Cultural madman; For Richard B. Wright, writing didn't get easier, it got better
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 September 2015)

Wes Wakeham, the narrator of Richard B. Wright's first novel, The Weekend Man, makes a heroic effort to fight the boredom of his life in suburban Toronto.

Every morning, he chooses his route to work by lottery. A jar on the counter of his kitchenette contains 18 pieces of paper on which he's written detailed routes. The shortest takes about five minutes. The longest takes him down all the back streets and requires half an hour. His iron rule calls for him to follow whatever directions he pulls out of the jar. In this way he's managed to make part of his life unpredictable and rendered the geography of his surroundings alien.

I can remember exactly where I was 45 years ago when I read that passage. It was 1970, a bright Saturday morning. My laughter woke my wife in bed beside me. I apologized but said that since she was awake anyway she might not mind if I read this piece to her. Generously, she said she didn't mind. When I read it, she too laughed.

Wakeham's great comic quality is the level of seriousness he devotes to a problem others would consider trivial. I enjoyed the rest of The Weekend Man and have since followed Wright's work with interest. Now, at age 78, he's given us a wonderfully readable memoir, A Life with Words.

Wright tells his story in the third person, which turns out to be surprisingly effective. He looks back on his life with clinical detachment, reducing the story to essentials. As in many cases, the love of a good woman plays a crucial role. He makes it clear that his wife Phyllis is enthusiastic and resourceful as well as lovable, sometimes even more willing than he is to take risks for the sake of literature.

He grew up in Midland, and early in childhood, he grasped the way words affect human lives. There was a high school teacher who drew him into Shakespeare by getting the class to read aloud parts of Macbeth.

He didn't see himself as a future novelist and never discussed such a possibility. The people around him did not admire artistic ambition. A good hockey player might reasonably hope to play in the NHL. That was something Midland could understand. But it would have been presumptuous to express an interest in being a writer.

As he grew, his interest in storytelling became a private pursuit. In the basement he acted out the parts from favourite books or stories he invented. His parents knew he was an odd kid but left him alone. As Wright notes, he was living in an Alice Munro story, alone with his books and his words.

He spent a few years in misdirected efforts. He worked briefly on a weekly newspaper, where he interviewed a farmer about his prize sow and felt like sobbing as he foresaw years of producing that kind of feature.

He read and re-read Conrad, Joyce and Faulkner. He wrote to a dozen publishers asking for a job. At Macmillan Canada, his letter was read by the late Kildare Dobbs, a talented man of letters, who asked that he come in for an interview.

At Macmillan he wrote a juvenile novel and then left to write The Weekend Man. That book won good reviews in Britain and the U.S. but Wright assumed he'd never support his wife and two sons with novels. He needed a full-time job. Typically, he followed the bookish advice of Dunstan Ramsay, the narrator in Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies, who says misfits are the best educators of young people. That's why private schools are better than public: "They can accommodate a few cultural madmen on the staff without having to offer explanations." So Wright decided in 1973 that he might qualify. In 1976 he began teaching English at Ridley College, in St. Catharines. He stayed there until his retirement in 2001.

In his second novel, The Age Of Longing, Wright returned to a town much like Midland and brought freshness to a familiar story about a young athlete. Buddy Wheeler is the town's star hockey player who lives in "a male world of cold arenas and beer parlours," but can't turn his talent into a profession. He quits too easily. Perhaps, writing that story, Wright compared himself with Buddy and reminded himself of the persistence a writer needs, the ability to come back after a defeat and start over.

In the course of writing a dozen novels, Wright has discovered that it gets even harder with practice. He describes the agonies of false starts and attacks of depression that afflicted him on the way to Clara Callan, his 2001 novel. It won the Giller Prize, the Trillium Book Award, and the Governor General's Award and brought a fresh focus to his earlier books. A Life with Words contains several happy endings, made happy by determination and carefully developed talent.

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