Quill and Quire

Paul Quarrington

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Out of the ravine

How Canada Reads champ Paul Quarrington mined his personal problems for his new novel

It’s a bitterly cold, grey day in February in Toronto, but you would never know it inside Paul Quarrington’s modest Leslieville home. We’re in his kitchen, where the walls are painted warm shades of orange and red. The author himself is tanned and healthy-looking, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt. On the table before him is a boating manual, which he has been studying all afternoon in advance of his evening sailing class. Quarrington has just put a down payment on a small houseboat for summering in, and he won’t even be able to move it from its mooring in Lake Ontario until he gets his boating license. He hands me a picture of the vessel like a proud father.

Though the 54-year-old Quarrington has turned out 10 novels over nearly three decades now, only one – his 1989 Governor General’s Award-winning Whale Music – could legitimately be called a hit. Most of his other books, even the ones that received excellent reviews, have sold in middling quantities at best. Consequently, he hasn’t always had a lot of cash to throw around on houseboats.

These days, however, things have been looking up. Quarrington’s previous novel, the 2004 Galveston, landed a Giller nod – his first – and went on to become his bestselling book since Whale Music. He’s got a brand-new novel out: The Ravine (Random House Canada), a semi-autobiographical work that chronicles the aftermath of a traumatic childhood incident. And to top it all off, his 1987 novel King Leary, which until recently was out of print altogether, has just beaten out books by Timothy Findley and Mavis Gallant to win the highly coveted CBC Canada Reads championship. That’s likely to prove an enormous sales boon, if past Canada Reads contests are anything to go by. “I was already feeling very optimistic about the new book, and when I heard about the Canada Reads win I thought, ‘Well, this is splendid!’” says Quarrington with a huge grin.


Though Quarrington may be all smiles now, he hasn’t always been so upbeat. In fact, it’s only fairly recently that he clawed his way up out of a nearly 10-year-long funk, which began shortly after a film adaptation of Whale Music was released, back in 1994. Quarrington’s next novel – Civilization, set during the early years of the Hollywood film industry – was just about to hit stores, and he understandably hoped that the Whale Music film might boost his literary career. “I felt like big things were coming my way,” he says.

But Civilization was greeted with near-total apathy by the industry and the reading public. “It got zero attention,” says Quarrington now, still clearly puzzled. Even worse than the book’s failure, however, was the realization that he was no better off than he was before Whale Music – that the brief spike in media attention was just that, a brief spike. “I became a bit bitter then, I suppose,” says Quarrington, absentmindedly running the palms of his hands over the cover of the boating manual. “Writing is a very easy profession to become bitter about. You don’t get raises; you don’t get to be called a senior writer after 10 years; and when you read about so-and-so getting a $400,000 advance from Viking in the States, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, fuck him.’ But bitter is bad. It’s the writer’s black lung disease. I kind of had to work my way out of that before I destroyed a lot of things.”

Anne Collins, Quarrington’s editor at Random House Canada for his last few titles, thinks his sales may have suffered in the past due to his often comedic tone. “Paul uses a comic approach to deal with incredibly sad and troubling and tragic material,” says Collins, “and comic novels generally have a struggle in Canada. They always have, and I don’t know why.” For his part, Quarrington thinks the problem has more to do with his varied subject matter, which ranges from hockey to pop music to magic to Hollywood to baseball. “Liking one of my books doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’ll like another,” he says. “I mean, if you read a book by David Adams Richards, say, or Thomas Hardy, you kind of know what they’re going to be like.”

In any case, when Civilization flopped, Quarrington began pursuing work in the film industry. Having written the screenplay for Whale Music, he knew how much money could be made in film, even in Canada. “That was when I got off track, I think,” he says. “I got very careerist.” Over the next few years, he was a screenwriter for hire, churning out scripts based on pre-existing treatments or rewriting the scripts of others. Three projects that he worked on – Camilla, Giant Steps, and Perfectly Normal – were turned into largely forgettable films, and Quarrington says that when the studio execs realized he was the common denominator in all of them, his stock quickly dropped.

Quarrington then moved on to TV and became a research assistant for the actor Paul Gross, who was starring in Due South at the time. “Paul would call me from the set and ask questions like, ‘What do you call it in westerns when they arrange the horses and wagons in a circle?’” says Quarrington. “I would tell him, and then Paul would go back to work. That was my job, basically.” Eventually, he became a credited writer on Due South and several other shows.

Meanwhile, Quarrington’s private life was unravelling. His marriage started to fall apart, with two young daughters caught in the middle, and his normally controlled drinking habit blossomed into what many of his friends considered to be outright alcoholism. “A friend asked me, during that period, if I wanted to know what people were saying about me,” says Quarrington. “He told me that people were saying I sort of went off the deep end when my marriage went south, and that I was drunk all the time.”

Another close friend of Quarrington’s, author Nino Ricci, witnessed this tumultuous period firsthand. “Paul is a much more complex human being than first meets the eye, and it’s not always easy to tell what’s going on with him, even in the face of utter collapse,” says Ricci. The two men have been getting together – along with a few other friends – for regular poker games for years, and the alcohol-fueled evenings frequently tipped Ricci off that all was not well. “Paul and I have a very cordial, unrocky friendship, but there were moments during these poker games where things would come out – moments of rage over small issues – that revealed that something was going on there,” he says, laughing a bit at the memory. “We would all be a little afraid!”

Eventually, Quarrington’s wife left him, taking the kids with her, and he realized it was time to get his house in order. He went into counselling and cut back on the drinking. He also got out of the TV game and began pursuing more personally gratifying career prospects, like playing in a blues quartet he started with three musician friends called Porkbelly Futures. (Quarrington has been an amateur musician for most of his life, and he says he’s treating the band as seriously as any of his other endeavours.) Most importantly, however, he went back to fiction. His return was tentative at first. In 1999 he published The Spirit Cabinet, about two Vegas magicians à la Siegfried and Roy, but it was followed by another long fallow period. His real return came five years later, when he came up with two new ideas for novels.

The first to be published was Galveston, but the other one – The Ravine – was actually begun before it. Quarrington says The Ravine is the most personal novel he’s ever written, and it was undertaken almost as a sort of therapy. “It’s a semi-autobiographical book about a writer who squanders his talents in television, drinks too much, screws around, and ruins his marriage,” says Quarrington. “And the reason I say it’s semi-autobiographical is because the lead character’s name is Phil, not Paul.”

The title is a reference to the ravines that run through Toronto’s Don Valley area, where both Quarrington and his fictional counterpart grew up. When Quarrington was still a kid, he went through a somewhat traumatic incident in one of those ravines – he won’t go into the particulars, but he says the incident may have informed a lot of his adult behaviour. The Ravine also hinges on a damaging childhood incident, and much of the novel’s surrounding material – about the adult Phil’s subsequent wreck of a life – is lifted straight from Quarrington’s recent past.

“Clearly, people close to me are more or less uncomfortable with it,” Quarrington says with a resigned laugh. “I did give it to my ex-wife to read, and if she strenuously objected to anything I would have changed it.” Ultimately, however, it’s the Phil character who’s the most nakedly revealed. “Phil’s general attitude is quite close to mine,” says Quarrington. “He’s kind of solipsistic and wrapped up in his own world. Basically, he hasn’t progressed much beyond 12 or 13 years of age, and I think that was probably true of me for a lot of my life. But in the end, I think, his eyes are ultimately opened.”

Having exorcised some of his demons, Quarrington’s biggest dilemma these days is a fairly happy one: having to compete with himself for sales. When Random House scheduled The Ravine for release this month, they had no way of knowing that the CBC Canada Reads competition would put them up against Quarrington’s own King Leary, which is available on another Random imprint, Anchor Canada. It’s an unprecedented situation, but Anne Collins says the company’s not treating it as a problem. “In fact, we’re hoping it will enhance interest in [The Ravine],” she says.

Quarrington and I chat for a bit longer, but soon it’s time for his sailing lesson, and he escorts me to the front door. Before I head out into the cold night air, he reflects again about how things have changed since the period in his life chronicled in The Ravine. Not only does his literary career seem to be back on track, but, as he says, he’s “a little more inclined to get out in the world now, to travel, to experience all the things that are out there.”

Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “I’m sort of having the time of my life right now.”