The interview as art form

In 2007, a French professor of literature caused uproar in the literary world by publishing How to Talk about Books that You Haven't Read. It became a best seller. Eleanor Wachtel hasn't read it.

In 2007, a French professor of literature caused uproar in the literary world by publishing How to Talk about Books that You Haven’t Read.

It became a best seller.

Eleanor Wachtel hasn’t read it.

And she’ll gladly admit to not reading others.

“I’ve almost never lied and pretended to read something I’ve never read, because what’s the point? Who are you really going to impress?” said Wachtel, host of CBC Radio’s literary flagship Writer’s & Company.

“I’m willing to endure certain embarrassments by saying I’ve never read somebody rather than fake it. It’s not really interesting to fake it. If we were in a conversation, I’d rather hear why someone else is passionate about an author rather than try to pretend I’d read them and flee before I get caught.”

Luckily, this sort of problem doesn’t come up very often.

Over the past 20 years as host of Writers & Company, Wachtel has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most thorough – not to mention, personable – interviewers.

Before each interview, she reads as much of the guest’s work as possible – starting with the most recent and working her way backwards.

On Tuesday, Wachtel was going about as far back as you can go, brushing up on Greek and Roman writers ahead of an upcoming interview with Canadian poet Anne Carson.

The return to poetic basics may also help out next week, when she comes to the Yukon as a guest host for the Whitehorse Poetry Festival.

The festival kicks off on Friday, June 24 at the Yukon Arts Centre, and Wachtel will be joined on stage by bill bissett, Rhea Tregebov and local poet Clea Roberts, among others.

Wachtel admits poetry isn’t exactly her favourite literary form.

When she reads for leisure – which doesn’t happen very often, she only has time to read “dead authors” over the summer holidays – it’s more likely to be a work of fiction.

“There’d be periods when I’d read poems, though. I remember e.e. cummings was very popular when I was in University and T.S. Elliot – I loved T.S. Elliot,” she said.

“There’d be periods when certain poets seemed to come to the fore and addressed the angst, or whatever it was that was going on at the time with a kind of immediacy that you didn’t necessarily find in novels.”

As anyone that’s heard an episode of Writer’s & Company can attest, Wachtel is often just as interested in the writer’s life as their work. Sometimes more so.

Watchel admits that, while trying to study Shelley as an undergraduate student at McGill, she spent more time devouring a Shelly biography than reading his poems.

“I just remember finding his life so fascinating that I had to set the poems aside for a while,” she said.

“The poems seemed more difficult, more challenging to decode in a way.

“But I think that’s a mistake, I don’t think that we should be thinking how to turn a poem into prose. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about language and image and a certain ambiguity. These things, I’ve come to appreciate, are its strengths. It’s not just set up to baffle us.”

Writer’s & Company is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year.

In that time, Wachtel has interviewed countless writers and many recent Nobel laureates.

She’s also done a number of series focusing in on the history, politics and, or course, literature of certain countries.

She’s visited New Zealand to speak with Maori writers; Spain to talk about living under and after Francisco Franco; and in 2010, she visited Chile just before the 8.8-level earthquake.

Although she’s never thought of comparing Canadian literature to that of the rest of the world, she feels that we more than stack up.

“Everybody knows that Canada has writers of an international calibre and a burgeoning literary field – there are a lot of good writers in Canada,” she said.

“And I attend literary festivals quite often across the country. There’s usually quite a wonderful turnout for live events with writers, readings or on stage interviews.”

Wachtel points to the recent Griffin Poetry Prize in Toronto. A poetry reading the night before the event sold out a 1,100-seat theatre.

“Maybe there are certain countries who invoke their writers more. When I think of Chile, it’s usually iconic writers like Pablo Neruda or, in Spain, people are invoking Cervantes – and that’s like 500 years ago,” she said.

“I don’t know that they’re any more attentive or appreciative of their writers than we are. We have a younger history, so we may not be able to go back that far. We can’t really talk about Shakespeare or Cervantes.”

Although not exactly 500 years ago, Wachtel interviewed both bill bisset and Rhea Tregebov in those ancient days before Writers & Company.

She looks forward to meeting them again, and also looks forward to interviewing some of the other fantastic writers coming to this year’s poetry festival.

But she’s most excited about the opportunity to sit back and listen, she said.

“I just look forward to hearing some really good poetry.”

Contact Chris Oke at

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