Last night, Charles Foran won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, the richest prize in Canadian literature. Foran’s book, Mordecai: The Life and Times is the unauthorized biography of one of Canada’s great, and somewhat controversial, novelists, Mordecai Richler. Since its release in October 2010, Mordecai has won both the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction and the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award, as well as being nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-fiction and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Charles Foran has written nine books, both fiction and nonfiction, and is a former columnist for The Gazette in Montreal. In addition to his work as a writer, Foran is president of PEN Canada, the writers’ organization that works internationally to defend authors and free speech. For obvious reasons, Foran is in great demand, but we managed to catch up to him via e-mail to talk about Mordecai.
TRB: You first encountered Mordecai Richler’s work in high school. After that first book, did you immediately start gobbling up all his other work? Were you a fan right away?
CF: I became a Richler fan in my early 30s, upon returning Canada from years living abroad. Thereafter, I awaited the publication of his books with impatience, especially his great final novels. Also, I was living in Montreal during his very public, very abrasive engagement with Quebec nationalism in the period leading up to the second referendum. He was a huge figure around town.
TRB: I assume you’ve read all of Richler’s books at least once. For someone new to his oeuvre, where do you recommend they start? Did Richler have opinions on that sort of thing?
CF: Start with Barney’s Version, his final novel. It is warm, funny, wise, sad. Then move back to his masterpiece, Solomon Gursky was Here, a singular, and still largely unappreciated core text of the Canadian literary canon. Beyond those novels, I’d opt for St. Urbain’s Horseman, the 1970 fiction that was arguably Canada’s first ‘international’ novel, the very funny Joshua Then & Now and the very early, but still thrilling The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Notice I haven’t even mentioned his Jacob Two Two books for kids? Many Canadians know his name as much for his tales of the boy who had to say everything twice than his ‘adult’ novels. They are fine, fun stories for children, but Mordecai Richler was, beyond all doubt, a grown-man literary novelist.
TRB: This is an unauthorized biography, but it seems you had all the access a biographer would want, so who exactly authorizes these things?
CF: An authorized biography is a contractual arrangement between the subject, and/or his/her estate, and the biographer, whereby access to materials, and permissions to quote from letters and texts, are granted in exchange for final approval of the text. I had no such arrangement with the Richler estate. All the access I was given was based, in effect, on my having gained, and presumably kept, the trust of key people. And no one had any control over my manuscript, at any stage.
TRB: It’s been a banner few years for Richler fans, really. First with Barney’s Version being lauded, then your biography winning the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, and then the documentary Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews winning a Gemini. What do you think has inspired all this attention all at once?
CF: The attention, which is well earned by his books, is the result of a combination of factors, with your question containing the most likely suspects. That said, upon the death of every major writer his or her reputation must undergo some kind of evaluation or reconsideration, one that generally takes a few years. Richler died in 2001, and is back in the news, and on people’s reading lists, coffee tables, iPads and Kindles, in 2011. That sounds about right.
TRB: I would think it’s an intimidating task to write about a fellow writer. Did you ever feel you should try to make it read a little like a Richler story?
CF: I never tried to make Mordecai: The Life and Times read like a Richler novel. But I did want to infuse the book with his outsized character and outsized life, and even with some of the energy, raw and coursing, of his greatest creations. I wanted to do justice to my subject, and while, for sure, a writer writing about a fellow writer is problematic on a number of levels, it also contains the potential for a pleasing confluence: words about words, a book about books. I was mindful of that.
TRB: After spending so many years immersed in Richler’s life and writing, do you think he will influence your work as you go forward?
CF: Not my work. One writes the tales one is fated, patterned, to tell. But I couldn’t spend 4 years pondering the career of another author without doing some reflecting on my own, and taking away a few lessons. From Mordecai Richler, I certainly learned this: work hard, and every day; don’t quit on anything that matters; be an honest witness, regardless of the cost; and at the end of it, remember what REALLY counts – your loved ones, your friends, the society where you are invested as a citizen. All else is vanity.
Mordecai: The Life and Times is available from Knopf Canada ($39.95) and Vintage Canada (24.95).