(This article has been translated from the original in French).
The Lieutenant-Governor’s Awards for High Achievement in the Arts recognize and celebrate outstanding New Brunswick artists and writers who have distinguished themselves by the excellence of their achievements and their contribution to the arts in the province.
Robert Pichette, laureate of the 2017 Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for High Achievement in French Language Literary Arts, answers a few questions about his life and art practice.
- Tell us about your upbringing, where you grew up, etc.
I was born in Edmundston in 1936 and grew up there from the 1930s to the early 1950s. I had the extraordinary good fortune of growing up in a family of voracious readers. What’s more, my mother was a born storyteller, and inventive to boot. A great number of newspapers and magazines came through our door, as many French as English. I believe I learned English almost entirely from reading the Telegraph Journal daily. One French publication from Montreal very much impressed me. It was the weekly newspaper La Patrie, which was founded in 1879 and closed only in 1978. Superbly written, it featured columns and essays on a variety of subjects, among them Canadian history. I believe I developed a distinct taste for history thanks to regular readings of the paper.
My parents held firmly to my always speaking French correctly. Although not strict on the subject, they were firm and I was given all kinds of incentives. No chance of being “right fiers!” Because Edmundston did not have a public library at the time, one of my father’s sisters, a nun in the congregation of the Daughters of Jesus from Trois-Rivières who held a Bachelor of Arts degree, — a rarity for a woman at that time —, she had even taught music in London in a convent for refined young ladies – several times a year set out a list of books for me to read, which my father ordered and had delivered by mail. I believe I still have one of them: Le trésor de l’abbaye!
Another stroke of luck: I attended primary school at the Académie Conway in Edmundston, led by the nuns of the congregation of the Daughters of Wisdom who were magnificent pedagogues. I read fluently in French, and probably well enough in English, before the first grade, but it was they who taught me to write. They had an unrivaled method that was not at all intimidating. Dear Sisters Catherine and Cyprien, I thank you very belatedly!
I do not have many more memories of Edmundston besides a very special one: when the armistice of May 8, 1945 occurred I was stunned by the public displays of joy. The bells in every church in the city rang at length and I remember that people were dancing in the streets, so palpable was the relief. I was nine years old at the time, but that memory has never left me.
A few years later, I set about haunting the typesetting workshop of the newspaper Le Madawaska, of which the proprietor and editor-in-chief was the Honourable J. Gaspard Boucher, unsinkable provincial MLA and senior cabinet minister. Because my father and he were friends, Mr. Boucher tolerated me with a great deal of genuine kindness. The making of a newspaper was fascinating because at the time the newspaper used lead type. Linotypists and pressers fascinated me to the utmost. Mr. Boucher also gave me free access to his considerable personal library. He also encouraged me to write and he published my first articles in his paper although I was still quite young. It was a modest beginning, but a beginning nonetheless. Thank you, Monsieur Boucher, for having been the first to sense that I could be a writer.
At the Collège Saint-Louis in Edmundston, another stroke of luck: I had as my French professor Mr. Louis-Joseph Lachance, a man of immense culture who knew how to share it without seeming to do so. He was also a superb pedagogue. Thanks to him, I excelled in French and, as I could also get by quite well in Latin, I had from the start a solid base that has served me all my life. (To be totally frank, I was weak in all the subjects that didn’t interest me and absolutely hopeless in mathematics. As it happens, I still am.)
In Montreal, at the Collège de Saint-Laurent where I spent two years, I thought I had gone to heaven. The Holy Cross Fathers led this venerable institution. They had a very extensive, well-stocked library and they encouraged us to make use of it. I didn’t need to be persuaded. Moreover, the college was the seat of a celebrated theatre company at the time, the Compagnons de Saint-Laurent. There I saw the crème de la crème of classical French theatre. Despite the years, I can still recite without too much trouble the famed dream of Athalie. And I had the chance to see great actors such as Jean-Louis Barrault, Madeleine Renaud, Maria Casares (playing Britannicus), just to name a few.
It was in the college paper that I published my first real article. It was a report on a play, I’ve forgotten which one, but I have not forgotten the delightfully astonished pleasure I felt upon reading my text printed under my signature, without anything having been changed. Writers are sensitive on this subject and I learned very early the law of the jungle!
In short, I was very lucky; I became a writer and a journalist without realizing it, but with, in the background, the best teachers encouraging me, thank heavens!
- Was there an inspiring moment in your youth that influenced your choice of career?
Truth be told, I never had to choose a career. Everything, or almost everything I have undertaken in my life has come to me by chance. I have rarely had to make a choice. Mine has not been a career, but rather a series of professions and occupations. However, in 1955, I did make a crucial decision on my 18th birthday, a choice that set the course for the rest of my life. No longer needing parental permission, I secretly enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force for three years, to the chagrin of my father who had other ambitions for me. It was the best decision I have ever made in my life. It was to be nothing more or less than a deliberate somersault into nascent masculinity, in personal autonomy if not freedom, as far away as possible from Edmundston, and it certainly was what I hoped it would be!
I did not intend to make a career in Her Majesty’s Canadian Armed Forces, but three years were enough to straighten me out and put me on the path to maturity. The Air Force awarded me my only diploma (before the honorary doctorates from the Universities of Sainte-Anne and Moncton), in typing. I have never piloted anything but a typewriter, but it has served me well all my life.
I ended up doing journalism; I even taught it during one University semester. A generalist in an era when one could work without being specialized, I never refused a new experience. I adapted to all sorts of situations, and generally benefited from that, until I became a federal civil servant!
Aged 26, I became, accidentally, in September 1963, the junior Administrative Assistant to Premier Louis J. Robichaud in Fredericton. (Mr. Robichaud was 38 at that time). Eventually, I was promoted to the office of Executive Assistant with the rank of Deputy Minister along with, additionally and without an increase in salary, Director of the province’s cultural affairs. Thus, I was the first Acadian Executive Assistant of a New Brunswick Premier. I remained in the service of this exceptional political personality for seven years, until his electoral defeat in November 1970.
During these politically fertile years, I wrote thousands of letters for the Premier’s personal signature, and wrote hundreds of speeches as well. He gave me only one guideline; never to use a quotation because he wanted to avoid sounding pedantic, though he had a strong classical academic background. Moreover, he did not like to speak meaninglessly, in vague generalities, which posed a real challenge. Try writing a somewhat original New Year’s greeting message year after year! He read everything scrupulously, in my presence, red pencil in hand, and from time to time, crossed out a word or phrase. I knew his style by heart, so we were a good match. What beautiful years and oh how fruitful they were!
Afterward, I very sensibly became a modest federal Public servant in various departments, almost always with a communications or public relations component. My real career as a writer and journalist started after my retirement.
- When did you start your practice? Were there particular challenges that you faced? What important lessons have you learned?
I really began writing immediately after my retirement from the federal public service in August 1991. There was, first of all, writing to make a living before I could access my full pension, which in my case meant translation in one official language or the other. I like and excel at this work, though I am not a professional translator and I was quite successful. I have ceased working commercially, however, I continue to enjoy providing this service gratis to two important non-profit organizations.
By coincidence – once again! –, I became a weekly columnist at the provincial daily newspaper, the Telegraph Journal, where the editor-in-chief and the managing editor were princes who mentored me very skillfully. I had never done this type of work before and it seems I was the first Acadian to write a regular newspaper column in English. Tolerating me at the paper was sometimes a calculated risk, but they trusted me (although, unbeknownst to me, lawyers parsed everything I wrote). Other than a few threats of prosecution for defamation that all petered out, I experienced nothing but pleasure during some eminently productive years. I was also lucky to have exceptionally brilliant colleagues who were anything but journalistic hacks. I learned a great deal from them. I think this was the Belle Époque of the TJ.
To my great surprise, in 1995, the National Newspaper Awards gave me a certificate of merit in the columnists’ category. That year, we were three affiliated with the flagship of the Irving newspapers distinguished by national prizes, a banner year: Dalton Camp, Jacques Poitras and me. We were invited to a splendid luncheon in Fredericton at the expense of the Irving newspaper companies, but without alcohol of course in accordance with the strict tradition of abstinence of the Irving family. Naturally rebellious against this aberrant tradition, Dalton Camp ordered and paid out of his own pocket for cocktails and wine!
At one point during these years I became a monthly columnist for the national daily newspaper from Toronto, The Globe & Mail. It was a pinnacle for me. How I bullied the politicians, who invariably let me know that I had grievously offended them! With the hindsight of years and a touch of wisdom lately arrived, I could have, at times, used a softer touch. At the paper I had the privilege of having a managing editor who was an incomparable stylist, firm, but exquisitely attentive and helpful. From him I learned how to refine a phrase without inflating it.
At the same time, I was both an editorialist and a columnist at the daily Acadian newspaper L’Acadie Nouvelle, which I continued until the day following the funeral of Louis J. Robichaud in January 2005.
In truth, I have never confronted any particular challenges. The small, normal difficulties encountered over the years were all easily resolved, probably due to my easy adaptability and certainly because I learned very early to trust in good advice.
- What is your art practice about? Tell us more about your creative process.
The process is never easy. I adore research in all its forms and I am gifted for it, whereas writing is a heavy chore. The initial investigation takes as long as it takes. I record everything in a lined notebook. Very soon appears the logical division into chapters, if it is a book, into sections if it is an article. Quite often this research suggests an appropriate title. I write with a mechanical pencil with an eraser always within arm’s reach. As each piece of information passes from the notebook to the page, I strike it out with a red line. This is my way of marking my place.
I can agonize for a long time before finding the first sentence, the one that will set the tone. That is, for me, of utmost importance. It’s like a launching pad. The beginning is always full of trial and error and the writing is slow. Morning is my favorite time, in particular because I am an early riser. I check spelling often using the best tools, including an excellent thesaurus, indispensable in my opinion. I sometimes become discouraged and am easily persuaded that I have created a mess when I realize that the page written the day before is worthless or could have been better written. I let things decant for a time out of caution before having another go at it.
It happens that I become lazy and abandon the text for a little too long. Remorse sets in very quickly and I pick up the broken thread and, knowing full well that a text won’t write itself, get back to writing like an oarsman glued to his seat. All the same, I always keep in mind as a benchmark the necessity of giving the reading public a book written as clearly as possible.
I draw a bit of courage by reminding myself of the large number of writers who have themselves found the experience punishing. I would like one day to create an anthology of edifying quotations. I’ll give two: Daphné du Maurier deemed writing a book to be “like a purge; at the end of it one is empty… like a dry shell on the beach, waiting for the tide to come in again.” For Somerset Maugham, “to write simply is as difficult as to be good.”
But what to make of this solemn admonition from the Bible on the subject of writings, be they holy or no: “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)?
In the memory of men of letters, never has a writer honored this biblical teaching! More and more books are written and published; yet the number of readers decreases exponentially. How to explain this conundrum?
- How important is public engagement for you and your work?
It is of paramount importance. I have always written for an audience, never for myself, but I am conscious of having three types of readers, each very distinct from one another. The first is the reader of a book. He (or she, of course) will gauge the text according to his or her taste. As for the reader of a scholarly study, he will rarely criticize the work unless the error is serious. On the other hand, never will he praise it: academic vanity! Generally, the reader of a book will not hesitate to talk about it, generally in the course of chance encounters, particularly if the book pleased him.
Because I have at times taken real pleasure in rattling the cages of hypernationalists perpetually immersed in a stagnant narrative of Acadie, I have been the subject of quasi hysterical personal attacks that have convinced me that these most vocal critics had not, in fact, read the very book they reviled. This is a frequent phenomenon.
The other category of readers is more volatile and unpredictable; these are the readers of editorials, all signed in the French tradition, and of newspaper columns. This is a lively audience, at times exuberant, always stimulating and who love ideas. They do not hesitate to make their opinions known. The exchange is always useful.
Writing for an audience in whatever form it may be, is assuming the formidable responsibility of being oneself, frank, honest, sharp from time to time solely in the hope of getting things moving, without ever being malicious. I have always made that a point of honor, whatever certain good souls forever in mourning of that poor Évangéline departed two hundred and seven years ago may have thought about it.
So that I never forget this responsibility freely accepted by the writer I believe myself to be, I always transcribe on the front page of my yearly agenda the solemn words of the Evangelist Saint Matthew: “But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment.” (Matthew 12:36).
- What would you tell today’s emerging artists?
I believe it is reckless to give advice to emerging writers. I always have in mind the sound maxim of the Duke of La Rochefoucauld: “Old men delight in giving good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer provide bad examples.” Without giving advice, I will nonetheless offer what, to save face, I will call “strong suggestions”.
In a journalism course at the Université de Moncton, I hammered home a hundred times this premise: avoid clichés like the bubonic plague. They are insidious, they are everywhere, they deform a clear thought. They are crutches that obscure all originality and render suspect the credibility of what is written or said.
Why invariably qualify the award of a literary prize with “prestigious”? They all are by definition. Do we know of an obscure prize that is not prestigious? And, is it necessary to qualify a deceased person as “lamented ”? The most execrable shrew, the most sordid cretin – and they are legion – are “lamented ” at least by their pets, and for a limited time at that. To say nothing of this abominable and pompous turgidity that means precisely nothing, though dressed in falsely noble appearances, the ubiquitous “Il persiste et signe” (He persist and signs). Enough already!
Ultimately, I beseech every neophyte in writing or, “tout ce qui grouille et scribouille” as General de Gaulle said, to acquire dictionaries and to consult them often. Words have meanings, the dictionary defines them while the omnipresent spellchecker does nothing but correct them. A dictionary enriches the vocabulary. How can it be that Francophones and Anglophones together systematically neglect this indispensable tool for writing well? Must we look elsewhere for the cause of the lamentable paucity of contemporary vocabularies?
At “Petite Plaisance” in Maine, American residence of the incomparable stylist that was Marguerite Yourcenar, we can see and even handle her numerous and well thumbed dictionaries, French, Greek, Latin that she had at hand in her study. The example, coming from so high above, invites imitation.
Born in Edmundston, Robert Pichette is the author of more than twenty books addressing the history of Acadie and New Brunswick. His texts are characterized by their rigor in both subject matter research and mastery of the French language. A model of the classical humanist, he was the Deputy Minister of Premier Louis J. Robichaud and the first Director of New Brunswick’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs. He co-authored the New Brunswick Official Languages Act and created the flag of the province.
Pichette was awarded a doctorate of literature honoris causa by Université Sainte-Anne (Nova Scotia) and a doctorate honoris causa in Public Administration by the Université de Moncton. The France-Acadie Association awarded him the literary award “Prix France –Acadie.” He is an Officer of the National Order of Merit and of the Legion of Honour (France), Knight of the Order of the French Academic Palms, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Fellow of the Royal Canadian Heraldry Society of which he was a founding member and former President, Honorary Colonel of the Louisiana State Guard, and has been a member of the Order of New Brunswick since 2006.