Today is Roch Carrier 84th birthday. I thought it would be a great time to revisit my conversation with him three years ago.
As you probably already know, Carrier is a wonderful author who wrote a series of diverse works from La Guerre, Yes Sir to The Hockey Sweater to his latest novel Demain, j’écris un roman.
He also directed the Canada Council for the Arts in the early 1990s and became National Librarian of Canada in 1997.
Carrier became an officer of the Order of Canada in 1991 and also serves as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Most of our conversation focussed on The Hockey Sweater, which became a musical last winter in the latest of a multitude of diverse creations.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, which took place in early 2017.
So I guess the first thing I would like to say is congratulations. It seems like you’re everywhere these days.
Yes there is a lot of things that are happening and I’m very lucky.
Is there a strategy about this? Did someone reach out to you?
No, there is no strategy around that story. The story is getting more and more popular because I don’t know why. It’s a good story. There was never a special strategy around that story. You know, it was just an anecdote that I turned into a story.
and they have been connecting for sometimes three generations.[00:02:13 I was in Calgary some days ago. And there were grandparents asking me to sign the book that they had when they were kids. The grandmother told me ‘oh I read that story when I was a little girl. I read it to my kids.’ [00:02:43] That’s amazing. There is no marketing that can do that. It just happens. [00:02:58] You captured I think the sentiment of a lot of people in that story
Yes you know when I go to schools by example and before reading, I ask the kids ‘did it happen to you that you had to wear something that you didn’t want to wear.[00:03:23] All of the hands raise, you know. [00:03:28] Everybody has had that type of experience. Maybe it’s because of that that this story is successful. [00:03:55]There’s the book, the NFB film, the play and the musical. It’s almost like every decade or so someone comes up with a new way to present it. [00:04:23] Yes. Every activity is like a gift to me.
I have this symphony thing that I’ve been doing now for five years. Abigail Richardson composed symphony music around the story. And it started very small I think.
So I was I received a phone call asking me ‘would you be free for one evening to read the story with the symphony orchestra.’ I answer yes because I like a challenge I like to do what I never did. I like to do anything that I’ve never done.[00:05:26] And then we were in Toronto. I think we gave 14 readings at the Roy Thompson Hall.
And I’m very happy because am going back to Toronto in two or three weeks from now.
When do you do that?
I would be doing the same thing again. Reading the Hockey Sweater Story with the symphony orchestra. I mean it’s wonderful. You know people come and they wear sweaters.
So for the musicians you know they put the sweaters over their outfits. It’s such a good mood you know. Not once was there tension. There are always multiple sweaters. Everyone has so much pleasure with this hockey mood at the symphony orchestra.
The music is great.[00:07:00] It’s amazing these. Just two weeks ago I was in Kingston, and I think the players in the symphony and so they were hockey boys and hockey girls too playing this music. And having fun and at the same time you know I heard them talking like musicians, between musicians, and talking about the quality of that music. It’s entertaining and at the same time, it’s good music.
For me, it’s a new experience because even if I listen to a lot of music and I know musicians, I don’t have a sense of rhythm. I have nothing as a musician. So for me to be to come into that universe is quite interesting.[00:08:10] Now the Segal will be doing a musical.
Before talking about that, I want to tell you a story. After reading in Calgary, after the Symphony was applauded and all that, somebody came on the stage and I was made a Member of the Order of the Black Hat, and I received a huge white cowboy hat. And I had to make some kind of statement about how I would wear this hat. It was explained that it was like giving this hat was like I was receiving the keys to the city. And I had to declare that Calgary was the Queen of the cow town.
I had an objection. But if I say that, and another city doesn’t agree with that, they can sue me! But all that was made with humour with laughter.
It is a very special project and it’s very exciting. I don’t know much yet about it. This morning, I just received the libretto, the text of the story.
But I told him that I didn’t want to get too involved you know because I want to keep a certain freshness if it’s a word around that story and I don’t want to turn it upside down. No. It’s there and it’s amazing to learn that.
Now it’s many years ago, over 35 years ago, when a publisher wanting to do a book and Sheldon Cohen, the artist would make the drawings and he was asking me a lot of question and I was very impressed by the way this at the time unilingual English speaking man would talk to my unilingual French-speaking mother. I was there with them and I could not talk to them. They were involved in something. I think they were discussing the curtains in my childhood room or something like that. It was a good encounter with Shelton.
And at the end what we were talking about the book and the drawings and I had two young daughters and they were playing a lot in the swimming pool and using another diving board. And so I said to Sheldon, this story is your diving board. And that’s what he did. And it’s just wonderful, inventive, fresh, a lot of action and a lot of humour.
So I decided to give the same advice and have the same attitude for Emil Sher’s project. I told Emil, I don’t want to be involved. I might give you information if you want, but I don’t want to be involved in the writing. Use it as your diving board.
So they can bring their own creativity to it.
I guess you would never have so many versions of The Hockey Sweater if you had tried to keep control over everything.
Yes exactly. Exactly. But again it wasn’t a strategy it was just what I was thinking at the moment I made a decision.
So it was just a happy strategy without knowing it, an unintentional strategy.
So you obviously enjoy working in new ways to present it.
In St. Justine, Quebec, the small village I come from, they decided—it is a very small village, there is 1,800 population but there is a lot of dynamism there. (Roch recorded his memories of his small town in an NFB film.)
There is a lot of creativity and a group of students and citizens got together and made a theatrical adaptation for the theatre of one of my books. In French, it is called Les Enfants de Bonhomme dans la lune.
It was translated in English as The Hockey Sweater and other stories. They will have a premiere, an opening Saturday. This Saturday. So I’m going to my small village and there will be this opening. There will be 12 actors on the stage. Oh my God, I think they have music all day. It’s supported by the Caisse Populaire and a big company called Rotobec. They do some mechanical arms. You know. Like an arm that could go to the forest clean the branches off the trees and put the tree in the back of the truck. So they are producing that. It’s an invention of a gentleman in the village you know. He started in his small garage, he was building cars and suddenly we have engineers there. We have designers.
I think it will be wonderful.
I’m very very very curious to see them. You know, they make things happen. They are not waiting for somebody else to save them. They do the job.
Oh my God, that’s wonderful. And have you been back there very often?
Yes. Most of the time, I go once a year. Now I must say that most of the people I grew up with disappeared. I think I’m one of the last ones that are surviving so there is less on people that I know. But I still have some family, a sister, a brother. So I go at least once a year.
How old are you?
I will be 80 in two months in May. OK. Well, I think it doesn’t matter.[00:18:22] Oh that’s good to know. It’s nice to be talking to somebody who is comfortable with their age and still have so many adventures. Almost like a new world. Now that leads back to the city. You’ve been living in Montreal for many years now?
Can you tell me a little bit about how you feel about the city and how it’s changed and how those changes have influenced you?
That’s a good question. Yes, the city changed.
My wife and I are big walkers, you know. Both of us, when we do our walking in the morning, sometimes we explore the city. It’s quite interesting to walk on Sherbrooke towards the east and we have to say that most of the buildings that we see now were not there when both of us arrived in Montreal. That’s quite something. You have new areas that are developed.
And there’s St. Henri. It’s an area that I know very well because sometimes I was working with a theatre company and we had our offices in St. Henri. So for three years, I was with that company in St. Henri so I know the place quite well and it’s amazing now to go back to the same streets and to see what happened…the changes that happened in terms of building, in terms of population. That’s really amazing.[00:20:21] And can you tell me how that affected you? Has it affected the projects you take on? What do you think about Montreal these days?
It’s a very pretty city. People are open-minded. There is a lot happening. We have a lot of freedom. I like Montreal.
We have to decide what we want to do. Even though there is a lot of dynamism, there is a feeling of what do we want to do? What do we want to do in ten years from now? And how do we want to reach that? For me, it’s missing.[00:21:31] It’s sort of an ad hoc place of many orange cones.
And when I see what’s happening today in Montreal, and in Quebec, I feel that there is something like that. It’s not a way of having substance.[00:22:39] Yes. We need a vision. [00:22:42] But having said that, Montreal and all of Quebec is enjoyable. We have our kids and they have access to affordable education. When I think that in the U.S. to go to university would cost $60,000 and more. To see the conditions, I think we should be happy and then say, I love those conditions and I’m saying we have to work. [00:24:03] Well you seem to be doing your part.
It was Duplessis time and during the election time, they were building roads.
Like they are now.
So I had my blue jeans. I had brown working boots. I had blisters on my hand. That was painful. I remember one of the workers was not really good to me because I missed my turn throwing my shovel of gravel in the truck. And he asked me what are you doing? Are you a man? Are you made of a mans’ dung? Yeah. So I was 14 years old and had blisters and dirty and all that.
And the boss of that they took that guy and told him that he was a huge big fat nothing with swearing and that.
And then the boss came to me and he said, look you’re working. Your job is to put gravel in the truck. If you can’t put the gravel in the truck, the gravel will not jump in the truck.
Since then, I’ve studied at university. I studied Latin and I studied Greek. But the principle that drove my life came from this one man. “If you don’t put the gravel in the truck, the gravel will not jump in the truck.”
I told that story last June. I received a doctor’s degree from the University of Vancouver and I was speaking to something like 200 students graduating with BA’s and sciences and doctors of sciences. And I told them that story and I got letters and e-mails saying thank you for this. And while many of those students were from Japan or China now you know and I was really amazed, because I was just saying an anecdote but it touched them.[00:27:49] Yeah but the principle of your life. You’re able to accomplish things because you always keep moving forward.
You were saying you were publishing a new book. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yes. It’s done. It’s in French. It’s not yet translated, but I think it will be. It’s called Demain matin, j’écris un roman. [Tomorrow, I write a novel.]
It’s about me that after having spent more than 30 years writing history, doing research, and checking documentation, checking history books. So I’ve finished with that and I’m going back to fiction. About what happens in the head, in the brain of a writer who’s going back to fiction and he’s enjoying so much his freedom.
And everything happens and a lot doesn’t happen too. And when something is not happening is happening you know it’s wonderful.
I didn’t know much about the creation of Israel before reading Matti Friedman’s book, Spies of No Country. I still know very little, but at least now the emotions its creation evoked have become real.
By focusing on four Jewish men who were born in Arab countries, Friedman offers readers a tiny glimpse of the struggle Zionists have always faced.
He doesn’t try to outline the creation of Israel. Nor does he comprehensively describe how Israel’s military agency began. Instead, he profiles four specific men who risked their lives to spy for the people setting up Israel from January 1948 until August 1949. He doesn’t glamorize them either.
“Their mission didn’t culminate in a dramatic explosion that averted disaster, or in the solution of a devious puzzle. Their importance to history lies instead in what they turned out to be—the embryo of one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services…”1
After reading about the exploits of the four spies and their colleagues, it’s clearer to me why peace in the Middle East has been so fleeting. I’ve always known that David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s birth as an independent country on May 14, 1948. I didn’t know that Britain and the United Nations worked hard to stop them though. Until reading Spies of No Country, I never gave any thought at all to the Jewish minorities in Arab countries. That’s the point of view Friedman highlights.
His book works brilliantly. Friedman’s decision to tell a straight-forward narrative about four young men working for a cause that was far from assured at the time keeps readers hooked. At the same time, in his role as the narrator, he provides context that makes it clear to a modern reader that people living within Israel and in neighbouring countries still seek their versions of justice, none of which agree with one another. Revenge seems never-ending.
By allowing us to live side-by-side with Gamliel, Havakuk, Isaac and Yakuba over a period of 20 months, we get to feel their fears and his concerns all at once. He does this by describing particular moments and allowing us to feel what the people he describes feel. Even at the end, as he takes us through his own process, he helps readers identify with the spies’ humanity.
“Two young men look out from behind the counter. They move easily beside and around each other. They know each other very well. Both have mustaches. One wears glasses. I have a photograph of them grinning at the camera, hair slicked back and collars open. They seem capable of both humor and violence..Don’t be fooled by their relaxed manner. Five of their friends are in shallow graves, and fate isn’t done with them yet.”2
After finishing the book, I combed through Wikipedia articles and news stories to find out more about the birth of Israel. I always knew that the Ottoman Empire ruled the area that includes Israel and Palestine from 1516 until World War I, but I didn’t realize the extent of the roles played by Turkey, France and Britain prior to and during the Arab-Israeli war.
I also read more about Matti Friedman’s work. Initially, Spies of No Country attracted me as a book with good reviews that was written by a Canadian. Friedman’s website talks about his birth in Toronto and the fact that he now lives in Jerusalem, but says little more.
Youtube videos are more helpful in getting to know who he is and why. The most recent features a discussion with Joe Yudin about what he’s been doing recently via an interview conducted on April 15.
The article featuring criticisms about how the international media cover Israel that they speak about at the beginning as Friedman’s best-known work appears in The Atlantic.
Throughout all of these articles and information, it’s clear that Friedman works very hard to make sure that all of us remember that more than half of the people who helped create Israel are Jewish people who used to live in Arab countries.
1Friedman, Matti, Spies of No Country: behind enemy lines at the birth of the Israeli secret service; Toronto: Penguin, ISBN 9780771038839, 2019, pp 27-28.
2 Ibid, pp 797-798.
Through Indigo, at:
This is a diary episode of what I am experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t mention worry, but it’s there, as is uncertainty. When I recorded this, I hadn’t checked recent stats but we actually now have 1,629 cases of COVID-19 in Quebec, with most of those in Montreal where I live. I’m trying to adopt a positive mindset, get enough sleep, eat well and build good habits. How are you coping?