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An Interview with Mordecai Richler

Brick 81

When I was a student at University of Toronto, I wrote book reviews for the Varsity, one of the university newspapers. After seeing my review of Solomon Gursky Was Here, Penguin Books called to ask if I wanted to interview Mordecai Richler when he came to Toronto on his press junket. What follows is a transcript of the interview between the very much alive Mordecai Richler and the very much unprepared, inexperienced, and bumbling me. Our talk occurred in the main dining room of the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto in the fall of 1989. The interview appears here in full for the first time.

Pugsley: Congratulations on this super book.

Richler: Thank you very much.

Pugsley: What I wanted to talk about were the writers you were attracted to when you were first thinking about becoming a writer.

Richler: Well, when I was a young writer the people we read were Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sartre, Camus, Celine, Malraux. And to begin with, I was a bit of a copycat writer and very derivative and tried to write a novel using their voices, really. My first novel is called The Acrobats

Pugsley: Never seen it.

Richler: Well, I keep it out of print. So those were the people I read as a kid.

Pugsley: Would you still read those people now? Would you pick up The Sun Also Rises and look through it now?

Richler: Oh sure, I think Hemingway’s stories are absolutely wonderful, a fresh way of using language. The man was a bit of a brute and a poseur, but he was a good writer.

Pugsley: I was speaking to a professor the other day and he was talking about St. Urbain’s Horseman, about another fellow named Jake. There are sort of echoes, parodies of phrases from The Sun Also Rises that come up in St. Urbain’s Horseman

Richler: If there are, I wasn’t aware of it.

Pugsley: Really? What about the scene where Jake is examining himself in the mirror—it’s similar to Jake Barnes’s examining the old war wound.

Richler: Well, Jake is a hypochondriac, it’s totally different. It’s a comic situation men of his age go through. So it’s not meant to be a parody. It represents what men in their forties start going through, fearful of every bump and lump that comes with the years.

Pugsley: I remember, too, a review, I think it was your review of The World According to Garp when it first came out . . .

Richler: Yes.

Pugsley: And it seemed that that kind of full, comprehensive . . . taking people from the very beginnings of their lives to the very end—the sort of thing you find in Irving novels, it’s a very broad scope, or spectrum. I’ve found a similar sort of, I don’t know if I want to call it a progression, but there seems to be a similarity in the books that you’ve been writing. Starting with smaller books and getting bigger and fuller till we end up with Gursky, which is enormous. Would reading someone like John Irving affect the way you think about a book?

Richler: No. I think John Irving is a very good novelist, but the age when you’re susceptible to those kinds of influences is when you are a very young writer, and so I really write entirely in my own voice. Very often somebody goes through a zeitgeist or something; some novelists approach things in a somewhat similar fashion at the same period in time.

Pugsley: You said that given the opportunity you could shaft this new book with a more scathing review than any you’re likely to see . . .

Richler: Oh, I could shaft any of my books.

Pugsley: How would you shaft this one?

Richler: I’m not going to give you any help.

Pugsley: Well, to be an evil guy I was going to ask you to—

Richler: I’m too smart for that.

Pugsley: How did you keep track of this book? Did you have flow charts and family trees pinned around your office?

Richler: No, I got into a lot of trouble here and there because I had someone somewhere, and then of course I realized that he or she couldn’t be there because he was somewhere else at that time, or the wrong age. But I’m not so organized that I have charts. I just wrote and then went back and had to make adjustments.

Pugsley: Did you go back and say, “I think I’d rather have this section towards the beginning,” that kind of thing?

Richler: Yes.

Pugsley: Because you were working with so many timelines and—

Richler: The book went through, oh, a great many constructions. For a long time it began with Mr. Bernard’s birthday party—

Pugsley: Really? Because that’s a terrific scene . . .

Richler: But then, as Ephraim loomed larger, I thought it should begin with Ephraim.

Pugsley: Sorry, who is that?

Richler: Ephraim. I pronounce it Ef-rye-im. As he loomed larger I thought it should begin with Ephraim. And then, should it begin with Ephraim in London, should it begin with Ephraim in Canada, you know. It went through various constructions.

Pugsley: And would your editors have any say in that or would—

Richler: No. My first editor’s my wife, on whom I rely very much. And Bob Gottlieb, although he’s left Knopf, he’s now running The New Yorker. But Bob still edits. He edited my novel. And we’ve known each other for years, we’re very good friends. So the kind of thing he would tell you would be, “You’re going on too long in some areas of the novel” or “I don’t think certain characters work.” Then it’s left up to you. You accept some parts of it and not others. What I did do is I felt certain chapters about the Franklin expedition were interesting but went on too long, took you off the track, so I made certain cuts.

Pugsley: So when people talk about you cutting hundreds of pages, it came out of the Franklin expedition sections?

Richler: No. First of all, before I sent it off, I went through the novel twice and cut about twenty thousand words, about fifty or sixty pages. And then I made various small cuts on the advice of editors. I didn’t do any reconstruction and I did some work on one character.

Pugsley: Did you ever think about turning this into a Robertson Davies trilogy or anything?

Richler: No.

Pugsley: You wanted it as one book?

Richler: Yeah. I mean, I would love to publish it in three parts, but no.

Pugsley: You spoke once about novels of character, novels making or breaking it on the depths of the characterization. This book is a mix of a lot of different—

Richler: Yeah.

Pugsley: Do you still feel that?

Richler: Well, I think that if you’re writing a straightforward satire, which I enjoy doing, such as Cocksure, then, in the nature of things, it shouldn’t be more than two hundred and fifty pages. Because there’s very little sympathy for anybody in it and satire is such that it should be much shorter. But this is a kind of a suitcase of a novel with satire, character, history, so you can get away with it. But in a straightforward satire, which I like doing and might very well do next, it takes different turns.

Pugsley: Did you ever consider shifting around the focus, because Mr. Bernard is such a strong character and there are moments when you feel that he could just take off and overwhelm everybody else. You didn’t go back and tone anyone down or—

Richler: No.

Pugsley: In Canadian Writing Today, you talk about Robert Fulford’s analogy of the tomato canning factory, that Canada has all the apparatus of a national literature except for writers; we’ve got the factory but no tomatoes. Well, now we certainly have the tomatoes, but the writers we’ve got—Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood—aren’t really writing the big novels that people tend to get their sense of social history from. There was an article, I don’t know if you saw it, in Harper’s Magazine by Tom Wolfe in which he talks about the novel not tackling the kinds of things that—

Richler: Well, people have been wondering what’s going to happen to the novel for two hundred years; its death has been announced many times. You know, I think the novel keeps redefining the world we live in. What you should look for in a novel is a window nobody else is looking out of, that nobody else can look through. What you look for is a voice. You pick up a novel by someone such as Faulkner or Hemingway and you just read three pages and you know who wrote it. And that’s what one should demand of a novelist.

Pugsley: And in what they talk about too, though: what that voice would talk about, what the content of the novel is. Is it just another sensitive interior book or is it a book that’s going to be expansive and prodigal and take into account all kinds of things?

Richler: Well, every novelist is different. I think one of the best writers in this country is Alice Munro; and Alice writes about rural Ontario, a world of ordinary lives, boring lives, but makes them a fascination. She’s got a much more difficult job, I think; because I’m writing about outsized people who use colourful language. I’ve got great admiration for her.

Pugsley: Did you just write about where your interests took you?

Richler: Yes.

Pugsley: So you’re not interested in registering a certain time or place in Canada?

Richler: No. I’m not an anthropologist or a geographer.

Pugsley: This book is packed with so many things, goes in so many directions, have you left yourself any interests, any more obsessions, to write out of?

Richler: I hope so.

Pugsley: Would you ever want to write about Montreal again?

Richler: I don’t know. Right now I’m running on empty. Maybe next summer. I have certain notions, but I never talk about them.

Pugsley: When did you first start thinking about Solomon Gursky?

Richler: Well, I started actually before I wrote Joshua Then and Now. But I got stuck with it, so I put it aside until really about five years ago I got down and started working on it.

Pugsley: How much material had you had before?

Richler: Oh, I guess about a hundred and fifty pages, maybe. Of which maybe forty pages went into the finished book. A novel keeps changing.

Pugsley: I heard that people were after you to resurrect Duddy.

Richler: Well, the novel was originally conceived as a trilogy in my mind, and whether I’ll ever do it, whether I’ll ever do another one, I don’t know.

Pugsley: The worlds of Duddy and St. Urbain’s are linked, with characters overlapping. Did you ever think about making Joshua or this book part of that?

Richler: No, this one is very different. There are only three chapters in this book that deal with that area and those are the chapters about L. B., who is a different kind of character than any I’ve ever written about before, really.

Pugsley: That was nicely written, there were some great touches about L. B.—

Richler: Oh yes, I’m very pleased with it.

Pugsley: With his kinds of contradictions, as with the affair with the sculptress, which I wasn’t sure about when I first looked at it. There are so many details in this book that—are you afraid that some of the subtlety . . .

Richler: I don’t believe in plain statement. I’m really writing for the intelligent reader. So there are a lot of things, obviously, people will miss and other people will get. I’ve read reviews about what a gentle character Morrie is, and of course Morrie’s the biggest son of a bitch of them all.

Pugsley: But Morrie is quite a deceptive character because all the other characters love him.

Richler: He’s such a vicious gossip, though, you can tell right away.

Pugsley: But Mr. Bernard too, I mean, there are some nice touches of him where he might have been a generous person at one time.

Richler: Well, they’re supposed to be full blown, full of contradictions, as we all are.

Pugsley: There’s a similar structure in the last few novels, where there is a protagonist obsessed with some romantic hero: the Boy Wonder in Duddy Kravitz, or Joey in St. Urbain’s, or Solomon Gursky. Were you at all uncomfortable with this similarity?

Richler: No, but it’s a legitimate point.

Pugsley: And Solomon is such a fantastic character that—oh, who shot Willy MacGraw?

Richler: Who shot Willy MacGraw?

Pugsley: Yeah. It’s not really a crucial event but . . .

Richler: Well, actually Mr. Bernard sent someone to shoot Solomon, and Solomon was the one who was supposed to go down to the railway station. Except he didn’t go down to the railway station, he was playing snooker and he said to MacGraw, Look, I can’t leave now, you go down to the railway station.

Pugsley: Well, you know that Solomon is the target.

Richler: If you look at it again, you’ll see that it’s fortuitous. Solomon as I recall has won so much money he doesn’t feel he can leave, everyone will be angry, and so he’s saved by accident. And then he phones Mr. Bernard later from his hotel room and you know he knows what’s happened. If you go through it, it’s really quite clear.

Pugsley: That’s something that I missed then. . . . My brother suggested that I tell you that three thousand salmon were taken out of the Margaree in the fall run, so if you’re ever east you should check Cape Breton . . . are you quite a fisherman?

Richler: Well, I’m only an adequate salmon fisherman, but I do enjoy it. I have to rely on invitations, though, because I haven’t got access to those clubs. After I finished this book, in the autumn, I went up to Scotland for the first time and fished, but I was too late in the season. However I had a very good time and—you know anything about salmon fishing?

Pugsley: Yup.

Richler: Well, I used that two-handed, fifteen-foot rod and that was a lot of fun. It’s easier in some respects. I thought it was easier. But I found once you got the knack, it was almost easier to handle than a ten-foot rod. It was a lot of fun.

Pugsley: Does it lengthen your cast?

Richler: Yeah, lengthens your cast and there’s a longer pause for the back cast. And it’s got more heft. But there were only black salmon left in the river. It was too late, it was the end of September. But we were in a wonderful lodge and had a great time. Then we went up to Shetland and Orkney, fished for trout, lot of fun. Where do you fish?

Pugsley: In the east. Nova Scotia.

Richler: It’s not catch and release, is it?

Pugsley: Two a day.

Richler: But just grilse or are you allowed to keep a salmon?

Pugsley: Just grilse.

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Alex Pugsley is a writer and filmmaker originally from Nova Scotia. Recently he wrote and directed the feature film Dirty Singles, which is available now on iTunes and the Movie Network.