Interviews

Mavis Gallant, The Art of Fiction No. 160

Interviewed by Daphne Kalotay

Mavis Gallant was born in Montreal in 1922, the only child of an Anglo-Scottish businessman and his American wife. Her father, an amateur painter, died when she was ten; her mother soon remarried. The remainder of Gallant’s childhood was unsettled—the family moved frequently, and in the next eight years she attended seventeen different schools before graduating high school in New York City.

At the age of eighteen she returned, alone, to Montreal. She worked briefly for the Canadian Film Board, then for The Standard—interviewing Jean-Paul Sartre, among others; reviewing film; writing features and a weekly column. In 1950, keeping a promise to herself to leave journalism by her thirtieth birthday, she resigned from the newspaper. A few days later, she submitted her first story to The New Yorker, which was returned with a note asking to see more work; her second submission, “Madeline’s Birthday,” was accepted. Her fiction has continued to appear in The New Yorker over the years—indeed only S. J. Perelman and John Updike have published more pieces in that magazine’s pages.

Soon after quitting journalism, Gallant left for Europe to try to make her living as a full-time fiction writer: “I believed that if I was to call myself a writer, I should live on writing. If I could not live on it, even simply, I should destroy every scrap, every trace, every notebook and live some other way.” After traveling for a time she settled in Paris, where she still lives today.

Gallant has published ten collections of short fiction, two novels, and a play, as well as numerous essays and reviews. Her first book, the story collection The Other Paris, appeared in 1956; a novel, Green Water, Green Sky, followed in 1959. Returning to the form after almost thirty years (her second novel, A Fairly Good Time, was published in 1970), she currently is completing her third novel. In 1981, after the publication of Home Truths, subtitled Canadian Stories, she received the Order of Canada as well as the Governor General’s Award, that country’s highest literary honor. Her Collected Stories, almost a thousand pages, was published to acclaim in 1996 and received the Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts.

The first interview was conducted outdoors at Le Select in Paris on a late afternoon in August of 1996. Gallant had suggested the café, which is not far from her apartment in the Montparnasse neighborhood. Surrounded by street bustle and occasionally interrupted (Gallant has lived in the neighborhood for decades and knows a number of regulars at the café), the conversation continued well into the evening. Gallant’s voice is strong and girlish, her laugh youthful and frequent, often following the most deadpan of comments. The remainder of the interview took place through correspondence.

 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve lived in France for almost fifty years making your living as a writer in English. Obviously you thrive in this circumstance. Why?

MAVIS GALLANT

Other writers have done the same. Marguerite Yourcenar and Saint-John Perse lived for years in the United States but continued to write in French. The French novelist Michel Deon lives in Ireland. Elias Canetti lived in England but never wrote a line of English. W. G. Sebald has lived in England since the 1950s but still writes in German. Although I live in French—that is, in the course of a day I speak more French than English—anything that occurs in my mind, the writing part of my mind, occurs in English.

My first school was a French convent school in Montreal. If one adds those years to several decades lived in France, I’ve spent most of my life actually living in French. But I can’t make myself write in French, except letters to friends. Fiction arrives in my mind by way of English. Writing is English. Writing and English are inseparable. It may be the reason why the first flash of a story takes the form of a still, like a film suddenly stopped and, of course, perfectly silent. When the sound comes it is in English. I don’t think I’m explaining it well. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think of yourself as a Parisian? An expatriate? 

GALLANT

I am a writer and, of course, a Canadian. Once, in Switzerland, emerging from a long anaesthetic, I had no idea where I was, or why. I knew only that I was a writer and from Quebec. I could hear someone speaking French and I thought I had been in a driving accident somewhere in Quebec. Finally I remembered my name.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still travel much outside France?

GALLANT

I go to Canada once or twice a year. Something I’d like to do is go back to every city I ever knew well in Europe, traveling by train. Every time I get back to Paris I realize it is my favorite place and I decide I will never pack a suitcase again. But then something comes up and I haul it out again.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you feel comfortable in any milieu—at home in any situation. Has there ever been a time when you felt uncomfortable—that you couldn’t suss out the situation?

GALLANT

Yes. I felt it when I visited the Soviet Union; I felt then that there was no contact possible. It was under Brezhnev. And, oddly enough, I felt that there was no contact possible once when traveling in Finland. I used to travel a lot alone by car; I’d fly somewhere, rent a car, and go around by myself. But in Finland I had no language contact—French was a dead loss and I was surprised how many people didn’t speak English. It’s the only country where I cut my traveling short. I was used to just talking to strangers. I wasn’t afraid at that time to pick up hitchhikers. I used to go places where I didn’t know a soul and I’d come back with a notebook full of addresses. It was something I liked doing—I adored driving. I always liked to be on my own. I don’t mean that I never traveled any other way. But there were other situations where I couldn’t connect and not only because of having no common language. It can happen in one’s own country too.

INTERVIEWER

When you say your own country—

GALLANT

Canada. I had no trouble fitting in once I arrived in Europe. I think now that I adapted very quickly to an imaginary place, as one might go through the looking glass or walk into a novel or painting.

INTERVIEWER

In what way? Intellectually?

GALLANT

Oh, intellectually, entirely. This was a long time ago, and Canada in the early fifties was an intellectual desert.

INTERVIEWER

And socially?

GALLANT

I had no problems. When I first came to Paris from Canada, somebody said, Oh, Mavis goes out with French people all the time. And somebody else said, Yeah, but she goes out with cops. She’ll go out with anybody; she goes out with cops. My attitude at the beginning was never to refuse an invitation—at the beginning. Well, unless it was something absolutely hopeless.

INTERVIEWER

You went to Europe to make your living as a fiction writer in 1950, when you were twenty-eight; you gave yourself two years to make a go of it—if you couldn’t make a living from your writing, you would quit. Did you have any doubts during those first two years?

GALLANT

It’s difficult to live on writing, especially the kind I produce. I set off without the least idea of what the difficulties would be. The only time I felt that I had made a terrible mistake was near the beginning, when I was living in Madrid. I had taken an agent in New York, someone who had written me when my first story appeared in The New Yorker. I looked up his name in a book called something like The Artists and Writers Yearbook in the USIS library in Salzburg. I thought it would be a good thing to have an agent in America because I was moving around all the time; it didn’t occur to me that someone with his name listed in such a book might not be respectable—it still puzzles me. I sent him stories, which he said he was unable to place. The truth was that he did place the stories but kept the money. To keep The New Yorker from finding out he wasn’t paying me, he had told the magazine my address was Poste Restante, Capri. The letters The New Yorker sent were returned, of course, but no one there knew much about me and they might easily have thought I was some sort of lunatic who did not pick up her mail. The result was that by the spring of 1952, in Madrid, I was destitute. I don’t mean hard up; I mean lacking in everything from food to paper to write on. But the worst of it was my belief that no one wanted to publish my work—I believed the agent when he said he appreciated the stories, but no one else did.

Then one day in Madrid I came across a copy of The New Yorker (I don’t remember where or how, for I could not have afforded to buy it) that to my intense astonishment contained a story of mine. I had met William Maxwell, my editor, in 1950 before I left for Europe, but we were still “Mrs. Gallant” and “Mr. Maxwell”—or would have been if I had received any of the mail he was trying to send me. He was my first fiction editor, a relationship that lasted for twenty-five years. Having him was an incredible stroke of luck. So I wrote, just saying that I wished I had been shown the galleys. I remember that his answer began “thank God we now know where you are” and that my agent had said I was in Capri. I hadn’t mentioned money—I seemed more upset that a story had been published without my being told—but he went on in the letter, More important, did you get the money for the two stories? Two stories? There were stories in other magazines as well. I shall spare you the rest of it, except to say that one day I read, I think in the Herald Tribune, that the agent had been killed in a motor crash.

The greatest damage, as far as I was concerned, was my loss of confidence. The feeling of hopelessness and dismay I experienced when I believed every story I sent him was a dead failure never really left me. Actually, almost every writer I’ve known has something of that. It is not uppermost in one’s mind. If it were, no one could ever write anything.

INTERVIEWER

What was your relationship with Maxwell like? What, if any, influence did he have on your writing?

GALLANT

Our relationship, to me, was the best possible. I had read his work before I ever met him but I didn’t realize at our first meeting that he was the same William Maxwell. He made no attempt to influence his writers.

INTERVIEWER

You dedicated your Collected Stories to him? 

GALLANT

And to Daniel Menaker, who took over when William Maxwell retired. The book is called Collected Stories but it contains only about half the published work.

INTERVIEWER

Will there ever be a complete collected stories?

GALLANT

You wouldn’t be able to pick it up. I wrote about a hundred and twenty pieces for The New Yorker alone. There’s no point in a book that size—you can’t carry it; you can’t read it in bed; you have to put it on a table. I had that novel by Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy, for a year on my kitchen table because I couldn’t carry it anywhere. I left it on the table and whenever I went for a cup of coffee I’d open the Vikram Seth and read a bit. It took me a whole year. 

INTERVIEWER

That’s true, if you can’t take it with you on the train or—

GALLANT

You can’t take it on a bus. I read in cafés and I like small books. I always have one in case I get stuck somewhere. I usually have a notebook too, and I write letters. 

INTERVIEWER

When your Collected Stories was published, reviewers seized the chance to reassess your entire body of fiction. How did their attention and praise affect you?

GALLANT

I was grateful no one said, She has wasted her time and ours as well. And I thought I was fortunate to have been allowed the collection and the assessment in my lifetime.

INTERVIEWER

What do you like most about your writing?

GALLANT

I don’t think I can answer that. I don’t think that one is impressed with one’s own work. I can’t imagine such a thing. It’s a question of getting it right; it’s not a question of admiring it.

INTERVIEWER

Would that be your answer then? That you can read it and say, This is right.

GALLANT

No. Even then one isn’t sure. I don’t think that writers look at their own work that way. In fact, I think that I’ve only written one thing that on rereading I thought, This is fine and I like it. The long story “The Pegnitz Junction”—it reads exactly as I wanted it to. I wrote it in a tearing hurry. It was as if it was all in my head and waiting to be written—almost like taking dictation. It was extraordinary.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing generally an enjoyable experience?

GALLANT

It’s like a love affair: the beginning is the best part.

INTERVIEWER

What is a typical day? Do you organize your day around writing or do you not need a schedule?

GALLANT

I write every day except when I am traveling—I gave up trying even to keep a travel journal years ago; it always sounds artificial. When I’m here, chez moi, I write every day as a matter of course. Most days in the morning but some days anytime, afternoon or evening. It depends on what I’m writing and the state of the thing. It is not a burden. It is the way I live.

INTERVIEWER

Has it ever been impossible to write? Have you never not had something in mind to write?

GALLANT

I can’t imagine not having something in mind.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any habits that help you write? 

GALLANT

Reading some poetry early in the morning is a habit—I read it before I start to work. Whenever people say, Nobody reads poetry anymore, I think, Well, I do. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you read in French or English?

GALLANT

I read French and English about equally. Out of habit, I read only English in the morning.

INTERVIEWER

How do you work? Do you still write in longhand?

GALLANT

I begin anything new by hand. Then I type it. Then I correct it by hand. Then I type it again and rewrite and correct again by hand. And so on. I’m often surprised at how many other people write by hand—I’m talking about fiction. I also start reviews and articles by hand but move rather faster into typing. I am not in the least anti-computer—it would be stupid. But the way I write works for me and I would be reluctant to make a radical change just to see what happened next. It might stop me cold.

INTERVIEWER

When you begin writing do you know whether it is a story or a novel?

GALLANT

I know from the beginning.

INTERVIEWER

What do you have in mind when you begin writing? The first sentence, the ending, the main theme, whether it will be in first or third person?

GALLANT

I think that I have the whole thing in mind. But I nearly always shorten.

INTERVIEWER

Before you moved to France you worked as a reporter. Do you think that your experience in journalism influenced your fiction writing?

GALLANT

Journalism did not influence my writing fiction. I worked on a newspaper—The Standard in Montreal, which disappeared a long time ago—and I wrote fiction at home. That is how I spent six years and three months of my twenties. It was my apprenticeship. I liked the work and I liked the life, but it wasn’t the life I wanted. I wanted to live in Paris and write nothing but fiction and be perfectly free. I had decided all this had to be settled by the time I was thirty, and so I gave up my job and moved to Paris at twenty-eight. I just held my breath and jumped. I didn’t even look to see if there was water in the pool. I didn’t write any nonfiction then for eighteen years, except for a journal I kept just as a sort of record for myself. Then I started writing nonfiction again, not steadily, just this and that, and I went back to it easily. I saw that one kind of writing didn’t interfere with the other. They were like parallel railway tracks. I still sometimes dream I am a reporter trying to interview strangers who speak a language I don’t understand. The circumstances are never the same, but that is the essence of it. I suppose that is the difference—anyway, one of the differences—between fiction and journalism. In fiction one not only knows what everyone is saying but their reasons for saying it. Nonfiction, by the way, is not easier to write. It’s just different.

INTERVIEWER

Does it bother you that there are true stories that you’ll never put down?

GALLANT

It depends on what you call a true story. A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction. (She became a critic, by the way.) 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been working on a nonfiction book about Dreyfus for some time. What is the status of the book? 

GALLANT

The status is that it’s a huge pile of manuscripts and research on the shelf—a real shelf in my linen closet between bath mats and towels, the only place where I could find room.

INTERVIEWER

Does it bother you to have an unfinished project? 

GALLANT

No. It is not permanently unfinished.

INTERVIEWER

You took a different approach in researching that book. A lot of historians had just looked at documents. You went out and talked to people.

GALLANT

I am not a historian. My training was as a journalist. When I was asked if I wanted to write about the Dreyfus affair (I accepted partly because no women had done it, except Hannah Arendt, and because I thought, foolishly, that I could do most of the research in eighteen months) I read what had been written and was dissatisfied. I felt as though I were reading about paper dolls. I decided to begin by finding people whose friends or relatives had in some way been connected to the case, even indirectly. So I did what I would have done as a journalist: I got out my Paris address book and called everyone in it. Less than a month later, I had an introduction to Dreyfus’s daughter, Mme. Jeanne Lévy. Then I had the luck to meet many direct descendants of people who actually figured in the case. I did not meet anyone descended from Esterhazy—the villain of the story. His two daughters died without leaving children. One, an actress, drowned herself in the Seine. The younger daughter died in poverty in a charitable institution of some kind. I discovered that a family I knew had known them, as well as Esterhazy’s wife, after he abandoned her and their small children and fled to England. During the Second World War the family took the daughters and their mother in. The girls were grown women by then, but they had no money and nowhere to go. They went down to Nantes from Paris and there their friends met them at the railway station. Esterhazy’s widow was dressed in old-fashioned widow’s weeds with the black veil blowing all over. She came down the steps outside the station with her two daughters, repeating over and over, I am Countess Esterhazy, the unhappiest woman in France.

INTERVIEWER

Living in France, do you miss the support of a local writing community?

GALLANT

Is a writing community “support”? Has it ever been? Support comes from readers, surely. In my experience, writers do not talk about their work to one another.

INTERVIEWER

With whom do you talk about your work—anyone?

GALLANT

Not if I can avoid it. 

INTERVIEWER

Do your French friends read your work?

GALLANT

My work was not translated into French until the late 1980s. For many years a number of my friends in France had no idea what I was up to—I did not make a mystery of anything; it was just like that. They knew I wrote, but it wasn’t until they actually had a French translation in hand that they understood.

INTERVIEWER

Have you found the French translations successful?

GALLANT

You mean, how do I feel about them? It depends entirely on the translator. Whatever it is, it isn’t what you’ve written—that can’t be helped. I knew that my work would be different in French because I don’t think in French when I’m writing; I think in English. Just as a French conversation is utterly different from a conversation in English, French translations can’t reflect what one writes in English. I want a translation to be good French and not word-for-word English. I once wrote a piece about Marguerite Yourcenar criticizing her English translations. I said that it was hard to impress on Americans that she’s a great writer because the translations are so awful. I had a nasty letter from one translator and then a nice one from the poet Richard Howard, who said, The trouble is you don’t realize how hard it is to translate “La Grande Mademoiselle” because she insists on word-for-word translation. She had said she didn’t want to be betrayed, but if you translate word for word into English, it reads like cement.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about the state of the short story?

GALLANT

With few exceptions, books of short stories seldom sell well. Short-story readers are a special kind of reader, like readers of poetry. Many novel readers don’t like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people. Of course, stories should not be read one after the other. A book of stories is not a novel. Someone once said to me, “Katherine Mansfield died before she was ready to write a novel. Perhaps she would never have been ready.” I thought that was just stupid.

INTERVIEWER

What about your audience? Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write?

GALLANT

Never. All I think about is making everything clear.

INTERVIEWER

Your stories are as fully realized as novels—they encompass entire lifetimes and histories yet remain stories. I’m not referring simply to length, but to the density of writing. That density of writing recalls Tolstoy’s stories and novellas.

GALLANT

I don’t think I was influenced by Tolstoy’s stories. Chekhov would have been more likely. I always have had a tendency in fiction to boil down, to shorten, to get rid of anything extraneous. I wish I could help you, for I do see what you mean; the trouble is that I really and truly do not analyze my own work. I want a story to be perfectly clear and I don’t want it to be boring. C’est tout

INTERVIEWER

It could be said that you break every rule of the short story: your stories have lots of characters and not much action; they are long and full of description, detail, and background history rather than plot. Have you consciously thought about breaking the rules?

GALLANT

I wish I could persuade you to believe me when I say that I don’t analyze my own work.

INTERVIEWER

In the past you’ve said that Anton Chekhov is the writer who most strongly influenced your writing and Eudora Welty the contemporary writer you most admire. Could you elaborate? 

GALLANT

Because one is asked the same question all the time one almost unconsciously develops answers that are passe-partout but undoubtedly incomplete. About Chekhov: I have nearly no idea what influence was brought to bear. I discovered Chekhov young, in the Constance Garnett translation. I still read him—there seems to be always some volume or other lying about with a marker in it. But the same is true of Proust. I wonder if any writer can say where an influence came in. I now think influence is almost anything one admired when young. Perhaps one was influenced without knowing it by writers one later ceased to admire. Not long ago I heard a writer say he disliked Hemingway when, in fact, his work wouldn’t exist in its present form if Hemingway had not come first. About Eudora Welty: I discovered her work in my twenties. I reread her now with the same pleasure and admiration. 

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever met her?

GALLANT

No, I have not met Miss Welty. I have never been in her part of the world and even if I had I would never have bothered her.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a favorite story by either writer?

GALLANT

I don’t think that I have favorite stories. The work is the work.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written a number of linked stories: the Henri Grippes stories; the Edouard, Lena and Juliette stories; the Linnet Muir sequence. What compels you to stay with characters for more than one story?

GALLANT

The Henri Grippes stories are fun to write. I write one whenever I want a break. I don’t reread what has gone before, because if I begin to take them solemnly then I’ll lose interest.

The Edouard stories began in my mind as a novel about a man whose life is occupied, like an occupied country, by two women. But then I found that it would be better to describe just a few incidents in his life and theirs. I don’t know where those three characters came from, but after the stories appeared in The New Yorker an American architect wrote to his son in Paris, who was also an architect, that I seemed to know all about their family history and could the son find out where I had heard about the family. The father was an American officer who during the war met and married his first wife in London. She was Jewish and a bit older than the officer. They had a son. The father then met another woman, in France, who was Protestant, like Juliette. The mother would not hear of a divorce, but eventually he was able to divorce her. The father’s name was Edward. There were a number of other coincidences, some of which I’ve forgotten. I don’t think this anecdote is the least use to you, but I’ve been thinking about it for the past fifteen years.

The Linnet Muir stories are fiction, but as close to autobiography as fiction can be.

INTERVIEWER

How so?

GALLANT

Linnet Muir is fiction, but people who knew me then have said, “That’s you. Every gesture, every word, every everything is what you were like.” So I got that right. I was careful because when I was writing the stories, people who had known me as a child were still alive. I didn’t feel that I should deliver my parents over to readers because, as they had died, I couldn’t consult them. My father died when I was a child; my mother rather later. My mother married again as soon as my father died and she didn’t have much to do with me after that. She went off to another life. That happens, you know. I still have feelings about it, but I don’t think I have the right to exploit those feelings—or her. I’ve taken only certain aspects of her character. There’s a story called “The Wedding Ring” that is absolutely my mother. I read it again when it was translated into French, and it’s exactly what she was like: very calm and then suddenly making a dramatic gesture. Or writing a letter from a country cottage—I’ve invented the letter—going over her marriage and taking it apart then sending it to her husband who works in the city, saying, P.S. Bring a roast of lamb when you come for the weekend. That was her to a T.

The Linnet Muir stories are based on things that actually did happen; anything based directly on memory arrives in one’s mind in the form of fiction. The girl who comes back to Montreal where her father has died and tries to find out what happened—that was real. There I needed to be accurate. All that is exactly right—she finds her French-Canadian nurse; she gets a job; she starts off alone with no family and no money and somehow makes her way.

INTERVIEWER

Will you write your memoirs? 

GALLANT

No. No question. Other than those few autobiographical stories in Home Truths, the only thing I’ve written about anything personal is the introduction to The Collected Stories, where I tried to explain where my writing came from. I had to go back to my childhood.

I had a lot of trouble writing the introduction because I’d never written much about my early childhood. I thought, I’m going to have people trying to treat me like a character in a soap opera. If you write anything truly personal, some people are bound to turn it into a soap opera with you as a character.

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.