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The day before I met with him, David Adams Richards' most recent book, Mercy Among the Children, had been nominated for the Giller Prize, one of Canada's most coveted literary awards. While clearly pleased and possibly chuffed by this turn of events, Richards is coy about the nomination. "We'll see what happens." Since then, the book has also been nominated for a Governor General's Award for fiction and has been reviewed to choruses of gushing from the generally reserved literati.
At 50, Richards is one of Canada's most celebrated little known authors. Perhaps lacking the sex appeal that has followed the careers of some of his peers -- Margaret Atwood, for instance, or Michael Ondaatje (both of whom also had books nominated for the GG for fiction in 2000) -- Richards' work is almost always raved about by the critics and widely passed over by the book buying public, something that is inexplicable considering the near-orgasmic reviews his most recent works have received from even the toughest critics. For instance, Quill & Quire -- one of Canada's best known literary publications and a magazine not known for simpering -- said that "Richards' narrative voice is simply astounding," and that "Mercy Among the Children is truly a great book, a grand achievement, a masterpiece." Hardly a review one would expect of a book by an author whose name is seldom recognized out of the New Brunswick home town that figures so prominently in his work.
Within the literary community, however, David Adams Richards is a star. One of the few writers to have won the coveted Governor General's Award twice -- in 1988 for Nights Below Station Street and in 1998 for the non-fiction Lines on the Water -- Richards has won or been nominated for almost every award for which he's been eligible including winning the New York International Film Festival Award for Best Script in 1996 for the original screenplay Small Gifts.
In person, David Adams Richards does not reek of this stardom, however. He doesn't sizzle, though perhaps he seethes. A quiet man, he is modest and unassuming, with a self-deprecating style and a laugh that fills his whole face. His personal style smacks of the same uncompromising quality that is characteristic of his work. Unshaven and comfortable in a cable knit sweater for a day filled with interviews, you understand very quickly that the Richards you are meeting is the only one there is: honest, friendly, forthright and brilliant. Take me as I am.
Like all of his fiction, Mercy Among the Children is set in the Miramichi Valley, a real New Brunswick locale that Richards has recreated for his use. "And it's my world, but it's a microcosm of the world." The Miramichi as a metaphor for humanity as a whole. Or rather, for rural humanity, because Richards has a special fascination with rural lifestyles. "I think rural men and women in our society are losing a battle. I think they're extremely condescended to and misunderstood so much of the time."
Richards quails at being called a regional writer, though he admits it happens less now than it did earlier in his career. He says that while his characters "come from the fabric and the soil of the Miramichi... if that was the only thing that was interesting about them, I wouldn't bother writing about them."
At its core, says Richards, Mercy Among the Children is about power. "Because I almost always think it's a corrupting influence sooner or later."
David Adams Richards lives in Toronto with Peggy, his wife of 29 years, and their sons John Thomas and Anton.
Linda Richards: I read the Quill & Quire review of Mercy Among the Children. The review is so good it's almost embarrassing. I mean, they gushed!
David Adams Richards: Yeah: it was a very good review. But I wasn't embarrassed [Laughs]. But yes: it's a fabulous review. One of the best reviews I've ever gotten for a book. The Toronto Star review was maybe as good. And the Globe and Mail review was very good. The reviews generally were very good. And even when they took issue with the book, they ended up by saying: This is an original and important book that must be read. So even when they took issues with what I was doing, they ended on a positive note. So that's good, I guess.
What kind of things do they take issue with?
Well, you know, sometimes it's just little picky things. Like: In the book Richards' description of mercy isn't really mercy and justice isn't really... you know? And I say: Oh, pshaw, because I'm not using them literally anyway. It means different things to different people. Stuff like that. And the one guy said the ending was contrived and I just don't think the ending is contrived. I think it had to be that way. But, besides that, he said the book must be read. So that's good. When you publish a book and put it out you have no idea if you'll get one good review, let alone three or four. You just don't know. A book comes out that you've spent two years on and sometimes it just gets panned. Just gets written off. And I've had books that have gotten panned by reviewers.
Not for a while, though.
No. You're right. But I have had that experience. So you just never know. Because once a book goes out it's no longer yours. Then it has a life of its own. Whatever happens with it is its own kind of life.
It seems as though your reputation builds with each book. And you keep winning all of these fabulous awards and getting nominated for wonderful things. Are the books selling better, as well?
Yeah, they are. My books are starting to sell now, which is another nice thing. Because for a long while they didn't sell. For a long while if I sold 200 books, I be saying: Oh, great! [Laughs] And, you know, a $50 advance! That's great. [Laughs] I only worked three years, I don't know if I can spend $50. Well, that's a little bit exaggerated and there are no guarantees, but some of the books are selling pretty well.
The books of yours that reviewers didn't like, is there anything you felt was different, or...
No. As a matter of fact, I think that this book is really a culmination of my last seven books. My determination to study the courses of violence and the courses of, well -- for the lack of a better word -- of pacifism within my characters and decide over the course of the last four, five or six novels, what paths are best to take.
The individual characters themselves decide. I mean, once the book gets started, the characters kind of take over. But it's an ongoing study of, well, of the human condition. But it's also a study of how to counteract violence against physical, emotional, economic and how people group among each other in certain senses to achieve power. And how that power can be so core, not only to themselves, but to other people. I really started that before Nights Below Station Street. I started that study, really, with Road to the Stilt House  and this is a culmination of that. Because it's fascinated me. Power has fascinated me. And men and women with power have fascinated me. Because I almost always think it's a corrupting influence sooner or later. That doesn't mean it's bad or mean or evil, that just means that Leo McVicer in this novel uses his enormous economic power and he thinks he's making himself safe by this, when he really doesn't. And when Rudy Green ends up having economic power, he destroys his life. So, it's an interesting kind of thing in my characters. Not only economic power, but intellectual power. The power of the professor in the novel and Diedre Whyne. Enormous intellectual gifts, and using them to dominate someone who she really cares for -- I mean, she loves Elly. There's no question -- but it's: I love you on my terms, rather than your own terms. And when it's all over, how tragic Diedre Whyne is at the last, because not only is Elly gone, but so much of what she wanted is futile in the face of Elly's gentleness and goodness. It's just such a contrast. And that doesn't make Diedre Whyne a bad person. In some respects Diedre Whyne is a heroic person. It's interesting to me and something I've been writing about for a long while.
Something you're passionate about, as well. I can see it.
How much of that is tied into place. Because place is really important in your novels.
It's very important, because the characters come from the soil. They're like the trees, in a certain respect. They cling to that river and that soil, but as Jack Hodgins once said about my writing -- which was one of the kindest things any writer has said about my writing -- he said: David, you aren't writing about the Miramichi Valley, you're writing about Campbell River where I come from. Because every character you talk about is a character I've met here in Campbell River.
And that's basically what I'm doing. Of course my people are Miramichi. Of course they come from the fabric and the soil of the Miramichi but if that was the only thing that was interesting about them, I wouldn't bother writing about them. Because Cynthia Pit [another character in Mercy Among the Children] can come from anywhere. Cynthia Pit is this rural, uneducated, brilliant woman. I've seen hundreds of women like that across the country. I've seen them in Cape Breton, I've seen them in Saskatchewan. She lived life by her own terms for a long time and succeeds very well, until it kind of crumbles around her. And she is brilliant. She knows, as she says at one point, that knowing the machinations of men has always been her forte. She's an extraordinary character, but I don't think she's particularly unusual. I think there are women like that. And I think there are men like Mat Pit. I think it could be read anywhere, is what I'm saying.
You've been tied to that place, though. You've said before that you have quite a bit of passion for the area, as well.
Absolutely. I think rural men and women in our society are losing a battle. I think they're extremely condescended to and misunderstood so much of the time. It seems at first glance, by a person who comes to my work anew -- without maybe reading what's under the surface tensions -- that I'm condescending to them too, but I'm not doing that at all. I'm doing just the opposite. Even Mat Pit I admire tremendously. People like Mat Pit have been laughed at, ridiculed and feared most of their lives. And "fears" is the [key] word: Why they're laughed at and ridiculed is because they're feared. And they're not only feared because they're strong, physical men. They're feared also because they're intelligent with ideas that are perhaps not accepted anymore. It doesn't make those ideas any less valid, it's just that the age has moved on. In a way, these novels umbrella people like that and say we are all in some ways a part of them and them a part of us. Or there is no humanity. Because, certainly at the end Mat Pit realizes his humanity. It's too late, but he realizes. And the humanity of Elly and Lyle and Sydney Henderson I don't think could be questioned by anybody.
You've lived in Toronto for the last few years?
Yes. Three years.
Is it harder to write about the Miramichi from a big urban center?
It's not harder at all. It's the very same thing Tolstoy said about the rural mentality. Tolstoy made the observation that most people think or believe that the rural life deprives you of intellectual curiosity. Many times, just the opposite is true. And what I'm trying to show here is that the intellectual curiosity -- not only of Sydney Henderson and Diedre Whyne but also Leo McVicer, who is extremely astute, extremely clever and Cynthia Pit who is absolutely brilliant in knowing how society works from the courts to the laws to the police. Her own hubris and ego does her in, but she's no one's fool. I'm saying that -- good, bad or indifferent -- these are admirable traits in people and rural people have them just as much as anyone else.
Do you think maybe that the rural lifestyle feeds some of that as well? That maybe rural people are more in touch with their surroundings and their lives?
Well, it might or might not. I can't say. But it's kind of like -- and this has been said by lots of other writers -- like a small microcosm of the world. And it's my world, but it's a microcosm of the world. So it's like Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights or Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or [works by] Flannery O'Conner or Joseph Conrad. The same kind of thing. It's very funny because, as a general rule, Canadians will call a person that writes about the Miramichi Valley a regional writer. At the same time they would never say that about Conrad or Hardy or anyone else but Hardy, in his own day and Conrad in his own day and especially Emily Bronte, were accused of all the same kind of things that regionalists in Canada get accused of today. In that kind of shortsightedness that comes not so much from the rural observer but the shortsightedness that comes sometimes from urban critics. So they missed that the writer is explaining the whole world.
Every writer fails and I don't succeed, but that's what I'm attempting to do with the Miramichi region, which in my books is a fictional world. There's no Arron Brook on the Miramichi. There's no place called The Stumps. And I put Oyster River in a different place because it's my own fictional place. So you can do with it what you will. Faulkner was not completely wrong when he put: Sole Owner and Proprietor on the map of the Yoknapatawpha County because it is a fictional dimension, it is a fictional world.
The characters are very real. I know people like Mat Pit. And I know people like Lyle Henderson. And I know people who were almost as poor as the Hendersons or maybe poorer, though I certainly didn't grow up that poor. And I know people who are self-taught. I mean, I know people who were reading the classics when they were 11-years-old and lived in a dirt shack. And I actually do know people who did that: absolutely brilliantly self-taught with no advantages. So when I write about Sydney Henderson, I write about these people: people I remember. They're incorporated into it, but it is fiction.
Do you hear from people?
Yeah: I do hear from people. Both good and bad, but the best thing is, I go back fishing on the Miramichi. Fly fishing. I'm no longer a resident there and people in Ottawa -- just before I got to the Miramichi on my tour this time -- interviewed me. Something like this. And the guy was going on: What do the Miramichiers think of you writing about their poor and their destitute? And I said: Well, you're missing the entire book, but, I said, that's up to the Miramichiers. I can't speak for the Miramichiers.
So I went down and I was at the Miramichi and I don't own any property on the Miramichi; I don't live there anymore, so I can't be called a resident so I can't get my fishing license. So by an act of Cabinet last week they made me an honorary Miramichier. [His voice seems to break slightly: his emotion is obvious.] So I can go fishing. It was very nice of them and very touching.
I'm sure that some of my books must bother them. Some of my books bother anybody, but I do believe that overall a lot of them realize that this is fiction and this is a fictional world and -- for the most part -- I'm writing because I care about them, not because I want to expose them or something. And that's the difference.
I guess in the Maritimes getting an honorary fishing license is like getting a key to the city. [Laughs]
It's almost better. Anyway, it was very nice.
You talked about power -- and the interplays of power -- with some passion. I was wondering where that passion came from.
Well, I'm telling you it might be -- and I never know how to say this because it brings up bad memories -- but I grew up in the 60s. I grew up when power was the main focus of the people. And the terrible Vietnam war was on and all of this stuff. And I was no supporter of the Vietnam war, but I saw how friends of mine used the peace movement of that time for their own gain. And I saw how lives were bullied and humiliated by this peace movement for people for their own gain, at universities. And [my wife] Peggy and I became outcasts because I refused to participate.
There was a real energy about all of this then that seems faded now, but I thought that if power is so easily attained and misused by people who say they're for peace then there must be something fundamentally wrong with it. I didn't set out to write about it, but over the years I've become more and more passionately concerned about what that wrong is.
I know a man who took a busload of kids down to Washington just after Kent State. I know in my heart he wanted some of those kids killed there in Washington so he could make Time magazine. I know it. I refused to participate in it and I know it. And, of course, if I say that, well he would just deny it and who am I? But, still and all, this is the abiding idea that influence used in a wrong way -- no matter if it's for a good motive -- underscores human frailty from top to bottom. I'm not saying these people are good or bad, I'm just saying it's a human failing. The idea of a good motive that covers up a self-serving motive covers humanity from top to bottom.
At some points in our lives we get power without meaning to. You have power.
Yes, absolutely. That's absolutely true. This is the same question I ask myself and my wife. Because, of course I do. I agree absolutely with you. And we all have power. And we can all use it. And we all do. And most of the time it's benign. But in this case, with Mat Pit and Cynthia and what they try to do, it's not benign. And it starts out: it's not a great big evil. It starts very small, really. And it just mushrooms until it ensnares everyone. It ensnares everyone in a lie that no one can get rid of anymore.
Are you working on anything now?
Well, I've got to start doing a script for Hockey Dreams for [a film company] in Winnipeg. And I just finished the script for The Bay of Love and Sorrows. And I've got to do a hunting book. I did a fishing book and now I've got to do a hunting book.
Are you a hunter?
I used to be. I haven't hunted now in probably about seven years. I went out hunting partridge about three years ago just to get out into the woods, but I haven't really hunted big game for about seven years.
A lot of reasons. One is that...
Talk about power!
Yeah, but it's also a philosophical duty that if you eat meat you have a moral obligation to kill that of which you eat at least once in your life to know where it comes from. But, well, whatever.
You mentioned Peggy, your wife. I know you've been married for a long time.
Years! [Laughs] It'll be 29 years by November.
You were babies when you got married.
Yeah: babies. 21-year-old babies. I met her at the age of 17. Out for a drive. There she was. And, so anyway, we've been hanging around ever since.
Two boys. Ten and five. So we'll be old by the time they get out of the house. We may not even get out of the house. They might just take it over. [Laughs] Anyway, this long conversation that I have with myself about power and violence it's more a question of the sensibility of what it is and isn't that empowers you. My job is not to instruct people but just to remind people, because people know anyway.
You don't dwell on anything [in the novel]. You have a very subtle hand. And you leave a lot unsaid. Is that intentional?
Yeah, but I do so more now than I ever used to. I do leave a lot unsaid, but I think most writers do. Most writers I admire, anyway. But I remember saying one time: This is the way I'm going to write now. This is the analytical way I'm going to discuss the events of my characters lives. Because I've done it the other way. I mean, I've done it lyrically and I've done it subjectively in my earlier books and this is the way I want to do it for the last two books that I write. And I'm going to do it this way.
For the last few books you're going to write...
Yeah, for the last few books I'm going to write.
I'm going to be analytical, is what I mean.
But you're still writing more books?
Yeah, I think I'll probably write two or three more novels, that's what I can think of writing. But I've written 15 books or so now. If I write two or three more novels, that'll be fine.
I'll always be doing some writing, whether it's essays, poetry, commentary -- well not commentary -- but maybe scriptwriting. Another non-fiction book for sure, after the hunting book. But if I write two or three more novels that'll be a lot of novels. That'll be almost 15 novels, let alone... that's enough. I'll go on and do something else. I really don't have the desire to do too much more than that.
I have a novel that I want to write about my father's business, which was a theater. He owned a movie theater. And then there's a novel about John Delano who is a police officer in this book and my last two books and Kathy McDermott who was the heroine of Blood Ties. And I have a novel that deals with them when they're in their 50s. They were boyfriend and girlfriend when they were 17. And in the novel [Blood Ties] they went to a fortune teller at the circus. And the fortune teller told Kathy that she would be married twice. Kathy assumed -- and I think even at the time that I was writing the novel I may have assumed -- that John Delano would be her first husband and then he would either die or they'd get divorced and she'd remarry. At the end of the novel Blood Ties she leaves for Ontario. So she comes back 30 years later and she marries John Delano as her second husband. So this is what I want to end my novels on because this is really where I started.
Never say never, though. You're only 50 now.
That's old. That's old for a Miramichier. [Laughs] You make it to 25 and you're doing good. I've outlived that by two times.
Oh, I don't know. Who knows?
Do you think you'd ever move back to the Miramichi?
Not to live. We want to get a place there. We want to get a cottage there so we can go back in the summer. But I don't think I'll go back there to live. God knows, though, I mean next month or a year from now I could be back there, because I never know really. If you'd asked me five years ago if I'd ever move to Toronto, I would have said: Why would I ever? And now I'm there, so... As Tennessee Williams said, the one thing a writer can do is he has the freedom to leave anywhere in the middle of the night. That's one freedom a writer does have.
Until the kids start school.
You're absolutely right. And then you're obligated, for their sake, to try and make it a home as much as possible. If it was just Peg and I now, we'd probably be in Spain. We love Spain and we have more money now than we had before and we'd probably live some of the year there, but with kids you just can't do that.
What does Peg do. Is she a writer as well?
No, no. She has a whole love hate relationship with the whole idea of writing. Of course she would. She went to school and became a secretary at 17 and helped her family which wasn't well off. And helped her mom and the younger kids. After we got married she kept me alive pretty much for 10 or 12 years. And sometimes she didn't have work, so neither of us had any money. I think the last thing she'd want to do is write. | November 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.