From the archives: A Q&A with Farley Mowat

‘I act a role. I’m a cardboard cutout,’ Mowat tells Maclean’s in 1981

<p>Farley Mowat is picture in an undated file photo. Canadian author Farley Mowat, a master storyteller and tireless defender of nature and wildlife, has died at age 92. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Becker</p>

Farley Mowat is picture in an undated file photo. Canadian author Farley Mowat, a master storyteller and tireless defender of nature and wildlife, has died at age 92. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Becker

Farley Mowat is picture in an undated file photo. Canadian author Farley Mowat, a master storyteller and tireless defender of nature and wildlife, has died at age 92. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Becker
Farley Mowat in an undated file photo. (Bill Becker/CP)

This interview with Farley Mowat, conducted by senior writer Warren Gerard, was first published in the Jan. 5, 1981 issue of Maclean’s magazine. It was originally titled: “The face behind the cardboard cutout.”

Farley Mowat has always been something of a performer in life. He has used his appearance—the unruly, bristling bird’s nest of a beard— as something to hide behind, and if that didn’t work he could always resort to his bad-boy image. Over the years he has built a reputation of being a prickly, unpredictable maverick who at formal dinners has been known to bare his buttocks and other private parts at the flip of his Sutherland kilt. But at 59, with almost 10 million books in print, he is mellowing and making fewer public appearances.

Recently, his publisher, McClelland & Stewart, released Mowat’s 26th book, The World of Farley Mowat, a collection of his works. Now, he says, he’s moving from books to films, just as he once moved from writing short stories for magazines to book writing. In the privacy of his 100-year-old home in Port Hope on the shore of Lake Ontario, where no performance was necessary, he spoke to Maclean’s senior writer Warren Gerard about being a misfit, his disappointments, his hopes and his life.

Maclean’s: What are you doing now?

Mowat: I’ve been very lucky. All my life, through no conscious effort, I have moved at exactly the right time. After I came back from the war, I wrote for about 40 or 50 American magazines, an awful lot of short stories dealing with the Arctic, but in 1953 the market was falling apart and by that time I had moved into books. Now it seems the book market is falling apart and I’m looking at films. Fortuitous circumstance has always been my friend. Films just came along. Two are being produced this year and will be released next year. One is Never Cry Wolf, which is being filmed in the Yukon by Carroll Ballard, the guy who did The Black Stallion, and I like him. It’s a film I think I’m going to be very happy about. The other one is A Whale for the Killing and this has turned into an absolute cornball of a disaster. Everything I hear about it makes me want to throw up. They even built a mechanistic whale, just like that damned shark in Jaws, and it sank the first time they put it in the water. Serves them right. The NFB (National Film Board) has decided to do an hour-long special about me in the same series they did Margaret Laurence and, oddly enough, W.O. Mitchell—you know, the greatest non-writer in Canadian history. And now it looks like I will be producing, or co-producing along with the NFB, three one-hour-long TV films about the total polar region—as it was, as it is, as it will be. I want to do these films in such a way that the polar regions are a living, vibrant world, that is so ultimately connected with our own world that if we screw it, we screw ourselves.

Maclean’s: You have a reputation of being a prickly character. What is that all about?

Mowat: I act a role. I’m a cardboard cutout. I do it because I’m very uncomfortable. I don’t like big parties. I don’t like public appearances. So I put on my act. This is a pure defence mechanism I have devised for myself. I can hide behind that outrageous red-bearded extrovert and everybody is looking at him. I don’t have a presence the way [Pierre] Berton does, so I had to build a presence and it has served me very well. What I don’t realize is that the public has an image of me as a pugnacious, touchy, edgy, little red-bearded son of a bitch and a lot of people are afraid of me. The unfortunate part of it is that people who don’t know me take it seriously, but you can’t sell a book these days unless you go out and sell it. You write it, then you perform it, and that’s fine if you like performing. I don’t. I simply said, no, there’s no way I’m going to do it anymore.

Maclean’s: Does this mean the defensive, prickly disposition means that Farley Mowat doesn’t care?

Mowat: I pretend that I couldn’t give a damn about academic acceptance as a writer. I pretend I am a free soul, untouched by the need for standardized recognition. I rest my case upon the fact that I am a universal folk figure. How do you like that?

Maclean’s: Do you consider yourself an intellectual?

Mowat: Hell, no. I’m not an intellectual. I don’t think consciously about what I’m doing. I’m a subjective instinctivist. I trust implicitly—and that’s a lazy man’s way, I’m sure—in what the subconscious will do for me if I can get it to co-operate. When it won’t, I say, screw it, leave it, forget it, but if the subconscious does agree to co-operate, then I don’t have to do much on the conscious level. This is what I have to hope for in every book—that at some time it will take off on its own.

Maclean’s: Where do you fit in Canada’s literary establishment?

Mowat: The book is like everything else in my life. I don’t fit in anywhere and I certainly don’t fit into the book world. I’m an anomaly in the publishing world in Canada and always have been since my first book [People of the Deer] in 1952, which was the first piece of subjective nonfiction published in this country and it caused all sorts of controversy because nobody could categorize it. And Canadians, if they have one characteristic that’s supreme, is that they are good categorizers. I never fitted in and I like that because I never fitted in anywhere in my life. I grew up that way. We were nomads, moving from one place to another, never settling for very long anywhere. It gives me a unique opportunity to comment from the outside looking in. And it probably had some pretty deleterious effects on me emotionally. It made me terribly defensive, prickly.

Maclean’s: Why do you think your books have been such an international success?

Mowat: If there’s such a thing as a secret for my international success, it is the fact that I help people to re-establish their connections with the real world—the world of the other beasts. And everybody yearns for that. I keep telling people we’re not alone, we’re not aliens on our own planet—yet, but we’re sure as hell moving in that direction.

Maclean’s: Why haven’t you written an adult novel?

Mowat: I can’t write adult novels. If probably has to do with my father [Angus Mowat, a librarian and writer], who pressured me to write a novel from the time I was young up until he died. He wrote two novels. They weren’t very good and they weren’t very successful. So he stopped writing them, but he never stopped putting the pressure on me. The first two or three books he accepted as preparatory work for when I would write the great Canadian novel, and as time went and I didn’t write it the pressure built and he became less supportive and less complimentary. A Whale for the Killing [1972], which was a good book, when that came out, I thought he would like it. He was very cool. I think he said, ‘You started to write a novel, why didn’t you finish it.’ I said, ‘But I didn’t, it wasn’t a novel, it’s subjective nonfiction, it’s emotional nonfiction.’ And he said, ‘You’ve missed it.’

Maclean’s: In recent years you have become less of a public figure. What are you doing with yourself now?

Mowat: I’ve pretty well locked myself away for eight months of the year in Cape Breton. I’m concerned with things like growing a garden, investigating the land, the world around me, the sea, the woods, the forest, and I’m very interested in maintaining a neutral position with the people around me. I have learned by bitter experience that once I involve myself in their lives I become an irritant. It has happened in Newfoundland, wherever I have lived as an adult, so I’m making a tremendous, conscious effort not to be an activist in this region. I achieve a degree of acceptance now that I’ve never had anywhere else.

Maclean’s: You went into something of a literary menopause after you wrote A Whale for the Killing. Was that because they killed the whale and you wanted to save it?

Mowat: That may have been the saddest thing that happened in my life. I had conceived of Newfoundlanders as the last primordial human beings left in our part of the world. They seemed to have all the qualities that I considered really good and how much of this was a projection of my mind and how much was reality I never knew, but when the conflict began over A Whale for the Killing it was absolutely shattering. It shattered the illusions I had built and it also shattered the convictions I had made. I was very down after that and I didn’t write anything for a long time afterwards.

Maclean’s: Was this the first time something like this happened?

Mowat: In Newfoundland I had a terrible sense of disappointment, but with the Eskimos I am overwhelmed by a sense of guilt. I feel guilty to this day and I always will. I was used. I was manipulated. Not with People of the Deer, but with The Desperate People [1959]. People of the Deer was against all the right things. I was against the hold of the church, the hold of the police, the whole domination of the Eskimos by this tight group, but in The Desperate People I was seduced by a deputy minister—I don’t know what he was—in the department of northern affairs. He convinced me that the way for the Eskimos to survive was to join us, become part of us, and for a period of three or four years I was his apostle and I was wrong. That isn’t the way for them to survive, that is the way for them to disappear. I think I did the Eskimo a terrible disservice. I feel badly, but on the other hand I don’t think it would have gone any other way. Maybe this is a cop-out.

Maclean’s: Are you still as pessimistic about mankind as you once were?

Mowat: I am mellowly pessimistic. I see no future for the human race except a plunge over the top and down, but I don’t find that terribly depressing because I don’t consider the human race as absolute, ultimate in creation. It never has been, never will be. We’re peaking with incredible velocity like a rocket and we’ll come down like one. It doesn’t bother me very much. What makes life livable for me is to keep telling myself that I am an animal. That’s where I belong. I disassociate myself from the human connection in the usual sense. Most human beings think of the human species as an absolute entity that is immortal. I refuse to accept that. That way lies madness. I think of myself as part of the other huge section of animal creation. And on that pillow I can rest my weary head and preserve my sanity.