ne of Canada’s finest short story writers, Mavis Gallant, was an expat writer who lived in Paris for much of her writing life. She was born in Montreal in 1922 and died in Paris in 2014. Her father died when she was ten years old. Her mother remarried and moved to NYC, leaving Gallant behind with a guardian. The author’s view was that her mother should not have had children, revealing a rather detached view, perhaps refreshing?
Are you curious about why I have chosen to write about Mavis Gallant? Read on, Dear Reader.
When Mavis Gallant was successfully published in the New Yorker, early in her career, she was the last to know. Her agent pocketed the money she earned, lied to her by saying her work had been declined and then lied to the magazine about her address. She happened to be in the library one day and found a story written by herself in the magazine.
In the fifties Marvis Gallant moved to Paris and there remained, after a brief stint in Spain. She was a very private person, one who rarely gave interviews.
Now let me tell you why Mavis Gallant. I had a very brief correspondence with her (one letter) when I lived in France. It has writerly advice, which coming from such a private and distinguished writer, seems very precious.
How did this correspondence come about?
Back in the day, I came upon a creative writing program, long distance, via a university in Canada. I applied, was accepted and paid my fees. Well, the Head Honcho did not see that I had indeed paid my fees, and gave my coveted spot to somebody else, relegating me to study with a writer whose interests I did not share at all. I was fit to be tied. Mr. Head Honcho should, in my view, have told the person who supplanted me that he had made a mistake and then send whoever that person was off to the no-man’s land of the weirdo writer. Head Honcho refused. I withdrew my money (and my good will). It still galls me, but I am sure you can’t tell because I recently took a loving kindness workshop with Sharon Salzburg. May all beings be happy.
I then thought, you know, Mavis Gallant is Canadian, and, in fact, she had some connection with this university. Perhaps I could work with her. My letter, soliciting her help, has been lost to the ages, but her reply is still with us, written in black fountain pen on ivory colored stationery.
Paris, 4 March, 2005
Dear Ms. Salvato,
The reason you have not heard from me is that I stupidly mislaid your card and address. Like so many inanimate things, it vanished on its own and turned up the other day, along with some other unrelated correspondence, in a file marked, “Spain.”
By now you probably know that I am not tutoring this year. Nor am I reading work. Since you have a tutor at Humber, I would not want in any event to interfere. And I’m not a freelance editor and I don’t read for a fee. (I can see why you made the mistake, and I hope things are going agreeably for you now.)
If I may offer un-asked for advice, don’t show your work to too many people, at this stage of your career. You will receive a bouquet of conflicting ideas, often from people who don’t know what fiction is, how it develops in the mind, or what writing is. Only you can decide what you want to convey and how you want it to sound to the strangers who will eventually read it in print.
This does not mean that you don’t require an editor. I am talking about friendly amateur appraisal, remarks for the sake of remarks. Far from providing firm ground to stand on, they are far more likely to damage your self-confidence.
With my best wishes,
RUE JEAN FERRANDI
I can imagine Ms. Gallant at her apartment 14, rue Jean Ferrandi, in the 6ème, giving something of herself to an aspiring writer, perhaps because Spain had claimed, however briefly, my correspondence to her. The French Wikipedia lists several notable sites on her street, but alas, does not cite the home of Mavis Gallant, who, while she loved France, remained a Canadian throughout her life, more as a fact of her life than an act of Canandian loyalty. Lack of greater recognition in France was a source of some sadness to her.
I wonder if she met Samuel Beckett, but I was not able to verify that one way or the other. When I tried, I wound up on some search which offered both Gallant and Beckett for sale. Ah, the business of business is business. She loved white roses.
So perhaps, Dear Reader, you understand better why this blog is entitled “writing4godot.” Following Mavis Gallant’s advice, I did my writing in private, writing for the strangers who would one day read my work. Like the vagrants, I, too, was waiting for Godot, for those accolades from strangers, until, at last, I have become my own sort of Godot. Once at a reading in one of my most favorite places, the Village Voice on la rue Princesse, run by a dear friend of Mavis Gallant, an author said he’d come to a point in his writing where he’d had to go beyond his audience. He had to follow where the work led him, leaving the shore, so to speak. The interviewer found that difficult to accept, that the audience would not always be the goal. Once that happens to a writer, then you truly are writing for your own muse, and who is the writer’s muse, if not Godot?
Here Mavis Gallant is, talking about how she gets her ideas. This is also a trailer for one of her collections of short stories called Paris Stories. And so ends my small tribute to the writing life beautifully lived by Mavis Gallant.