Writer Charles Foran was in Ottawa to discuss his new biography of Mordecai Richler.
Why did you decide to write about Mordecai Richler?
I wanted to write a big, rich book about a big, rich life. There was no other Canadian author whose life and work in combination was so full of stuff, and biographies take years, so you want to make sure your subject is engaging enough to sustain your interest.
How long did it take?
It took four years with very minimal time off for good behaviour.
Did you get a great deal of help from the family?
(Richler’s wife) Florence co-operated and was incredibly generous with her time and insights and memories, and criticisms — she was not uncritical of me or of Mordecai — without conditions. Florence wanted, I think, the same book I wanted, which is to say credible, big, full of life, like him.
Montreal plays a significant part in the book.
It does. The first 100 pages are given over almost entirely to that city. Montreal is so fundamental to him as a person and as a writer. I wanted to recreate that.
If there had to be one landmark or shrine of Mordecai’s Montreal, what do you think it would be?
I think I would go for either the Maritime Bar at the Ritz Carleton. That’s where he liked to sit and stare at the political classes and the upper classes and plot and plan what he was going to write about. From the old neighbourhood, I think I would probably go for Baron Bing, the high school, which is now Sun Youth, that huge building on Saint-Urbain, because that’s where he really came into being as a person.
Was there anything in your research you were surprised to find?
I think the greatest discovery I made was how much he was loved by his friends and family. The public face of Richler could be irascible and tough and intimidating and he either couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about that. In private, the same words keep coming up, “Mordecai was a decent man,” the women would say he was “sweet.” Mordecai Richler, sweet. Wow. So that was an interesting discovery.