Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

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.