It was inevitable. Back in the late 1990s, just about everyone slugging it out in the icy trenches of Montreal’s local media got the dreaded assignment sooner or later: Mordecai Richler.
Our own curmudgeonly author of funny novels and hero of even funnier hand-to-hand clashes with separatist pundits in that bleak, post-referendum No Man’s Land was generally regarded among journalists as the most difficult interview subject in Canada. In those days, if you mentioned to a fellow reporter that you had been assigned to interview Richler, you would expect to receive a sympathetic pat on the back and a smug expression that said, “Better you than me, pal!”
But sixteen years ago last week, in November 1997, soon after the publication of what would be Richler’s last (and arguably best) novel, that’s when I finally drew the proverbial short straw and was pushed out into the cold Westmount night. Armed with a camera and notepad — and a feeling of impending disaster — I trudged over to Greene Avenue, where Richler was scheduled to spend a couple of hours signing copies of Barney’s Version at the Double Hook Book Shop.
I braced myself for the worst, knowing that anyone who could draw more than a few aggravated grunts out of him was instantly hailed as a hero in journalistic and literary circles. At least my failure would be mercifully brief — and played out in the familiar confines of the Double Hook, where I knew the owner, Judy Mappin, and most of the staff quite well (in fact they would host the launch of my first book a few years later). When I got upstairs it was easy to spot Richler, sitting at a small card table in the back of the store amidst towering stacks of his new book, smiling shyly and signing copies for a line-up of customers.
There were no publicists or other hangers-on that night, just Richler and his admiring readers. Everything was in place — the unruly mane of grey hair, the coffee cup of something that was probably not coffee, and a line of smoke rising from a thin brown cigar resting in an ashtray. Sometimes the line-up would thin out and disappear, so for a few minutes between customers we had a chance to speak. At first, he was everything I expected — reluctant to offer more than a one-syllable response to anything I asked, even the many questions that would automatically prompt most people to offer more and more. But no — years of speaking to obtuse interviewers had forced him to build up an impenetrable wall.
I told him that between us, my wife and I owned and had read all of his books. He was not impressed. We even had a prized, ultra-rare copy of The Acrobats, I told him. This got a few more words out, but nothing substantial. Then it dawned on me. In an inspired gambit not seen since David Frost sat down with Richard Nixon, I went for broke and brought up the Marx Brothers, knowing he had once lunched with Groucho.
Of all things, that broke the ice. He smiled, and out came a few sentences. Before long, between his brief exchanges with customers, we were carrying on a pleasant, candid conversation about, of all things, the Marx Brothers. Duck Soup, Horsefeathers — we even got onto that slightly absurd topic of how the very presence of straight man Zeppo among three absurd characters was in fact absurd in itself.
Despite his reputation as a curmudgeon, Richler was never anything but pleasant and polite to those who waited in line to see him — especially those who congratulated him on his recent winning of the coveted Giller Prize.
In the course of an hour, while he was signing their books, two different customers told him that their brother or sister so-and-so knew him from his old Baron Byng High School days. “Oh, yes, of course I remember,” Richler replied brightly each time. “Give so-and-so my best regards.” But as soon as the person left, clutching a freshly signed copy of Barney’s Version, Richler would turn to me, shake his shaggy head, and mouth the words, “No idea.”
But there was some subtle way he handed each signed copy back to a grateful customer that struck me. You could tell he was very proud of this book by the way he presented it to each person as if it were some very meaningful gift or priceless relic — yet at the same time he somehow conveyed that he was the privileged one, glad to be sharing the story with so many readers. In that way he connected with everyone who came to see him that night.
At one point, Judy Mappin came over and informed Richler that the stack of about 60 books next to him had been pre-sold and each one needed to be signed. “Oh, Christ,” he muttered, looking up at me over his glasses with a helpless look in his eyes. “Would you mind…?”
Within seconds we had improvised an effective little two-man conveyor system where I would hand Richler a new book from the pile, and while he flipped it open and signed his name on the title page — then slowly closed the book, again as reverently as if it were his most treasured possession — I would have another copy ready for him.
As we worked, Richler opened up and was soon chatting away, interrupting himself only to utter a quick “Thank you” each time I handed him a fresh book.
Toward the end of the session, a familiar face emerged from the line-up of Richler fans — Dick Irvin, the veteran sportscaster whose face and voice were as familiar to most English-speaking Montrealers as those of their own relatives. “How did you like the book, Dick?” Richler asked as his old friend presented his copy for signing.
“How the hell should I know?” Irvin shot back. “I’m just buying it now!” (See photo below)
The article that came out later that week was tiny compared to the lengthy piece I had composed about Richler’s plans for the coming winter in London, his aversion to using a computer, and his new Gazette column, which he would be faxing over from England each week. This was not surprising, given the severe lack of editorial space that plagues weeklies to this day.
But what really surprised me was that Richler himself never forgot our brief but intensive book-signing collaboration. On the three or four occasions that our paths crossed after that, he always remembered me and made a point of thanking me again for helping him sign all those pristine copies of Barney’s Version. Now, I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of my own books without thinking of Richler and the grace he exhibited with readers on that cold November night at the Double Hook.
It’s one of those little things that stay with you.