Flagship CBC Radio show celebrates 25 years

Eleanor Wachtel
Eleanor Wachtel

CBC’s Radio One’s flagship literary show Writers & Company celebrated its 25th anniversary last month. The longest-running single-host literary show on CBC Radio, it presents nearly hour-long interviews with top-tier authors from around the world.

The show, hosted by Eleanor Wachtel, is thriving, boasting a radio, online and podcast listenership of some 450,000 to 500,000 people for each weekly episode.

Writers & Company got off to a strong start in its first season when Wachtel interviewed Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, A. S. Byatt, Victoria Glendinning,  Derek Walcott,  Amos Oz, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, Eduardo Galeano and Ngugi Wa Thiongo, to name just a few.

Over the years, Writers & Company has featured more than a dozen Nobel Prize-winning authors. Last month, Wachtel interviewed Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s bestselling writer, who won the literature prize in 2006. Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro has called Wachtel “one of the very finest interviewers of authors I’ve come across anywhere in the world.”

When asked about some of her memorable interviews, Wachtel mentioned the late Oliver Sacks, describing the neurologist and author as “lovable, generous and intriguing.” She also said that “it was pretty thrilling” to interview the reclusive Philip Roth in his apartment and to speak to Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, two authors whose writing she’s admired and has been reading since university days.

“It sounds just like my wish list being fulfilled, but in a funny way, I wasn’t even conscious I had a wish list until I had the opportunity to speak to these people,” Wachtel said. She said since writers work in words and words are their medium, they are generally articulate and forthcoming.

“You can engage in a discussion and open up the work, so that the listener who hasn’t necessarily heard of the work or the author is able to relate to the ideas and stories,” she added. Each author interview requires hours of preparation, she said, comparing it to “having a major paper to write and cramming for a final all at the same time.” Wachtel and her producer read the author’s newest book, they often read earlier books, and they  read about the person.

“I have to have all the details in front of my mind at the time I interview someone,” she said.

On the influence of technology on reading, Wachtel said that “one of the biggest changes are the delivery systems, whether people read ebooks or they read hard copies.” But what remains constant is the appetite for stories in various forms, she said.

“Yes, there’s competition – movies and television – and different ways to watch those things, but there’s still an appetite for stories and the intimacy of stories that only a book can provide.”

Wachtel, who graduated from McGill University in 1969 with a BA in English literature, has received a slew of honorary degrees, and she was named to the Order of Canada in 2005. Writers & Company won a Silver Prize at the 2011 New York Festivals for world’s best radio programs.

Reflecting on her career so far, Wachtel said she’s been fortunate to have a job that combines her “personal interests and passions with a career out in the world and one that has been so richly rewarded by the world.”

A roundtable with Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Caryl Phillips, a Writers & Company special 25th anniversary event, will be aired on Nov. 8 on CBC Radio One at 3 p.m. ET/AT; 3:30 p.m. Nfld; 5 p.m. CT/MT/PT.

You can stream or download the podcast, as well as past interviews from the show’s archive, here.