Mavis Gallant's short stories are secrets that writers and readers pass along to each other. Her work appeared regularly in The New Yorker between 1951 and 1995, but her native Canada all but ignored her for 30 years, and her collections have flickered in and out of print in the United States.
New York Review Books has remedied this oversight with the publication of "Paris Stories" ($14.95 paper), a career-spanning anthology edited by fellow Canadian Michael Ondaatje and named after her adopted city.
Gallant's characters are often, as she titled one story, "in transit." Many leave the United States or Canada and find themselves expatriates in Europe.
Gallant herself was born in Montreal in 1922. After an itinerant childhood in Canada and the United States, she was hired at age 21 as a reporter for Canada's Weekly Standard. "It was a life I loved," she says over the phone from her Montparnasse apartment on an early December afternoon. "I woke up every morning with a different feature in mind ... and that was so they wouldn't give me women's work. I didn't want to write about how to make jam or anything."
She had "glorious freedom" as a journalist: "I used to say, 'I'm going to do some research,' and I'd go home and wash my hair."
But it wasn't the life she wanted. "You can like a life but really want another one... I wanted to go and live in Europe, preferably in Paris, which I knew nothing about except in dreams, and I wanted to write and I wanted to live on my work... So I gave up my job, and I just went off, like that. Like jumping into a swimming pool, with no water really."
Interviewers always ask her the same question: Why did you move to Paris? Of course, anyone who has traveled to that great wedding cake of a city shouldn't wonder why someone would want to move there. "It's a question that calls for nothing but cliches as an answer."
But she tells a story that illustrates all that the city had to offer a beginning fiction writer - and a single woman - in 1950. At that time, a woman dining alone in an American restaurant or bar was something of an anomaly. (The Algonquin hotel, where Gallant would stay on visits to New York, wouldn't serve her a gin and tonic alone at the bar as late as the early '70s.)
"I went in the evening to La Coupole, a famous big brasserie... I wanted to be able to do things on my own - as a woman, I mean - and I went in and I thought, well, if they won't serve me, or if they say 'Where's your escort?' I'll get up and leave, and I'll be very disappointed. And actually nothing happened...
"Across the aisle from me was a woman of about 35, on her own, very good looking, and I guess she was a journalist. She had a pile of the evening newspapers, and she was reading them as she ate. I still remember - she had oysters, she had a half a bottle of white wine and then she had a fruit tart, I think strawberry or raspberry. And nobody bothered her. She just read and she read, and nobody said to her, 'Are you waiting for someone, madam?' And she paid and she left, and I thought, this is paradise."
As a reporter, Gallant enjoyed "poking into other peoples' ways of life." Her roots as a journalist are evident in her fiction - the meticulous eye for detail and what Ondaatje calls her "skill in evoking subtle and obsessive voices." One of her French friends who writes short stories will sometimes read one to a group of friends, and Gallant will interrupt with a reporter's queries. "She says, 'A man,' and I say, 'How old was he?' And she says, 'What does it matter?' And then she goes on a bit and I say, 'Yes, but what was he wearing?"Well, it doesn't matter.' Well, it does matter! And it's left me with that. Then she will ask me to please shut up until she's finished with the story."
Gallant's stories are rarely autobiographical. Once or twice, upon rereading, she has thought, "'By God, that's me.' There's a story called 'The Moslem Wife' and it's about a woman who's married, and they get separated by the war. He's a bastard, actually, and she takes him back because she can't think of any reason not to. But the things she says and thinks - when someone says to her, 'Don't be too hard on him, you know,' and she says, 'I'm hard on myself.' ... I was like that [when I was] younger. I was very hard on myself. I could make myself do anything."
What gave her the determination to lead the kind of life she wanted?
"Well, I didn't think I was going to get six or seven tries at life.
"The amazing thing is that I've survived... I'm rereading my diaries and I find periods where I say, 'Oh boy, am I hard up.' But it's not sheer terror. I seem to have always thought, well, I'm going to get out of this as soon as I get some money - then I can go to Venice."
This interview was originally published in Newsday on December 22, 2002.