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Books by Anna Porter:
Charming, vivacious and naturally curious, Anna Porter is one of the worst interview subjects imaginable. The publisher of one of Canada's most prominent publishing houses, Key Porter Books, Porter is bright, witty and practically devoid of interest in talking about herself or, by extension, her latest book. The Storyteller is a memoir that focuses on Porter's grandfather and her family's life in -- and flight from -- revolution-torn Hungary. While Porter is fascinating and easy to be with, she's obviously most comfortable being the one asking the questions.
It doesn't take long to realize that Anna Porter's life has led her to make books because she is fascinated by people and the various conditions in which they find themselves. In gently accented English -- think better educated Gabor sisters sans the hollow endearments -- she asks about me: my books, my photographer father, the roads that led to me editing an Internet magazine. And honestly, all of that is stuff I find fairly interesting -- we all like to talk about ourselves, after all -- but it doesn't get me any closer to Porter and her story. For that I have to work. It's worth working at, though: Porter has got an interesting story to tell.
That story, for anyone who wants to cut to the chase and read it from the author's hand, is stellar. In The Storyteller Porter relates the history of Hungary through the lens of her grandfather, Vili Rázc, the storyteller of the book's title. In this case, however, the storyteller himself has an interesting history. The descendant of Hungarian nobles, Vili published movie magazines in Budapest until the business was shut down by the government near the beginning of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. That shutdown, as well as the political unrest that had prompted it, wreaked havoc with the fortunes of the Rázc family. Vili was ultimately jailed as a dissident and his family -- including young Anna, her grandfather's favorite -- ended up in exile in New Zealand.
Porter takes charge of the rich material provided by her own background with a master's touch. This is no maudlin retrospective. Porter breathes vibrant life into The Storyteller: Vili, her imperfect but brilliant grandfather; the three beautiful Rázc girls -- Porter's mother and aunts -- coming of age at the center of the Budapest society that is being stripped of its opulence with each passing season; and Porter's own youth in a country that is a shattered remnant of the one her grandfather tells her about.
The Storyteller is a departure for Porter. Widely considered to be one of the most respected publishing professionals in Canada, she is also the author of three crime fiction novels -- Hidden Agenda, Mortal Sins and The Bookfair Murders -- that take place in the dog-eat-dog world of international book publishing. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Porter lives in Toronto with her husband of 30 years, the lawyer Julian Porter, and their two daughters.
Linda Richards: In The Storyteller was it your intention to relate history or your grandfather's story?
Anna Porter: Both, really. What was not my intention was to write myself into the book. My intention had been to tell my grandfather's stories, including the history stories. The stories he had learned or read: all of those stories. And the stories about his own life. That was the book I had set out to write. In the first draft, I wasn't in the book. So I didn't get in until late.
That's amazing, because you are so much a part of the story.
I know. But it's not what I wanted to write. I really wanted to write his story. And history. It's weird now, the parts that I find awkward are the parts that have me in it.
You weren't in it at all? Because you're such a presence in the book.
I wasn't in it at all. It had my grandfather's story and a lot of history and all the ancestors and all the broadswords and all the horses called Lightning and the battles with the Turks. And actually I had parts with the Tartars, too. But I cut them all out. In the end, it got to be so big, some of the marauding tribes just had to go. [Laughs] Gengis Khan just bit the dust.
Maybe you can save it for another book.
Well, I think I might write a mystery next. They're just so easy to write. This was hard. I took my daughter to Hungary and back to Transylvania, which is where we came from. And she was quite keen to go, which surprised me because, generally speaking, she finds traveling with me not perhaps the most exciting thing. I don't know how you feel about traveling with your parents, but...
How old was she?
Twenty. She'd really much rather be traveling with her friends. So I took her back and she admitted once she'd landed in Hungary that the main reason she thought she'd come along is that she was looking forward to seeing Dracula and climbing up to Dracula's castle. And instead I let her read what I'd written. She thought that there was nobody who was going to sit through all this unless there was a point of view -- something about the person who had heard the stories -- and that's why I started writing about myself, as well.
And it works, Anna. It does add that personal dimension. So you went back and wrote yourself in?
Yeah. In the second draft I started putting in some of that stuff.
It's well integrated. I didn't see the joins.
Well, thank you. It was the hardest stuff to write. Because the stories themselves were easy to write. The stories that weren't about me were easier to write because they were secondhand already and, so, prepackaged. And all these grand figures: these big, broad-shouldered guys who were fighting battles. It was great stuff. All the ancient stories from my grandfather. Plus all the stories about the balls: beautiful dresses and all the men that came courting. All that stuff: I knew it all.
Were they all stories? Did you do research to back them up?
I did some, but they were really all stories. I checked spellings of names and then I was concerned about getting the dates right. And then, even from my own memory, I could remember where I'd been, but I couldn't remember exactly where it was on the map. And even the time I spent in jail, I really was a little bit hazy on the exact location. I was a little kid: I remember being there and I remember, with absolute clarity, everything about it, but not the geographical location.
So I wrote it first and then I did the checking. I bought a couple of books of history and I did quite a bit on the Internet. The publisher in Hungary who published my last murder mystery in Hungarian, when she heard what I was working on, she sent me The Chronicles of the Hungarians: you know those books? The Chronicle series? Well, they'd produced the Hungarian one and she sent me that. [A Magyarok Krönikája] And that was really helpful for spellings and names and especially exact locations of battlefields.
You know, my grandfather would mention [a certain] battle, but he wouldn't say where in hell it was. So I really did quite a bit of that research after. And I worked a little bit on it in the library in Budapest. And you know that there isn't -- at least, there wasn't at that time -- a good book on the Hapsburgs? I made that discovery. In English, anyway. Nothing really readable. There's The Last of the Hapsburg Empire or something, but it's really only about the last little bit. And then there's books about the Thirty Years War but you'd think [there'd be something more].
Is this book being published in Hungarian?
It will be, yes.
That will be exciting because here it's exotic. There it's local history.
I'm a little bit worried about what the Hungarians will think of it.
You have two daughters?
Daughters run in your family.
Absolutely. My husband only makes girls. [Laughs]
And your side, as well. Your mother was one of three sisters and did they only have daughters?
Well, my grandfather had so many illegitimate children, I think some of them might have been boys. A couple of them certainly would have been.
How many children?
17, I think. My mother thinks maybe more.
Have you met any of them?
Just one. My mother has met them all. My mother is still alive. She still plays bridge. She lives in Toronto and she's quite lovely. She's petite, powerful and a little bit of a pepperpot. She's highly opinionated and she tosses her head impetuously when she gets annoyed. She's a lovely person. My aunt Sari died two days ago and as my mother said, she's the last of the Rácz girls.
[Over a photo of the three sisters in The Storyteller] You know, with all of the discussion of their beauty and glamour, I think your mother is the most beautiful.
I think so too. But all the stories about the glamour and the beauty were about the older sisters. I think that's partly an age thing because she was the youngest and she didn't get to do the ball scene. So she didn't get the flowers and the young men lining up at the door.
And she got stuck in the convent.
I know nothing whatever about my father's family. Absolutely. Everything I knew about him I put in the book, which is not very much. He just wasn't around, though he may very well have had some good stories. I thought his widow -- the woman that he married -- was really quite a nice woman.
What was your last name when you were born?
And that was from [your father]?
Yes. And that's what I arrived here with and was so glad to get rid of when I [married] Julian. Because you don't want to go around spelling S-Z-... the first two letters are enough to boggle the mind. And it goes on and it's a long thing. People used to call me and say: Can I speak to Miss Zzzzzzz... oh, to hell with it!
Are you working on anything now?
Can you talk about it?
But it's a mystery novel, we know that.
I've started working on a mystery novel, but I've also started working on a novel. A real novel.
Which was the last of your mystery novels?
The Bookfair Murders. They made a movie: a German/Canadian co-production. | January 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.