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Interview

Born in 1950 in Newcastle, New Brunswick, David Adams Richards is one of Canada’s most prolific and powerful writers. His first novel The Coming of Winter was published in 1974, followed by three more novels from Oberon, a small press in Ottawa. In 1988 his Nights below Station Street (McClelland and Stewart) won the prestigious Governor General’s Award for fiction. The book was the first volume of his acclaimed Miramichi Trilogy, followed by Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) and For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down (1993), which garnered the Alden Nowlan Award and the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. In 1998 Richards won the Governor General’s Award again, this time for his fly fishing memoir Lines on the Water, making him one of three authors to win for both fiction and nonfiction. Two years later, his novel Mercy among the Children (2000) won Canada’s Giller Prize, prompting the Toronto Star to name Richards “one of the most distinct and compelling voices in contemporary fiction.” The Friends of Meager Fortune, his first historical novel (about the New Brunswick lumber industry’s last days before mechanization) won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. His screenplay Small Gifts received a Gemini Award for best writing and the New York Film Festival Award for best script. His most recent work of nonfiction, God Is, reached number one on the Globe and Mail nonfiction religion bestseller list. During his almost forty-year career, Richards has served as writer-in-residence at several universities and colleges, including the University of New Brunswick; worked as a mentor in the University of Toronto’s MA in creative writing program; and is currently artist-in-residence at his alma mater, Saint Thomas University. He has been named to the Order of New Brunswick and the Order of Canada for his contributions to literature. Richards was interviewed by Samuel Martin, his former student at the University of Toronto.

 

Image: You recently published God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular World. Why did you, as a novelist, feel the need to speak so candidly and boldly about faith in the public arena? Before you wrote the book, did you weigh the potential costs of addressing faith so directly?

David Adams Richards: Sure, all of that came into play. I am a novelist, but I knew what arena I was entering when I wrote the book. It is a difficult subject—but one which I had to address. My concern with those who say they give up faith is that they often do so pointing to self-righteousness and sanctimony as the reasons—that is, self-righteousness or hypocrisy on the part of church. My problem with this is that self-righteous sanctimony is a staple of secular moral preening. Since there is hypocrisy on both sides, it must be something inherent in us that we all have to fight. I believe the only way to fight this condition—a condition that I believe ultimately leads to great sorrow and sin—is through faith. So I had to write the book.

Image: You’ve dealt with sanctimony in your novels, both in and outside the church. But many of your critics don’t see a balance there. You’ve been accused of beating up on secularists, particularly academics. You say self-righteousness is something we all have to fight. What advantage do you think faith gives in this struggle?

DAR: Faith is an inherent condition. We all have it. We all use it. We all need it. The idea that only those who say they have faith actually have it is an absurdity. Those of us who say we have no faith, or that we do not need it as humans, have, in many cases, put our faith—sometimes complete faith—in something. As Tolstoy said, when speaking of the conceit of particular nations (the English, French, Italians, Russians, and so on), “the Germans are conceited because they have put their faith in science, something of their own invention, but something which they believe is absolute!” I would highlight the word absolute—at times secularists are evangelists for the absolute: in science, in philosophy, in psychology, in anything that will fill the void that trying to disbelieve in God has created. That is true sanctimony. The problem with certain reviewers is that they have not examined the motivation for the anger they feel when I address this duplicity. If I were talking about Catholics or Pentecostals being inconsistent in these things, they might herald me more. In fact, I have spoken of Catholics and others in just this way and the same reviewers have no problem at all with it.

Image: Why do you think that acknowledging the sacred in our midst—particularly in our literature—is so often considered taboo? And why, in much of your recent work—Mercy among the Children and The Lost Highway—is this idea, this belief, so central and so necessary?

DAR: I believe in many respects that in our culture it is taboo to be childish. That is, a child can love Harry Potter and that’s fine, but a real adult is supposed to find anything to do with faith silly and pointless—childish. But most of the irreverence is in fact quite juvenile—and men from Hitchens to Dawkins can’t avoid childish outbursts concerning it. Einstein once said that “Christianity will never be lessened by a smart remark” and I believe those who hold forth against it are so often of this type. There is also the idea of subjugation—which is taboo—and religion subjugates women in many ways, and this is anathema to the present culture. We know there is truth in this—religion has been tyrannical in a way it never should have been. And the church must own up to a lack of love and understanding. But though no institution is better than the men or women in it—faith always is. That is why it is central to my work. If there is error in religion it is not because of God—only man—and that error is seen elsewhere and everywhere man is. Which, as little Percy in Mercy among the Children understands by the time he is six, makes faith even more necessary.

Image: In Mercy among the Children people often see Sydney Henderson as a person of true faith, someone who has been abused by the church but still believes, and someone whose extreme pacifism is virtuous, especially in contrast to his violent son Lyle. How do you see these characters?

DAR: It is a standard reading, true, but not a complete or a fully accurate one. I think Sydney is very admirable and intellectually correct in many, many ways—but his faith is intellectual and mind-centered. That is not to say he does not know the truth—he does, and the last quarter of the novel, in a way, proves him right. But the intellectualization of his problem is at times irritating—and Lyle, for much of the novel, is not so violent. In fact, in how he treats his sister Autumn I believe he is doing what God calls us to do—to protect the weak and unfortunate. The problem with Lyle is that sooner or later he joins the very people who had once injured his family, and becomes, in some ways, a mirror image of those he was fighting. This is what Sydney knows complicity in violence will do. This, in fact, is the central question of the book: do we take action or don’t we? I think the two heroes of the novel are Sydney’s wife Elly and their youngest son Percy, and their daughter Autumn as well. Autumn is the one who, in the end, becomes the shining light of the family—but this does not diminish Lyle’s love or complexity, or, in some respects, his inner greatness.

Image: In God Is, you wrote that art that is “in conflict with God” is often “arguing with him in the very same way Job himself did,” and that in these works we don’t see “the absence of God, but the presence of God in the argument.” Who are some of these “God-grapplers” who have influenced you as a writer?

DAR: Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, Alden Nowlan, Faulkner, Hemingway, Emily Brontë—though I am not sure where they all exactly stood in terms of faith. But let’s take Conrad who dismissed Christianity—especially that of Dostoyevsky—by saying it was impossible to live up to. Yet in two of his books, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, the reversal of that statement is man’s salvation. That is, in Heart of Darkness it is the falling away of these unstated Christian values that diminishes Kurtz. Although Conrad was trying to show that Christian love succumbed to darkness, he managed to also show why it was essential and necessary to live: “Mr. Kurtz, he dead” echoes Christ saying “let the dead bury the dead.” This is further evidenced in Lord Jim where, going into the jungle and vowing never to be a coward again, Lord Jim becomes a great man not by ignoring Christian values so much as accepting his role as savior to a village of the downtrodden and neglected, even though he knows this will in the end cost him his life. “No greater love hath a man”—that is, if Conrad says Christianity is too hard to live up to, he also indicates (though he might not know it) that, at their best, men and women try, or should try, to do just that.

Image: You have often been called a Catholic writer, especially since the publication of God Is. Have you always (or ever) considered yourself a Catholic writer, given that the term does not enjoy the same currency that it did between the forties and sixties with such writers as Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Walker Percy?

DAR: Well, that is what they call me—but the ideas I deal with are fairly universal and in fact many people could be called Catholic writers. What is meant by this of course is that I am a writer who does not damn Catholicism out of hand, and this is annoying to some. However, one reviewer said that this only shows my power as a writer—that is, that even if some of my detractors call me a Catholic writer, and mean that as a slight, I am still read and loved by a great many, most of whom are non-Catholics.

Image: Tony Tremblay writes that your work is rooted in a “catholicity” that treats “the nobility of the person and the social conditions of his existence as the moral ground for narrative.” Do you think this is an accurate assessment of your work as a novelist?

DAR: Probably, yes—and also in my determination that, Catholic or not, certain things are rooted in the sacred and must be treated as such. I am not a great supporter of the pro-choice movement and that makes me an outcast, even among many of my friends, even if many of my books never touch on the subject. My main idea is only this: that those who have no quarrel with the world are the only ones able to save it.

Image: You have written about being a writer and an outcast: does being an outcast afford you any advantage as a writer?

DAR: Perhaps there is some advantage in the long run, and I am sure not everyone sees me as an outsider. However, it does leave you out of the equation. There are times when I do feel that it is a long battle—however, if I was not an outcast, in a way, I wouldn’t be able to write the way I do, and the way I must.

Image: Just now you said that “certain things are rooted in the sacred and must be treated as such.” What are some of these things, and how have you dealt with them in your novels?

DAR: People doing common everyday things. I said that those who have given up their fight with the world are the ones who save it. That is not as sexy as revolution, but no revolution will save the world. If common people like Maufat in Blood Ties or Joe Walsh in Nights below Station Street did not exist and have a common decency and goodness—which, in fact, are sacred—the world would not exist: it would have gone to perdition ten centuries ago. It’s those people—like Amos Paul in my new book Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul and Jay Beard in Mercy among the Children—who keep the world safe and sacred. Any child selling Kool-Aid shows hope and faith in a greater power—and they too allow us to see the sacred in our midst.

Image: When people try to describe your work they often draw comparisons to Faulkner, Hardy, and Dostoevsky. How would you describe your relationship with these authors in terms of influence and style?

DAR: I suppose I have been influenced by a good many writers and those are a few of them. But I would take any comparison only so far, and some of these comparisons are done by lazy readers. My work is about my own place and time and is essentially different from the work of other writers because of that. Also, I look at my characters much differently than Faulkner or Hardy do—and though I agree with Dostoyevsky in many things, I am writing about another place and time.

Image: Can you tell us about the place and time you write about? Your work is set almost exclusively in the Miramichi region of New Brunswick, which has prompted comparisons with Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Why has this place been of abiding interest for you over a nearly forty-year writing career?

DAR: I think because it is the world as much as any other place—just as much as Saint Petersburg or Mississippi or London or Paris. In fact, all people are regional, no matter how cosmopolitan they believe they are—and all people are in some sense cosmopolitan. I knew rich and poor, working class and intellectuals, prostitutes and nuns, decent people and murderers, all by the time I was fifteen—businessmen who were ethical and ones who were scoundrels, war heroes and cowards, bigots and tolerant people, those who knew art and philistines, and all in between. If I could not write about the Miramichi, then I guess I would never be able to write about anything, really. Writing does not come from an amount of time lived, or even from life experience, but from an instinct for life. That’s what allows a young woman under desperate duress to become Anne Frank. It also allows for Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë.

Image: Can we go back for a moment to how you view your characters? The idea of a person’s God-given humanity seems a constant theme in your work: how it is by turns celebrated, enacted, attacked, and denied. When you write of a person’s humanity, what do you mean? How, basically, do you see your characters and how do you hope your reader sees them?

DAR: This will not be a long answer. I think each one of us is as Tolstoy says, “not just a piece of this scrap of earth, but a part of the whole.” That is, we all have a spark of the divinity in us—some of us insult this all of our lives, some of us try not to, but most of us recognize this not only in ourselves but in others. My best characters see it in others and we recognize it in them—and in ourselves when we read about them, I hope.

Image: Wayne Johnson has said that you have an “unqualified love” for every one of your characters—for the wounded and for those who stand with them, but also (as one of your titles suggests) for those who hunt the wounded down. Have you ever created a character who you find difficult to love or to treat fairly?

DAR: Yes, some of my characters I find harder to love than others, but if you can’t love them it is hard to breathe life into them. Sadie in Road to the Stilt House was difficult, and Bennie in Lives of Short Duration, for instance.

Image: Your work has primarily been as a novelist. What is it about the novel form that intrigues you? What does it allow you to do that other forms of writing do not?

DAR: Well, it was just a matter of finding something I could do, actually. The short story form did not work for me, and, for the most part, neither did poetry. I started to write a story one day when I was twenty and it turned into a hundred and seventy page novel—a book that was never published in full. But after that I started to write novels because I found the length of the form allowed me to entertain my ideas better. Lately, I have been working in nonfiction, and I like that as well—essays, nonfiction books and such—and I have returned secretly to poems. But I guess first and foremost I am a novel writer.

Image: Tony Tremblay has made much of what he perceives to be a turn from a more subjective viewpoint in your first novels to an increasingly objective one. How would you articulate the differences between your earlier and later work?

DAR: I believe that happens to writers as they get older. The voice now is not so interior but more omniscient and analytical, and it suits what I want to do and say about the world around me. The early novels—like most books by young authors—were concerned with the world inside me. Both, however, explore many of the same themes—in fact, I have not changed a substantial opinion of mine in any substantive way since I was fifteen. I do know writers who have continually tried to reinvent themselves in order to be “in.” That is not something I would want to have to do.

Image: Out of all the inhabitants of your fictional Miramichi, which character do you feel has been most misunderstood? How would you defend this character?

DAR: Oh, there are many! Cecil, from Blood Ties, is looked upon as an abuser and a misogynist, and is neither. Yes, he is violent and acts stupidly on occasion, yet he loves his family dearly—and he is human—something, I think, that is not allowed when you are a male in modern literature: that is, to make human mistakes. John Delano, in the early books, is another I would defend. In the later novels he is a much reformed figure and a very wise and good RCMP officer. But my characters often get into trouble simply because they live in the rural and physical world and know things—like rifles and how to hunt and fish—much of which is frowned on or intentionally misunderstood. Yet in a way all of these people are positive and redeemed not only because they love but because they are loved by the writer. I think so, anyway.

Image: How did your love for Bennie in Lives of Short Duration, difficult as that love may have been, ultimately redeem him? Or Sadie in Road to the Stilt House?

DAR: With Sadie it was easier, with Bennie harder. Ultimately with the two I think I only achieved it partially—but you learn from that as a writer. Tolstoy felt this when he wrote The Cossacks and found he couldn’t love the main character enough. But he learned from that when he started War and Peace. So, in your failures you learn. I think Bennie and Sadie are part and parcel of the great world.

Image: You have a new novel coming out this year, Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul. What can you tell us about it and about the characters Amos Paul and Markus Paul?

DAR: Amos is the seventy-five-year-old chief of a Micmac reserve in crisis, and as the summer goes along he tries desperately to stave off a confrontation and bloodshed. He is a noble, kind, and gentle soul. Markus is his grandson who, twenty-one years later, solves the crime that Amos tried to solve before blood was shed. Amos does not manage to stop the crime, as much as he tries and as good as he is. That is the ultimate tragedy of the book.

Image: Would you ever consider Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul a crime novel?

DAR: I don’t think I’d call it that, no. I think it would be like calling the Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment or Heart of Darkness something like that.

Image: Though you are primarily known as a novelist, you have also written an award-winning memoir on fly fishing, Lines on the Water. Some people see fly fishing as a spiritual or moral practice, more than just casting a line. Do you?

DAR: I do not try to make it more than what it is—but it does have to do with the land and the water—and in that I suppose it brings us closer to God. I think many people have made fly fishing a kind of esoteric and intellectual pursuit. I try not to do this. However, there is certainly something magical about it.

Image: Do you have any plans for another nonfiction book or memoir in the near future?

DAR: At the moment I am not sure. I do have another memoir coming out this fall. It is a book on hunting—my family’s history, the traditions behind it, its validity in the place I grew up—a defense of it in some respects. I think it is a good book overall.

Image: Why do things like hunting and fishing—things common to rural life—need to be defended?

DAR: Simply because they are activities all men and women still do—that is, in urban centers people still fish and hunt, they simply go to the supermarket to do so. To put it bluntly, those who are so against these practices can be questioned as well, for if you eat meat you should be morally obligated to kill that which you eat at least once in your lifetime. Most hunters or fishermen do no more than that. That is, most hunters I know have taken no more than one or two animals over their lives. Of course there is wanton cruelty and stupidity as well—yes, and in farming animals this also happens. So the moral higher ground is often tainted with misconception. The new memoir deals with this to a degree.

Image: You have also written poetry (collected in the chapbook Small Heroics) and you were friends with the poet Alden Nowlan. Who was Nowlan to you, as a friend and as a writer?

DAR: He was a friend more than a mentor—of course he was older so I was influenced by him to a degree. He was a grand conversationalist and a brilliant thinker. I’ll tell you this story. Once I walked into the room and Alden was watching Peter Ustinov’s documentary on Russia. He got up and turned off the TV. I said, “Alden, don’t do that—you want to watch that!” He answered, “No, no—when David Adams Richards walks into the room and Peter Ustinov is on TV—off goes the television, yes sir—off goes the television.” He paused for a moment then said, “Mind you, if David Adams Richards were on television and Peter Ustinov walked in—I might be tempted to turn off the TV as well—I might be.”

Image: Do you have any advice for young writers, particularly those wanting to write from a faith perspective?

DAR: I would tell young writers to write what they know, of course—but also to write what they feel, and not what others in our society tell them they should feel. That is my suggestion for anyone writing anything. Remember, also, there is no target bigger or smaller than the human heart—just try not to hurt it when you hit it.


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