One ground rule of the art of fiction is that writers can reveal universal truths about the human condition by focusing on a particular place. Novelist Margaret Laurence, for one, threw light into the hearts and minds of all contemporary women by setting many of her books in the imaginary town of Manawaka, based on her birthplace of Neepawa,
Man. More recently, David Adams Richards has illuminated the human struggle for love and belonging in five successive novels set in one place—a fictional Miramichi River mill town that is based on his native Newcastle,
N.B. And, last week, the 38-year-old author achieved what many admirers of his work say is overdue recognition. His fifth novel, Nights Below Station Street, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Englishlanguage fiction. Said jury chairman and novelist H.
R. Percy: “One of Richards’ outstanding qualities is his sensitivity to people in deprived situations. He has a very good ear for speech and he gives a voice to inarticulate people.”
Other winners of Canada’s premier annual awards for literature included two Toronto writers—Anne Collins, who won in the nonfiction category for In the Sleep Room, and playwright George F. Walker, for his play Nothing Sacred. But the fiction awards traditionally attract wide attention, and Richards won the $10,000 prize over Margaret Atwood’s bestselling Cat’s Eye and three other nominees.
In Richards’ novels, the depiction of working-class life is grim on the surface—poverty, alcoholism and violence seem the norm. But there is also humor in the intricate family and community relationships that he chronicles, and dignity amid squalor. Station Street is the story of Joe Walsh, an unemployed ex-alcoholic who is trying to achieve a reconciliation with his 15-year-old daughter, Adele. “People who think I’m writing social commentary about poverty in the Maritimes miss the point,”
Richards said in an interview last week. The writer, who speaks with a distinctive New Brunswick lilt, added that “my writing is much more in the tradition of Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy in that my characters have a sense of an inexorable spiritual duty. I write rural novels in which traditional family values, or the loss of them, is central.”
Richards’ own origins are lower middle class. He was one of six children in a Roman Catholic family whose father ran two cinemas in Newcastle while his mother was a homemaker. Richards attended St. Thomas University in Fredericton but quit three credits shy of his bachelor’s degree to become a full-time writer in 1973. His first novel, The Coming of Winter, was published in 1974, when he was only 23. In 1980, the book appeared in Russian translation in the Soviet Union. That novel was followed by Blood Ties(1976), 1981’s Lives i of Short Duration and I Road to the Stilt House P (1985). Although his i books have never been best-sellers, they have won critical acclaim and a strong cult following.
Although Richards and his wife of 17 years, Peggy, have lived in Fredericton since 1983— they plan to move to Saint John this spring— they retain a strong connection to the Miramichi valley. Richards spends almost half of every year at the couple’s cottage there, where he likes to go hunting and fishing. Three weeks ago, he completed the second instalment in a trilogy that begins with Nights Below Station Street. And he says that he is keen to begin work on the third. “People are always telling me I should move from here and get a different perspective,” the novelist said, “as if that would give me a broader perspective.” But clearly, for David Adams Richards and his readers, the Miramichi continues to offer a whole world of imaginative possibilities.
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