“She liked to quote Rodin’s comment to Rilke that ‘il faut toujours travailler.’ And during the year I knew her when she was writer in residence at the University of Toronto [1983-84], I could often see her writer’s eye and attention click on during a casual meeting or conversation. One day we met Josef Skvorecky. After exchanging polite greetings – she admired his political mystery Miss Silver’s Past; he liked her New Yorker stories – they talked about Prague. Everything was on automatic pilot until Josef began telling the story of his half-sister who had been given up for adoption before his mother married his father. He stopped suddenly when he noticed that Mavis was watching him as attentively as a Naples pickpocket watches a Canadian tourist. He stuttered to a stop with ‘Well, it’s not that very interesting.’ Josef had never used the story in his fiction and his radar told him that Mavis was listening to it as potential material. He wasn’t going to let her have it.
“Life had been uncaring and careless with her during her childhood. As a result she was as ruthless and unsparing with her characters as she was with herself and the people around her. In life and fiction her natural tone was ironic. Munro’s stories, by comparison, are feasts of sympathy and affection. One day when we were discussing the short story writers of the post-Hemingway generation, she turned to me and said, ‘I’ll be forgotten in 50 years.’ I demurred and mentioned Babel, Platonov and Schulz, all of whom had survived against the odds. We had a falling out shortly after that and I didn’t hear from her until nearly a decade later. My daughter Vanessa, who had visited Mavis with me in 1982 at the Paris apartment on Rue Jean Ferrandi, called me one night from the University of Ottawa where she had just heard Mavis read. She had stayed for the book signing, and when it was her turn Mavis stared at her and said, ‘I know you.’ Vanessa answered, ‘I visited you in Paris. I’m Sam Solecki’s daughter.’ Mavis, still looking her in the eye, said, ‘That can’t be easy.’ She signed the book. I consoled myself with the memory of a mid-1980s Toronto dinner party held in her honour: the day after, the hostess, a writer of reputation, received a thank you note tucked into Mavis’s novel: A Fairly Good Time. She played tough.”
Damian Tarnopolsky, novelist
“A few years ago I took a correspondence course in creative writing. I had to fill out a form listing off my top three choices for mentors, and when I got the result back, I thought I’d won the lottery: I was going to be working with Mavis Gallant. The school had sent my first short story, the one that had got me in, to Paris for her thoughts. Mavis Gallant, in Paris; Mavis Gallant, of the Paris Notebooks and the New Yorker; Mavis Gallant of the Governor-General’s Award; Mavis Gallant was reading my story.
“But she was getting older, and I had to wait longer than I hoped for her to get in touch. Weeks passed, and more weeks, and every day I checked the mailbox and there was nothing. I got to know the letter carrier’s schedule very well. When the CBC said there was a collision at Mavis Road and the 403, I cursed. I was almost at breaking point by the time the first big envelope came from France, with my address in blue fountain pen. Her letter began with an apology, and then she added, ‘But writing is all about waiting.’ It was the first great piece of advice she gave me.
“There were several more like it over the next few months. She was a brilliant reader. At first she made lapidary comments about my prose, honing in on strengths and defects I was barely aware of, cracks and shadows that were invisible to me. Her precise, technical thoughts about this comma, or that simile, grew into larger thoughts about character and suspense; and then about what I was trying to do as a writer, and how I needed to think about it. They have stayed with me, and I call on them now. I find myself quoting her distinction between venial and cardinal writing sins – expressive fuzziness falls into the first category; deliberately withholding information into the second. Sometimes she said she wasn’t sure, and that educated me too. Mavis Gallant, writer, wasn’t sure how the story should end. She said it was up to me. The decision I had to make would determine the kind of fiction I was writing, she told me; it was a decision only I could make, not her.
“The course wasn’t everything I’d wanted it to be – when she fell out of touch for several weeks, I called the school. I suggested we could be in touch by fax, but she was worried that the pages would fall out of order in her apartment. I suggested e-mail, but she didn’t have a computer. I went to Europe on holiday during the course, and broke all the rules by calling her to ask if we could meet, and she told me bluntly that it was out of the question (though before we hung up, she asked me my age – she said she needed to know how old I was, to think about my work properly). Perhaps I was hoping for dramatic transformative weekly manifestos about the Power of Art; perhaps I thought she’d tell me secrets about this politician or that genius she’d known. It was something quieter that happened instead, something more important.