A veteran novelist continues to explore a richly layered society
David Adams Richards stares out the window of a trendy Toronto eatery, watching a homeless person as he bends over the base of a tree. The man is carefully scooping a hole in the dirt, apparently in order to hide the two tiny, neatly tied packages resting nearby. What the bundles contain is anyone’s guess, but it is obvious that they are as important to him as the contents of any safetydeposit box. Richards seems mesmerized. Far from the rural New Brunswick that is the setting for his celebrated fiction, the writer has found someone who could easily be a character in one of his own books. In nine novels, including his latest, The Bay of Love and Sorrows (McClelland & Stewart, $29.99), Richards has explored the lives of so-called marginal people, often showing that they harbor more nobility of soul than their social betters.
Richards is living in Toronto these days, which may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the deep regionalism of his work. He has spent almost all of his 48 years in his native New Brunswick, and until recently, owned a small fishing and hunting camp there. In fact, with his plaid shirt and fiveo’clock shadow, he still looks like someone who would be far happier wading a salmon river than negotiating a menu in which a simple chicken sandwich is hard to find. But having spent several decades shifting restlessly between various New Brunswick locations, Richards and his wife, Peggy, decided last year to move, as he puts it, to “the city Maritimers love to hate.” In Toronto, Richards explains, he is closer to the film industry for which he writes scripts (he won a 1996 Gemini for a TV adaptation of his haunting, 1993 novel, For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down) while Peggy is closer to three sisters who live in southwestern Ontario. The writer has even found reasons to like Toronto. “There are an awful lot of parks around, and I know they’re parks,” he says almost apologetically, “but they have some wonderful ravines and wooded areas.” Toronto, it would seem, has not hurt his writing. The Bay of Love and Sorrows— which he completed after the move—is a superb achievement. Set in a fictional New
Brunswick hamlet in 1974, the book skillfully combines elements of a thriller with Richards’ trademark ability to imbue a tale with poignant moral questions. At its centre is a murder that implicates people from a wide spectrum of society—and particularly Michael Skid, an egotistical judge’s son who spends a dangerous summer associating with Everette Hutch, a charismatic local thug. Richards himself sees the novel as part of an on-going examination “of power and the glamor of power—how people like Michael succumb to it or don’t succumb to it.” In the end, Michael’s flirtation with evil proves ruinous for several characters, and moves the novel into a complex, almost Dostoyevskian investigation of the nature of guilt and redemption.
Throughout his 25-year career, Richards’ fictional vision seems to have been inspired by the old shipping town of Newcastle, on the Miramichi River, where the author was born in 1950, the third of six children. His father, William, ran the local movie theatre.
His mother, Margaret Adams (one of her
brothers, Richard Adams, is a world-famous salmon guide), had a bad fall when she was seven months pregnant, and Richards was born with brain damage that prevented him from walking until he was three. His left arm remained bent and useless until, as he says, “I worked it out when I was a teenager.” Richards is reluctant to say that the sense of tragedy that pervades his novels has anything to do with his injury, but he admits his misfortune may have helped sharpen his novelist’s eye. “I was a fanatical hockey and boxing fan, but I just didn’t have the coordination to play. So I became more of an observer: I think that helped me later as a writer.”
When he was 14, Richards received a copy of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Disappointed by the lack of pictures, he left it on his bedside table. Months later, he happened to knock it off: the book fell open and he picked it up and began to read. “I know it sounds hokey,” he says, “but by the time I was halfway through I’d discovered how wonderful literature was, and I’d discovered I wanted to be a writer.” Dickens’ novel was a fortuitous find in other ways. In figures such as the murderer Bill Sikes, his prostitute 1 girlfriend, Nancy, and the d book’s various middle-class ^ characters, Richards found a mirror for the richly-layered society around him. “Our family was friends with the local MP,” he recalls, “but we also knew the prostitutes who waited for the ships to come in, just four blocks from us.” He was also aware of other poor residents of Newcastle living in rat-infested houses with no heat. “The last thing I ever wanted to do was to turn my back on the suffering of those people I saw as a child,” he says with feeling. “In a way, my work is for them.”
Years later, Richards would bring an almost Dickensian social depth to his own novels, with a special concentration on the lower classes. But first he had to work his way through a long apprenticeship (“bad poetry, bad stories,” he says wryly) and get an education. After high school he enrolled in Saint Thomas University in Fredericton, but quit just three credits short of a degree in English because, by then, he had fully committed himself to writing novels. He had completed his first, The Coming of Winter, as an undergraduate. It was published in 1974, and six years later the State Publishing Agency of the USSR bought the tragicomic tale set in the Miramichi Valley. It reached an estimated 250,000 Russian-language readers, and provided some respite from the poverty Richards and Peggy (teen sweethearts, they had married at 21) were enduring as part of the artistic life. “Peggy was selling Amway, and I sold the car to pay the rent,” he recalls of one period in the 70s. “One year I earned $576.34.”
With the publication of his third novel, the expansively lyrical Lives of Short Duration, in 1981, Richards had both achieved national fame and come to the end of a certain way of writing. In his 1985 novel, Road to the Stilt House, he tried out a new, more compressed and incisive style he would eventually call “analytical narrative,” continuing the experiment with his next book, Nights Below Station Street. Part way through the writing of that novel, he suffered a crisis of confidence. “There had been a kind of conscious discrediting of my work by certain people, certain critics, and it had finally gotten to me,” he remembers. “I said to Peggy, The hell with it, I’m not going to do this any more.’ ” But he eventually went back to his novel, and, in 1988, Nights Below Station Street won the Governor General’s Award.
Since then, Richards has published four more novels, including the moving For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, about a celebrated backwoods criminal called Jerry Bines who becomes a mysterious, almost mythical presence. Richards has also written three non-fiction works, the most recent his graceful fishing memoir, Lines on the Water. In 1995 his original CBC screenplay Small Gifts won the Best Script award at the New York International Film Festival. He is currently feeling his way into a new novel, a process that can often seem to be going nowhere. He says he spent 14 months false-starting The Bay of Love and Sorrows, until finally he found the right narrative line; then he finished the book at a breakneck pace in half a year.
In other areas, Richards has definitely slowed down. After spending his 20s as a heavy drinker, he has given up alcohol entirely. And he no longer hunts: “After I shot my last buck eight years ago, I thought, That’s it, I don’t need to do that again.’ ” In Toronto, he and Peggy relax by seeing a lot of movies, and walking those parks with their sons, John Thomas, 9, and Anton, 3. Will they stay in the city? Richards admits to being chronically restless, but says that with children, he and Peggy can no longer move around the country like they used to: “I expect we’ll stay here, for a while anyway. With kids you can’t just uproot them. You have to consider their lives, too. There’s a definite guilt factor.” And the author of novels in which the twistings of conscience play a major role, pauses before adding, “And that’s the way it should be.” □
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