Charming, candid, and often controversial, Noah Richler has been a vital voice in the Canadian canon for nearly a generation. His latest effort, What We Talk About When We Talk About War, is a spirited and devisive re-examination of the role of the modern Canadian military. In this exclusive interview with Arts East – in support of his appearances in Nova Scotia this coming week - Richler opens up about himself and the new work.
What inspired you to put this work together?
In 2006 I was listening to Shelagh Rogers interview a soldier, Master-Corporal Paul Franklin, who had lost both his legs after the car he was driving in Kandahar was blown up in the explosion that killed the diplomat Glyn Berry, the beginning of a very tough year for the Canadian Forces. The inference of the conversation was that if, subsequently, Canada pulled out of Afghanistan then Franklin would have lost his legs for nothing. It occurred to me,as it would have done to many, that while that may have been true it was not a sound argument for staying on. This is but one of the many paradoxes of war but it was the one that invited me in, so to speak, to writing a book that allowed me to discover just how upset I was with the proponents of Canada, the so-called "warrior nation." Canada, under the Harper government has undergone a radical (though superficial) change that has been shrewdly pushed forward by a manipulation of our history. This has historically almost always been the case with nations at war, but the lies we have been telling ourself to permit our committing to the fight in Afghanistan, then staying on, then giving up on it (despite what you may hear) are contemptible and a lot of this sort of thing begins with the establishment's call top "support our troops." My book is not a judgment of the Canadian Forces, it is not even a judgment about the validity of the war, but it is a a judgment of the language, stories and many self-deceptions that Canada has used to enable our new, apparently jingoistic self and to do away with the better, more generous Canada that I grew up in and that I believe still exists.
Did the book come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
The book came out of an idea that I tested publicly when I was asked to deliver the Northrop Frye-Antonine Maillet Lecture at l'Université de Moncton in 2010. It took two years and a bit. I was eager for it to come out and for some kind of national discussion to begin. My book articulates points of view that have been denigrated for a decade and that many intimidated people were afraid to put forward.
What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
The most challenging aspect of the process, apart from actually finishing and delivering the manuscript, was to write a book that was highly critical of politicians and media jostling to join a fight for reasons that often had a lot more to do with misguided national vanity than "security" (whatever that has become), while respecting the tremendous courage and dedication and selflessness of many of our soldiers. I had to be able to write a book hat I could argue, in good faith, with members of the Forces, as I have since done. If there is to be any claim to integrity, then an author cannot hide behind the words he or she writes.
What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
I think all those moments, and they have occurred regularly, when someone has come up to me to say thank you for articulating a point of view about Canada that has been quite deliberately and meanly shoved aside and so was not on offer.
What did you learn during the process?
I don't know what I have learned. This book was actually quite hard and upsetting to write, and in a way I continue to be upset because I see Canada becoming a more selfish and ordinary place, sanding by a government that is profoundly undemocratic and that time and again cultivates petty divisions and hatreds to further its agenda, and that is not to our credit.
What has the reaction/response been like so far?
You are a better judge than I. The book has had good, widespread and interested coverage, especially outside of our major newspapers and their increasingly lackadaisical coverage of books and ideas. This is an argument for another day, but let me say that I am tremendously grateful for the existence and increasing power of regional media and the livelier discussion that takes place, often, in unusual places: some of my most interesting reviews (and I am speaking now, as a reader who was himself a books editor once) have come in, say, Vancouver's North Shore News, The Catholic Register and the military magazine Esprit de Corps, and in blogs and webzines such as Kerry Clare's picklemethis.
What happens now? Are you already working on something new?
I have been touring for a couple of months, I am speaking at the Canadian International Council's Halifax branch in September, have a busy September and a very busy October and next week am speaking in Nova Scotia with the historian James Laxer (Tecumseh and Brock, the War of 1812, House of Anansi) and Richard Rudnicki, the Nova Scotian illustrator of Laxer's children's book Tecumseh (Groundwood) at Fables Books in Tatamagouche (225 Main Street, (902) 657-3388); on Monday July 16th at 7 pm; with Laxer and I (but not Rudnicki) at ArtsPlace in Annapolis Royal (396 George Street, (902) 532 7069) with musicians and singers at 7 pm on Tuesday July 17th; and then with James in Sandy Cove, Digby Neck, at the Eldridge Memorial Library on Wednesday July 18th at 3 pm. The Nova Scotian dates are very important to me. My family has a home in Sandy Cove on the Digby Neck and has purchased a dilapidated hotel in the village (it has not been open for many decades) that we are presently working on and hoping to turn into some kind of cultural centre. We are very dedicated to the arts, and to the province. This crazy idea satisfies both these hazardous affections. All events are free.
What made you want to be a writer?
A lack of originality.
How has the internet helped/hurt the literary industry and the nature of literature?
The miracle of the internet made the research for this book infinitely easier to manage than would have been the case even a couple of decades ago. This may or may not make up for the fact that web users' conviction that knowledge on it should be free is decimating writers incomes. You can read no end of pieces by occasional web upstarts telling you how to make a fortune because they did, but the truth is that this has happened and will continue to happen. This means that until the income model of the web is viable, it will be impossible for many bright and capable authors (and I am not even saying that I am one) to write without the sinecure of a university position or something comparable. And believe me, you do not want academics to be writing everything. But it is encouraging to me that, as I write you from the Saint John - Digby ferry, my daughter and her two friends, web-savvy as they are, are reading (Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, Jack Kerouac's On the Road and George Orwell's Animal Farm). If they are the exception I have no doubt their minds will be better for it.
What are your thoughts on the current state of Canadian literature?
I think we have a certain shortage of good writers of non-fiction, a lively and very interesting new generation of novelists replacing equally good older ones but, outside of the CBC and the National Post (how often are you going to ear those two paired together?!), a generally pathetic, shallow and craven discussion of books and ideas. This is a problem, though it may be temporary. One of the effects of the net is that it has convinced us that the good is an idea that can be measured and that this is done by counting users. Often this is true. But the good is also something to aspire to and something to learn. We have forgotten this in the present moment.
Who are your favourite Canadian authors?
Let me say that the Canadian authors who are presently on my mind are Alistair MacLeod, as I am thinking of writing about the resource economy and he is one of the best writers about work in the world (read his story, "The Closing Down of Summer"; the Montreal writer Alex Ohlin, presently living in New York, whose novel Inside proves her one of Canada's new slate of talents, and the French-speaking Vietnamese-Canadian writer Kim Thuy, whose novel Ru, quiet as it is, is a thoughtful and subversive addition to this country's canon of immigrant literature, and especially worth reading at a time when the Conservatives, dangerously close to being the wrong side of bigotry, believe that the only good immigrant has the right work qualifications or a packet of cash, and won't get sick on our dime.
Why do you think that Atlantic Canadians enjoys such a vibrant literary culture?
Look, I don't mean to be a spoiler, but unknowing self-congratulation is a very Canadian trait. There is so little support for bookstores that independents such as Fables are the exception and even Chapters outlets are few and far between. I have watched Annabel Winter, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the UK's Orange prize, speak to six people in Wolfville, a university town, and Peter Behrens, who has won a Governor-General's Award, read to maybe a dozen in Annapolis Royal. In Halifax, an attempt at a literary festival failed. Is this a "vibrant literary culture"? You tell me. Part of it is the sea-change that is affecting the way we consume literature globally, part of it has to do with Nova Scotia's unique social fabric, one in which, for instance, the city of Halifax is less important to the province than are, say Montreal to Québec or Saskatoon to Saskatchewan. Nova Scotia is a predominantly rural province with a different sort of economy - one that depends a lot more on community - in which it is likely possible to live better and more easily as an artist, but I'm not sure we can tell ourselves the literary culture is "vibrant." But with a little work and commitment perhaps we can make it so.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write. And find the time around the time that you need, in order to do so. It's not about the three hours a day you may be able to do so, but the three on either side of these three that you must tailor to the duty of actually sitting down and getting it done. And expect no reward.
Noah Richler in Nova Scotia
Monday, July 16th: James Laxer (Tecumseh and Brock, the War of 1812, House of Anansi) and Richard Rudnicki, the Nova Scotian illustrator of Laxer's children's book, Tecumseh (Groundwood) and Noah (What We Talk About When We Talk About War, Goose Lane Editions) are appearing at Fables Books in Tatamagouche (225 Main Street, (902) 657-3388) at 7 pm.
Tuesday, July 17th: Laxer and Richler (but not Rudnicki) at ArtsPlace in Annapolis Royal (396 George Street, (902) 532 7069) with musicians and singers at 7 pm
Wednesday, July 18th: Laxer and Richler, again without Rudnicki, in Sandy Cove, Digby Neck, at the Eldridge Memorial Library at 3 pm.