Before Charles Foran’s visit to Bishop’s this upcoming Thursday, Oct. 17 at Bishop’s, Adam Young spoke with him over the phone to discuss his writing process and the inspiration for a number of his award-winning books.
Adam Young: You’ve been teaching at the University of Toronto for the last little while. Could you tell me about your courses?
Charles Foran: Yes, I’m teaching a course at St. Michaels. The spring course was on contemporary Irish fiction, and the course this fall is on the Irish-Canadian imagination. It’s my first time teaching it, and it is in a sense exploring indeed if there is such a thing as “Irish-Canadian sensibility.” So, the idea of the course is to think aloud about how cultural inheritances work when there is almost always a hyphenated quality to a Canadian writer. I thought it would be interesting to explore how this holds up with such an old immigrant group as the Irish.
AY: Where is the Irish in your own roots?
CF: It’s on my father’s side: Ottawa Irish. My mother: French Canadian.
AY: Your Mordecai Richler biography is one of your most-talked about works recently. Could you tell me where the project started from?
CF: That project emerged from a conversation with my agent four or five years ago after the Mordecai Richler’s death. She asked if I was interested, and I knew I was because RIchler was the Canadian writer who meant more to me than any other. I awaited each of his books, and his persona was very embracing and engaging; a very exemplary and public persona for a writer due to his commitment and engagement with social and political issues. I was living in Montreal during the period of his fairly bare-knuckled takedown of Quebec nationalism, or aspects of it, leading up to the second referendum. For me he had really been an outsized Canadian national writer. So I took a couple of steps to see if a biography would be welcome, if it would be possible. I knew the kind of book I wanted to write would require the cooperation of key people: his family and his vast network of friends. So before I committed to doing it, I made sure I would get that cooperation, and once I had it, away I went.
AY: Do you remember the first Richler novel you read?
CF: [The Apprenticeship of] Duddy Kravitz in high school. It would have still been in the curriculum then; this was in the early 70s. But the books I fell in love with were the big ones that came later: St. Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua [Then and Now], Barney’s Version, and the book I think is his greatest work, Soloman Gursky Was Here, parts of which were set down where you are, in the Townships. The book opens in 1858 I think in the Townships. It’s a myriad-minded book with nine plots set over a 200-year period, one of which involves a contemporary Montrealer that lives down pretty close to where Richler had his summer cottage.
AY: You’ve also covered Maurice Richard with the Penguin Series, Extraordinary Canadians, which is a number of biographies of famous Canadians. You’ve covered a lot of famous Quebeckers in a way…
CF: That one came through a series of conversations with the series editor John Ralston Saul. I actually pitched to him Maurice Richard arguing that few athletes, even great ones, merit a biography in this sort of series. Their greatness doesn’t transcend their sport, for lack of a better word, it’s an on-ice greatness, or field greatness. Even someone like Wayne Gretzky wasn’t included. [Richard’s] impact far transcended sport, it became a transformative period in Quebec and his own role in that. It was a man vs. him as an icon. I talked to John about it and he eventually came round and commissioned it. My own personal reason beyond being interested in Quebec and Richard was that my mom’s family, French Canadians from Northern Ontario, were all die-hard Habs fans, so I grew up very much with les Canadiens.
AY: Some of the students at Bishop’s are examining Kitchen Music for an English course. What do you remember about your experiences writing it? It was one of your earliest works, eh?
CF: Yes it was. It was my first published novel and was worked on for -as often the case of first novels-worked on for many years, among other things, including publishing a non-fiction [book] on China. It came out of living and going to graduate school in Ireland in the 80s, and spending the summer in Ireland. Thinking a lot about tradition versus the contemporary and how individuals negotiate their inheritance, not so terribly different from the course I’m teaching at U of T now, many years later.
AY: Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
CF: I’ve gone back and forth between the two now for so long. I would say that non-fiction is ultimately all about craft, livening things up, getting things right, being a vivid good storyteller. You know, only going where the story can take you because it is based on facts. Fiction summons that slightly more mysterious and deeper thing, the creative side. So at the end of the day, I think of myself as a novelist first and foremost.