Room in Conversation with Eleanor Wachtel

Interview by 
Lorrie Miller

Eleanor Wachtel is the voice of Canadian literature on Writers & Company as heard on CBC radio—a show that in 2011 was a Silver Radio Winner at the New York Festivals Prize for the World’s Best Radio Programs (in the category of Best Regularly Scheduled Talk Program). In 2002, she won the Jack Award for the Promotion of Canadian books and authors. She has been awarded eight honorary doctorates, and in 2005 she was named to the Order of Canada. She has also written books chronicling her interviews with prominent writers. Though she may be best known for her radio work as host of the award-winning Writers & Company, those of us at Room consider her as one of our own—a Room alumna. Eleanor Wachtel joined Room of One’s Own during its second year of publication in 1976 and then stayed on for more than a decade. It was over a long-distance and crackling phone call that Room connected with Eleanor in Toronto as we turned the table on one of our country’s leading interviewers to ask her a few questions of our own. 

ROOM: What was it about writers that first compelled you to dig into their lives beyond the pages they produce?

EW: When I was very young I loved to read, and initially I didn’t even have an awareness that books had authors. There were these stories and these books and they were wonderful. I remember some stories I was most affected by that I’d read in school—for instance, The Night the Bed Fell, a very funny story, so I wanted to know who’d written it. It was James Thurber. Or A Descent into the Maelstrom, a scary story by Edgar Allan Poe. So I think I started to realize that literature came from people, but it was much later that I began to develop a curiosity about who these people were.

I do remember taking a course in Romantic poetry at university, and finding some of the poems difficult to figure out—something by Shelley—the compression and the complexity of the poem was baffling. I was doing my reading in a library, so I went to a shelf and found a book about Shelley’s life. It was fascinating, and I thought, This I can understand; this I can really get into, because, you know, he had a remarkable life. But it didn’t necessarily help me to gain an understanding of his poetry. These are moments that satisfied a particular curiosity. Translating that into a career came much later.

ROOM: So it was getting beyond what was written, and finding out who the writers were beyond the text. For me, it wasn’t until I’d met Saskatchewan writer Brenda Richies during a university class that I thought about the live person beyond the publication.

EW: Well, the first living writer that I ever met was Margaret Atwood.

ROOM: What was that like?

EW: That’s sort of starting at the top.

ROOM: Where do you go from there?

EW: By this time, I was at McGill, and I was involved in editing the Friday book section of the McGill Daily, which might sound like I had my career all planned, but that wasn’t the case at all, it’s just that the editor knew me from high school and invited me to do that. Margaret Atwood’s The Circle Game came in—I think it later won a Governor General’s Award. I opened the book and unlike the Shelley poem, I did get it, or at least I thought I did. These were terrific poems by a living writer, and at the time she was teaching at Sir George Williams University, which is now Concordia. So I contacted her to see if I could interview her for the McGill Daily. The whole time I was at school, there weren’t any living writers on any courses that I’d taken. I knew about Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton who were living in Montreal at the time, but she was the first writer that I met.

ROOM: Well, that’s a great way to start things off. I can’t help but think that that interview might have been a little bit daunting, but maybe not at the time? 

EW: That’s right. We met at a Greek restaurant on Park Avenue and had cups of tea; I asked her questions, and then she became famous. She was just on the cusp of that. I don’t remember being especially intimidated—but you can ask me later who I did find intimidating.

ROOM: Okay, I will! You dedicated a ton of time and energy to the Growing Room Collective, and to producing Room of One’s Own, from the second volume in 1976 until 1989; how did you come to join the collective, and then what kept you there through those thirteen years?

EW: I moved to Vancouver in the middle of 1975. There were two reasons I got involved. One was, I’d just arrived in the city and didn’t know that many people, and I was interested in making some connections. But I first heard about it through George Woodcock; he was the editor of Canadian Literature. I’d written a piece about Audrey Thomas that I’d sent to him, but it wasn’t really appropriate as Canadian Literature was more academic, but he said, “You might try Room of One’s Own.” So I looked up the magazine in a bookstore, and it said that they were looking for volunteers. So I called up and talked to Gayla Reid—Gayla Reid and Gail van Varseveld were founding editors—and they were very welcoming, so I joined the collective and later contributed some pieces to the magazine.

I certainly identified as a feminist, and it was a combination of feminism and my literary interest and the opportunity to meet people. I could have just sent in a piece, but there, I was working in an environment for feminism and literature.

ROOM: Well, I certainly understand the need to meet people with a common interest, having also come from away to Vancouver. What was it that kept you engaged with the collective for thirteen years?

EW: If I say it was a worthy enterprise, it sounds too grand or something, but it did feel like a worthwhile activity to be engaged with. As you know, it’s all voluntary. I remember in late ’78 or ’79 going to a national meeting of the Canadian Periodical Publishers’ Association where I met some editors of other feminist magazines, but also there were big commercial magazines, and those editors couldn’t comprehend why anyone would publish a magazine that wasn’t trying to make a profit and who weren’t getting paid.

ROOM: It’s a different philosophy.

EW: Yes, it was a different philosophy. The whole time I lived in Vancouver, I never considered not doing it. It just seemed like something worthwhile. I only left the collective because I moved to Toronto.

ROOM: What is your favourite question to ask writers? What comes right away to ask?

EW: The one that comes right away, and I try not to ask it too often because I don’t want it to become a tic or something, is “What is your earliest memory?”

ROOM: Michael Ondaatje asked you that when he interviewed you recently.

EW: He did that to get back at me.

ROOM: What is it about that question? Because that is aside from writing; that’s about life, and who you are, where you come from?

EW: That’s exactly what it is; you’ve answered it yourself. In interviewing writers on my program, you have to strike a balance between the life and the work in the sense that the listener won’t necessarily read, in all likelihood, hasn’t read the new book, and maybe hasn’t read earlier books, or hasn’t even heard of the author at all. Especially when I do special series in other countries. Often I haven’t even heard of the writers until I work with the producer and do some research and so on. That question is something that anyone can connect to, and, as you say, it establishes a context, the person’s life, environment, geographical, social, familial, and all those things. That’s why the question appeals to me, but I try not to ask it too often.

ROOM: It’s a great question for all those reasons.

EW: And because writers are generally such good storytellers, they will often tell a good story about their earliest memory, they’ll embed it in a narrative.

ROOM: In a 1983 introduction to Room of One’s Own, you wrote about women and tokenism within Canadian arts, illustrating this point with how the first annual Jessies (a prize named for theatre supporter, costume designer, and actress Jessie Richardson) ironically wasn’t awarded to a single woman in the field, nor did the selecting committee include a woman. This says something about the cultural climate in Canada for women at that time. Can you describe, on a personal level, what it was like for you? 

EW: I was a theatre critic on the morning radio show on CBC, which is why I was familiar with the Jessie Awards. At the time, so many feminists in different fields were, as Carol Shields later described it, bean counters. Practically right up to her death in 2003, she referred to herself as a bean counter. She would pick up The New Yorker magazine and see that there’s not a single woman in that issue, not even a poem. She’d be outraged. She’d write a letter and tell me about it. So many of us were bean counters. It wasn’t that I was doing anything particularly innovative by giving that as an example. I had a friend in the visual arts, and another friend who worked in theatre in Toronto, both of whom wrote big reports about female representation in the arts. It was something that a lot of people were agitating about. It didn’t necessarily affect me personally in the sense that it didn’t stop me from wanting to do whatever I wanted to do. I never interpreted any difficulty in accessing things as a manifestation of sexism necessarily—who knows? That just wasn’t my first-line response to what I was experiencing.

ROOM: Did it compel you in any way to champion women writers or cultural producers at that time?

EW: Probably in a way. I started writing profiles for Books in Canada. And it is possible that I suggested some women writers to them, but I also wrote profiles of men, bill bissett, Jack Hodgins. But I wrote about P.K. Page, Phyllis Webb. We were all just sensitive to it. And I still am, but I’m not a bean counter in quite the same way. But I do when I see photos of parliament, G8 or G20, or boards of directors, the people who hold power—still the great majority are men.

ROOM: Your volunteer and professional lives intersected early on with your dedication to fostering the growth of an infant Room of One’s Own, which was clearly linked to your professional life. So I am wondering if there is a particular cause that is close to your heart these days?

EW: The way I volunteer now is usually to do benefits to support, for instance, libraries. Whenever I’m invited to speak at a library or do something for it, like the Book Lover’s Ball which raises money for Toronto libraries, I feel a very strong allegiance to libraries. My first book of interviews is dedicated to the Snowdon Branch of the N.D.G. Boys & Girls Library in Montreal because that is where I was taken as a kid. A lot of writers I’ve interviewed have also talked about how important libraries were—Nadine Gordimer says she couldn’t have become a writer if there hadn’t been a library. She grew up on the veldt in South Africa, near a mining town, so there wasn’t much stimulation intellectually for her, and the library was key. So that is something that is kind of a cause. But my volunteering now is more on an ad hoc basis, for fundraisers. I don’t have the same involvement as I had with Room in the sense of working for an organization on a volunteer basis in a regular way.

ROOM: So, back to that earlier question: was there, perhaps, a time in the past when you were intimidated, or possibly really nervous at the prospect of a particular interview? How did you cope?

EW: The one that comes to mind is when I first interviewed Nadine Gordimer. I interviewed her several times subsequently, but that first time, she hadn’t even won the Nobel Prize yet, but she was a writer whom I’d admired for many, many years. For the interview, she was in Johannesburg and I was in Toronto; it was a double-ender, over the telephone. Someone was recording her at the other end so it would be broadcast quality. So in preparing for the interview, it’s always more stressful if you’ve been admiring someone for a very long time, you build up anticipation, and so on, and the other thing was, when I was doing the research, I came across an article about her which said that she had a rapier tongue, and so I thought oh no, even though we were 10,000 miles apart, I was sitting in the studio, and my stomach was just in a twist. But as soon as she started answering my first question I could completely relax because it wasn’t her earliest memory, but it was something about her childhood, and I knew that it was something she’d been asked many times before, and I could tell by the way she was answering that she was going to be generous, and she wasn’t going to be dismissive of what I was saying. So that is one that I remember being nervous about.

Sometimes the on-stage interviews are more nerve-wracking because you just don’t know what somebody is going to do. It’s in public. I guess I’ve learned in a general way, or fortunately I don’t get nervous either on stage or in studio, but at least in studio no one else outside the studio is going to find out because you can edit.

ROOM: Absolutely.

EW: I used to do live radio, I used to do The Arts Tonight. Of course when I started with theatre reviews, that was live.

ROOM: What advice would you give for new women writers today? 

EW: I don’t have any particular advice. The only advice I’d give would echo the advice that Rilke gave to a young poet, which is: if you could do anything else, you should, because it is so hard.

ROOM: (Heartily laughs.)

EW: If you can work in any other job, you should. I totally believe in the compulsion theory of creativity, that you are a writer because you absolutely have to be, otherwise it is way too hard.

ROOM: Thanks for that!

EW: But if I were to give more practical advice, it would be to try to get something published, submit to The Walrus, or to literary magazines—there are still quite a few literary magazines around—and then encourage them, if they do publish you, to submit it to a national magazine award or the Journey Prize, or something to raise your profile. It helps when you are trying to get a book published later.

ROOM: Though you’d written articles, introductions, and extensive interviews for Room, you rarely submitted your own bio: I found three. One after thirteen years, one at your tenth year, and one in your first year, which was the second year of publication. The earliest one, printed in Volume 2, No. 4, reads: ‘Eleanor Wachtel is working to rehabilitate the word dilettante.’ This is both cheeky and inspiring, but it is also in such contrast to your work, hardly that of a dilettante. What are you working towards now?

EW: At the time, I was so interested in so many things, and had just started freelancing, which meant you have to be more diversified than AT&T, just to cobble together some sort of a career. So that’s why that made sense to me. What I’m working towards now, it sort of sounds sort of boring, but more of the same. I feel incredibly lucky to have the job that I have, and it suits me so well in terms of my interests, appetites, and stimulation, and it’s never the same. What I mean when I say more of the same is that all the writers I interview are different—even if some of them are the same writers, the work they are producing is something new and fresh. I’d like to be able to continue doing what I’m doing.

ROOM: And you do it so well. 

EW: Thank you.

ROOM: You seem to be able to put the writers completely at ease and bring those who are listening to the show into a very personal space. It doesn’t at all come across as a performance, or anything other than authentic.

EW: I think that one of the reasons writers respond so well is that I’ve actually read their books. That’s a very good starting point.

ROOM: Thank you for your generosity today. It was an absolute pleasure.

EW: More painless than I’d feared. I prefer to be on the other end of things!

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

—bucketofrhymes, "29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need To Be Reading", Buzzfeed Books

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