled in what she didn’t know and she filled in what I didn’t know. They had adored me when I was a baby. Her son said, ‘My mother and sister were so crazy about you that they used to watch you sleeping.’
JL: Those are the moments I feel the strongest love for my children, when I watch them sleeping. It all comes together then.
MG: I’m sure.
JL: Of course, they can’t bother you in those moments.
MG: She was a widow, my nurse. She was a seamstress. In those days, bourgeois people had a seamstress come to the house who did the curtains, shortened the lengths on the winter coats or made one from scratch, worked a certain number of hours. She did work for my grandmother.
JL: Did she inspire the character of Madame Carette at all, a woman who takes in sewing after her husband dies?
MG: No, Madame Carette is something else altogether.
JL: The bond between Marie and Berthe, the sisters in these stories, is very strong. They protect each other all their lives. You were an only child. Did you ever feel the lack of a sibling?
MG: I thought it would be nice to have a brother. My father and mother both encouraged me to be friends with children from other families, go to their birthday parties, this and that. I was horrified because they were always quarrelling. I was bewildered by this.
JL: The relationship between Marie and Berthe is one of the most loving relationships, I think, in all your work.
MG: Wouldn’t it be natural?
JL: It’s not always the case. Marie and Berthe remain so devoted to each other. They almost have their own sort of marriage.
MG: They hold hands behind the groom’s back.
JL: Berthe never marries. She earns her own money and buys her own fur coats.
MG: That was just beginning. Just the beginning of the change in Quebec.
JL: Raymond, Marie’s son, loses his father as well. Not at such a young age as his mother loses her father, but still fairly young. And then he’s raised by women. I saw a little of myself in Raymond.
JL: The part in Florida, when his mother comes and he points out all the Canadian things in Florida. It’s the sort of thing I would say to my mother if she came to visit me. I would go out of my way to find things in the US to remind her of Calcutta. I thought it would console her, to see signs of the place she missed. Also, the way they communicate. The coexistence of two languages, the separate but simultaneous conversations taking place. Raymond wants to tune out his mother speaking French, but he can’t. He’s a hybrid, like me.
MG: He’s a high-school dropout.
JL: He goes to fight for the Americans inVietnam, and meanwhile the Americans who didn’t want to fight in that war were running to Canada.
MG: Did you think of that?
JL: At the end of the story, Marie and her daughter-in-law, Mimi, who is pregnant, have a surprising moment of connection. One minute Marie is suffering through Mimi’s shrimp and rice, but then, when Raymond and Mimi fight and Raymond storms out, Marie physically enfolds Mimi and says, ‘count on me’. It seemed very much a cycle of stories of the various bonds between women. Mothers, daughters, sisters. I found it very beautiful, looking at those connections.
MG: Well, I believe in that. There’s a different kind of bond with men. It’s a different thing altogether.
JL: I missed Madame Carette after she died. You don’t mention her death, but I felt her absence. In those scenes when Louis comes to visit, there’s something of the writer in her, the way she scrutinizes and sizes up a potential son-in-law. No detail escapes her.
MG: You think so? It wasn’t meant to be. She would never write books. She would read newspapers.
JL: But she shares a certain trait with writers.
MG: You know, children have it. They lose it. They can come into a room and feel every tension between the adults. And not have the vocabulary for it, but they notice.
JL: Where did you come up with the idea of Marie being electric? Her thinking she’s picking up a current?
MG: In Montreal there were all sorts of rumours about electricity, because when you came in out of the cold you could strike sparks. The doors in houses in Montreal had that brass letter drop where the postman puts the mail. It’s brass all round, and there’s a little flap that comes down. Children were always calling through the mailbox, ‘I have to go to the bathroom, Mummy!’ Otherwise they wouldn’t let you in. They were having tea with cinnamon toast indoors, and we were out there freezing under grey skies. And they’d say, ‘Don’t put your tongue on the metal. It sticks.’ But if you rubbed the metal, you might see a spark.
JL: I remember my mother telling me once that my grandmother was afraid of getting a shock from a light switch, and so she would protect her finger with the material of her sari when she turned the switch on and off. When I read this story, I remembered that detail my mother had told me about my grandmother.
MG: It depended on how cold your hands were, how cold it was outside, what it was like when you came in. And your feet shuffling on certain carpets.
JL: Did you ever know anybody like Marie, who was convinced she was electric?
MG: No, I just meant she was a bit dumb.
JL: It’s idiotic, but it’s also profound. ‘We’ve got to make sure we’re grounded, ’she says at the end of the story. There’s a meaning to that, even though she may not know what it is.
MG: I like ‘1933’, the one where they’re little girls. And the dog.
JL: The bilingual dog. There’s a lot in this story about the specificity of origin. There’s no such thing as simply Canadian. That really comes across.
MG: There’s no such thing as a Canadian childhood. I’ve written about that in the introduction in The Big Book. You’re Protestant or Catholic. You’re East or West.
JL: Do you have any stories that you feel haven’t been properly understood? Or do you not think about that?
MG: There’s bound to be things that aren’t understood. But you can still read a story. There’s one, ‘The Pegnitz Junction’.
JL: The characters in that story are German. What drew you to those characters?
MG: One of the things I wanted to know more about when I came to Europe was what really happened in Germany in the war. Because I could not understand how people so cultured – they have such extraordinary culture there could do the things they let be done. And that came to me as a way of doing it. A great deal of it is satire on already published things. Kafka’s The Castle. Wilhelm Busch. I used Busch names for the boys watching the train go by at a level crossing. Actually, only a German who had been given Busch as a child would spot that.
JL: Did you ever take a train journey like that?
MG: I took a very long journey. I’ve forgotten which year. On the German side – this was a long, long, long time ago – they changed to an old steam train. I started going to Germany in the Fifties but not right away. I didn’t want to go there because I was distressed by what had happened. Did I tell you about my first seeing photographs?
MG: We really didn’t know what was happening, that’s the God’s truth. I was working at the newspaper. I thought the Germans shot Jews by firing squad. That’s what I believed. That any Jew who got out of handcuffs got shot. It was an enormous shock, and I had to write about it. The editor had the pictures face down on his desk. He turned them over very quickly and I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I had to write eight hundred words and all the photo captions. I asked if I could take them home. He said, ‘You can’t show them to anybody,’ because there was a fixed, international date for publication. But I had a friend, a young doctor in the army who was home on leave, and I showed him the pictures. ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ I asked him. He said he thought they must be prisoners suffering from untreated tuberculosis. Actually, they had been systematically starved, but we couldn’t imagine that. We couldn’t take it in. Once I got on the subject, I wanted to go to the very end of it. The shorter stories in the collection The Pegnitz Junction are post-war. The book was published in 1973. I still think the title story is perhaps my best work. Everything is involved.
JL: Did you feel that as you were writing it?
MG: No. A lot of people didn’t understand it but mostly they could read it for some sort of magic realism. I don’t like magic realism at all. Like the girl on the train hearing this information. I didn’t do anything else along that line. That is the book that’s had the most written about it. MAs, that kind of thing. At least, the most who have come to me for help.
JL: Was the story too long for The New Yorker?
MG: It was returned to me because it was too long. William Maxwell said we can run the last sixteen pages and I said I wouldn’t do it, because I knew this book was coming out anyway a year later. Years later, in the nineties, not long before he died, he reread all my work and he wrote me a letter of apology. He said, ‘I don’t know what was wrong with me. My mind must have been out to lunch.’ Imagine an editor saying that. He said also that he had felt bound by The New Yorker’s policy that fiction had to be linear. And this wasn’t, it went all over the place.
JL: Do you still read The New Yorker?
MG: It’s the one thing in life I’ve ever had free. I probably don’t read every word now. Sometimes I come across a story that I think is marvellous. With some I read the beginning, the end, a bit in the middle, and I think, ‘That to get to that?’
JL: It was a different magazine when you started appearing in it.
MG: You opened on to a story. It was a literary journal.
JL: How does your writing life change as you grow older?
MG: It changes in the sense that I have no hands any more.
JL: Holding a pen is difficult?
MG: I find it harder and harder.
JL: And the things you’ve been compelled to write about, to think about, to express – how does that evolve over the years?
MG: I’ll tell you what happens when you get older. Things seem inevitable.
JL: In the writing?
MG: No, in life. They seem inevitable in some way. You feel less— I don’t know what it is. You don’t lose compassion. You know, men have died and worms have eaten but never I think for love. Shakespeare had it.
JL: What are you working on now?
MG: I’m working on a story about my imaginary writer, Henri Grippes. And I do want to finish that. But it’s massive, unreadable at the moment. I should have a clear mind, but ever since I came out of hospital everything seems a burden sometimes.
JL: Does the writing feel like a burden?
MG: Not the writing, but finding the time. I got to the point the other day, I said to myself, ‘Are you sad because you left the hospital?’
JL: You were writing in the hospital, you said.
MG: I took up a journal because I didn’t want to forget.
JL: What was happening to you?
MG: Not to me, but around me. Because I was eighty-five I was taken to a geriatric hospital. Some patients had gallstones, some chronic bronchitis and some had Alzheimer’s. I’d never seen Alzheimer patients before. So I took notes. Rereading this set of notebooks, I found that I gave everybody a nickname because I was afraid the nurses or someone could read English and would recognize themselves.
JL: Do your journals ever give you ideas for writing stories?
MG: No, but they give me ideas of how things were. What was going on around that time. Sometimes descriptions of cities take you back. Not really people. Or they’re people I’ve just had a glimpse of. I find them stuck back there in the brain. Like the Englishwoman I told you about yesterday, about the skirt. The one who said, ‘My dear, are you a Scot?’ I would not have remembered that if I hadn’t written it.