To read the review of Mordecai& Me An Appreciation of a Kind click HERE
Bookpleasures is honored to have as its guest, Montreal author, journalist and book reviewer, Joel Yanofsky author of Mordecai& Me An Appreciation of a Kind.
Thanks Joel for agreeing to be interviewed by Bookpleasures.
Could you tell us something about yourself Joel, and how you got started in writing. What would you consider your first break as a writer, and what is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Well, I'm still waiting for my first break, Norm. Seriously, I've wanted to be a writer since I was a kid and I think it was because it was something I could do that made me stand out from everyone else. I wasn't a very good student. But telling a story, moving words around was something I liked to do, I guess I instinctively saw some value in it and some fun so I took to it and kept working at it till I got better. I guess my freelance career got going when I started writing reviews, particularly for The Montreal Gazette. I went on to do a column for them and continue to write reviews. But I also wanted to do other things, so I've written a collection of comic essays, Homo Erectus and a novel Jacob's Ladder. My biggest challenge as a writer hasn't really changed - to tell the stories I want to tell well and in a way that will engage readers, but also have some other layers and levels to it. The challenge too, for someone like me, who prides himself on never having had a real job and on working as a freelance writer is making a living at it. As long as I can do that -and for a while I couldn't - I feel like I've accomplished something. It's one thing I admire most about Mordecai Richler's career, his ability to survive and flourish as a freelancer.
Why did you choose the title Mordecai & Me An Appreciation of a Kind?
Well, the main title was easy. The book is meant to be about Richler but also about me, a hybrid of biography and memoir. The second part, the subtitle is a little joke and a tip-off to the reader that this isn't going to be a hagiography. As much as I admire Richler, my intention is to write about him in an irreverent way, to treat him with respect but also to express my mixed feelings about him as a writer and a person.
You admit to be obsessed with Mordecai Richler. Why? What was your primary objective in deciding to write about Mordecai Richler?
Well, it's true the book became an obsession, but frankly it was more the book - getting it done in a short time and in a rather unusual manner - that was the obsession than Richler himself. I'm not sure I had one objective. I just wanted to show how the life and the interests of a reader like me intersects with the work and life of a well known writer. I also wanted the book to be about the writing life, about its vagaries and its ups and downs, of which there are many. I wanted to write about things like bitterness and jealousy, things writers don't usually tackle in their work.
Would you agree that the creation of a great character is the quintessential, and if so, do you agree that Richler's characters will go on forever?
Well, of course, you want to create characters who will go on and certainly Richler has, most obviously with Duddy Kravitz. But others too - like Barney in Barney's Version and Mr. Bernard in Solomon Gursky and Joshua Shapiro's father, Reuben in Joshua Then and Now.
Do you think Richler may have been a better essayist than a novelist, and do you think he merits the title as a great Canadian satirist?
I don't know if he was better. He was very good though. In rereading his work, the essays were a treat to read. I also discovered some, like his essay about his father, that I didn't know and was very impressed by. His writing on writing is interesting too. It is completely unsentimental. I think he expected his reputation rested on his fiction, but he was not ashamed of his nonfiction and he worked hard at it. And yes he was a great Canadian satirist, though I'd probably refer to him more as a writer of comic novels. Humour in literature is often undervalued in this country and Richler was a great champion of the notion that the best writing, the most serious writing should also be funny. As a reviewer and a novelist I can never understand how anyone can write a whole book without cracking some jokes. It seems so odd to me and yet I read lots of books which are dead serious and too often are mistaken for great literature. They usually are not. They are narrow in their point of view and that, in my mind, disqualifies them from being great.
Why do you think Richler's novel Duddy Kravitz sold less than 1000 copies when it first came out in Canada?
Oh, I don't know. There never is a way to understand why some books sell and some don't. The timing was wrong here, the climate, the publicity. You just never know.
Was Richler a kind of an actor promoting himself in a manner that he knew would irritate in order to gain attention?
No, I don't think his impatience with foolishness was an act. I think it was real and yes he cultivated it, but he wasn't putting it on. If you ever interviewed him, as I did a few times, you knew he didn't care much what other people thought about him, perhaps to a fault. But I still admired that about him.
You state in your book that Richler had no qualms about plagiarizing himself. I believe you also are of the opinion that some of his novels recycle themes and characters? If this is the case, is it not boring to read again and again the same story told in a different way?
Well, freelancers have no choice but to recycle themselves. We have to keep working and there is only so much material you have. The answer to your question is that Richler was seldom boring. He worked hard at not being boring. There are lots of writers who come up with new ideas all the time and could hardly be more boring so I think it always comes down to what you do with your subject, not what your subject is.
Do you believe that Richler succeeded in raising questions to think about? If so, why?
Every writer does, but it's up to the reader to decide what those questions are, not the writer. You shouldn't work with an agenda. For me, the question Richler raises are about how do you live a good life, meaning one that is moral and honest and worthwhile. Mostly, his characters don't achieve these things, but they try and its the effort that has to count.
What do you think are Richler's greatest strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and what do you think are yours?
His strength was his ability to write funny, which is hard. Funny and serious as I said before. He could do that, especially in the bigger novels like St. Urbain's Horseman or Solomon Gursky or Barney's Version. He also wrote about the here and now. He very seldom resorted to historical fiction and never resorted to fantasy or almost never and I admire that. His weakness, I think as I say in Mordecai & Me, was a failure of compassion at times - not all the time - but he could be overly hard on people and dismissive and I think that hurts you as a writer, especially as a novelist. As for my own strengths well one is similar to Richler. I think I have the ability to be funny on the page and to be more serious than I sometimes get credit for. I have weaknesses, of course, but I'll keep those to myself. No point in advertising.
As you are a book reviewer, how do you feel about the cut backs that have taken place in the print media pertaining to book reviews?
Well, I've been reviewing books for a long time so this is nothing new. Review sections are always being squeezed or threatened with it. It is, sadly, a reflection of a public that is not as interested in books, good books, as it is in celebrities or sports or current events. On the other hand, I wish the people in charge of these sections would realize sometimes that they are in the reading business and that a commitment to good writing is the best way to cultivate readers. Serious readers, not just skimmers or headline hunters.
What are you future writing plans, and how would you like the world to remember Joel Yanofsky?
My future plans are a little up in the air. I had a novel I was working on before I stopped to write Mordecai & me so I'd like to get back to that. I just wrote a long piece for Canadian Geographic on the Montreal Holocaust Museum which will be out in January and which I'm proud of. I also have plans for another work of non-fiction. What I enjoyed most about Mordecai & Me is the combination of forms - memoir and literary biography. I'd like to do that in another kind of book - combine a personal story with a more universal one. As for how I would like the world to remember me, have you heard something? Am I going somewhere?
Thanks once again Yoel, and I do hope you are not going anywhere, as we look forward to reading your future articles and novels. Good Luck.