For his most recent project, Foran focused on perhaps the most iconic of Montreal authors, Mordecai Richler. Published just over a year ago, Mordecai: The Life and Times has met success in the non-fiction arena, garnering four national awards, the most recent being the 75th Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. In addition, his latest biography was granted The Canadian Jewish Book Award, the much-coveted Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction (weighing in at a hefty $60,000 prize), and the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction.
So how exactly did the author earn so many national accolades for one biography? Even Foran himself was a bit bemused. “I’m surprised and very grateful that four different juries decided it was the best book they were looking at. Juries usually don’t agree, there’s rarely even one and certainly not four,” Foran said with a humility rarely exhibited by recipients of such high honours. “I think my book came out at just about the right time; people wanted to reassess him [Mordecai Richler].” Foran alluded to a sort of zeitgeist surrounding the author that developed after Richler’s death from kidney cancer in 2001.
Born to a Jewish family in 1931 Montreal, Foran’s subject became a star in Canada’s literary world thanks to such classic depictions of Montreal as Barney’s Version and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Readers latched on to Richler as a product of the places he criticized, making his celebrity among Canadians somewhat ironic.
Richler, both renowned and reviled, was not exactly beloved by Canadians, yet remains seen as a figure of Canadian literature. “He was a singular man and a singular artist. He was at once essential to Canadian culture, and somewhat outside it. I don’t think Canadians ever really understood him, but they certainly reacted strongly to him,” said Foran.
Foran’s social conscience extends to the global stage. As the current president of writer’s advocacy organization PEN Canada, he works with volunteers to bring freedom of expression to persecuted, silenced, and imprisoned writers worldwide. “I’ve always thought of it essentially as a conscience-tax,” Foran explained. “We’re so lucky in places like Canada and the United States, that we are able to speak our minds, that we are able to speak freely and write provocatively.”
“Indeed he [Mordecai Richler] would have come to a very bad end in many countries for the things he said about ruling Prime Ministers and politicians; but he was allowed to be as outrageous, as outspoken, as--to be honest--as ill-advised and ill-tempered in his views as he wanted,” Foran explained.
In his biography, Foran credits this polemic figure as being the first Canadian example of a “major engagement between an artist and a culture.” Foran claims that Canadians are reawakening to the conversations and arguments about the society in which we live that Richler sparked decades ago.
Foran has become a proponent of this posthumous discourse, and offers insight as to what made Richler such an iconic Canadian. “I believe Canadians are drawn to him almost more than they would wish to be,” said Foran. He calls Richler “outrageous and abrasive,” attributes which are, according to Foran, not typically Canadian. “A lot of our artists and a lot of our writers are, for better or for worse, ‘good Canadians,’” Foran said. “Mordecai Richler was something other than ‘good Canadian,’ and I believe that’s actually why we like him more, why we respect him more and are drawn to his books; because they weren’t just mere reflections of either our actual or inspirational identities,” Foran said.
While one would expect a certain pressure to follow such an acclaimed work, Foran isn’t feeling the heat. “There might be; though I’m unaware of that pressure... at least in my own mind,” he confessed with a laugh. “I’m writing a novel right now... and I will probably, in the new year, settle on a new-non-fiction project.”
As candid as he is humble, Foran wasn’t shy when asked if he would write a biography on the current mayor of his hometown. “I think Rob Ford would have to be fiction; sometimes I think he is,” Foran responded. “His behaviour and comportment, appearance and manner--he’s a character that belongs in a novel. I’d rather see him there than in City Hall, that’s for sure.”
You can pick up Mordecai: The Life and Times at most bookstores in Toronto.