Excerpt: Why Mavis Gallant Said, “I’ll kill him!”

In this excerpt from Stories About Storytellers, an explanation of the intriguing quotation on the cover:

She has a formidable presence. She speaks in an accent that she says belongs to another era in Montreal, but to modern Canadian ears sounds English-influenced. She speaks with great, sibilant precision that can on occasion be mistaken for a hiss. As for her manner, with strangers she is such a reserved, dignified, and lady-like figure that she seems, metaphorically, to be wearing white gloves. Scores of journalists have come away from interviews with her, confessing that they felt intimidated.

Even her great admirer, Jhumpa Lahiri, suffered badly when she conducted an interview with Mavis, later reproduced in Granta magazine. Jhumpa, a well-known American novelist, almost worships Mavis. In an introduction to one of Mavis’s books she describes her as a writer “who demands intelligence from her readers and rewards them with nothing short of genius.” In the interview, however, the much younger American seemed to be playing the Disraeli-to-Queen-Victoria “authors like us” card a little too often, and Mavis was resisting. When Jhumpa, who obviously had a romantic view of the writing life in Paris, asked Mavis if she had ever worked in cafés, back came the sweet, sibilant reply, “As a waitress?”

Um, no, Jhumpa replied lamely, you know, for writing in. Game, set, and match.

I give these background details to set up my own humiliation at her hands in Montreal in 1998. The Quebec English-language writers’ group, qspel, had honoured her by naming a prize after her. Because the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction already existed, they decided that her name should adorn the non-fiction prize, since Paris Notebooks had established her credentials in non-fiction in 1986. Mavis, in Canada for other reasons, had arranged to attend the formal event to celebrate this prize at a downtown Montreal hotel. I was present as a member of the front-row official group. In the green room beforehand, with Mavis present, we went through the plan. Since there was no food or drink available, just a room with uncomfortable stacking chairs laid out in rows for an audience of 200, the plan was to move briskly, starting just after 6, and be out of there by 7:00. People had made dinner arrangements accordingly. Out by 7:00, we all agreed.

At 6:10 the qspel people started the meeting, very efficiently introducing me. I spoke briefly about Mavis’s high standing in the literary world, and in turn introduced my great friend William Weintraub, the author of several urbane books, like City Unique. Bill was an old friend of Mavis from their journalism days together, and he spoke affectionately about them, before introducing Mavis.

It was 6:20 when Mavis handed me her purse and walked to the podium just ahead of where we sat. She thanked everyone for naming the prize after her, then said that because the prize was for non-fiction,she intended to read some of her own non-fiction, namely somediary entries. Having chosen the year (let’s say 1995), she began: “January 1st. A grey day where the main event was . . .”

One hour and twenty minutes later, at 7:40, she said the words “July 1st, Canada Day . . .” and kept going. She was so absorbed in her reading that she was unaware of the constant procession of people slipping out of their seats and creeping away. Dinners were burning in ovens across Montreal, reserved tables were being forfeited in the city’s busiest restaurants, but Mavis was on a roll.

For thirty minutes I had been on the edge of my seat, trying to catch her eye to give her a “cut” sign across my throat. But she was oblivious, lost in her reading. Now it was clear that she was going to read the diary for the whole year. Until — quick calculation — 9:00.

I conferred in whispers in the front row with Bill and Magda Weintraub. “Bill,” said Magda, “You must do something!” Bill, a wise and witty man, just groaned. I, the son of a man who responded to an ancient minister’s coughing fit by halting the church service and sending everyone home, realized that no one else was going to “do something.” And I had taught my kids that in such a situation it’s incumbent on you to be the doer.

Oh hell.

I rose and took the three longest steps of my life, to stand with my hand on the front of Mavis’s podium. At the time, the phrase “own the podium” did not exist, but Mavis knew all about it.

“Excuse me Mavis,” I said, “ I think that people are very keen to have a chance to ask you questions.”

She might have said, “Oh my goodness, is that the time? Of course, let’s go straight to questions.”

What she did say was “Questions? Questions? But I’m in the middle of my reading!”

I stood my ground. “Yes, but as I say, time is going on, and I know that people are very eager to ask you questions.”

Mavis went over my head. Literally. She appealed to the crowd behind me, who were watching, thrilled. “Aren’t you enjoying my reading?” And they, the cowards, gave her a supportive round of applause, and Mavis looked down at me in triumph.

I slunk back to my seat and gave Bill Weintraub the best line of my life. “Well,” I said, evenly, “I think that went off pretty well, don’t you?”

Now Mavis, enraged, was reading brilliantly. Every so often she would glare down at me and say something like “I was going read you the entry for September 20th, but” (angry turning of pages) “I’m told I must hurry up.”

I sat there, arms folded, at peace with the world, while the audience suffered. Eventually Mavis finished at 8:10.

At this point my friend Linda Leith, who was soon to found Montreal’s Blue Metropolis Reading festival, came to the stage and tactfully began, “Well, as we’ve heard, many people in the audience are keen to ask questions. Are there any questions for Mavis?”

One brave person asked a question, which Mavis batted away, along the lines of “I’ve no interest in answering such a question.”

Linda asked if there were any other questions and a very, very stupid young man raised his hand. What, he wondered, did Ms. Gallant think of the criticism of her writing produced by So-and-so? Mavis flew at him, saying that she didn’t believe in writers suing other writers, but what So-and-so said was so outrageous that she was sorry that she hadn’t sued him, and — with angry finality — she refused to discuss him further.

“Well,” said Linda, “if there are no more questions . . .” and she went on to comment on what a memorable evening this had been, and to thank Mavis.

As people rose to their feet and started to mingle, it was noticeable that nobody wanted to come near me. I was the burn victim, the scarred survivor of a flamethrower attack, and people bumped into one another or brushed against the wall to avoid coming anywhere near me. Apart, that is, from my old friend Pat Webster, who took me home (we agreed that probably the official front row party dinner could get along just fine without me) and fed me dinner. As I related the evening’s events to my old friend Norman Webster, the legendary newspaperman, his eyebrows would rise in disbelief, and he would look at Pat, who would nod in confirmation. There are roughly 100 people in Montreal who will confirm the account you are reading.