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A Rare Feast of Intelligence by Ken Adachi Toronto Star, December 24, 1988

THE CASE against interviews with writers is historic: They exploit personalities, expose their subjects in verbal undress, with their styles buttoned up, and they traffic in anecdotes, indiscretions and secrets. This is also an argument in favor of such interviews.

And why not? How else would faithful readers learn - as they do in Alan Twigg's excellent book, Strong Voices - that short-story writer Sandra Birdsell writes with her eyes closed, the better to dig ideas up from her unconsciousness. Or know that Susan Musgrave wants to be a tap dancer. Or get a firsthand description of W. P. Kinsella's urge to take a machine gun and wipe out his enemies, who include
bureaucrats, academic critics and those who play national anthems in baseball parks.

Anyway, interviews are contrived situations. Writers who spend a lifetime imposing loathsome habits on their characters are understandably careful when they undress themselves in public. There must be a deep-rooted fear that their words, spoken in conversation with a stranger, will be taken as a substitute for their written words. They must also have difficulty responding spontaneously to questions they've heard dozens of times. And yet most authors, for various reasons, freely submit to interviews; and, at least in my experience, are unfailingly gracious and generous with their time.

So they have been with Twigg, whose new book builds on For Openers, his 1981 collection of 24 interviews with Canadian writers such as Margaret Atwood, Jack Hodgins, Margaret Laurence, Hugh MacLennan, Alice Munro, Al Purdy, Jane Rule and Rudy Wiebe. He's reprinted those interviews, alas with only some slight editorial changes; only in the case of Robertson Davies and Leonard Cohen has he updated them with fresh material. His 26 new interviewees include Edna Alford, Anne Cameron, George Faludy, Brian Fawcett, Edith Iglauer, Patrick Lane, Norman Levine, W. O. Mitchell, Farley Mowat, Audrey Thomas and Guy Vanderhaeghe.

The various voices are idiosyncratic; there are clearly as many kinds of writing as there are writers. Twigg draws them out well. As a literary journalist, he is not the kind of interviewer interested in entrapping his subjects into scandalous remarks on mothers, God and orgasms. They unravel themselves, I suspect, because they take a shine to him and respect the homework he's done. Interviewing his authors, Twigg says, was to "enjoy a rare feast of intelligence" at which he was "simply the waiter."

Thus those who reveal themselves as grouches fully intend to, as Kinsella seems to intend with his outbursts against John Metcalf (the main offender among the Englishmen "who have the nerve to try and tell us what our literature is about") and Norman Levine ("I can't tolerate his stuff"). And those, like Andreas Schroeder who laments his upbringing by a mean-spirited father, do so openly.

On the other hand, George Bowering sits impatiently through questions of epic proportions, and his response is subversively noncommittal. His technique for resisting classification includes simple disingenuousness: "How do you know what I tell you is going to be accurate?" At the other end of the spectrum is Timothy Findley, who thoughtfully and ever more deeply considers the mainsprings of his fiction.

MANY WRITERS agree that when the first easy gush is exhausted, only hard labor and sure technique can keep them going and keep them faithful to their early calling. You get a strong sense of this from the torrential Pierre Berton, who maintains that the preservation of voice and vision requires endless renewals, accumulations of craft and research. Mavis Gallant, though, accumulates scraps; she writes on match covers, on a Paris subway ticket. But Dennis Lee, stitching at his poetic quilts, confesses he's the kind of writer "who is always mooching around in an empty space that words may or may not enter, waiting on them tongue-tied."

A reviewer probably should seek patterns, resemblances, significant differences. But the reader may well rejoice in randomness, in the diversity of these talents who come from different backgrounds. It all makes lively reading, though some of it must have been much less fun to live through than it is to recollect in relative tranquillity.

-Ken Adachi, Toronto Star