I was fortunate to meet Mavis Gallant at a book signing organized by the Box of Delights in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Gallant was speaking and reading as part of a distinguished authors’ series organized by the Atlantic Theatre Festival.
She was a delight to listen to. And very funny in the self-deprecating stories she told about herself. She said that whenever people met her they invariably asked what she used to write. She couldn’t understand that, thinking that the words and stories would/should be what readers are really interested in, not the mechanics. This interest bewildered her.
She had forgotten the word, so with hands in front of her, wriggled her fingers to signify typing. I don’t recall her actually saying the word “computer” simply referring to it as a machine. She didn’t use a machine. She wasn’t mechanical and feared a disconnect with the words if she used such an intermediary. She knew others did, but for her she liked the intimacy of pen and paper.
Then waving her hands about as she spoke, as if to illustrate her lack of mechanical comprehension, she knocked the microphone out of its holder. She made a face at the loud, amplified thud and squeal the falling microphone made.
At the post-talk book signing I took a copy of A Fairly Good Time to be signed. I mentioned how I thought that “fairly good” was the quintessentially Canadian sentiment. “It’s nothing so bold or boastful as a great or fantastic time…”
She looked up at me with large eyes and in what seemed like an almost conspiratorial tone said, “I got that from Edith Wharton…” She explained how she found the line in one of Wharton’s books, liked it and remembered it.
Later a friend told me of Gallant having dinner in town with friends of his. At dinner the topic of forgetfulness and memory came up. Hers was more a battle of the pre-occupation of living with the characters in her new book. Their actions and motives commandeered her thoughts and, in essence, moved in with her. That could be disconcerting because they hadn’t been invited and she often disapproved of what they were doing. To illustrate how these interlopers dominated her thoughts, she told how she was ironing at her apartment in Paris and remembered she needed to pick something banal, like milk or eggs.
Gallant left her apartment to run her errand. Only as she walked down the street did she realize she had neglected to pick up her handbag. Instead, she still had her iron in her hand.
The following summer she was back in Nova Scotia. I happened to go in to Entitlement Books then located on Spring Garden Road in Halifax and saw her and another woman in the store. Entitlement was quite a large bookstore. These two women, whose heads barely rose above the shelving were giggling and laughing as they pulled book after book off the shelves of the self-help section. Self-help merged into sex. Their laughter grew louder and louder. One would pull a book, hold it out and point at it, and the other would snort in hysteria. There were times they were laughing so hard they had to use the shelves to hold themselves up.
They were making a bit of a mess, causing store clerks to give these two elderly woman glaring looks. One young male clerk started to manoeuvre his way to them, ready, I was sure, to speak to or evict them from the store. I headed him off.
“Do you know who that is?” I asked.
“No,” was his terse response.
“That’s Mavis Gallant.”
He stopped dead in his tracks and went pale. I told him I had met her last summer at a signing in Wolfville. Finally convinced that one of these disruptive women was one of the world’s greatest writers, he circled the store whispering to all his co-workers and nodding in their direction. Everyone stopped their work, looked towards the self-help section and scurried about as if someone had just phoned in a bomb threat. They positioned themselves around the store, feeling they should do something, but no one knew what. Wait for the literary police, perhaps?
Having exhausted the self-help section’s shelves, Gallant and her friend giggled their way out on to Spring Garden Road. I don’t know if they went to lunch or to laugh their way through another bookstore.