JL: In your journals and essays, you’re such a shrewd observer of the world, and of world events. That section of your journal we were just discussing follows the Klaus Barbie trial.

MG: Don’t forget, I was a journalist from age twenty-one to twenty­-eight. That’s a big chunk of your life.

JL: And you’ve maintained a journalistic connection with the world.

MG: Less now, because I’m physically hobbled. For example, in that journal – ‘Paris ’68’ – I get up in the middle of the night, I get dressed, I go out to see somebody throwing stones. But now I stay home because I’m physically fragile. I could be knocked over. I could break all my bones.
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JL: America is full of people who feel they are becoming something. Because it’s such a relatively young country, there’s a process of becoming American. There’s the possibility of it. I don’t know if it happens in the same way in other countries. When I was growing up in the United States, I never felt American because I never felt I could get away with calling myself an American. People would question it, because of my name and appearance, and some still do. It’s taken me about forty years to feel I can say that, and now I do feel more American than I used to, but still with caveats.
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MG: I would not have stayed in Canada. The government in Quebec at that time was very right wing, under the heel of a particularly repressive Catholic Church. I told you about the Padlock Law, didn’t I? There was a law passed while I was there, working for the Standard, that if anyone had left-wing literature, even private correspondence in their home, the police could enter – they didn’t have to have a search warrant – and they could put you out of your home and padlock the door behind you. I couldn’t get the English Canadians worried about this because it seldom happened to them. No one would come into an English Canadian’s home unless he was poor or unless he was left wing and Jewish. The majority of the French Canadians thought if you were in any way left wing there was something wrong with you. I covered a number of strikes as a reporter. I had very fixed ideas on the subject. And I thought, ‘I can’t go on living here, I’m going to end up with no soul, just me waving my hat or shutting up.’ So I would not have stayed. But it seemed natural. I thought about living in France from the time I was fourteen or fifteen. But it came from films, pre­war films, and books.
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MG: I can’t imagine writing something that doesn’t have a time attached and I don’t like reading something that could happen anytime, anywhere. For example, in Green Water, the story when they’re on the beach. It’s early morning and the Vespas are starting. A translator who wanted to translate this into French said she wanted to take out any mention that it is the fifties. And I said, ‘No, I’m not making these changes.’
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JL: Do your journals ever give you ideas for writing stories?

MG: No, but they give me ideas of how things were. What was going on around that time. Sometimes descriptions of cities take you back. Not really people. Or they’re people I’ve just had a glimpse of. I find them stuck back there in the brain. Like the Englishwoman I told you about yesterday, about the skirt. The one who said, ‘My dear, are you a Scot?’ I would not have remembered that if I hadn’t written it.

Jhumpa Lahiri Interviews Mavis Gallant …