Richard B. Wright
A HAPPY OUTLIER LOOKS BACK ON HIS CAREER AS A NOVELIST
The Yodeller Interview with RICHARD B. WRIGHT
3.21, October 22, 2015
By Herman Goodden
About two months after publishing my ‘summer reading feature’ on the novels of Richard B. Wright, Simon & Schuster published my favourite Canadian writer’s memoirs, A Life with Words. Though its cover is execrable (the publisher’s call not his; and in the interview below Wright has a few things to say about the current state of publishing) the book itself is a wonderfully funny and touching look back over his life and career. Having hosted Wright on the London stop of numerous book tours, I had a St. Catharines phone number in my address book dating from the 1980s and gave it a dial on the off chance that such an innovation-averse chap was unlikely to have upgraded to a cell – and voila, there he was. Then, knowing he had a new book to promote, I really pushed my luck by asking if the media-shy Wright would consent to an interview. And reader – he said, ‘yes’!
What motivated you to write a memoir at this time?
I wanted to look back on my life and see what I had done and what I had not done. I thought this would be an opportunity to do that, particularly if I chose to use the third person because I could then distance myself from myself. And it seemed to work. As I went along with it, it was more like writing a novel than an actual memoir. And I avoided that ‘I did this’ and ‘I did that’ stuff that so irritates me but you can’t get around it if you use the first person. So by using the third person I’m able to look at myself like a character in a novel and that really helped.
I can think of instances when authors have used the third person in a memoir - Russell Kirk, for one - and they actually come off sounding more pompous than if they’d gone with the first.
Well, they do. And I think Salman Rushdie is a good example. Now I haven’t read it but it was referenced a couple of times by reviewers of my book where they said, ‘Wright is completely different from this. He seems to be almost modest about his accomplishments and that’s why he didn’t want to use ‘I’.’ But I can see how it could get very heavy on the self-importance thing depending on how you did it.
Your use of the third person did not carry that effect at all. I stopped noticing after half a page and found the writing as direct and compelling as yours always is. Of course when someone publishes a memoir, readers can’t help but wonder, are we wrapping things up here? Is he getting ready to close up shop?
Well, that’s part of it too, I think. I wanted to see my life, if I could portray it in an honest way, and then you look around and ask, ‘Well, what’s next?’ The memoir isn’t quite my last book because I’ve finished a novel which will be published next spring.
Can you tell us anything about it?
It’s called Nightfall and that reference comes from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. You probably remember October? It’s based on some of the characters from October – at least two of them – James Hillyer who was down to Gaspe when he was a boy of 14 and the girl Odette Huard, a French Canadian girl who was after the wealthy American boy who had become crippled through paralysis. They interested me and I wanted to look at those characters again as adults and so I framed the book that way. James has lost his daughter and his wife to cancer and has a hard time getting over it. He thinks he might be able to get some sleep if he can focus again on those happy days in Gaspe when that lovely girl was there, even though he lost her to Gabriel. This is what he does and he eventually looks for her. He looks her up with the help of a couple of people and finds that she’s still alive and living in Quebec City and decides to go and meet her and see what she’s doing. She’s had a very interesting life. She’s had a lot of trouble with men – and in particular one man who’s been in and out of jail a lot, a really rough character – now in his 80s, who’s got Alzheimer’s. All of that is explored and it all takes place in Quebec City. I enjoyed exploring all that. Quebec City is my favourite place in Canada, really.
It was our honeymoon capital.
Then you chose a good one. My wife Phyllis and I have been there many times. So we went and I just could see where Odette would be and positioning her with this shy university professor. The two of them get together and it’s a look at ageing love and what you do when you find love again in your 70s. That’s Nightfall and that’ll be out in the end of April. So that’s my last novel, I think, but I’m not going to promise anything.
You are lately featuring these elegiac titles . . . October . . . Nightfall . . .
Oh, absolutely. You do that. I’ll be 79 in another few months. I’m an old man now. There’s no question about it. I’m old and I don’t mind being old. I’m lucky I made it this far.
Did growing up in Midland help you develop as a writer? Alternately did it present any obstacles?
Anybody with ambition wants to get out of a town like Midland. If you said you wanted to be a writer, you were being presumptuous. A town like that kind of crushes you. Alice Munro has written about this. Who Do You Think You Are? is a perfectly titled book for people growing up with artistic ambitions in a small town. The town of Midland wasn’t particularly friendly to a writer because they just would have thought such ambitions were outlandish.
Can a case be made that growing up on the periphery like that leaves you free to cultivate your own sense of things?
Absolutely. That’s the good part of it. You just say, ‘Okay, “I’m going to do this my own way. I’m not going to get any help from the people around here.’ Not that writers necessarily need help but sometimes a little encouragement might help. But I didn’t get any of that and I didn’t expect to get any of that and you get used to that.
I was gobsmacked to read in your memoir that you suspect your mother likely never read any of your novels all the way through.
Oh, I’m sure that’s true. She wasn’t a literary person. She didn’t read much and didn’t read stories to me. She’d memorized fairy tales. She was a very interesting woman and I loved her deeply but she wasn’t literary. The world I was exploring was completely alien to her.
Now we know your father at least read the Somme section of 'Farthing’s Fortunes' because it jogged him to finally tell you something about his war experiences. Generally, were your father and your siblings a little more supportive, or, at least, interested in what you were up to?
No. My father was sort of puzzled by me, I think. But he loved me and that was it. I told him at one point, ‘I’m a bit odd,’ and he said, ‘I suppose so but it doesn’t matter.’ My brothers were just older brothers. I was always the brat. It’s interesting, one of my brothers phoned me the other day and he had his whole family there. And I was thinking they might not like this book because they don’t get much mention but he loved it. He said it was a wonderful book and he had all of his kids speak to me on the phone. I was quite touched by that. I didn’t expect it. And I’ve had a similar experience with one of my other brothers. One of my brothers unfortunately is slipping into dementia and doesn’t have the capacity to enjoy it. I have a sister who is also suffering from dementia. They’re all older than I am and they’re all in their 80s.
There’s that one lovely family photograph in the book from Christmas of 1953 – what a stunningly handsome crew.
We were rather good looking when you look back on it. All my sister cared about was looking pretty and my brothers all had money because they worked on the boats and would come home in the fall and buy clothes.
I think perhaps my favourite sequence in the whole book is the very liquid supper with adman Harry Painter who helps you realize that your three years’ investment in an education in radio and TV arts has been a total waste of time; that if you want to see your talent survive you must seek employment elsewhere. I know fiction writers hate to be asked, “Did that really happen?” But surely memoir writers can’t object.
That’s a true tale. He wasn’t named that, of course. I didn’t know where to go or what I should do. It’s so different from today when if you think you want to write, then you’ll join a group or take a class. There was none of that.
I love it when writers make mention of the books that really impacted and influenced them. One of yours that was huge for me as well and which no one else seems to talk about anymore is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
Oh yeh, a wonderful book. It reminded me a lot of my town and the people in it and oddly enough, when I went to Macmillan’s to work, the president of the company, John Gray, one time we were having a lunch at the Silver Rail and he said that when he was a kid he wanted to be a writer too and that was the book that really inspired him. But then he didn’t carry through with it and became very successful in publishing. He was very impressed that I’d read Winesburg, Ohio because even then, it was seen as out of date.
Writing about your years as a publisher’s reader and sales rep as well as your career as a novelist, 'A Life with Words' presents a history of Canadian publishing through the last third of the 20th century and up to the present day. And it’s interesting to see how you never really were part of the presiding zeitgeist.
I was clearly unimpressed by that very Canadian movement in the early 70s when I had my enemies. David Godfrey was my spectacular enemy. Do you remember him?
I remember the name. Things Go Better with Coca Cola? Is that him?
No, he was a big shot in pro-Canadian publishing [and one of the co-founders of House of Anansi]. And then he went off and wrote a book after a year in Africa [The New Ancestors]. He was my enemy and didn’t like my work at all and went out of his way to say so. In a very uncivil manner. I nearly punched him out once . . . should have now, when I think of it. He was part of it, and Margaret Atwood and these other people talking about ‘victimization’. I had no time for that. I was an outlier and was happy enough being out on the fringe of it. I wanted no part of the Toronto-centric writers’ scene and just ignored them and got on with my life.
This Godfrey book I’m thinking of was some kind of anti-American screed and the title, now that I think of it, was Death Goes Better with Coca Cola.
Yes, you’re absolutely right. Good for you. I’d forgotten that. That’s the same guy, yeh.
He was a pill.
A pain in the ass.
We hear so much about the collapse of publishing culture in the present day but some of the stuff you went through in the supposed heyday of Canadian publishing makes me wonder; has there ever been a golden period?
Well, speaking from personal experience I would say maybe the 70s and the 80s up until the collapse of it all with the internet. When we get into the 21st century and the internet is making such an impact on everything . . . and the word ‘blog’ had been invented . . . that to me is the ugliest word in the English language . . . I just know as I talk to publishers now, how desperate they are. They can’t send people out the way they used to. I used to go on tours right across the country but they can’t afford it now because the overheads are there and they’re not getting the same sales they used to get. We’re still in business, thank goodness. But there are a lot of publishers now who are just goofy publishers with goofy names like Book Thug and people like that. Thirty year-old teenagers I call these people.
I knew your career had gone through fluctuations but reading 'A Life with Words' - an author with four books under his belt, glowing reviews and the odd award and then you get that kiss off letter in 1980 from Macmillan’s new vice president who doesn’t seem to know that his firm is bringing out your fifth book in just a few more weeks . . . And then you have that low ebb where you get a royalty cheque for $2.85 . . .
I’ve got that on my office wall to remind me of hard days.
And you go, ‘My God, this man’s had rave reviews in The New York Times and The London Times, he picked up a Faber Fiction Award and he’s been published in how many different languages, and you’re treating him like this?
Yeh, that’s what happens. You’re only as good as your last bestseller, I guess. But I enjoyed the trip. That’s the point of it all. Though I had some rough times and had to cope with some serious anxiety at times, I’m glad I did it. I set out to do it and I’m glad I got it done and I can take that to my grave anyway.
If 'Clara Callan' hadn’t happened the way it did – and some of us believed you deserved that level of popular success all along – but if that book hadn’t taken off like that, how do you think you would look back on it all now?
I think I would still have enjoyed the experience. Clara Callan was a pleasant surprise. It’s not my favourite of the books I’ve written. It was a financial success for me more than anything. I got the Giller Prize [and the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Prize] which was a big help in establishing yourself as a serious writer. But without that, I think I would’ve carried on as I always have.
Looking back over them all, is there one book you wish people gave a little more attention or credit to?
I wish that the hockey book (The Age of Longing] had a few more readers. It did establish me after a very fallow period. I enjoyed writing that book an awful lot and I would have liked to see it do a little better. Mind you it was on the short list for the Giller Prize and that was really a sort of resurgence, a renaissance for me because I’d been going through a time when I wasn’t getting much attention. The Age of Longing was a book that made me want to go on writing at a time when I wasn’t sure and the red dog [of anxiety] was really barking at me.
That gets me to the end of my prepared questions. Is there anything else you’d like me to throw a little spotlight on?
No, I don’t think so. I want just to thank you for saying such good things about my work over the years. You’ve been a very loyal supporter of my work . . . (laughs) you and two or three other people.
Surely you have at least one person like me in most towns?
Well, I wouldn’t say in most towns, no. A little bit more now perhaps than when you and I were in London in those old days which I still remember with a great deal of pleasure.
Those were swell events. We’d get Chris Squire to cook us up a dinner and then knock back the scotch until three a.m. and talk about books until the cows came home or we all passed out.
Exactly. It was a terrific time. You can’t do that so much now. They won’t even send me to London. It’s great to hear from you again and hear that you’re still in business there with your Yodelling.
And I’m delighted to hear we’ll be getting another novel from you in the spring.
Yeh, we’ll see what happens. At my age I’m not going to worry too much about that.
THE TIMES ARE NIGHTFALL
The times are nightfall, look, their light grows less;
The times are winter, watch, a world undone:
They waste, they wither worse; they as they run
Or bring more or more blazon man’s distress.
And I not help. Nor word now of success:
All is from wreck, here, there, to rescue one –
Work which to see scarce so much as begun
Makes welcome death, does dear forgetfulness.
Or what is else? There is your world within.
There rid the dragons, root out there the sin.
Your will is law in that small commonweal.