1988 Margaret Laurence Lecture

Mavis Gallant Cr Alison Harris

"The Life of the Writer"
by Mavis Gallant

It’s a great honour to address fellow writers and a particular honour to deliver a lecture in the name of Margaret Laurence. One thing on which I think we all agree – perhaps one of the few things on which all Canadian writers do agree – is the quality and nature of her achievement. I never met her and can’t talk to you about her. It was one of those things that should have happened, and didn’t happen, and then it was too late. What I want to talk about is something I shall call my apprenticeship. (The reason why this lecture was announced as “The Life of the Writer” is that an announcement had to be made without too much delay and I kept changing the topic – or, rather, circling it, for the basic idea never changed.)

One’s life as a writer, at my age, is to some degree what General de Gaulle, in a different context, referred to as a vaste programme. I have behind me thirty-eight years of fiction writing. If you add my early years of journalism, it means I have been earning my living by writing for forty-four years. When I read biographies of writers, the only chapters I find interesting are those that describe initiation and apprenticeship. I don’t mean that further struggles and doubts and terrors and anxieties are negligible, but the public aspect of a writer’s life once the writer has become successful, the meetings with other celebrated people, the honours and interviews, are boring to read about.

When you begin to walk as a writer, you need something strong and steady underfoot: a deep understanding of a language. In our case, it is the incomparable English language, with its solidity, its flexibility, its intrinsic poetry – qualities apparent to those who use language to its limits. What is happening to English as it becomes more and more of an international instrument is the subject of a different discourse. The wider English spreads, the thinner the uses to which it is put. I wonder, sometimes, if we wouldn’t be better off as writers in some minority language, cliffhanging. But then, a shrinking language becomes an impoverished one, too; and I shall close this parenthesis before I start to flounder and to speculate about questions that can’t be answered. Some of the most dismaying howlers I hear are not from people with only half an understanding of English, but – for instance – over the BBC. Just the other day, during a Parliamentary debate, a Member remarked that if the Minister of Education would only do this or that, “he would have our most fulsome support.” (The Minister replied, “I’m not sure I want that kind of support.”)

Is there a point where one’s life as a writer begins? It seems to me to recede as one looks for it. Perhaps the start is the physical beginning, the genetic departure, the joining of cells; perhaps one’s life-to-be as a writer develops with the fetus, that the vocation exists before the idea of language can emerge. I know that what I am saying is anything but scientific and most certainly not provable. I am trying to delineate the character of the born writer, the man or woman who could not easily turn to another way of life without coming to grief and frustration. I never wanted to do anything except write, or to live in any manner unconnected to writing: that was the drive, the inborn sense of direction.

I also had to earn my living. At the age of eighteen, I presented myself at the editorial offices of The Standard, a weekly newspaper, on St. James Street West, in Montreal. (At that time, there were four English-language newspapers in the city, three of them dailies.) I had no appointment. I didn’t know you were supposed to make one. It was on a hot summer day, during the Second World War. I asked for a job. The person who received me was the Montreal painter Philip Surrey, whose title was, I think, “picture editor.” (It was before television, and photo supplements were important as a source of features and news.) We stood in a doorway, talking. I had on my best clothes – a brown-and-white seersucker suit with pearl buttons, and a straw hat with a wide brim, something I thought would look good on a reporter. He was neither hot nor cold – just neutral, though slightly surprised: as a rule, no one wandered in quite that way, “off the street,” as we said. I know, now, that he was not sure what to do about me. I had no background, no credentials, and no higher education – actually, neither did anyone else on the paper. You were expected to learn by working. Finally, he advised me to get some other kind of professional experience and try again at the age of twenty-one. That evening, he talked about me to his wife, Margaret Day (one of the founders of Preview), and, as she later told me, he kept saying, “Yes, but, you see, she’s just too young.” (Too young for what? I’m not sure. The Standard employed a nineteen-year-old feature writer, but she was an old hand who had started on the Winnipeg Free Press at the age of sixteen.)

Well, I did come back at twenty-one, and there happened to be a vacancy – someone had just quit to move to Toronto – and so I was taken on. Why did I want to work on a newspaper? It was so that I would be called on to write something every day, and get paid for doing it. As I’ve said, I needed to work for a living, and it seemed to me nothing else but journalism would do. The Standard published the usual kind of reporting, as well as long features and photostories with text; with luck, one could also write reviews and criticism. I had no more “qualifications” than at eighteen: I had worked here and there and at the National Film Board and had done no writing except at home, in the evening, for myself. But this was in wartime and they needed any dogsbody that could be found; they needed even women, and so women – just a few – were hired. I discovered that when they needed to fire they fired women, too – mais passons.

The first thing that became clear was that if I did not come up with ideas for features that were interesting to editors, as well as to me, I was going to write – well, stop! I was not going to write: I was going to produce copy. Now, there is an advantage to producing copy. If you do just enough of it, you will never in your life suffer from what the French call “the fear of the white page.” Apparently, this is the fear one feels when confronted with a blank sheet of paper. If you write on the page, then, of course, it isn’t white anymore, and you feel a sense of guilt, and this guilt turns into what is called “a writer’s block.” I’ve lived in France more than half my life, and so I’ve heard a good deal about this nonsense. Anyone harbouring a fear of the white page would not have lasted half a day on a newspaper. The page was simply a utensil. It was a convenience. And it wasn’t even white; it was a dirty beige colour.

The second advantage of being forced to produce copy is that one irons out the wrinkles of grammar and syntax. Writing prose, clear, precise, becomes a second nature. But it has no other advantage that I can think of, and it contains a formidable trap: repetition. Language, the foundation stone, is ground down to gravel. I remember that at the age of twenty-six, I became aware of the trap. I noticed that I was writing feature stories about subjects I had dealt with at the age of twenty-one. Probably I looked at these subjects in a different way; perhaps I knew more, and could treat them from a wider angle of knowledge; but repetition was there, like gravel churning away in a kind of drum.

When I talk about working on a newspaper in Montreal, in the ’40s, I am evoking a place and a time wholly remote. Journalism, then and now: how can I explain the gap, the distance, the evolution? It is like placing a heavy album of those breakable records – a whole opera, say – next to two compact discs. The journalism I was taught and practiced was closer to the profession as it had been taught and practiced forty years before, at the beginning of the century, than to the profession as it is now, yet another forty years later. The great change came about in the ’60s and ’70s. I would be unable to work in a newspaper office now. An editor would find me incompetent, ignorant. I do not understand computers, processors, screens. My own words, in green, on a screen, make no sense to me. I once read a great novel about journalism, written by a young Catalan writer – young at the end of the nineteenth century, that is – called Servitude. The hero is a reporter, newly hired, on his first job, exactly forty years before my time. This novel has never been translated into English. The author was – I’m going to pronounce his name in the Spanish, not the Catalan – was Joan Puig I Ferreter. In case you imagine I am fluent in Catalan – no, I am not. If I had not met the author, then an old man, I’d never have tried to read a line. (By the way, about reading Catalan: if you know French and enough Spanish, it can be done. At the top of every page, you will tell yourself, “I can’t do this,” but then you take a deep breath and try a word at a time, and before you know it you are swimming along.) Servitude is as near to autobiography as fiction can be. Its author, dead now, is one of the great figures of Catalan writing, exiled, when I knew him, for his opposition to Franco. He had been hired by a paper in Barcelona exactly at the age I was when I was taken on by The Standard, and he describes exactly that elation and excitement, the first days, the first desk, the typewriter, the telephone. His colleagues seem remarkable to him, not like ordinary people. He – the hero – is similar to me in background, half-orphaned, without sisters or brothers or close relations. He is on his own, entirely, as I was, then. In the Church of St. Eustache, in Paris, there is a marble plaque with an inscription to the memory of a military man of the seventeenth century, François de Chevert: Without family, without fortune, without help. He became this, that, and the other. So it is with our Barcelona writer, our raw reporter. He is exhilarated by the sight, sound, and smell of the composing room, and the great printing machines – as they were in his day and still were in mine – the sound of them was like an express train. He compares it to a wild animal waking out of sleep. (And here we differ. As a Canadian, I would never compare a machine to a wild animal. I know the difference. But that is Europe – tamer, in a sense. To me, the machine kills the wildness and the animal.)

Servitude recalls the same memories, his and mine: the first time he had to work all night and came out in the street, a silent city street, and the sun rising, and that feeling one has in youth that real life is beginning, along with the day. He missed something more thrilling, I think: the Canadian experience of having worked all night and coming out into winter, in a faint predawn light, few lights on, just some all-night neon, here and there, shining on snow. The snow was clean, untouched, for there was strict gas rationing and there were few cars. The nights, the neon, the snow have been preserved for us by the Montreal painter Philip Surrey – particularly Dorchester Street (for those of you who are from Montreal), which I had to cross as I trudged up from the newspaper office, on St. James Street, on my way home to Mackay in the empty dawn. The street was all low, brick houses; many had become small hotels. I don’t object to progress and the development of cities (and who would care if I did?) but Dorchester Street, as it is now – does anyone want to paint it? The city was safe: I don’t recall having felt nervous. I walked home more than once in the hour between night and dawn. There was no transport. It was too early for streetcars, and our low salaries did not encourage one to take taxis.

Why was I working that late? Perhaps because the photo section of the paper, which we called “the rotogravure,” might have been changed at the last minute, and the editor-in-charge would have put on his overcoat and overshoes and ear mufflers and woollen scarf and gone home, leaving in charge two inexperienced people, one twenty-one, the other, I think, twenty-three. We managed. And the first time I emerged from the building at dawn I felt as if I owned everything – my new profession, even the city.

And here’s another experience, almost identical, Barcelona-Montreal, more than forty years apart. One day, our hero looks carefully at an older journalist, a critic he admires, and suddenly he becomes aware that this man wears the same worn suit of clothes, day after day. What does it mean? It means that he cannot afford to buy anything new. It means that his earnings have not risen with his reputation. It means that the younger man’s income will never rise along with his age and increased experience – not at the same rate. And I was to have that experience, too, and to think, “This is what I wanted, but where does it take me?” When the chance of organizing a union occurs, our Barcelona reporter dives in and bangs his head; the leap comes to nothing. The same thing happened in Montreal. There was a chance of organizing a union – a branch of the Guild. I dove in, too, and banged my head, and it all came to nothing.

My apprenticeship was closer to journalism as it was practiced at the turn of the last century than to anything of the profession today. (I apologize for hammering the point. But then, if you invite a senior writer to address you, you are bound to get senior social history.) I wonder, now, if there can be a residue of experience, anything learned or discovered or rejected by me, that can be of the slightest use to a younger writer? I entered newspaper work as a presenter of facts, with few of my own opinions on view. And yet I can see now that I was always thinking as a writer of fiction. The first feature story I ever suggested was a picture story, which would depend for its effect on the vision and the technique of the photographer assigned, though I would write the text. It was as a writer, I think, that I first became interested in the daily life of a downtown urban child – a real child, not someone developed in my imagination. (The term “inner city” did not exist. As for “downtown,” it was an area run down, but not left to rot, as it would be later on; and it was not particularly dangerous.) If the child chosen for the feature had been left behind in my mind, replaced by a character, his story would somehow have told itself. One of the great differences between fiction and reporting is that the author of a work of fiction has to know more than meets the eye. But this was a newspaper feature, and I could not allow myself to guess or imagine or add anything to pure description. Journalism is inflexible: you watch, you listen, you tell. It cannot be more, because “more” brings you to fancy speculation and nonsense. If you report on what might be or might have been – worse, what ought to be – you are on the messy edge of false intelligence, the blind leading the blind.

I lived in downtown Montreal, just like the urban kid – my subject. Most of the younger reporters on English-language papers lived within blocks of one another, except for those who were unable to find an apartment or still were not earning enough to afford one and had to live at home. Most of the flats were in converted stone houses. The ground floors of the old houses were just beginning to be occupied by dress shops and other stores. Many of the sloping streets were still lined with trees. Some of our neighbours worked at the CBC or in advertising agencies. There were artists, designers, musicians, people belonging to those groups that connect or interlock or lightly touch in a lively city. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, about, every impulse and decision seems to draw one toward the like-minded. “Decision” is perhaps the wrong word; one is pulled by an intellectual magnet.

I was happy on those streets and in that company, in the mid-’40s. It was a wonderful time and place to be young. Montreal – yes, Montreal – was the humming centre of English-language culture. I think of it in terms of a different kind of image, something like a series of waves that broke and became flat, finally. Perhaps, where Montreal is concerned, I wanted nothing to change, and everybody to be no older than twenty-six or so. Again, perhaps I am idealizing the stone houses and shady streets, the long conversations and the visions of a long future. Soft memories or not, the streets are today arid and ugly and full of parking lots. Their mood is ugly after dark. Perhaps what I looked for, later on, in cities of Europe was the spirit of a lost Montreal.

None of us had much money. Even a good salary, so called, was small. We lived with any old furniture and second-hand books, but there was art on the walls; we knew the painters and the work was cheap. We had much to talk about – Quebec politics, mostly, which we saw as repressive and retrograde. I wrote newspaper stories in the daytime and fiction early in the morning or at night. I had a sense of space and of freedom. And now I have to stop and ask myself if that sense of freedom was factitious, invented by me – then and in retrospect. Have I remembered a way I wanted to live when I was in my twenties, and did the desire just occasionally coincide with some aspects of a reporter’s life? In short, has a fiction about living spilled across that ambiguous entity we call “real life”? I may be building an ideal city, a lyrical downtown area – vanished, regretted, mourned by a handful of survivors. A friend from Montreal said, the other day, “Let’s face it. Those were terrible apartments, almost slums.”

At any rate, it was on one of those streets – shabby, charming, lined with trees or utterly dilapidated; it depends on the slant of one’s memory – that I had noticed a boy of about six who seemed to spend all his time outside. It was summer, so he had no school to go to. Perhaps both his parents worked. Whatever the reason, he was on his own. He had fair hair; was reticent rather than shy; his name was Johnny. Sometimes he sat on the steps of a stone house, sometimes on the edge of the curb. He was wary of strangers and, like a soldier, gave no information but his name. I thought it might be interesting to follow the small pattern of his days, the miniature routine of a street kid. I never saw the story as fiction, for my imagination did not enlarge on the evidence. In fact, I wanted photographs to carry the substance with a minimum of text; and so I can say, truthfully, that I was already thinking as a reporter. I had been working only a short while, but my idea was taken up, and I had a piece of luck in the choice of photographer, Hugh Frankel. He loved the idea and knew instinctively how to make a child feel at ease and secure.

The photostory with my text and captions was published that summer. It was my first professional byline. At about the same time, Preview, the Montreal literary review, published two short stories about a young refugee in Montreal. Preview is something of a legend now: Frank Scott was one of the founders, P.K. Page one of the first contributors. Kit Shaw, the librarian at The Standard, was married to a poet who was one of the editors; many of the editorial and policy meetings took place in their apartment – another of those downtown places in an old stone house. She asked me, I don’t recall why, if I wrote anything apart from newspaper stories – if I wrote poetry, for instance. I gave her two stories to read. She showed them to Frank Scott. I am certain this is how it came about, though I sometimes meet other people who say they came across the stories (one wonders how) and shepherded them into print. As a result, I had a byline in a literary review at about the same time as the first newspaper feature. I shall say that I was overjoyed, and leave it at that. As writers, you can imagine easily what I thought and felt.

I made no more attempt to publish fiction, except for one story, straightforward and close to reporting, about a Czech émigré in Montreal, renting a furnished apartment. It was published in the magazine section of The Standard and read on the CBC. (Obviously, émigrés from Hitler’s Europe were one of the most fascinating features to me about life in Montreal. I tried to meet as many as I could.) I do not know why, exactly, I did not try to have fiction published for another several years. I was writing, all the time. I know I thought I wasn’t ready, but how much of that belief was based on fear?

I think now that I was afraid of having my work rejected. I had made up my mind that if I were to receive three refusals in a row I would give up trying. I did not want to trail through life a vocation for writing but without enough talent to justify the desire. I was the daughter of a painter – I am inclined to say “a failed painter,” though he died in his early thirties, and so the word “failed” cannot apply. He thought of himself as an artist, lived like one, was so of a piece with his artist’s persona that I never thought of his doing anything else. Only much later did I realize that he must have held a job of some kind, like everyone we knew. My only memories of him are as an artist – that is how strong his idea of himself must have been. It wiped out a weaker reality, probably. The trouble was that he may not have had much talent.

I was always fearful that he had passed his dilemma on to me, for I resembled him in every other way. (Once, when I was about nineteen, a stranger stopped me in the street and asked if I was his sister.) Some of my reasons for holding back, for not sending my work to reviews and magazines, were, first, that I believed I was not ready and, second (though perhaps it should be first) the fear that I might discover a devastating truth: I was not a writer and never could be. It was an uneasiness that never quite left me. For many years after my work began to be published regularly, I had a repeated nightmare in which someone would tell me I had written a short story (the most recent, in the dream) in a language no one could make out.

Luckily for me, while I was still hesitating, I was on a newspaper, not just wondering if it could happen; so, that much was accomplished. Often when I am being interviewed, the reporter will try to make me say I wasted years of creative energy in journalism, or that I was forced to turn out dreary pieces that bored me, and that I was and have remained resentful. It is not true. From the bright June day when I was hired until the day I left, I liked what I was doing. I was not made to write anything I thought cheap or demeaning. There is another side to it, however. I was prevented from doing a great many things I thought were interesting and that I might have done well. One reason is that I was a woman. The other is the way newspapers were run, in Canada, at that time; or that particular newspaper, let us say. We kept out of political trouble, “trouble” being defined by editors’ convictions and prudence and state of nerves. And then, a woman running into trouble over a question of policy would have been blamed as a woman rather than a journalist. Women had been hired because of the war and the shortage of men. I remember one editor, a former officer, and the horror he expressed when he returned from the war to find “women running all over the place.” Perhaps women were pests: two of us, along with a male colleague, tried to organize a union. When I was assigned to cover a strike, I collected money for the strikers – starting with the publisher of the paper, who gave five dollars and asked no questions. (I was taken off labour stories, for all time.) I don’t want to harp on the fact that women earned less than men, or on the paradox that men liked us, or seemed to, and yet did not want us around.

From the beginning, I tried to choose my own features. Unless they were political, they were seldom turned down. I chose subjects about which I was curious. It seems to me now that I moved into every corner of the city and province. My French was fluent: I had been to French school when I was small and had kept the language during my adolescence, when I lived outside Quebec and heard virtually no French at all. When I returned to Montreal, after a long detour in English-only places, I still read it easily, but my spoken vocabulary was small and my conversation halting. However, French returned surprisingly quickly and by the time I applied to work on The Standard, I was almost bilingual.

Much of my early fiction came straight from my newspaper assignments. The bored wives in a construction camp in northern Quebec, the war bride on a slow train to Abitibi, the angry storekeeper in the east end of Montreal were based on events and people observed. Some stories I wrote on the spot; others consisted only of notes and dialogue, which I completed years later, in Europe. I suppose the delay was due to my slowness about writing anything. I am slow to write and reluctant to call anything finished. I composed in longhand, even as a reporter, and rewrote endlessly on the typewriter, making countless corrections, as if the most insignificant item were to be reviewed by a panel of literary critics. I shared a cubicle in the editorial room with another reporter, a woman. She used to tease me about my revisions, which she called “fussing about semicolons.” “You worry about nothing,” she once told me. “Nobody’s ever going to bring out a book of this stuff at the end of the year.”

I still ask for long deadlines. An editor who tells me, “Oh, anytime. Whenever you’re ready,” has handed me eternity. It isn’t procrastination. I seem to lack a normal sense of time going by. The rigid deadlines of a newspaper, years ago, were compensated by the open time I gave to fiction, at home, on my own. Michel Serres, the French philosopher, teaches that a watch does not tell time except by showing the wear of age. It may mean something that I have trouble sometimes in reading a watch: I read eleven o’clock for one, or five for seven. If a stranger stops me in the street to ask the time (it happens frequently in Paris, though never in North America), my mind comes to a stop. Usually, I just hold out my wrist.

Perhaps I have always been bound to a different kind of time, less urgent, less determinate than a deadline. In fiction, time is structure. Chekhov begins a story with, “Next day they had delicious pies . . . and during the meal Nikanor, the cook, came upstairs to inquire what the guests would like for dinner.” * We know that the guests were at the same table yesterday and will be there again that evening. We are not told at once who they are and why they are together, but quickly divine they are men (from the kind of conversation that ensues) and that the host is, probably, a bachelor. It would be impossible to use the same allusive, divinatory method at the start of a newspaper story. It would irritate readers, not to speak of editors, and would seem maddeningly slow. And yet any writer of fiction can see at once that is rapid – a quick and decisive way of getting round “explanations” and moving straight to the heart of the matter. The “next day” method of presenting the past by cutting it off, acknowledging it only as a setting for the present, would be an awkward start for non-fiction of any kind. A brilliant exception, the only one that comes to mind, is the first line of “Hope Against Hope,” by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the account of her life with the doomed Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: “After slapping Alexei Tolstoy in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow.” Any reader who cannot quite place Alexei Tolstoy or who may wonder where the poet was returning from has to rely on footnotes. Nadezhda has slammed the Chekhovian door, just as though she were writing fiction. After her equivalent of “Next day . . .” she proceeds in the usual chronological and historical time of autobiography. She did not know that she had written one of the most celebrated first lines of our century.

It is quite possible to write both fiction and journalism; there is no confusion of form. But I think it must be virtually impossible for a working journalist to write much fiction. The difficulty has nothing to do with style or manner or vocabulary or the stifling of imagination, but of exhaustion, mental and physical. If there are sixteen hours of the day in which to work and live, the two streams of writing easily can overflow and soak up every minute. Fatigue will force you to dam up one or the other. Which? Common sense suggests keeping free the stream that earns your living. But that may not satisfy you; not at all. I had already set myself a time limit for newspaper work: I was to be self-supporting by writing fiction at the age of thirty, or I was to forget it entirely. When a retirement pension plan was launched at The Standard, it scared me half to death. I was afraid of becoming cautious, losing my nerve. I asked the man in charge – his name suddenly comes back: Mark Farrell – if I could stay out. He explained that the structure of the plan had to include every one. At about the same time I was given another push, of a different nature.

Toward the end of the ’40s, I suggested a feature on a topic that I’m sure is still of interest: why are Canadian books so expensive? (“Who buys Canadian books?” said the first of the editors I approached.) The idea was accepted, once I was made to swear and promise my piece would not be full of figures and statistics or names of writers our readers had never heard of. Among the people I went to see was John Gray of Macmillan. He was a remarkable man – civilized, tolerant – and he gave me considerable help. Occasionally after that, when he happened to come to Montreal on publishing business, he would invite me to lunch and bring me books – not just Macmillan editions, but anything he happened to like and wanted to pass along. When I told him I was twenty-seven, and had given notice, and was going to Paris – that it was now or never – he said, “I wish I were twenty-seven and going to Paris.” He was the only person who did not say, “I think you’re crazy,” or something else along those lines. (Forty years later I read the same remark, with one word of difference, in Russell Baker’s memoir of his newspaper days in Baltimore. The speaker was his editor, who said, “I wish I were twenty-seven and going to London.”)

It was John Gray who gave me a collection of essays by Cyril Connolly, called Enemies of Promise. Most of you have read it, probably, and remember the one chapter that became famous and still is quoted – the chapter that deals with journalism as a prime enemy of promise in young writers. Connolly belonged to that leisurely breed of British authors to whom “journalism” probably meant book reviewing, and I realize only now that his idea of a writer of promise was a man. It never entered his mind that a woman could stand smack in the middle of the writing-vs.-journalism dilemma. Oddly enough, when I read his book for the first time I did not even notice his dismissal or, worse, obliteration of women. In those days we were almost invisible. Perhaps I took it for granted that a woman had to glean whatever she could from advice dispensed by a man to other men. It was only when I re-read Enemies of Promise just a few weeks ago, so that I could discuss it here, that one aspect of the problem became clear. The hurdle was set high for women. Budding authors, apparently, were men. Women were those dreary, hindering creatures who lured men into binding relationships or trapped them by having children. Many a writer’s career had been blasted, said Connolly, by the very sight of “the perambulator in the hall.” As you know, it became the most sensational of threats, used until fairly recently as a metaphor. Perhaps it will turn out to be the phrase for which he is chiefly remembered. I mention it to show how trained our minds were; I am trying hard not to say “brainwashed.” For there I was, about to drop my only means of livelihood in order to try to live as a writer, and I was accepting – unconsciously or not – a genteel, upper-class, British notion that “talent” belonged to “men.”

Still, the most important factor about Enemies of Promise was that it had been sent to me by someone I respected, who barely knew me except as a reporter who liked to read books, and who was kind enough to believe that whatever I wanted to do could be done. Even my closest friends were taking for granted the very opposite. At the time, looking for an explanation for the difference between writing fiction and writing a feature for a newspaper, I found one in Connolly: “Journalism must obtain its full impact on first reading because it is intended for an interested and not an indifferent public. Literature is not immediately striking in its effects.” Now, across several decades of reading and writing, I think it is not so. Every work of fiction makes its impact on first reading and, I think, from the first sentence. We do not begin reading a novel at page ten just because the first nine pages are not clear.

Any reader would be far more likely to close the book and forget it; whereas a blurry start to a news story might still hold a reader’s attention because of the information the story is thought to contain. Once absorbed, a news piece does not require re-reading because the driving power of news itself is, “What’s next?” Literature is re-read for pleasure, which is not to say, as Connolly does, that “it is not immediately striking in its effects.” One of the great advantages of journalistic training is that the writer does not lose the habit of being clear from the outset; or, at least, of knowing one ought to be. On the other hand, a writer need not have been a reporter in order to compose the famous, the imperishable opening lines that have held readers for generations:

The Mole had been working hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters. . . . Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations . . .

It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .

Well; and here I am, after forty years, arguing with a dead author, Cyril Connolly. One would never have contradicted a British author, not even in one’s mind, back then. We seemed to consider everything from “over there” to be in some way “real” writing, as if everything else were counterfeit or evanescent. I suppose that our parents, born at the last decades of the nineteenth century, or just at the turn, very often in Scotland or England, had established in our earliest awareness that literature in English had only one source and one direction: it flowed to us from over there.

I know that in my twenties I put more trust in British than American writing. In much the same way, we were trained to admire British journalism, without being told there were two kinds, and that one was low, slanderous and cynically designed to attract the poorly educated and politically immature. The Standard bought many features from Picture Post, which had once enjoyed an international reputation. Many of the stories would not have been accepted from a Canadian photographer or writer, and the picture captions were of a platitude and a silliness that no Canadian would have dared try to turn in as copy. These features were handled as if they represented the highest sort of journalism. (I was rebuked for changing ice cream “comets” to “cones.” I had interfered with the language of the gods.) To compound our British/American schizophrenia, we used American spelling. It produced such gems as, “The chairman of the Montreal Harbour Commission arrived at the harbor . . .”

I’ve mentioned attitudes to women in the ’40s. If I were to speak only about that, I could call the lecture “Women: Do They Exist?” I often had to report to, or receive assignments from, the peppery editor I spoke about – the one who had been overseas with the Army and came back to find women “running around the place.” He tried to ignore us. Unfortunately, we were needed. (To be fair, speaking only for myself, one felt his hostility and probably reacted to it. Years later, he told me, “You drove me nuts. You were always saying, ‘Why do we have to do the piece that way? Why don’t we do it this way? Why do it at all? Why can’t we do something else instead?’”) He began every order and assignment with the words, “Grab a cab,” and then proceeded with the rest. One day he said to me, “Grab a cab,” and nothing more.

I said, “Grab a cab and drive where? To do what?”

He replied, “Jesus Christ! A man would know!”

I am sure he believed it. In his view, men were divinely inspired. At any rate, they were more secure in their jobs. As the war wound down, women were fired. Those still employed hung on by their fingernails. I still wonder if some situations women had to accept would have been inflicted on men. Robert Fulford once told me that he first came across my name on a film review. He asked me why I had stopped. The answer was simple: I gave a film a bad notice and a theatre chain pulled its ads. I was taken off reviewing for all time. For a while, I wrote a weekly column of radio criticism, called “On the Air.” This was before television, when radio was the important medium. It was widely read and drew a surprising amount of mail. One day I was called into the managing editor’s office. He had been playing golf with the director of an advertising agency, and the subject of the column had come up. According to the agency director, “On the Air” was a stone in the shoe. I parodied commercials, poked fun at jingles.

He said to the managing editor: “How would you like it if we sponsored a column criticizing newspapers?”

“You know,” the editor said, as if waking from a long dream, “I had never thought of that.”

The column was dropped and never replaced. There was now nothing in The Standard that could offend the agency or its clients. That is what I meant by “censorship by omission.” It was a side of journalism never mentioned by Cyril Connolly; perhaps he hadn’t heard of it. It was journalism as it was practiced in Montreal in the late 1940s; I can guarantee that. Of course, we minded. We also took it for granted. Years later, in Toronto, I heard a theatre critic say in a radio interview, “Next thing you know, they’ll be telling us to be careful about sponsors and advertising.” But, the critic went on, such a thing was too absurd to consider. The world, it seemed to me, had become at once wiser and more innocent. It sounds obvious today to say that someone reviewing broadcasting could make fun of commercials; one might even consider it a duty. Forty years ago, it was a kind of lèse-majesté.

At the same time, I loved newspaper work. It was like a ticket to liberty, sending me all over the city and the province and sometimes to other parts of Canada. Meeting a trainload of British war brides in Halifax, accompanying their slow, puzzled journey through a rain-soaked landscape, measuring their excitement and apprehension, trying to grasp their bewilderment at a country so big and a train so slow, was one of a hundred experiences that stirred my imagination and built the reserves of memory that would feed fiction, later on.

One of the objections I have often heard to reporting as training is that it teaches one to write too quickly, without enough thought. To me, it was an advantage. I have already said that I was slow. Without a deadline, I might have spent weeks on the same piece. No amount of experience has relieved me of the stress a firm deadline can cause. I have never learned how to hurry up. Perhaps I don’t see a point to hurry, except in an emergency. An emergency, on The Standard, would never have been confided to me. The reporter who shared my cubicle was very fast and knew at once what to say and how to say it. I admired her. We were once assigned to do something together. The result seemed to please everyone, but I avoided ever again doing something of the kind. I felt caught in a sandstorm.

I had always written, ever since I could remember – sometimes only in my head. It was joy to me to write for a living; to be writing anything. Years before I began my apprenticeship – journalism – I had a private notebook and a place to conceal it. From the time I was old enough to make my own bed, I kept it under a pillow or a mattress. I slipped it among schoolbooks. Violation of a young person’s privacy seemed to be an adult’s prerogative – one I have never condoned. If notebooks began to pile up and could not safely be hidden, I destroyed them. I now think it a pity, for a child’s observation of things felt and said is particularly sharp and fresh. A child notices what people say and the way they say it. Perhaps because I had been to French and English schools, or because I was moved around such a lot, or because I had learned that adults never meant what they said, let alone said what they meant, I paid close attention to the spoken word, to the way words were placed in a sentence, words that betrayed whether the adult speaker was plain and direct or just engaging in ironic double-talk. I soaked up regional accents. What I see now is that if I had some of the ingredients of a writer I also had the making of a reporter. In the summer of 1939 (the very date sounds like a myth in preparation), I often heard that the coming war would change the world and nothing would be the same again. The summer we were living would be the last of its kind. It was made to sound as if life, until now, had been idyllic, made up of high standards and moral perfection. A bleak, dark, and unhealthy future lay ahead.

I began to collect mementos of 1939. I wanted a record. I got a large scrapbook and pasted into it cuttings from newspapers and magazines – not news items, but examples of the clothes people wore, the books they read, the films they saw, the songs they listened to. I was still too young to be much in restaurants, but the New York World’s Fair had opened that summer and I brought back menus from some of the eating places and pasted those in, too. I collected ads for cars and furniture and saved some of those flyers grocery stores sent around, so there would be a record of food prices. I cut out and saved illustrations for magazine fiction. They showed the hairstyles and fashions of the time. I thought the world of the future would be glad to know about us. It seemed important to establish a record; and that, of course, is the essence of journalism.

At that time I lived in a small town, in Dutchess County, in upstate New York, and attended a local high school. It was farming country. Some of the kids picked up by the school bus had been up since five, doing chores and milking. They were all of early Dutch and English origin, and many had those one-syllable names like mine, which was Young, such as Crick, Tripp, Trapp, and so forth. How remote such a place was from world events, even United States policies and politics, is hardly believable today. They read no newspapers. Radio news was a distant blur full of strange names and places. We took what was known as a Current Events Class, which was held only occasionally. It was fascinating to me, but the minute any discussion strayed from America, from American affairs and transactions, the students lost interest. You must remember that these towns, which are now part of the exurbia of New York City, seemed then very far away. Most of the boys and girls in my class had never been to New York or to any large city, had never travelled farther than they had to for a basketball game with another school. We were about thirty miles from Poughkeepsie, but many had never been there, either – had never even seen the Hudson River.

I was different, in the sense that I had lived in cities – Montreal and New York. I had heard adults discussing the run of world affairs all my life. I do not mean that I had lived among journalists, but just ordinary, urban people who listened to the radio and read newspapers. I brought my great document, my scrapbook about the summer of 1939, to Current Events Class. I can’t say that it was mocked or made fun of; the students were simply bewildered, and so was the teacher. One of the topics that had been under discussion was the Antarctic: should the U.S. seize or occupy the Antarctic and so have access to its great mineral resources? It was our teacher’s idea. The Antarctic was thought to be full of coal; at least, our teacher thought so. (Believe me, please, I am not making this up.) Half the class seemed to be falling asleep; and who can blame anyone, under the circumstances? I remember one question: “Well, how are we supposed to bring this coal from the Antarctic?” It began to seem an immense and hopeless undertaking, the American occupation of the Antarctic – as far away as the moon seemed, then. That is what we were discussing, in the heart of Dutchess County, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. It was at that point that I introduced my research – a scrapbook full of trivia. The students, as I have said, were puzzled. Some thought I was trying to be funny. The teacher told me, kindly, that I was too old to be cutting things out of magazines, fooling around with scissors and paste. I was in my teens and easily deflated. I took the thing home and put it in the garbage incinerator. And how I wish I had it now, that record of a mythical time we still call “before the war,” as if there had never been more than one.

It was a journalist’s record. I have thought about it for years, and about the essential difference between the straightforward recording of one’s surroundings and that other process of turning them into fiction. It depends, I think, on where the writer wants to stand, the nature and level of the ground he chooses to occupy. (When I say “he,” I mean, of course, “he or she.” I don’t want to keep repeating the same thing.) When Harold Ross was still editor of the New Yorker, he was always shown the cartoon drawings they intended to use in the next issue. He would stand back (the drawing would be placed on an easel) and he would say, “Where am I?” – meaning, “Where am I in relation to the figures in the drawing?” Well, of course, he was outside. Philip Roth once said to an interviewer, “The difference between you and me is that I can put myself in someone else’s place, and you can’t.” I should not have made that a direct quote, by the way, because I am not certain of the wording. What he was saying, in essence, to his interviewer, the journalist, was, “I can imagine being another person and you cannot.”

It is a way of keeping the interviewer in his place, I suppose. I have been both in my lifetime, interviewer and interviewed. I can sit in either chair. I know how difficult it is to be one or the other, for an interview is a parody of real conversation. A reporter is perfectly capable of putting himself in someone else’s shoes. If he is any good at all, he knows it is not his business to do so. He has to describe the interviewee “as seen,” not from within. Anyone can imagine. A dog imagines. If you leave a dog alone in a car he imagines you’ll never come back. The ability to put oneself in another person’s place is not the essential difference between a journalist and a writer of fiction, but it is the difference between a writer and someone who can’t write. A writer of fiction cannot address his reader with, in effect, “Look, I don’t know why this man is getting on a bus. I can watch him doing it, but that’s all.” That is the take-it-or- leave-it declaration, which was such a blight in French fiction in the 1960s and which has, mercifully, faded away. There is an arrogance to it I find intolerable. The reader has every right to say, “Well, in that case, you don’t know more than I do. Why are you writing?”

In journalism, it is not your business to speculate, without facts to sustain your guess, about this man (who is going to be getting on a bus forever, by the time I’m through with him). There is no inevitability about his acts, as there has to be if he is a character in fiction. A chain of events, of cause and effect, has to be known to you, the writer, before you can hint or describe it entirely – depending on your method of revelation.

In fiction, the piece of life that is taken in by you, then transformed and given back, like the silk in a web or the green in a leaf, contains the chain of life – the cycle and the inevitability. What you hand over to the reader is an event that could not have happened in any other way. The bus, the man, the street picked or invented, the passenger and his destination were chosen by you, but with a kind of inevitability: the scene will become imbued with a vitality of its own, but you are the cause of it and you are in control. If it were journalism, all you would be called on to do is to follow along.

I never believe it when a writer says a scene or a character ran away with him, as if it were a hysterical terrier tugging on its leash. You have noticed, as I have, how often one is asked about this by interviewers. There is a popular fancy, along with the belief that every plot line is autobiographical, that the author is somehow the slave to his own imagination. One can tell, as a reader, when a story has been altered in mid-course for an artificial reason. The failure of nerve on the part of the writer is like a blur on the page. The story has not run off with the writer: the writer has lost confidence somewhere along the way.

In journalism, whether your man boarding the bus is a poet or a spy or someone on his way to work, the most you can say is that someone saw him or sat next to him or noticed he was reading a newspaper. If the reporter tries to put himself in the man’s place, see through his eyes, enter his mind – in short, submit to his fate – the result will be a diluted mixture of near-real and totally false. Fiction and non-fiction are strong currents that become weak when they are dammed up and made to blend. Even if the result is startling or scandalous, the weakness shows – frequently, nowadays, during a protracted suit for libel.

At the time when I was earning my living on a newspaper, writing (one hoped) nothing but provable incidents, without being expected to have an opinion (impossible, surely), I often thought that fiction was more truthful. It was not that the facts in themselves were lies, but that there were more facts than one was allowed to mention. The lie by omission not only was encouraged; it was enforced. We followed a line. We endorsed a political party. A poem – any poem – was more truthful than a feature hemmed in because an editor had said, “We can’t publish that.” There was also the inhibition that resulted from “checking it out.” Checking it out did not mean making sure of one’s facts. It meant making certain the political party we supported would approve. Here’s an example: after the war, Canada admitted a number of Polish soldiers who, as a result of the Yalta agreement, found they had nowhere to go. They were allowed in after considerable debate and under the condition they spend their first two years working on farms. Their wages were disgracefully low, and often nonexistent. For many of them, the expression “slave labour” could apply. A few of those indentured to farms in Quebec escaped and got to Montreal, where they were hidden in the attic of a Polish ex-servicemen’s club. I was able to interview them after giving my word I would not disclose their place of shelter. That was where I ran into trouble: someone else on the paper was told to “check with Ottawa” (the party we supported happened to be in power) and he soon received a frantic message from the Department of Labour. No Polish workers were missing from farms, said the message, but if any Poles were found would we immediately say where they were hiding. I offer this as an example of political doublespeak. It was written more than forty years ago, but nothing seems quite so contemporary as the bland double-bind.

When I turned to fiction, hoping I could make a living at it, I had to turn my back on a way of life I found attractive, but also on a kind of thin ice I found more and more dangerous. One could not say something only because it was true. It had also to be suitable (to what and for whom was not always clear) and suitability was hypocrisy. I wrote only fiction for the next eighteen years, until I had enough of a foothold on that other shore and could, from time to time, go back to my starting point and write articles, essays, reviews. I would not be so naive or so disingenuous as to pretend there is no censorship in fiction. Censorship occurs every time a book is banned, for whatever reason, from a public library. It can occur – it does occur – in democracies. I watched in horror and amazement when, in France, during the Algerian War, whole editions of books were seized and the printers’ plates destroyed. I saw how, with very few exceptions, writers and their organizations, such as they were, kept their heads down. I have long believed that the acceptance of censorship, and the shame writers must have felt, accounted for the subsequent decline in French fiction. (This is something I think; I am not saying it is provable or even true.) To this day, no French writer has ever written wholly and truthfully about the period. It is like a rotten floor plank; no one walks in that part of the room.

My own restrictions seem absurd, by comparison. I am bound by the New Yorker’s worry about lawsuits. Every society has its built-in threats, and North American readers have a great propensity to take offence and to try to make money out of the offence – imaginary or real. We all know that the literary coincidence exists: I once began a story with a sentence, almost word-for-word, that occurs at the beginning of a story by Heinrich Böll. I had never read his story and did not know of its existence until I came across a bilingual Penguin book of German short fiction. By that time, my story was almost in print, but I was able to change just enough so that it would not be a virtual duplicate. I have discovered that one has to be careful about names of characters. Obviously, we are not going to call everyone Ken or Mary and Smith or Jones. I have twice had to mollify American readers – one, a woman in Texas, the other a professor at a New England university – both of whom were certain I had somehow heard of them and had deliberately used their names. In the case of the professor, it was not so much that he objected to seeing his family’s name attached to a character in fiction: it was his mother who kept writing and urging him to find out something about me, and why I had picked on them. With the lady in Texas, the exchange of letters came to nothing: she remained convinced I had heard of her. She had once published an article in a small review that I had never heard of, on a topic completely outside anything I might be drawn to read. In her case, the character’s first and last names were close, though not identical, but she had discovered other similarities that worried her. I answered all her letters, aware that it was a waste of time. Once, for a story set in Paris, I had named a character Roger Perron. The New Yorker – I suppose it must have been its legal department – made a check on every “R. Perron” in the Paris phone book. There were two or three Rogers, one of whom, like my character, was a civil servant. I don’t think that if I had let the name stand, this man would have sued: it is not French custom to sue over trifles and courts are inclined to be lenient towards authors; writers still enjoy a status of privilege in France. However, “Roger Perron, civil servant” could, had he wished to, have sued in an American court. He could have said, “I am Roger Perron. In this story, you assert that my son is too stupid to pass exams, that my wife is brainless, that as a high school student I was visiting bordellos; worse, you say that my son was a member of a fascist-sounding organization and that my father was on the extreme right of the political spectrum – in fact, that he attended the funeral of Charles Maurras, the Action Française leader who called the Nazi victory in 1940 ‘a divine surprise.’ I consider all this highly damaging to my career, and I am suing you for fifty million dollars.”

In order to find a name that no one could claim, I opened a dictionary, Le Petit Robert, and took a word, claire-voie, which means “latticework.” I have never met anyone called Latticework, in any language; I’m still waiting.

If this seems trivial, almost a copping-out on the question of censorship, I don’t mean it to be. Even a mild anxiety about the reaction of some unknown person, some casual reader who chooses to place himself or herself at the centre of the stage by pretending to be grossly offended over a petty coincidence – worse, by trying to squeeze money out of the incident – is one anxiety too many, for most of us. In France, it is the writer of fiction who most usually has the last word. But the laws governing non-fiction – biography and the like – are rather different. The private and professional lives of the subject are strongly protected. I can give you a recent example: When Brigitte Bardot was still a young actress, she tried to commit suicide. It was an incident much publicized at the time; the press was full of it. But when a book was written about her life (in fact, it was a doctoral thesis about her impact, or the impact of her image, on French society) recalling her suicide attempt, she was able to take the author and the publisher to court and to have the book seized. The reason: it was no longer news. She had stopped making pictures and it was therefore an infringement on her private life. If the author had maintained the thesis as an unpublished document, or had perhaps published it as a university press title, nothing would have come of it. But from the moment the unauthorized tale of her life was issued as a commercial proposition, she could have the law on her side.

Can a protection-of-privacy law amount to censorship? The French writer Céline is considered – even by people who think he should have been sent to jail or even shot to death – one of the great French voices, in fiction, in France, in the twentieth century. His two finest novels, Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Instalment Plan, make many admired French works seem puny and weak. He was a superb writer. He was also a notorious anti- Semite and a coward who chose to exercise his racialism when France was occupied and the Jews he insulted and slandered were in no position to talk back. Céline is a special case. His career leads one to wonder if Voltaire was right when he said that only acts, never words, count as crimes. A few years ago, writing an article about Céline, I quoted from one of his racist pamphlets. As it happened, his widow had been able to stop the reprinting and distribution of his more violent broadsides. A book that had included only a few sentences had been seized, by law. My Céline article, collected with other pieces in Paris Notebooks, could not have been translated into French. Is it an example of censorship? In its way, surely, yes – particularly if you remember that Céline died unrepentant and that his opinions were not the result of some youthful wrong-headedness. In quoting a few words I was not diminishing him as a novelist, but simply trying to give a picture of the writer as a whole. They were not opinions privately expressed and repeated as gossip: they were published exactly as his fiction was published. We can argue indefinitely about Voltaire’s line between thoughts and acts. (To show how absurd quasi-censorship can be, Paris Notebooks and the forbidden remarks can be found in Paris in English bookstores. The same book could not be on sale if it were in French.)

My first newspaper story was about a downtown child called Johnny. My last, six years later, was about another city kid, grown up now, also called Johnny – Johnny Young. Quebec in those days was governed by some laws unknown in the rest of Canada. I think the rest of the country did not care. I often meet Canadians from other provinces who tell me they knew nothing or, if they are too young to remember, have never heard of the appalling “Padlock Law.” The “Padlock Law” was instituted as a way of providing immediate punishment for citizens who had the wrong books in their homes. I am talking about books containing political attitudes and opinions. There was no trial and no sentence. The offending family, its children and infants included – and, in one case I recall, a canary in a cage – were thrown into the street and the door to their home locked behind them. They were punished for their thoughts, not for their deeds. It still seems to me incredible that within my lifetime, Canadian citizens, at least in one city, had to be careful about the kind of reading matter they kept on their shelves. The men engaged in the house search, which was conducted without a warrant, were not highly literate – to say the least of it. Anything in print and between covers must have struck them as dangerous.

(Surely, you are thinking, there was nation-wide protest at this state of affairs? Surely the Montreal newspapers launched a freedom-of-opinion and human-rights campaign? I can still remember an exhausted-looking young couple with a baby, ushered into the editorial room of The Standard by, I think, the lawyer for some helpless and hopeless organization. He was the wrong person – too blustering, too loud. The evicted couple seemed poor, stunned, and scared to death. They had nowhere to go and nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Whether the incident was worth a story was an editorial decision. As a rule, an editor decided that it was left to the reporter to say, “I’m sorry. We’ve already run something along those lines,” or “We don’t feel it’s quite the right moment,” or the flat refusal: “There’s nothing I can do.”)

In 1950, something new was added: a law stipulating that a person convicted of any offence more than twice was to be sentenced to prison for life. And “life” meant a full lifetime, without remission or parole. A similar law existed in the United States. Gangster movies of the period made much of the “three-time loser,” convicted for armed robbery or other, serious offences. In Quebec, convictions for petty crimes carried the same weight, provided they added up to three.

The first person given a life sentence under the new ruling was a Montrealer in his twenties, Johnny Young. The publicity he received made it sound almost an honour. Actually, he was a minor lawbreaker, more of a nuisance to society than a serious threat. One of his early convictions, as I remember it, had been for stealing tires and trying to sell them on the black market. “Black market” means it happened in wartime, making it, in his case, a juvenile offence. Young was barely educated and said to be not overly intelligent – though it is often hard to measure the capacity of an untrained, underdeveloped, and inarticulate mind. He knew nothing about the new law and perhaps did not understand that it had been applied retroactively. His brief notoriety must have come as a surprise. There was no legal precedent and there had been no warning – at any rate, none that could have sifted down to his street.

I knew nothing about him, had not been assigned to cover the trial, and most certainly did not look upon Johnny Young as a hero. But the idea of a life sentence as retroactive justice sounded wrong. I got a lawyer I knew to explain it to me. Had Johnny Young known about the risk he was taking in committing a third offence? No, he had not. It was a new procedure. I asked The Standard if I might write a feature about the man and his background. I wondered about his trajectory, why his lifeline had sent him straight into the line of a different trajectory, that of the new law. The two editors to whom I presented my idea were all for it, although we did not see the story in the same light. For them, I was to write something along the lines of “The Making of a Habitual Criminal.” I wanted to find out about Johnny Young’s Montreal, the streets of the English-speaking poor. A sociological falsehood, current then, exists even now: in Montreal, all the poor were French-speaking and all the English-speakers were well-to-do – or, at least, comfortable. The truth was that the poverty line cut straight across culture and language. I interviewed a juvenile court judge who told me that the English-speaking poor furnished more juvenile offenders, in proportion to their numbers, than any other group. The reason? They were forgotten and out-of-place everywhere, except their own neighbourhood. (In those days no one said “poor.” The euphemism was “underprivileged.”)

Johnny Young came out of that minority-within-a-minority. I wanted to learn something about his particular Montreal. The idea of someone shut up for life, who had not committed a serious crime, seemed appalling. I did not say so. I was afraid my idea might be taken away from me and assigned to a male reporter, someone with a tougher outlook, unblurred by the reading and writing of fiction. Because it was my last feature assignment, because I was leaving soon, I was given plenty of time for research and writing. It had never happened before. It was to be a long piece, in two parts, to be run on consecutive Saturdays in the magazine section.

I was not allowed to interview Johnny Young. I am thankful now for the restriction. Then, I was disappointed; now, I realize that an interview might have turned the article into a profile. He could have seen it as a further chance to explain himself, in a new legal hearing, of a kind, and it would have raised a false hope of release or, at least, a new trial. I did the next best thing: went down to his part of Montreal and knocked on doors.

How much was a search for sources of fiction? A journalist’s curiosity, in my experience, is no more intense than that of a writer of fiction. The difference lies in the stop signal that flashes in the mind when one is writing a piece meant to give facts – facts alone. The main character, in this case, was a man precisely described by people who had known him. I had a number of newspaper photographs of him – he could not and must not be transformed. I did not have to make a conscious effort to keep the article in focus: the stop signal was in place from my very first newspaper assignments. No one warned me to be careful, for the simple reason that the men who first hired me had no idea I ever meant also to write fiction. It was just there, like the barrier I have kept between French and English. I do not want them to overlap. If they did, I would move, without any hesitation, to a place where I was likely to hear and read and speak no language but English. I have been ready for years to face a crisis that, in fact, has never occurred.

If I look at my research on the Johnny Young story objectively I can see, quite clearly, that I must have considered this my last chance to explore yet another area of Montreal – to meet people I might never otherwise come across, enter homes I had no other excuse to visit. I had a passionate interest in my native city, but I could never have brought it, or that particular period, to life in fiction if I had not first established what I shall call the plain facts of journalism. I can still see in my mind someone I never met: the father of Johnny Young, described to me as an obese man in shirtsleeves, sitting on his front steps, eating ice cream on a hot day. His wife had died a long time ago, some said; others were not so sure, though neighbours and acquaintances agreed that the boy had been motherless and that his father was not young. The father sat on the steps, day after day, with a dog beside him. He ate ice cream cones while his child became a petty thief and then what someone called “a habitual criminal.”

One of the family friends was a woman in her early twenties. She stood at an ironing board and got on with her brothers’ shirts as she told me about her semi-delinquent siblings and their great pal, Johnny Young. She told me about how they had stuck up a candy store with a fake gun, but turned and ran, and how they had stolen odd things, such as alarm clocks, though not so odd if you remember that during the war alarm clocks were no longer manufactured, and people would pay anything for a second-hand one. They were English-speaking but there was a lost European culture somewhere – Slovak or Bohemian. In the story that evolved out of that meeting, years later, they turned themselves into Romanians. I knew Romanian émigrés in Paris. One thing blended into the other.

In a way, I still write as if I were reporting. The faces of characters, entirely imagined, or subtly altered from a living source, remain in my mind. I can see the face of the woman behind the ironing board, and I can also see the man I never met, the father of Johnny Young, on the front steps, in his shirtsleeves, eating ice cream. Journalism fed my mind and nourished my work. I am grateful to have been given an occasion to say so. Perhaps I have put more questions than I have been able to answer – I hope you are not disappointed. To sum up, where I was concerned, Cyril Connolly was hopelessly wrong. I was not crushed or in some way exploited by my apprenticeship. I worked as a journalist, and journalism worked and probably still works for me. 

* “Concerning Love,” translated by Ronald Wilks; Penguin Classics. In the same story, titled “About Love,” translated by Constance Garnett, the words are “At lunch next day there were very nice pies . . .”


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