I've lately had the pleasure of being interviewed on John Batchelor’s cerebral radio program, which originates in New York but is heard all over the country. Since I am in Washington, and not New York, I speak to Mr. Batchelor by telephone—which means that his millions of listeners hear but do not see the person identified as “Philip Terzian.” I may well be the only one of his guests who thinks about such things, but there’s a reason.
Almost exactly 40 years ago, when I was employed as a baby editor at another magazine in Washington, its small but ambitious book division reprinted a collection of short stories by Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) entitled The Street (1975). Richler, the Jewish-Canadian novelist and essayist, was then at the height of his renown, largely based on the 1974 movie version of his 1959 novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
There was a very modest author’s tour—a series of radio and television interviews in Washington and Baltimore—and it was my job to collect Richler at his hotel and ferry him from venue to venue in my Fiat. So naïve was I at the time that it never occurred to me afterwards to seek reimbursement for gas and mileage, or for the lunch I underwrote, during our literary journey. But I was interested to spend a day in the company of a famous novelist, and curious about the rituals of TV and radio interviews.
Since our first appointment was in Baltimore, I collected Richler at the Madison Hotel in Washington very nearly at dawn. He looked like the proverbial unmade bed: His clothes were loosely worn and appropriately rumpled, his face was pasty, and his hair unkempt. It was obvious that he welcomed neither the task at hand nor the hour of day; but to his credit, he spared me blame and faced our schedule not with anger but resignation.
I was embarrassed by the fact that I had neither read nor seen Duddy Kravitz; worse, I was unaware of Richler’s having lived until recently in London, which would have given me a conversational gambit. But no matter: As we drove out of Washington and onto the Capital Beltway, he stretched out as much as possible in a Fiat and dozed off. I remember when the giant Mormon Temple loomed into view—it had just been constructed, and as the sun rose was bathed in unearthly light—he awoke with a start, and we laughed together.
The first interview was on an early-morning television talk show. Richler was not happy about the prospect, and I didn’t know what to expect. The interviewer was one of those well-groomed TV types with mellifluous voice and unctuous manner. But he taught me an important lesson about appearances: The interviewer seemed to have actually read The Street, and his questions were intelligent, respectful, and shrewdly designed to draw out his reluctant subject. It was one of the better interviews of the day, perhaps the best.
What Richler made of all this I cannot say, for he tended toward monosyllables and preferred, in my case, to talk of other things. But I know that he was angered, at one point, by an interviewer who accused him of abetting antisemitism with his working-class, sometimes-less-than-heroic Jewish characters.
He handled such questions, I should say, with practiced skill; but they might well have bothered him more than I perceived, for at the first opportunity during a break between appointments, he insisted that we find a place to get a drink. I cannot now remember the hour of the morning, but it was well before lunchtime, and my appetite for alcohol—never strong—was nonexistent. I smiled and chattered away self-consciously while Richler consumed a giant Bloody Mary.
And that was the pattern for the balance of the day: interview followed by cocktails followed by interview. I remember that he was asked questions by a youthful Maury Povich, and was joined in the studio by the New Yorker writer Michael J. Arlen, plugging Passage to Ararat (1975)—followed by drinks. But with one more radio interview, by phone, to go, Richler informed me that he just couldn’t do it, and insisted that I transport him back to the Madison.
Which I did. This left me with no choice but to save my own job. I drove back to the magazine offices in Washington, closed my door, dialed the number of the station in question—and identified myself as “Mordecai Richler.” The interview was brief and slightly nerve-wracking, but comparatively easy: I had listened to the same questions and answers for hours and, if I may say, did a fair imitation of Richler’s low-pitched voice. I am happy to report that when Richler heard the story, a quarter-century later, he remembered nothing. But he laughed.