A novelist, filmmaker, journalist, lecturer, and editor, William Weintraub has written extensively about life in Montreal and the city’s many changes throughout his career.
In City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and ’50s, on the Montreal Gazette’s bestseller list for 73 weeks after its release in 1996, Weintraub gives an exciting and evocative account of what life was like in Montreal when it was known across the continent as an “open city.” It was a Montreal of hard-drinking journalists and police morality squads where gambling, prostitution, and corruption provided extra spice to an already roaring nightlife. In Getting Started (2001), he looks back on his early career as a journalist, writer, world-traveler, novelist, and National Film Board filmmaker. Some of his contemporaries that figure in the book include Mavis Gallant, Mordecai Richler, and Brian Moore.
His novels Why Rock the Boat? (1968) and Crazy About Lili (2005) focus on the challenges faced by young people starting their careers in the uncertainty and optimism of postwar Montreal. In The Underdogs, a satire published first as a novel in 1979 and later as a play in 1998, he explores the nature of life for young people living in a dystopian Montreal twenty years after separation in the Republic of Quebec.
Weintraub’s career with the National Film Board spanned four decades. Working variously as a writer, producer or director, he has a credit on over 150 documentary and feature films. He has also lectured and conducted scriptwriting seminars at universities and colleges across the country.
In 2004, his lifelong contribution to Canadian writing and film was recognized through his induction as an Officer of the Order of Canada.
carte blanche‘s interview with William Weintraub was conducted by Len Epp in February 2010.
cb: You’ve told the story of Montreal in novels, documentaries, memoirs, and historical nonfiction. Could you describe the difference between writing on the same subject in those different genres?
Weintraub: Writing novels is much more of an emotional task. It can be exhilarating and depressing. Suddenly you have insights and it’s going well, and you feel wonderful, and the next day it looks awful. Writing nonfiction makes different demands on your ability to differentiate between what’s going to be interesting to the reader and what isn’t. The discoveries of relationships between things and people that come to you in writing nonfiction, as was the case for me inCity Unique, become more clear to you as you do the research—so the rewards in writing nonfiction are largely in the research, which is followed by the craftsmanship of putting it down on paper.
You’ve mentioned that in the Montreal of the 50s and 60s, the time you write about inGetting Started, that writers were in a sense less organized than they are now, that there were fewer writing groups and that there seemed to be less institutional activity or support. What was it like writing in that environment?
Well, it was a lonely procedure. You weren’t surrounded by other writers, didn’t have meetings of writers. Nobody, no writer that I knew, had anything to do with writers’ groups, and there just weren’t that many writers on the horizon. There was some unity among the poets of the time, such as AJM Smith and Frank Scott and the blessed John Glassco, who did get together at places such as Ben’s Delicatessen, which had a poets’ corner, which I mentioned in my 1993 documentary The Rise and Fall of English Montreal. Poets like and should be reading aloud to each other, and the poets at the time were very sociable, compared with the novelists that I knew.
Was there a feeling that novelists were competing for a limited number of opportunities to publish with the various presses?
There weren’t as many presses then as we have now, and the subsidies that writers get from the government nowadays didn’t exist in the days I describe in Getting Started. That was before the existence of the Canada Council, and there was not the feeling that writing could be subsidized by the state—it was a commercial enterprise between you and the publisher, so it was harder to get published. Self-publishing is more of an option now too—you don’t have to have a hell of a lot of money to get out something that looks like a book in every respect. It’s exhilarating for a young writer now, because the possibility of seeing yourself in print and having something that others can read is much greater. And that’s what leads a lot of younger people to attempt it these days—it seems more possible, I think. God knows what motivates anybody to write.
On that note, what motivated you to write?
I think it’s indicative of some character defect. Seriously though, when I was ten or eleven years old, there was a literary competition for my age group, and I won the Quebec prize, and they actually printed my contribution in the Gazette, and I was bitten. I knew I wanted to write, and that led me into journalism.
While I was at McGill I worked for the Gazette in the summer and in the winter I used to cover the ski races. You know it’s a funny thing that in those days a lot of the few people who were publishing novels had backgrounds in journalism—not now. They started out in journalism, whereas now very often they start out in academe and creative writing courses, for example, which is quite different, and I certainly feel that in my case I owe a lot to my early journalism as a contributing factor in the discipline of my writing.
Writers shouldn’t be too aware of what they’re doing. I used to work on the desk at the Gazetteat a very early age, writing to deadlines and under pressure, and if you’re forced to write headlines you come to grips with certain things about sentence structure, and putting ideas down, and so on. So I have found in my case and with others I know that journalism was a good place to come from.
In your novels you often deal with the uncertainty young people face when they are starting their own careers, and you often focus on the experience of young journalists. And in your memoir Getting Started, you write about your own experience at this stage in life. How did you manage things at the early and uncertain stage in your own career?
I left the Gazette around 1950, and I freelanced around Montreal, working for a paper called theStandard and for the CBC and others. At the end of 1950 I went off to Europe, for the better part of a year, where I built up contacts. You had to be enterprising, you had to learn how to sell your work and get paid for it. It worked out quite well for me at that time—the 50s and early 60s were an era of growth and optimism, things suddenly looked very possible. There were a lot of freebies—I’d go to the British Overseas Airways and say, “Give me a ticket to Europe and I’ll write something that you’ll really love.”
Can you tell me something about your experience when you started working on films for the NFB?
The Film Board was founded in 1939, with a mandate to interpret Canada to Canadians and abroad, to talk consciously about the country. It followed the British documentary tradition, which arose in the 1930s, and it was conceived as a documentary film unit to talk about Canada.
I had a great time. The NFB started a weekly series of documentaries made especially for television, when television was in its early stages in Canada in the 1950s. Television came to Canada much later than it did to the States and England, so it was quite interesting—we were doing something new. I realized I was very lucky to be working for the NFB at a time of growth and opportunity—we had distribution offices in many countries.
I got a couple of assignments working freelance, and they sent me to Saskatchewan to do research. One was about a travelling salesman who went from town to town, and I travelled with an old salesman there. Documentaries were tightly scripted in those days—you even wrote down the exchanges that you expected to take place. There was pressure—you were given a week to do the research, and then two weeks to write the script, and the crew would arrive to film.
Much of your work on Montreal has dealt with the interaction between the anglophone and francophone communities, and how it has changed over time. When you were writing on this controversial topic, in both fiction and nonfiction, were you preoccupied with the reaction people might have to your work, and perhaps with managing the reception of your work?
I wrote a novel called The Underdogs, which was written shortly after the Parti Québécois came into power, and offered a dystopian view of what Montreal would be like if they consolidated their power, Quebec achieved sovereignty, and the anglos became the underdogs. I was quite nervous about the reaction, since I was sharply critical of francophone sovereign aspirations, which I found menacing, as did many anglos at the time. But the French press totally ignored it, though it was very popular in English all across the country.
The last film I made for the NFB was called The Rise and Fall of English Montreal, in 1993, and that film had a very interesting history. I had tremendous battles with the film board before they let me finish it the way I wanted to. They kept wanting to water it down. I wanted to show that Montreal owed a great deal to English origins and history, and to show that a lot of that history is unknown—there was even a brief period of time, for example, when there were more English than French people in Montreal. I felt threatened when I was writing this, but I think I did a quite even-handed job. The Film Board was very nervous, and the CBC wouldn’t run the film—the idea being, amongst the nervous nellies in the English community, that if you say anything nice about the English, you would be perceived as being anti‐French. It was amazing—I was simply saying, look, this city has an interesting English history, and Montreal owes a lot of its status in the world to English enterprise, which was something that wasn’t discussed much in those days. But again, the film was ignored by the French media.
There’s been a tremendous change in Montreal since I made that film, at the time of the great exodus of anglophones from Montreal. Anglophones are much more comfortable now, and more accepted. The friction doesn’t really exist the way it did—there’s much more coherence between the two groups, and that is gratifying. More young English people speak French very well, and I think that’s appreciated. I mean, there’s not this great rapprochement between the two sides, and the friction makes life interesting in Montreal, it’s part of the city’s charm to have the two languages side by side. My melancholy predictions did not come true. The existence of the two communities side by side is a good thing and enriches the culture and we rejoice in it. And I don’t want to live in Toronto.