Writers and Company1:35:11Celebrating Writers & Company: 33 years of exceptional interviews with the incomparable Eleanor Wachtel
As all good books must come to the end, so too must beloved radio programs.
This week, after 33 years, Writers & Company presents its last original episode, an onstage celebration of the program’s legacy and the remarkable career of its host and co-founder, Eleanor Wachtel.
On June 16, at the Glenn Gould Studio in downtown Toronto, Wachtel herself became the focus in an interview with Matt Galloway, host of CBC Radio’s The Current. She was then joined onstage by acclaimed New York-based authors Gary Shteyngart and Brandon Taylor, for a conversation about their lives as storytellers.
Throughout the evening, renowned writers Colm Tóibín, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Salman Rushdie, Aleksandar Hemon and Zadie Smith — all of whom have been memorable guests over the years — surprised Wachtel with moving messages, expressing gratitude for her exceptional talent and dedication to the written word.
The night concluded with the sold-out audience of more than 300 on their feet, honouring Wachtel as she danced her way off the stage after saying farewell.
The interviewer becomes the interviewee
The evening started with Wachtel in the interviewee chair, as Galloway prompted reflections on her years hosting the flagship radio show — not without first asking how she was feeling in this moment of bittersweet celebration.
“Well, you promised you wouldn’t make me cry, so I’m holding you to that,” said Wachtel.
With 33 years of interviews to look back on, she shared some insight on how, in the words of British biographer Dame Margaret Drabble, she has a gift for making the people she speaks with feel profound and important.
The first step for Wachtel and her producer is reading everything they can and knowing everything possible about the guest. But what it really comes down to is what Wachtel calls “obvious:” acting naturally in conversation, listening and focusing.
“When the guest goes in an unexpected direction, I follow them,” she said. These tangents lead to her favourite, unexpected moments, what she dubs “‘Really?’ moments.”
One such instance was from a conversation with Chilean writer Isabel Allende, who recounted that, whenever she finished a manuscript, her mother would fly in with a blue pencil in hand to wherever she was living at the time. The two would then sit together in a room and fight with the manuscript.
When they were done, of the 300 pages, Allende would only have 10 left.
“And then I’d say, ‘Really?'”
Helping people open up in unique ways is characteristic of a Writers & Company interview — something Wachtel often does by asking questions about how authors’ personal backgrounds inspire their work. In a profile by Sandra Martin, she was described as having the “ear of a therapist.”
Galloway also brought up that David Sedaris once sent her a postcard saying that his conversation with her was the closest that he’s ever come to therapy — and he’s not the only one. Later in the evening, Gary Shteyngart even noted that he “switched shrinks” after speaking with Wachtel.
“I’m interested in people’s minds, the way they think, but also their emotional valence,” she said. “I’m very drawn to that, but I’m more interested in their stories than in treating them.”
It’s such an honour and a privilege. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate.– Eleanor Wachtel
Wachtel is also known for picking up on details no one else has. The audience heard an excerpt from her interview with Aravind Adiga about his novel The White Tiger, where she asks him about a character’s pathological fear of lizards.
“I’ve been speaking about this book for a year and no one has asked me about this until now,” said Adiga. “It’s probably a sign that no one has read it because it’s just a very prominent motif […].”
This detail was included simply because he’s afraid of lizards, a fear that was passed down to him from his mother, he explained.
“I can’t be sympathetic to anyone in literature that’s not frightened of lizards, because lizards are all over the place in India. So to be frightened of the lizard is to be frightened of the very texture of life in India.”
“My producer and I are very happy when it does happen,” said Wachtel of those “gratifying” moments when she’s the first to point something out. Her book copies are filled with hundreds of sticky notes — though they’re not colour-coded, she laughed, to the disappointment of an author she once interviewed on stage.
Looking back on 33 years of Writers & Company, Wachtel is most proud of the connection it’s made with the listeners.
“It’s such an honour and a privilege. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate,” she said. “I could never have imagined having this career and the response from listeners. I’m just so grateful for my colleagues, my team, my producers. I really couldn’t have done it without them.”
As for the future, Wachtel plans to continue reading voraciously, just at a bit of a slower pace, admitting, as absurd as it may sound, that she’s actually a slow reader.
When asked about whether she’ll be reading so-called guilty pleasure books, she said that her appetite for literature will probably stay the same. “I don’t think of pleasures as guilty. I have guilt in other areas, but not reading,” she said.
Following the end of Writers & Company, Wachtel will continue to be involved in literary events and hopes to be back at CBC at some point. But what she’ll miss most from her years on this program are the interviews, she said.
It is only fitting then, that for her final episode, she concluded with one of her signature conversations — this time with New-York based authors Gary Shteyngart and Brandon Taylor who joined her in Toronto for the occasion.
In dialogue with Gary Shteyngart and Brandon Taylor
Wachtel started the discussion by asking the two writers about the first person they ever fell in love with.
For Taylor, who most recently wrote The Late Americans, it was his kindergarten teacher. “She was so nice and kind, and I think I just imprinted on her very, very, very early. And I was heartbroken when I graduated to 1st grade,” he said.
Shteyngart, author of the New York Times bestseller Our Country Friends, first fell in love with his grandmother, a leader of a communist newspaper in Leningrad (currently St. Petersburg).
“She was the first person that took my writing seriously, because when I was five years old, she commissioned a novel about Lenin, of course, and she paid me a piece of cheese for every page I wrote. I’m a big lover of cheese. Even today, Random House pays me mostly in cheese,” he said.
Wachtel even answered the question herself, reminiscing about her father, an immigrant to Canada who she described as her “big love.”
The conversation only became more intimate as the writers discussed their upbringings, both as somewhat outsiders, and how that affected their work.
Taylor grew up in a Black family in rural, southern America and described being made fun of by his family for the way he speaks. “They all had these really thick accents and they all spoke in African American vernacular English. And I never did, and I often found it difficult to understand them.”
He recounted a time where, after taking a 23-hour Greyhound bus from Alabama to Wisconsin, he called his family to let them know that he had survived. The first thing his mother did was put him on speaker phone so the rest of his family could laugh at how his voice sounded.
“I feel like I never quite felt at home, at home. I never quite felt that I fit in in a lot of ways,” Taylor said.
Shteyngart emigrated to the United States at age seven and didn’t really speak English without an accent until he was 14. “The thing that made me feel most different when I was growing up was being poor,” he said.
Living in Queen’s, Shteyngart distinctly remembers being on the bus with his classmates and pointing out the five-story apartment building in which he lived, and realizing that his peers were impressed because they thought he owned the entire building because they had mansions themselves.
“The feeling I had was that in America being poor was seen as a moral sin,” he said. “It wasn’t just that you didn’t have money. It’s that there was something philosophically, in a way, or religiously wrong with you.”
Shteyngart said that this made an impact on him and his writing and noted that discussions about money are common in his books.
“I think being completely without money as a kid created these kinds of tendencies in me and there is a sense of being an outsider, marginal, that’s so characteristic of writers,” he said.
Taylor said that he spends a lot of time watching people and trying to figure out how they know what to say and do — he said he feels like he didn’t get the same script that they did. “Perhaps in my own life, the sort of writerly outsiderness manifests as a social naivete that allows me to enter into perhaps older or preconceived ideas in a new way.”
“I think when you’re an outsider, you’re constantly also trying to either mime or in some ways understand the more dominant cultures,” said Shteyngart. “So your doctor’s notepad is always out and you’re trying to figure out what’s happening and you’re writing it all down.”
While Shteyngart and Taylor may have felt like outsiders at points in their lives, they are now part of the community of many esteemed writers interviewed by Wachtel over the past 33 years.
To honour them and Wachtel, Writers & Company will air a “summer of Eleanor’s picks” highlighting her favourite interviews.
In addition to the encore episodes, listeners can stream the past few years of conversations on CBC Listen.
With files from the Writers & Company team