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David Adams Richards

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The outsider

David Adams Richards gives voice to the hopeless

The Eglinton subway station in Toronto is not where one would expect to meet the New Brunswick-raised novelist David Adams Richards. And as he grips my hand in a firm shake, my first thought is that this is not the real David Adams Richards, but a displaced character from one of his own books: a shaggy, soft-spoken, working class sort from the East with a slightly haunted look in his eyes and a lot of thinking to do. Is this a case of art imitating life? Or is it the other way around?

David Adams RichardsAs strange as it may seem for someone who’s spent the bulk of a 28-year writing career dreaming up characters to populate a singular setting – the Miramichi Valley – Richards professes not to feel tied to the region: “I’m great at going places,” he said once. “I’m not good at staying anywhere.” For now, he calls Toronto home, the result of a move a few years back that, to hear him tell it, was no more difficult than choosing the coffee shop we’re now sitting in. “I was back and forth all the time anyway, and my wife has family nearby,” he explains. He admits he misses the fishing, but Toronto, he says is “fine, just fine.”

This is clearly not a case of self-imposed exile, or the desire to escape one’s past. Richards still writes about the East; he just doesn’t feel the need to live there to do it. “I discovered a few years ago living in Spain that I could write anywhere.” Besides, he says, his work is not affected greatly by his surroundings. “Ever since I quit drinking in my early 30s I work a lot – about five or six hours a day, every day – and I have my family, too, so it’s fine.”

Like Richards himself, his fiction has a new home these days. After publishing five novels with McClelland & Stewart, it was, he claims, “time to make a move”; his new book, Mercy Among the Children, will be published in September by Doubleday Canada. Richards describes his former editor, Ellen Seligman, as “brilliant,” but he won’t elaborate on the reasons for changing houses. Did he feel his books got lost on a list with Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje? Richards declines to answer, saying only that Doubleday “is putting together a fresh fiction list.”

Regardless of their imprint, Richards’ novels of backwater Atlantic Canada soul-searching, sin, and redemption would appear to have a permanent place in our literary culture. Beginning in 1974 with The Coming of Winter, and including his acclaimed Miramichi Valley Trilogy (1988’s Governor General’s Award-winning Nights Below Station Street was the first volume), Richards’ fiction has attracted generally glowing critical attention. He’s also won a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction, for 1998’s Lines on the Water, making him one of only three writers to claim both awards.

Critics of Richards’ work often focus on the gloomy nature of his vision – on his propensity for writing about murders, alcoholism, domestic violence, prison. Richards has been called a “painfully sharp observer” who tells his story with “heartbreaking courage” and whose “compassion for his poorest characters’ misery is infectious.” Painful. Heartbreaking. Misery. This is not uplifting territory. “Certainly I deal with dark subjects,” he says, “but I think overall – and I really believe this – my works are filled with joy. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t be writing. Joy comes from tragedy, not in spite of it. For me, the most affirming plays of Shakespeare are the tragedies, not the comedies.

In Mercy Among the Children, Richards lays out another tightly wound tale of moral choice and the perils of conviction and non-conviction. He describes the genesis of this book as similar to that of his previous novels. “Usually I start with a character. And wait for a [narrative] track to get laid down. In For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, I thought the book wasn’t about Jerry, a career criminal, but his cousin. But Jerry took over. That’s when the novel came to life.”

In Mercy, Richards tells the story of Sydney Henderson and his son, Lyle, two quintessential Richards outsiders. The novel begins with Sydney as a young man believing that he has accidentally killed a friend. He makes a pact with God vowing to never hurt anyone else if the friend is allowed to live. The friend’s life is spared, and Sydney grows up true to his promise, although at a considerable cost. The small New Brunswick community where he and his son live preys upon Sydney’s avowed passivity, forcing both father and son to come up with radically different ways of adapting to their painful, sometimes violent ostracization.

Thematically, Richards says, the book “is as much a meditation about middle-class attitudes [as the rest of my work]. Here’s a brilliant man [Sydney] who is known to have about a 170 IQ but who is pathologically gentle and is berated by the politically correct middle class simply because he refuses to stick up for himself, simply because certain crimes can be shored up on him. And Lyle is the one who is most scarred by this and fights back. My whole question is: do you fight back or don’t you? And what consequences happen if you do or do not?”

“I believe that this most recent book, Mercy Among the Children, has great moments of joy in it,” Richards adds. “It’s like one of the critics of my work said: ‘Richards has been depicted as giving a voice to these hopeless characters, but the real truth is that Richards gives them a voice because he wants to show you that they’re not hopeless at all.’ I really think it’s all there, but it’s all in the reading of the book. Also, I think there’s a good deal of humour in my novels – especially in my non-fiction, but in my novels, too.” I suggest that some readers may not fully appreciate the humour in his work because, unlike many contemporary authors, he doesn’t employ irony. In other words, he doesn’t make fun of his characters. He agrees. “I think that’s an important point.”

Although Richards’ novels have been compared to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County saga (both he and Richards set their novels in the same basic locale each time out, and certain characters appear in several different books), the Canadian writer he resembles most in both tone and ethical intensity is Morley Callaghan.

“I think in a non-standard way I would consider myself a moral writer. I think what I tend to focus on is the motivations of characters and why things are done, that’s what I’m trying to get at.” The most characteristic thing about Richards’ work, however, is neither his dedicated concern with the mysteries of the always-on-the-brink-of-shattering human heart nor his plain but precise prose style, but his story-telling skills. Unlike many of his peers, Richards writes novels with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and in exactly that order.

I ask Richards what expectations he has for Mercy Among the Children, particularly now that he’s approaching that writerly period called “mid-career.” His answer is that he hopes the work will be read because it deserves to be read. He has no intention of joining the media parade or being the kind of writer who shows up at all the right parties. “Frankly,” he admits, “I couldn’t do it. I’d have a hard time being an insider when I don’t even know what that is.”

Walking back to the subway station Richards asks me who I like in the next round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Having adapted several of his books for films, he’s now hard at work turning 1996’s Hockey Dreams into a television piece for the CBC. Although he’s on the whole happy with the screen versions of his work, “my ultimate hope,” he says, “is that the films will send people to the books.”

We exchange picks and hockey scuttlebutt in the cold sunshine for a few minutes before shaking hands and parting, me inside to the station, he back down Yonge Street. I watch him disappear into the five p.m. workday-done bustle with his hands dug deep in his pockets. He could be anybody coming home after another long hard day of work, in Toronto, New Brunswick, anywhere.