Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Dirty Dozen, with Noah Richler

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Noah Richler

Noah Richler's newest book is this summer's What We Talk About When We Talk About War (Goose Lane Editions), which discusses Canada's identity as a nation of peacekeepers and the rhetoric of war. It has been praised by Stephen Lewis and Margaret Macmillan and is essential reading for those interested in Canada's military identity both at home and abroad.

Today Noah talks with Open Book as part of our Dirty Dozen series, which invites authors to share twelve unexpected facts about themselves. Read on to hear from Noah about his childhood extra-legal creativity, a high school party gone slightly wrong and the importance of failure.

  1. I weighed 11 lbs 8 oz at birth but still did not end up particularly tall or an athlete. This is news I share with pregnant friends when I want to give them a jolt.
  2. In Canada, aged eight (I was born here, but grew up in England, my father moving the family moving here for a year in ’68 to test the waters for moving us here permanently, as we did in ’72), I paid the boy with the pudding bowl haircut in the back of my first ever mixed class, the sixty-three cents he asked me for to share his secret. I did and he pulled his pants down to reveal he was a girl.
  3. My father, grandfather and great grandfather were all writers of various kinds, though there was also a certain shady accountants’ streak in my family. This may be why, aged eleven, I was the leader of a highly efficient schoolboys’ shoplifting gang. We did a brisk business in discounted confectionery and comics, had copies of guides for juniors for how to steal from stores (ask for the one kind of sweet that is missing, help yourself as the owner goes to the back, etc.) and rules: stores not to steal from because we thought them too poor or their owner too much of a hawk-eye. Our ring was busted when one of the juniors broke the last rule.
  4. I was also able to forge the headmaster’s signature very well and sold notes excusing absences, etc., as a sideline.
  5. When the family moved to Montreal, in ’72, then at the lycée Collège Stanislas in Outremont, I put my years of shoplifting skills to good use by keeping an eye out for other kids trying to steal from the Greek Mr. Aroula’s corner store. In exchange he would let me read his comics, buy me french fries and let me and Gino Érienne, a Haitian-Québecker pal, hide in his store room when teachers came looking for us.
  6. Asked to leave, I switched to Montreal’s Westmount High in grade ten. At the first party I had, I played Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and had moody lighting and a fog machine running in the basement to start the party off. The high school girls stood in a bewildered bunch in one corner for about fifteen minutes before promptly leaving.
  7. I consider to myself to have been extremely fortunate, especially so for the time in Canada in which I came of age, working all over the country in a variety of jobs available in what, I suppose, was the last big resources boom that ended in 1980. I walked across the Canadian prairie, from Melita, Manitoba to the Albertan Badlands as part of a seismic crew, in a prospector’s bush camp in the Yukon and in an iron mine in Labrador. This traveling, and the kind of work I was doing, were tremendously formative. I shall write about this Canada someday — someday quite soon, I suspect.
  8. At CEGEP, Québec’s equivalent of grade twelve and thirteen, I was a very involved drug user. I say this not to be falsely interesting, but because our present government’s ideas about crime sicken me. Rehabilitation happens.
  9. At McGill and then Oxford, I had an absolutely terrific time. The years were as they should have been, full of excitement and learning and romantic ideas about education and the life to come, fulfilled. Now, in my fifties and a parent, I am upset about what most universities appear to have become: processing factories in which undergraduates hardly meet their teachers, and learn perhaps about the likelihood of a job. I am sorry about this.
  10. My handwriting is so bad that after writing my exit exams at Oxford several were sent back and a tutor was made to stand over me as I rewrote my essays legibly (a common procedure). I pleaded for all my papers to be sent back as I feared that those trying to read the ones that weren’t rewritten would simply be annoyed and give me a median mark. This happened.
  11. I saw a psychiatrist for a while but gave up after a year — after my psychiatrist said, “Your dreams used to be so interesting.”
  12. I fail a lot. I fail almost categorically in first attempts at just about everything I do and then continue to fail a lot. I suspect more people fail than admit to it and, at least as I do, I think of a motto that Ghanaians use, but in admiration. Of another person, likely failing at something (or dead), they would say, “He tried.”


Noah Richler made documentaries and features for BBC Radio for fourteen years before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been Books Editor and literary columnist for the National Post and has contributed to numerous publications, including The Guardian, Punch, The Daily Telegraph, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Saturday Night, The Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail. He is author of This Is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about What We Talk About When We Talk About War please visit the Goose Lane Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the Dirty Dozen interviews in our archives.

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