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Mavis Gallant at 86 Add to ...

The first time I heard Mavis Gallant's voice, she was in Paris and I was in Regina.

"Describe it," she said into the telephone last week.

I told her about the flinty sky of a winter that would not die in a country she'd left almost 60 years before. Silence and then a rolling laugh from across the Atlantic, where a lavish French pink and yellow spring was unfurling.

"It's lovely here," she teased, and the deal was sealed: I was going to Paris to meet one of the most accomplished but elusive writers in the world.

The rule is firm that she will talk for no more than an hour; and she cautions that osteoporosis has bent her at the waist, diabetes rendered her frail and arthritis tightened her fingers in curls that make holding her once-perpetual pen painful: "Please, don't be shocked when you see me."

But I am. Because she is beautiful - a soft, open face with hazel green eyes and shiny dark hair curling under her chin. In the brilliant afternoon sun, she is elegantly proper, like so many of the women here, in mauve and black.

At 86, yes, she takes her time, and time it takes to ascend the narrow spiral staircase to the top floor of the Village Voice bookshop in St-Germain-des-Prés, where she prefers we talk. She gets there under her own steam, though, and sits utterly focused and engaged for two hours straight, fuelled by a single cup of molten espresso. She's funny, astute and articulate; so where is the hermit, the self-exiled expat, the prize-winning short-story writer who "suffers no fools" and cuts short interviews without a backward glance?

"I can be very bothered at times with various things, and very often journalists come to Paris with a list of Canadian names and they have nothing to ask, really." She is demanding of journalism, because she understands the profession. "I am an ex-reporter. It has never left me."

But she famously left the Montreal Standard in 1950 and came to Paris to see whether she could earn a living as a fiction writer. "I didn't want to be a reporter who wrote fiction on the weekend." Today, the Montreal native is internationally respected as a novelist, non-fiction writer and master of the short story, winning coveted literary prizes along the way, including the Governor-General's Award, the Matt Cohen Prize and the Blue Metropolis International Grand Prix.

Is she astonished at how much she was able to accomplish?

"I never thought I would be unsuccessful," she says, but tries to steer us away from more praise. "I don't want to turn what I have done and who I am into my work. They are two separate things. Because (writing) comes out of another part of you, your brain, your system."

This is why she has never co-operated with a biographer. "Wait until I am dead," she says. The more readers and critics think they know of a writer's private life, the more they misunderstand his or her work. "The way they try to match it to the life and they get it wrong. It doesn't tell you anything."

She is still at work editing juicier bits out of her highly anticipated personal journals, which she estimates are still a couple of years away from release. "I think everyone should hide their private life. Do you walk around naked in the streets? Do you pee-pee in public? Do you offer your heart on a platter?" Only after she's long gone will the uncensored diaries of Mavis Gallant be revealed, she says.

For now, suffice to say that she's never wanted to remarry after a brief wartime union ended in divorce. "I didn't want that life. I wouldn't have been able to write." Nor did she long for children. "You don't miss what you've never had. ... I would have made a good grandmother but I don't think I would have made a good mother." She chuckles. "I might have run away!"

But can women be fulfilled without giving birth? "Oh, bugger," and she instantly names satisfied, successful female writers who didn't reproduce.

Nor did she flee to Paris as an exile, but came admiring Balzac and Camus and speaking French fluently; while she remains a Canadian, she adores this city, the culture and her many friends here. It seems obvious there have been relationships along the way, but no man's appeal was more powerful than the words she awoke hungry to write each morning. "I lived in it. I never considered it work."

Now, though, there is a new mourning, the surrendered early hours once spent at her writing desk, consumed these days by visits from a nurse who injects her twice daily with insulin, helpers who come twice a week - only available in the beloved morning! - to do the chores doctors forbid her from attempting. "I am not the same person I was. It takes me a long time do things. I am not a complainer. But I can't even pull myself together. It's like having a physical block." She grimaces. "Frustrating!"

And her hands ache so much sometimes that she must form her fingers into a loose circle and poke her pen down into the little nest. They are not gnarled, though, as one poet has said, but simply swollen from the trillions of syllables they've shaped into cunning characters and intricate lives.

Canada seems so very far away on this silky spring day in the heart of Paris and I earn my only scolding when I ask whether she might come back one day. "Why would a smart woman like you ask a question like that?" She waves a hand at me. "Oh, say I might."

But we turn together to look out onto the Rue Princesse from our little table in the bookstore garret and smile: How many writers conquered Paris the way Mavis Gallant did?

Paula Todd is an investigative journalist with CTV's W- FIVE and the author of A Quiet Courage: Inspiring Stories from All of Us.

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