Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks from mine, I was making the rounds collecting books for a literary fundraiser with a colleague. Unlike everyone else just dumping books on us, she had very carefully selected a few items of value that she thought might sell. Mavis hunched over, alone, already in her early-80s, made tea for us, and somehow we got on to the subject of the nightmare moments of book signings. Mavis started, “I was signing books, and a woman came with a worn copy of her own. She said, ‘After seeing your picture on the book, I can’t tell you how disappointed I am.’” We were just having fun over tea, but her experience said something broader to me—over six decades of writing over 120 pieces for The New Yorker, a couple of novels, and much nonfiction, Mavis never gave in to mass-market glamour. She simply fixated on getting the story right, and in turn became a master of the short story form. In person, her self-deprecation and playfulness were infectious. I told her I loved getting away to the country. Mavis responded, “When I go to the country, I sit on a bench. When the church bell strikes five times, I have a panic attack. The only thing that comes to mind is to get back to Paris immediately. Too much green!” She said this despite her national emblem being the maple leaf, dating back to the 18th century.
For me, Mavis epitomized the best of the literary tradition of Paris writers, whose origins are elsewhere but attempt to capture characters in transit, uprooted, or destined for disaster, so often captured in sketch form. Her ability to modulate tone is ingenious, something the best writers can achieve no matter what the subject matter is or where they come from.
I invariably start my creative writing courses with examples from Mavis Gallant. There are numerous reasons for this, but the key is that she was gifted not only at character portraits but also establishing the narrative voice. While I’m not the first to observe this, she could suggest a four-hundred page novel in a three- or four-page sketch. She could reveal a whole social upbringing and the demeanor of a character who hardly speaks.
I have had friends try to interview Mavis, and I’ve been on a panel with her and at her events and dinners, and questions invariably led to ways in which Mavis was asked to analyze her own work. She resisted this fiercely. Even when asked to speculate on influences, such as Chekov, whose impact she has acknowledged, she couldn’t say why his work fits with hers. She stood on three principles: to devote her life to writing, to get the work right, and to make her stories clear for the readers. Mavis was more revealing about her writing process. I found her comments for a Paris Stories trailer especially informative about her approaches to writing creatively. She starts, “Each flash of fiction begins without words, and starts with a fixed image.” This is often the same with poetry, and she even acknowledges a relationship to poetry writing in a Paris Review interview. She explains that she sees characters in a simple situation. “Every character comes into being with a name, an age, a nationality, a profession, a particular voice and accent, a family background, a personal history, a destination, qualities, secrets . . .”
But the most extraordinary point is she could hear them speaking without knowing what they were saying. The story was with her; she just needed to fill it in. A few of blocks away, Mavis Gallant, in the real sense of a Beautiful Mind, lived with all her brilliantly invented characters.
Jeffrey Greene’s most recent publication is ‘Shades from the Other Shore’, a collaboration with Ralph Petty for the Cahiers series. His poems, short stories, and essays have appeared numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, Ploughshares, Agni, Southwest Review,and the anthology Strangers in Paris. He is the director of creative writing at the American University of Paris.
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