Skip to content

Remember This? Mavis Gallant, short story writer

University of Toronto writer-in-residence visits the Sault, finds where 'My Heart is Broken' cover hangs

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

The Sault Ste. Marie Public Library has had the good fortune to host some remarkable literary talents through the years including the likes of Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, and W. O. Mitchell. One other notable author who honoured the library with a visit was Mavis Gallant.

Known primarily for her prowess in the realm of short story writing, Gallant penned more than one hundred short stories in her lifetime, as well as two novels and a play. She was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and won the Governor General’s award for fiction in 1981 for Home Truths, as well as a host of other awards and prizes.

Mavis Gallant began her career as a full-time writer in a rather remarkable way. After her divorce from musician John Gallant, she quit a good job as a reporter for the Montreal Standard and risked it all by moving to Paris.

As she told The Guardian in 2009, Paris was her chosen destination because of “the black and white films, the paintings. I thought that France must be enchanted magic. I wanted to be among those people.”

It was a move attempted by others with little success. But Gallant’s talent and tenacity made the impossible possible. She also had very high standards for her aspirations as a writer – she endeavoured to submit her short stories to the pre-eminent literary magazine, The New Yorker, and only if they decided to publish them would she consider herself a real writer. Publish them they did, and these stories would then be published as collections which were applauded in the United States and Britain. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that Gallant began to achieve recognition in her home country when McClelland and Stewart began to distribute her work.

Mavis had a fascinating and tumultuous life from which to derive inspiration. She attended a large number of schools during her childhood – 17 different institutions in all, some of which were boarding schools. At the tender age of only four years old she was sent to stay at a French convent school which was only a short distance from her home.

At 10 years old her father passed away, but Mavis was kept in the dark and instead told that he was living in England. It wasn’t until she was thirteen that she found out the truth, quite by accident, when an acquaintance of her mother spoke of his death. Meanwhile, her mother had remarried, moved away from Canada, and left Mavis behind with a guardian.

Gallant attributed her love of the written word to her experiences as an only child. She recounted to the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers in a 2009 interview that, “if you’re an only child, you’re there like the dining room table.” This allowed her access to many adult conversations and lots of time to read.

During the academic year of 1983-84 Gallant resided in Canada as the writer–in-residence at the University of Toronto. As she related to the Guardian newspaper in a 2009 interview, “it was a completely useless job. You are with people who have no talent whatsoever, and if they had, they wouldn’t come to me.”

The job did, however, offer her the opportunity to do some public readings while she was in the country. She travelled to the Sault for an evening appearance at the Public Library on April 12, 1984. In addition to her reading, she also had a lot of questions about the Sault and had a pamphlet with her concerning the town’s historical properties. She also made a point to visit the Art Gallery of Algoma to look at the painting Patio by Canadian artist Gill Saward which had graced the cover of a reprint of her novel My Heart is Broken. A part of their permanent collection to this day, Mavis Gallant was quite enamored with it.

Mavis Gallant passed away at her Paris apartment, February 18th, 2014, at the age of 91. Upon news of her death, renowned author Margaret Atwood had the following to say about Gallant to the CBC – “Mavis Gallant was a wonderful writer, a sharp observer of human nature, a formidable conversationalist, and an indomitable spirit who made her own way, often uphill. She was funny, quirky, and prickly if you crossed her, but kind underneath it, especially to underdogs. Her unique voice will be much missed.”

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provide SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more "Remember This?" columns here.

What's next?

If you would like to apply to become a Verified reader Verified Commenter, please fill out this form.