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Richard B. Wright, author of Clara Callan, dies at 79

Richard B. Wright, whose 2001 novel Clara Callan is a bona fide CanLit classic, has died at the age of 79.

Author Richard B. Wright

Author Richard B. Wright

Wright, who lived in the Ontario city of St. Catharines, died unexpectedly from a stroke after falling on the ice on Feb. 7.

The author of 16 acclaimed books of fiction and memoir, Wright is best known for Clara Callan, his 2001 Depression-era epistolary novel about two sisters in small-town Ontario. The book won the Giller Prize, a Governor General’s Literary Award, and Ontario’s Trillium Book Award. “Clara Callan was a quiet but ferocious book,” says Elana Rabinovitch, executive director of the Giller Prize. “Personally, it’s one of my favourite books. I think he helped put the Giller a little bit on the map because of that book.”

Clara Callan was not, however, Wright’s first Giller-nominated title. That was 1995’s The Age of Longing, the novel that also marked the beginning of the author’s enduring relationship with his long-time editor, Phyllis Bruce. “Richard was the consummate professional,” Bruce says. “He never told me what he was writing. I had no idea of the content. It was all done on the assumption that he would write a brilliant novel and that I would publish it.”

Born in 1937 in Midland, Ontario, Wright graduated from Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic Institute and eventually found work at Macmillan. While he was there, he sold his pseudonymous first book, a children’s novel called Andrew Tolliver, to his employer. (When he received the contract, he had to fess up as to his authorship of the work.) “Macmillan of that era was noteworthy for the number of senior people who wrote and published books,” says James Bacque, who worked with Wright for seven years between 1961 and 1968. Among Wright’s close friends at the house was Kildare Dobbs, who preceded Bacque as editor.

But Wright’s first big success as a writer came in 1970, with the publication of his novel for adults, The Weekend Man. That book, Bruce says, made him “the talk of the town,” though it was followed by a series of more minor novels and a period during which Wright took a hiatus from writing to work as a teacher at Ridley College in St. Catharines. He burst back on the scene with The Age of Longing and Clara Callan, both published by HarperCollins Canada, following which he produced a steady stream of novels up through last year’s Nightfall. The memoir A Life with Words appeared in 2015.

“Richard was a writer of world-class stature,” wrote Iris Tupholme, senior vice president and executive publisher at HarperCollins, in a note sent around to staff in-house. “He was particularly known for the pared down elegance of his writing and his nuanced portrayal of ‘ordinary’ people who, under his gaze, revealed themselves to be extraordinary.”

Wright’s fascination with ordinary characters in his fiction was perhaps a carry-over from the way he chose to live his own life. He turned his back on the bustle of Toronto in favour of a more modest life in St. Catharines, where he would rise determinedly each morning and write in the hours between five and seven, before heading out to his teaching job.

Notwithstanding the modesty with which he outfitted himself in his daily life, Wright was fiercely adamant about his writing. “He was extremely sure of his abilities,” Bruce says, and staunchly intransigent when he felt his approach was the correct one. “I tended to lose a lot of arguments along the way.” And yet the devotion of author to editor, and vice versa, remained solid, to the point that when Bruce decamped HarperCollins to launch her eponymous imprint at Simon & Schuster Canada in 2012, Wright went along with her. A Life with Words was the first book Bruce put out with S&S Canada.

Wright leaves behind two adult sons. His wife, Phyllis, whom Bruce refers to as “his muse,” died suddenly in November 2016. “His long journey from middle-class, middle-of-the-road Midland was not easy,” says Bacque, “but he was diligent in pursuing his goals, distant thought they were at the start. He deserves our remembrance and our praise.”

“I will tell you an anecdote about his first novel,” says Bruce. “He had married Phyllis shortly before that and then he quit his job, this very good job at Macmillan. And he announced to his father-in-law that he was going to go to live in their house in Gaspé and become a writer. And I said to him, ‘What did your father-in-law say?’ And he said, ‘I’ll show you how to cut kindling.'”