Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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Stories from Behind the Firing Line

This fall four writers take us behind the firing line with stories about war and the people it affects. Drawing on personal experiences, as soldiers, journalists and researchers, each writer places the realities of war in perspective with accounts not often told on the outside.

Trigger Warning with Deni Ellis Bechard, Peter Behrens and Kevin  Patterson

October 23 @ 6:30 pm

In one panel we bring together three novelists who question and explore the theatre of war. In his novel, Into the Sun, Deni Ellis Bechard paints an unsentimental portrait of the impact journalists, mercenaries, messianic idealists, and aid workers have when they flood into war zones. Bechard brings Kabul to life, portraying citizens who are determined, resourceful and as willing as their occupiers to reinvent themselves and survive. Peter Behrens’ Carry Me, is both a love story and a historical epic. The reader gains a fresh perspective on Europe’s violent twentieth century, from the Isle of Wight to London under Zeppelin attack to Germany  during the Weimar period. Kevin Patterson’s new novel News From the Red Desert begins in 2001 when everyone thought the conflict in Afghanistan was over. The novel then delves into the mess, confusion and death of a war that was not yet won, and the lives of the men and women involved. Click here for tickets.

A Disappearance in Damascus
October 25 @ 8:30 pm
In the midst of an unfolding international crisis, journalist Deborah Campbell, undercover in Damascus to report on the exodus of Iraqis into Syria following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, finds herself swept up in the mysterious disappearance of Ahlam, her guide and friend. Haunted by the prospect that their work together has led to her friend’s arrest, Campbell spends the months that follow desperately trying to find her—all the while fearing she could be next. A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War  is a frank, personal account of a journey through fear, and the triumph of friendship and courage. Campbell will join Alexandra Shimo and Joy Kogawa to talk about the crossover between journalism and memoir. Click here for tickets.

An Ongoing Battle with PTSD with Romeo Dallaire
November 30th @ 7pm
Roméo Dallaire, traumatized by witnessing genocide on an imponderable scale in Rwanda, reflects in these pages on the nature of PTSD and the impact of that deep wound on his life since 1994, and on how he motivates himself and others to humanitarian work despite his constant struggle. Dallaire wll talk about his struggles with PTSD and how it has motivated him to help soldiers better deal with the muddy reality of modern conflict zones and to revolutionizing our thinking about the changing nature of conflict itself. Click here for tickets.

Women Making A Difference

Standing up and saying something is the first step to making a difference. This fall our festival is showcasing some amazing women writers whose memoirs and fictions shed light on important social issues, such as quality of life on Canadian reserves, war, immigrant experience, sexual assault and gender identity. Be part of the conversation and stand up to make your own change at these fall events.

The Personal is Political. What does it mean to visit the site of disaster? What is it life to live it? And what do you do once you are a witness? In their memoirs, journalists Deborah Campbell and Alexandra Shimo share their experiences of working on the front lines of journalism in the Middle East and on Canadian reserves. In Gently from Nagasaki, award-winning author Joy Kogawa traces lines between her family's time spent in Japanese internment in Canada and the events unfolding in Japan at the same time. Do not miss these unbelievable stories of strength, perseverance and the desire to drive change. They join us on October 24th.

Fiction Mirrors Fact. Two astounding Canadian novelists explore the darker sides of our family ties on October 24th. Nominated for the Giller Prize, Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People takes peers into the darkness that is sexual assualt to understand how it affects the victims and the family of the accused. Set in Winnipeg's West End, Katherena Vermette's Governor Genral's Award nominated book The Break explores the urban indigenous experience from cultural loss to prejudice and family breakdown.

Walking the Line. In their new works of poetry, Vivek Shraya and Gwen Beneway explore both the racial, cultural and gender lines they cross in their lives and art. In Passage , two-spirited trans poet, Gwen Benaway's poems travel from Northern Ontario and across the Great Lakes in poetic voyage through divorce, family violence, legacy of colonization, and the affirmation of a new sexuality and gender. Vivek Shrayas debut collection,   even this page is white, is a bold, timely, and personal interrogation of skin–its origins, functions, and limitations. They will perform on October 23rd.

Truth in Character. In our Character Studies panel, Jowita Bydlowska and Mary Morrissy crawl into the intimate and personal lives of their characters to show us how they think and what makes them tick. Bydlowska's Guy investigates the elements that contribute to toxic masculinity, while Morrissy's Prosperity Drive takes on an Alice Munro approach to the private lives of the men and women that live in the Irish suburbs.

Spotlight on Jane Jacobs. On October 22nd we are putting a spotlight on the woman who radically changed how we see cities and think about infrastructure and design. Two new books take a look at the life of Jane Jacobs, her thoughts and the contributions she made in New York City, Toronto and around the world.

Passed Down Through Generations

Talking to The Guardian about her debut novel Harmless Like You, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan discussed the need to write a variety of characters: “The standard character was a white person,” she says. “I get really excited when I read writers who write people who, let’s be honest, don’t have my exact racial makeup but who are mixed-up in that way.” In her novel Buchanan not only gives voice to Yuki, a half-Japanese woman, but to the fraught relationships between generations of generations: “A lot of what the book is about is how pain shape-shifts down the generations. There is nothing more personal than family, and yet families are so profoundly affected by political decisions,” she told The Guardian. Buchanan is not the only writer at our festival to be exploring the theme of inherited trauma. From Canadian Japanese internment camps, to urban Indigenous life and the immigrants experience, our writers give voice to the darker side of family inheritance.

Time After Time. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan joins Jenn Sookfong Lee and Terry Jordan for a conversation about how fiction can open up the conversation about the unexpected trajectories each decision can set in motion and the lingering echo of the road not taken. Buchanan's book examines the conflicts between generations of Japanese immigrants to America. Lee's book looks at the secrets kept between mother and daughter and the gap between privilege and desire. Jordan's book takes readers through the rise and fall of fishing life in Newfoundland.

Family Matters. When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break—a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house—she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.    The Break  by  Katherena Vermett  presents a comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed. David Bergen's Stranger is a stirring tale that lays bare the bonds of motherhood, revealing just how far a mother will go to reclaim her stolen child. Íso, a young Guatemalan, works at a fertility clinic at Ixchel, where she becomes the secret lover of an American doctor, Eric Mann. After the birth of her daughter, the baby is taken from her and sent to America. Determined to reclaim her stolen daughter, Íso makes her way north through Mexico, eventually crossing illegally into a United States divided into military zones.

Gently to Nagasaki. Set in Vancouver and Toronto, the outposts of Slocan and Coaldale, the streets of Nagasaki and the high mountains of Shikoku, Japan,   Gently to Nagasaki   is also an account of a remarkable life. As a child during WWII, Joy Kogawa was interned with her family and thousands of other Japanese Canadians by the Canadian government. Her acclaimed novel Obasan, based on that experience, brought her literary recognition and played a critical role in the movement for redress. In her new book, interweaving the events of her own life with catastrophes like the bombing of Nagasaki and the massacre by the Japanese imperial army at Nanking, she wrestles with essential questions like good and evil, love and hate, rage and forgiveness, determined above all to arrive at her own truths.

Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety.  Ann Y. K. Choi   is a coming-of-age story that portrays the life of a young Korean Canadian girl who will not give up on her dreams or her family. Family secrets, a lost sister, forbidden loves, domestic assaults—Mary discovers as she grows up in the 1980s that life is much more complicated than she had ever imagined. Her secret passion for her English teacher is filled with problems, and with the arrival of a promising Korean suitor, Joon-Ho, events escalate in ways that she could never have imagined, catching the entire family in a web of deceit and violence. 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Nominated for the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General's Award, Madeleine Thien's new novel takes a look at the enduring effect of the Cultural Revolution in China. Set in China before, during and after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations–those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century.

Explore Other Worlds This Fall

While genre fiction might seem like a means of escape, other worlds and the people who inhabit them can often teach us more about history, society and ourselves. Through science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction and re-tellings of history these six acclaimed authors show us how other worlds can help us shape our own.

Children of Earth and Sky with Guy Gavriel Kay
October 21 @ 6:30PM

Guy Gavriel Kay's novels have captured the imaginations of readers for decades. His latest novel, Children of the Earth and Sky takes place in a fictional world inspired by the conflicts and dramas inspired by Renaissance Europe. In a world where danger lurks on every side, the story follows the lives of several characters who set sail on the same ship and find their lives and fates entwined.

Paranormal Prose with Kelley Armstrong, Kristi Charish and Nathan Adler 
October 21 @ 8:30PM

Take a jaunt through the paranormal this month as with New York Times Bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, scientist turned fantasy writer Kristi Charish and Anishnaabe writer Nathan Adler. These three authors blend the real and everyday with the more that haunted feeling you just can seem to shake. In Armstrong’s latest book,  Betrayals, Olivia finder herself investigating the murder of street kids to find the truth and clear her friend's (and lover's) name. In T he Voodoo Killings Charish introduces readers to Kincaid Strange, whose partime gig running séances for university students soon turns into the investigation of a string of murders. Drawing on Indigenous storytelling and the windigo, Adler's novel tells the story of a hereditary monstrous disease  and secrets buried deep in bones and blood that the Church wants to keep secret.

M. G  Vassanji's Nostalgia
October 22 @ 8:30PM

Award winning Canadian author M. G. Vassanji is no stranger to new lands, real or fictional. But his new novel, Nostalgia takes on the dystopian genre in Brave-New-World-esque future set in Toronto. The rich live forever by erasing their memories and implanting new ones. A doctors who is attempting to help others keep their old memories from seeping into their new life suddenly discovers he has his  memories of a past life. But what do these memories mean? And what will he learn about himself?

Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed

October 25 @ 6:30PM

Margaret Atwood is back with a new retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest in Hag-seed In her retelling, Felix, an Artistic Director of a theatre festival, plans what should be an unforgettable performance of The Tempest but when he is ousted from his position and sent into exile he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison. Atwood once again takes us into an exploration of the prison system where the prisoners as actors, in a theatrical plan to snare Felix's enemies. It’s magic! But will he succeed?

One on One with David Mitchell

Before the evening’s main event, our own Daniel Bezalel Richardsen stands at the lectern to launch the latest issue of Foment , the Festival’s literary review magazine that is now in its fourth year of being. For Daniel and the other Foment volunteers (myself included) it has been a labour of love, and something we are all extremely proud to be a part of.

The man we are all here tonight to see is David Mitchell, who starts with a short reading of a passage from his most recent book, Slade House . In the passage, a young boy named Nathan is visiting the mysterious Slade House with his mother in 1979. He has befriended another young boy called Jonah and together they are playing a game called Fox and Hound. As they play, the garden of the house starts dissolving before Nathan’s eyes, and Jonah transforms from innocent young boy into a snarling beast – but is this real or due to the fact that Nathan is high on Valium? We are left wondering.

The evening is hosted by Peter Schneider, a long-time friend of the Festival. Schneider opens the conversation by asking Mitchell about the libretto that he wrote for his Dutch composer friend, Michel van der Aa, for the 3D opera film Sunken Garden.  Schneider commented on the similarities between the material for the Sunken Garden and Slade House.  Mitchell responded that he hates to waste material, it evolved into a new story within Slade House. He wanted a go at a ‘ghost novella’, the novella being a unique form to conquer this genre, by shortening the typical word count of the average ghost fiction. This is simply Mitchell being Mitchell – subverting the status quo and flipping it on its head.

When Schneider commends Mitchell on the fully dimensional characters within his novels, Mitchell balks at the praise, describing the compliment as something akin to likening him to ‘a giant among pygmies’.  He believes that to do anything less than provide his readers with fleshed out characters with distinctive voices, would mean that he wasn’t doing his job as an author very well. This modesty further endears you to Mitchell, whose self-deprecating charm has already sucked me in, all the more.

Though Slade House is a shorter work than Mitchell’s other novels, it is no less richly imagined. Schneider questions Mitchell about his attention to structure, pattern, and design, which is prevalent in all his works. Mitchell settles in for a lengthy discussion – he loves talking structure and jokes that he could talk about it all night. He states that structure is the author’s chance to be truly innovative – it is the casing for the narrative, which makes the novel better. On the subject of structure, Mitchell mentions Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as an example of a book he read whose structure he was greatly impressed by.

Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years in the 90’s, and Schneider questions him about the impact the country had on him as a writer. It is clear he is influenced by the country, as he wrote his first two books there and he says that his early novelistic role models were all Japanese. His lack of the Japanese language contributed to the discipline of his writing, he described himself as “linguistically infantilized”, saying that having no one to talk to made him more introspective and insular. Mitchell talks about the dichotomy of the country, saying that it’s almost as if there are two Japans – the ancient Japan of wisdom and silence, and the neon, futuristic Japan of today. Despite their differences, they blend together to create a country of immense depth and history.

During the hour-and- a-half chat between Schneider and Mitchell, many deep and thought-provoking topics were discussed – the rise of technology and the effect it is having on children today; conformity versus individualism; the bond that story-telling creates between generations of humans; and finally Mitchell’s work towards heightening awareness about autism, and how having an autistic child has made him a more enlightened parent. With every new topic, Mitchell gave all of himself to the conversation, holding nothing back and speaking honestly and openly about his opinions and experiences. I believe this quality of his personality attributes to his astounding success as a writer – his ability to feel deeply and to express himself eloquently and profoundly. 

Kenneth Oppel: Every Hidden Thing

It says something about the cynical times in which we live when the phrase “Dinosaurs have really lost their luster” is met not only with laughter, but with nods of agreements from the audience. Gone are the days that these 16 foot tall monsters could inspire awe (and maybe even fear) With movies and other media representing the creatures in every way shape and form, dinosaurs have become a household staple over the past three decades.

In his book  Every Hidden Thing author Kenneth Oppel takes the readers back to a time were dinosaurs still had a bit of wonder and mystery hidden within their bones and explorers were fighting over the prestige of being the first to discover these fossils. Oppel spoke about his new book to a crowd of nearly 100 eager listeners, ages ranging from 10 to 60, offering passages from his story and insights into his research with the goal of reigniting some of the splendor that finding multimillion year bones used to raise.

Oppel began the night by offering a glimpse into the setting he created for his book. Alone on stage, equipped only with his novel and his PowerPoint, Oppel read a passage from his book to the crowd of eager young adults; an act that, judging by his demeanour and expressive tone of voice, Oppel had plenty of practice doing. Every Hidden Thing takes place in the late 19th century, and follows the tale of two 17 year old amateur paleontologists, pitted against each other by their waring fathers, in a hunt to track down “the black beauty”; a fossil specimen of ebony black bone, larger than any species discovered at the time. The passages Oppel read painted the characters as troublesome and adventurous, yet bright and motivated towards their goals; traits that the young audience could be seen connecting with as they laughed and nodded along to Oppel’s reading.

Oppel read his passages and engaged the audience with the enthusiasm and wit you would expect from an award winning author focusing on young adult fiction. He spoke with enthusiasm and expression as he excitedly went over the details of his characters, the adventure they were about to set out on, and the research expeditions he himself took part in to bring his world to life. In order to prepare for Every Hidden Thing, Oppel set off on a dig in Dinosaur National Park, Alberta, with a team from the Drumheller museum to excavate a skeletal specimen they had located. While he was quick to brush off (no pun intended) his own contributions to the dig, he spoke of the experience with the energy and exuberance of someone who themselves had just discovered a giant petrified skeleton in the ground for the first time. The “mundanity” of dinosaurs resurfaced again when he recounted a moment during his expedition where he excitedly pointed out a bone in the dirt that were passing, only to have his travel guide go “oh ya, those are everywhere. We mostly just ignore them”. Still, the energy of the night could not be ignored, and while the young crowds interest for these prehistoric monstrosities may or may not have been re-piqued, their interest in Oppel’s work, both past and present, hung in the air, and the question and answer period focused heavily on his past series and how these books impacted the readers that now filled the room.

Ending with a quiz for the audience (complete with t-shirt giveaways), Kenneth Oppel shared a night with his audience (both of the young and regular adult variety) that promoted his new book, as well as celebrated reading and story crafting as whole, finding ways to reignite fires that have grown mundane and dull, and re-finding our interest in the prehistoric which may have found itself hidden.   

Every Hidden Thing Is now available in bookstores everywhere. 

Barkskins – One on One With Annie Proulx

Within the Southminster United Church on Friday night, over 200 heads nodded in accord with American novelist Annie Proulx as she and Charlotte Gray discussed the themes in her novel Barkskins : ecology, greed, the loss of culture, and the impact of humanity on a landscape. These are issues that a Canadian audience can relate to, especially one based in former Bytown, “lumber capital of North America.” It was evident from the discussion and the engagement of the audience that Proulx has struck a chord.

Proulx shared her story of the novel’s genesis, which began on a camping trip when she was only 11 years old. With roots in her childhood enthusiasm for the natural world, she said, “the idea of the disappearance of the woods began to take hold” as she traveled across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula some 20 years ago. She spotted a sign telling of a great forest of white pine that had stood, yet no trace of it remained. “All they had left was the sign,” she said, and the pathos of it drove her to write. Still, the story took a long time while Proulx completed other projects, gathered research, and mulled over the scope of the tale. “I began to see what an immense and frightening subject I had chosen,” she remembered, “the book was really about climate change.” Since she felt ill-equipped to tackle this technical subject, she focused on deforestation, and specifically the story of characters involved in the chopping of the great forests in North America.

The result is akin to a great Canadian novel, conscious of the landscape, its destruction, and the effect on its people. Gray noted how the story seemed not to recognize the border between the United States and Canada, to which Proulx replied that her approach is to consider a landscape without political lines.  “I imagine it in an earlier time,” to find where the story is really located. Gray also mentioned how the novel handled its Indigenous characters with a cultural sensitivity not common for American writers.  Proulx said, “I was intensely aware of the problems of cultural appropriation,” and that she had sought expert advice because she needed the Indigenous characters to be fairly and accurately represented.  “Those people equal the forest.” Her compassionate depiction resonates with Canadian readers struggling to integrate Indigenous history within the Western narrative.

Although Proulx spoke about these themes with a light tone and some optimism, she was passionate in asserting that, if possible, we must take action to revitalize the forests. Toward the end of their lively discussion, Gray challenged Proulx to assert an opinion on the effectiveness of sustainable forestry practices, which the characters in Barkskins eventually attempt. Proulx wasn’t sure. “It’s hard to remake a forest,” she said, “once it’s gone it’s gone. Fixing this is harder than anybody can imagine. It’s everybody’s business.” She encouraged the audience to start thinking about our history with forests, and the fact that we are indeed forest creatures. “If you have access to a forest, renew your acquaintance.”

Bold Acts of Bravery: Narratives of Women Peacemakers

Sometimes, the boldest, bravest act one can perform is simply to listen. CBC presenter Lucy van Oldenbarneveld gave Writers Festival attendees the chance to listen to a phenomenal exchange of ideas between the women writers and activists who contributed to When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upsidedown World Right. The new anthology, edited by Rachel M. Vincent of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, contains roughly two dozen stories of inspirational women activists, each in turned profiled by a woman writer who has thought carefully about the role of the individual in brokering peace and justice.

Oldenbarneveld skillfully mediated a conversation between Native rights activist Casey Camp-Horinek, poet Aja Monet, writer Madeleine Thien and Nobel Laureate Jody Williams. Monet, Thien and Camp-Horinek each read a selection from their contribution to the anthology. After the readings,  Williams joined the panel on stage for a discussion of what might constitute peace-making in 2016. On the night after the Trump-Clinton debate, these Canadian and American women mapped out an understanding of power and social change far more sophisticated than the mainstream media ever allows their audience to take home.

Seated in the pews of Christ Church Cathedral, listeners heard stories of how each author and activist came to understand her place in the world. Horinek spoke of carrying out the will of her mother, also a Native rights activist, whose followers continued to stream to the family homestead long after her death. Madeleine Thien spoke of the intricate relationship between her grief at losing her mother and the public grieving of Ding Zilin, who founded Tiananmen Mothers after she lost her son in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Aja Monet spoke of the power with which June Jordan’s poetry affected her; she emphasized the idea that the importance of poetry lies in its emanating from the personal interior, the “last frontier of colonization.” All the panelists, including Jody Willliams, spoke of importance of taking the first brave step towards empowering oneself and others; and of the necessity of having a space – either figurative or literal – where one can hear oneself think clearly. Oldenbarneveld and the panel then fielded questions from the audience, including a young girl who asked the crucial question of why so many women have been overlooked for their contributions to the peace process around the world. A highlight of the conversation with the audience was when Williams drew a very useful distinction between simple anger and the more important “righteous indignation” which leads some many women and men to take part in initiatives for peace and justice.

Published by the Ottawa-based Arts and Literature Mapalé Press, When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upside Down includes profiles of such figures as the Chechan journalist Natalya Estemirova, conflict negotiator Betty Oyella Bigombe, Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire and Canadian politician Flora Macdonald. The trajectory of each of the narrative varies, demonstrating not only how different leaders came to their positions in a diversity of ways, but also how their moments of influence varied according to the receptiveness of their audiences.

Travels in the New China with Alexandre Trudeau

Famous man travels to China for six weeks and writes a book about it. Who is Alexandre Trudeau and why should we listen to what he has to say?


Most of the audience at the Writers Festival event held at the Library and Archives Canada auditorium could easily answer the question. As a journalist, documentary filmmaker and, last but not least, brother to the current Prime Minister and son of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Alexandre Trudeau is not an unknown entity.


Adrian Harewood’s gentle but insistent questions revealed that these labels weighed heavily on Alexandre Trudeau. It was an existential urge that drove Trudeau towards trying to discover the truth within the people he met on travels but also within himself. “You can’t know yourself until you’ve faced wilderness; And lack of comfort; And being pulled out of everything that’s easy.”


China is a deeply complex country that has a long history but is constantly changing. And China will “always [have] questions for you.” For Trudeau, Barbarian Lost is first and foremost a memoir of self-discovery.  Although Sinophiles will not be disappointed in the weaving of historical and socio-political context in the book – an approach that cannot be easily executed in documentary film, explains Trudeau – what will be refreshing is the philosophical transformation of a self-labeled “barbarian.”  And of course, stories of Chinese, young and old, happy, and grappling with the freedom of modernity.


“There’s no real travel unless somehow you’re transformed.”


Harewood’s deft handling of an often-meandering conversation gave the audience an inside look at Trudeau’s feelings about his first book and the journey to get to this point. Acknowledging the influences of his father, and the privilege of being allowed to explore what he calls deep China, Trudeau explains that he has come under the spell of the Dao, which forms part of the philosophical underpinning of his transformation.

Perhaps the part of the evening that was the most telling of what Trudeau gained through this journey, was when Harwood asked Trudeau, why a book, when he had previously "declared the book an antiquated form." Though still committed to film, Trudeau's stance on the book as an art form has changed to "our words make the world." Documentary films can engage an audience for an hour, but words on paper have a sense of permanence. He admitted that he had, in his younger days, "judged too harshly." This self reflection and continual evolution of his own narrative despite and in spite of the legacy of his father's name, is what makes Trudeau's voice interesting and worth exploring.

As someone who has dedicated his life to ideas, Trudeau’s trip to China has given him a new perspective, to be able to look at himself from the outside.  “I’m truly trying to write a book about the human soul… and what great travels that have been in China.”


If we took away his name, would Trudeau’s book still be worth a read? Trudeau made it clear that he wants the public to “choose people for their ideas” and not their names, though judging by the crowd lined up to get their books signed, the name is just as important as the ideas and there is no escaping that in Ottawa.

The Art of Listening: An Evening with Eleanor Wachtel

In her introduction to one of the last events on the last night of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canadian writer Charlotte Gray said she was feeling intimidated about having to conduct the interview that was about to ensue.   


And, in a way, who could blame her for feeling a little self-conscious?


The person whom Gray would interview was none other than Eleanor Wachtel, one of the world’s finest interviewers. It was a rare opportunity to hear the Montreal native on the end of questions rather than delivering them, which she’s done now for more than 25 years as host of Writers & Company on CBC Radio—a new collection of interviews ( The Best of Writers & Company ) has just been published by Biblioasis.


“Put yourself in my shoes,” Gray said, before reading out the names of many celebrated authors Wachtel has interviewed as well as many of the impressive plaudits and awards she has received.


But not long after Gray’s own interview with Wachtel began, it was clear that there was really nothing for Gray to be intimidated about. Despite her very wide acclaim, Wachtel displays not even a hint of pomposity or self-importance; in person, she’s just as graceful and soft-spoken as the host that many have come to appreciate. Recounting some of the earlier years of her life in Montreal, she makes no attempt at self-aggrandizement, underlining instead the normality of her upbringing. One might have imagined a childhood filled with books, but Wachtel noted how her parents weren’t readers; books came from a local public library in the Snowden neighborhood of NDG, one which wasn’t, in her words, “very elaborate”. She said she didn’t even read all that much and of the books she did read, they were mostly chosen at random. Like many of her friends at the time, she traded comics and watched TV.  


Wachtel continued in this self-effacing manner throughout the rest of the interview, which included many funny anecdotes of interviews gone wrong. She discussed her university years in the English department of Mcgill, where she admitted, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.” And then there was her winding and uncertain path as a freelancer writer and freelance arts broadcaster that led her to Vancouver and finally to Toronto, where she would eventually earn her own show on CBC.


By the time the interview was over, it was apparent that what ultimately makes Wachtel’s so appealing is not even so much her superlative skills as an interviewer, the way she’s able to pick the brains of and elicit interesting responses from some of the biggest writers in the world, but her hospitable nature—her desire to make the literary world accessible to all. This is captured well in the second segment of the name that Wachtel chose for her show—the ‘& Company’. With Wachtel, no one is excluded: she never wants to make herself the center of attention and is eager to make the audience part of the company.