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Richard B. Wright

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The tender trappings of success

Richard B. Wright dodges expectations with his new novel

Richard B. Wright

Comfortably ensconced on the leafy back patio at his favourite Italian restaurant in downtown St. Catharines, Ontario, Richard B. Wright is clearly in his element. He knows all the specials and is as happy to recommend a pinot grigio from the wine list as he is quick to note the reasonable prices. “You’re lucky I don’t have Mordecai’s tastes,” he says with a grin. “He used to know how to rack up a tab.”

It seems a fitting haunt for a writer like Wright – a man who has often lived modestly and whose work has focused on modest lives, but who is willing, with all due modesty of course, to enjoy a few of the fruits of recent success.

And if one can judge on the basis of a two-hour lunch, success agrees with the 67-year-old author. Wright’s greying hair looks freshly clipped, his handsome face is smooth and tanned, and his small frame seems bursting with energy, good health, and warm spirits. He looks easily 10 years younger than he is.

In conversation, there is an occasional shyness to the man – not surprising, given his interest in introverted and deeply private characters. But he’s hardly reticent; he displays an easy smile and a knack for relaxed conversation as we talk over his long career, his surprising late success, and his new novel, this fall’s dark and uncompromising Adultery.

The book that raised Wright to his current commercial status, of course, was the 2001 blockbuster Clara Callan. Not only did the novel win both the Governor General’s Award and the Giller Prize – a feat previously achieved only by Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost – it also sold by the truckload. The hardcover and trade paper editions have combined to sell close to 200,000 copies in Canada, and Wright’s publisher, HarperCollins Canada, will release the book’s first mass-market edition this fall.

The Giller in particular is often considered a career-making award, but Clara Callan arguably benefited from better word-of-mouth than other recent Giller winners. Says Wright’s agent, Dean Cooke: “I think it’s clear from the history of these awards that sometimes the win doesn’t have this kind of impact. People have to read the book and love the book for that to happen.” It was that love, believes Cooke, that drove HarperCollins’ decision to bring all of Wright’s eight previous novels – a career’s worth of diligent craft – back into print.

While Wright is obviously grateful for the “Clara effect” (“it’s great to know more people are responding to what you do,” he says), he certainly hasn’t attempted to replicate the book in his latest outing. Adultery tells the story of Daniel Fielding, an aging Canadian publishing executive who stumbles into an affair with a much-younger female colleague, Denise Crowder, while the two are visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair. A few days later, on a side trip to the English coast, the unthinkable happens: Crowder is abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered. But after leading with those thriller elements, the book morphs into something else entirely: a restrained and subtle mood piece tracing Fielding’s efforts to reconcile with his wife and daughter, and with the family of the dead woman.

The changeup from Clara shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to readers who know the author’s previous work. Indeed, over the years, Wright has written everything from historical picaresque to existential tales of troubled men to black comedy to stories of women searching for romance (see sidebar). “I never expect Wright’s next book to be anything like his last book,” says Lynne Van Luven, a journalist, professor, and CanLit expert who sat on the panel that chose Wright as the GG winner. But despite this relentless diversity, Van Luven says, there are at least two defining threads that tie his oeuvre together: “his wonderful attention to writing as well as he can, and his minute attention to the details of human existence. His interest in the characters within his novels always seems paramount.”

Wright himself insists that trying to replicate Clara would go against everything he believes serious writing is about. “A writer’s job is to come up with the best representation of human experience at the time he’s writing – period,” he says, suddenly just a little less insouciant. “It’s a selfish act, it has to be. You write what you feel inspired to write, not what you think you should write, and you hope that other people will see what you’re trying to do, and get it. Otherwise, you might as well be in TV, or the movies.”

In his early years, surprisingly enough, Wright seemed destined for a career in one of these latter fields. Born in 1937, the Midland, Ontario, native studied radio and television arts at Toronto’s Ryerson Institute of Technology in the late 1950s, and then did short stints in small-town media, at both newspaper and radio outlets. But he generally found the shallowness off-putting, and soon gravitated to literature as a more thoughtful field. “In the early ’60s, I decided I wanted to be an editor – that was how I would satisfy the literary urge,” the author says. He landed a position at Macmillan Canada, under publisher John Gray, and began moving up through the ranks – first in editorial, then in sales – through the mid-1960s. “It was a great time for me,” he says fondly of his publishing days.

Indeed, Adultery is in some respects a story about the ways in which publishing today is different from the world that Wright, and his character Fielding, knew in the 1960s. In the here and now, for instance, Fielding and his publishing colleagues are under constant pressure to earn, to come up with the blockbuster title. “There’s way more pressure in publishing now than when I was starting out,” Wright says. “In the ’60s, trade was expected to break even, and that was it. Trade must pull its own weight now. That’s had a huge impact.” The new climate, Adultery suggests in a couple of pointed scenes, has fostered a new breed of authors, contrasted in the novel with the slightly crazed old-school archetype of the Canadian novelist. “You have that old generation, Purdy and Richler, who were fairly wild. The new writers don’t step out of line,” Wright says. “Of course, those earlier writers were probably in some sense careerist, too. But not in the smoothie ways you get now.”

Wright the author is avowedly a member of the former category, though his actual debut came in an unlikely form when Macmillan launched a series of children’s books in 1965. Dismayed by the uneven quality of manuscripts coming in, Wright wrote his own – Andrew Tolliver, a mystery about a small-town robbery, aimed at children in Grades 4 to 6 – and submitted it to his colleagues on the sly, under a pseudonym. The story was promptly accepted, the ruse forgiven, and the book has been in print for much of the 40 years since, most recently under the new title of One John A Too Many.

Wright wrote his first adult novel after resigning from publishing and moving with his new wife, Phyllis, to her family’s modest cottage in Quebec’s Gaspe region. (“I figured I could always go back,” he says of Macmillan, and in a way he did: the firm published his first six novels.) They stayed at the cottage for a year and a half, and Wright cranked out The Weekend Man, the tale of a 30-year-old book salesman wracked by existential woe and a sense of impending failure, now recognized as a minor classic. Upon its publication in 1970, it earned excellent reviews, a cult following – and a depressingly minute profit. “My career was launched,” Wright says of the experience. “But I could see how hard it was to make a living as a novelist, especially on the more literary side of things. I thought about jobs I could do that would allow me time for my craft, and after all was said and done, teaching seemed like the best bet.”

To make that happen, Wright returned to university in 1970 to earn a bachelor’s degree in English while working on his second novel, In the Middle of a Life (1973). After that, Wright didn’t want to prolong his schooling to earn a teaching certificate, so he looked for a job at a private school. “Luckily, Richard Bradley, the headmaster at Ridley, was a reader,” Wright says. “He liked the cut of my jib and decided to give me a shot.”

Except for a short break in the early 1980s, Wright taught at Ridley until he retired in 2001, the same year that Clara Callan was released. But despite the stability of a day job, those were hardly placid times. During the school year, the author would wake at 4:30 a.m., write for three and a half hours, and then move on to teaching and family obligations (Wright has two sons, now adults). He hammered out several more novels during this period, but despite their steady artistry, they met with mixed financial success.

It wasn’t until The Age of Longing, published in 1995, that things really seemed to click. Wright calls the book his favourite among his novels, and it marked his arrival at HarperCollins Canada, where he encountered the second major Phyllis in his life – the editor he has worked with ever since. “Phyllis Bruce and I seem to share a vision about the kind of fiction I can write,” Wright says. “A lot of editors want you to write a specific kind of book – but a serious author would never accept that. The fact that Phyllis and I have done three novels together is a pretty good indication of how well things work.”

Adultery’s criticism of Canadian publishing in the era of globalization aside, Wright insists that he is optimistic about the future of the field in general, and of serious fiction in particular. “Certain people will always seek out some kind of substance,” he says, staunchly. “Look at book clubs – educated people, particularly women, are reading fiction more than ever.” It’s the book’s ability to communicate deeply that’s so powerful, Wright feels. “When you see something on TV, who remembers it an hour, a day later? But with a book, it’s still there. And so, sooner or later, thoughtful people will go back to books. I’m emboldened by that.”

Of course, it’s still necessary in a media-driven age for writers to publicize themselves; Wright and I wouldn’t be having lunch otherwise. To this end, HarperCollins is orchestrating a major campaign to launch the new book. There’ll be newspaper and magazine ads; readings at major national festivals in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, and Ottawa, among other appearances; and even a mini-campaign targeted specifically at book clubs.

At first glance, certain aspects of the marketing of Adultery suggest an emphasis on the melodramatic elements that Wright has been so careful to downplay. The cover image of the book is a somewhat lurid illustration of a young woman in the back seat of a car, a man’s arm around her, her face wearing an expression of rapture (or perhaps terror?). Meanwhile, the publisher has asked journalists writing about the book to sign a waiver promising not to reveal its contents in the run-up to its release.

But HarperCollins marketing vice-president Karen Cossar says there’s no agenda to spin the novel as a potboiler with a surprise ending. “Sometimes we just feel it’s best to keep a major book under wraps until the publication date, just to maintain the anticipation. As for the jacket, we wanted to reflect the fact that it’s a different kind of book than Clara Callan – though the two titles aren’t all that different in that they’re both strong, literary efforts.”

When I ask Wright about all this, he waves his hand irritably, as if swatting a small fly away from his linguini. “It’s out of my control,” he says shortly. “I can’t tell them how to market it. Abduction, murder, adultery – in the soundbite age we live in, I suppose it’s hard to avoid.” But the hint of annoyance quickly passes, and he’s bright again as our post-lunch coffee arrives. And why wouldn’t he be? After a long career in which he has been remarkably successful at avoiding all but such minor compromises, Wright is riding the wave of a storybook windfall in his literary fortunes. It’s all vaguely ironic, given the writer’s insistence that life is not about cheesy happy endings.

Still, Wright insists that his life as a commercial success, post-Clara and post-retirement from teaching, isn’t all that different from what it was during his Ridley years. For the moment, he’s taking a break from writing, because his mind is still full of the characters from Adultery, but when he’s working, he still rises before dawn to write for three or four hours, then goes on to whatever business the day holds in store.

Out on the street after our meal, the author gives me a sturdy handshake and wishes me luck with the piece. He waves goodbye, and lopes off past St. Catharines’ pretty red-brick city hall, where the local farmer’s market is in full swing. And for just a moment, I can’t help feeling that I’m standing on the set of some feelgood Hollywood movie, the kind of story that involves a small-town boy who, through hard work and perseverance, manages to come out on top.