DAVID ADAMS RICHARDS is the author of several novels, including The Coming of Winter (Oberon, 1974), Blood Ties (Oberon, 1976), the Governor General's Award-winning Nights Below Station Street (McClelland & Stewart, 1988), and Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (McClelland & Stewart, 199 1), for which he won the Canadian Authors' Association Award. In the last year he has been writer in residence at the University of Ottawa and Mount Allison University. His latest novel, For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, was published last month by McClelland & Stewart. R. M. Vaughan spoke with Richards at his home in Saint John, New Brunswick.
BiC: You were once a creative-writing student and now you're working with students. Is it strange to be at the other end of the desk?
David Adams Richards: Well, in actual fact I was not a creative-writing student, though other writers certainly did help me. But I don't think you can teach writing. You can, I suppose, point out mistakes that writers probably know in their heart of hearts that they've made. And that's fine. But part of the discovery of your own voice, I think, is the ability to be allowed to make your own mistakes. I believe at times, with all due respect, that creative-writing courses are often more for the ego of the professors than for the benefit of the students - unless it's kept in mind that you cannot teach an instinct for life, nor can you teach life experience. To me, nothing matters in writing more than this. It is where the true emotional guts of talent lie. When a student has that, their mistakes finally won't matter. And all the right thoughts about the right and proper concerns don't matter either. I've made this clear to young writers I've come in contact with - write how you feel, not how someone tells you to feel. It might not make you popular when you do it, but you'll have a better chance of writing something worthwhile.
BiC: In some ways the dilemma you describe - between writing what is expected and what is actual - parallels the tiresome habit in Canadian criticism of defining or marking the "regional" elements in our literature.
Richards: Well, it certainly is a problem here from time to time. For instance, if you are read as a Newfoundland writer first, or a New Brunswick writer first, instead of just a writer, there is an implied idea that you are trying to cosy up to your "superiors" by exposing the hinterland where you live. Nor does it matter how subtle this idea is, it's a patronizing idea even if the critics are being generous. It's as if writing about a rural or smaller place means your characters have nothing to do with people in urban centres. Of course, these critics are the same people who don't know that their counterparts in previous generations said the same things about the Brontes or Hardy or Faulkner. The urban-centric view is one that so many rural writers try to copy, to the detriment of their writing. There are writers in New Brunswick, and elsewhere, who find it fashionable to talk about the hinterland in the same way a fashionable urban writer from Vancouver might. What I'm getting at is not that people shouldn't talk about places in this way, but that it produces a kind of sameness - an almost blatant lack of vision that passes for overall truth.
BiC: Critics often read your work as if no other place in Canada has illiterate, poor, or unhappy people. It strikes me as reductive.
Richards: But who are these critics to say that I write about illiterate, poor, and unhappy people? Few of my characters are illiterate - not that I think illiteracy would be an entirely unhappy circumstance. I've written nine books. In seven or eight of these the characters work at jobs that without a doubt are the staples of Canadian employment. It would take a critic with an impossible cultural bias to assume that working at a mill or a mine is in itself a terrible occupation - the same sort of critic who is almost always a fashionable devotee of the NDP. You know, the party that believes it knows about work?
Our country for the most part is still made up of small mill-towns and skating rinks. How can we condescend to it? A writer I know once criticized the smell of a pulp mill for "damaging his sensitivity," then wrote an article about literacy. Well, someone in that pulp mill ha off making the paper that helped him be so eloquent and concerned. And only the totally beguiled would assume that a whole section of Canadian life - hundreds of thousands of people - are more unhappy than you or I might be at any given moment. Somehow they've missed the real things people rely upon for happiness.
BiC: Some literati in New Brunswick charge that you've become the cultural spokesman for the province, and a bad one. Your work, according to them, reinforces central Canadian stereotypes.
Richards: There are all kinds of spokespeople in the writing community here. But I'm not one of them. My work only pertains to itself In fact, what my work is really about, besides clay-to-day life, is spiritual courage, which can be attained by everyone or missed by anyone. This theme has only been spoken about by four or five of my critics in the last 20 years. There are poor people in my work, and rich people too, and most of them are searching for some kind of fulfilment in their lives. Now, I don't think this makes me a spokesman for anyone. On the contrary, it might make me less of one, and I'm not at all unhappy about that.
In my novels self-sacrifice is always more important than empowerment. This is no longer a trendy ideal. So, in many ways my work doesn't reinforce the centralized view of the Maritimes -it refutes it. Or questions it.
BiC: Is that why Evening Snow got such harsh reviews in central Canada?
Richards: I'm not sure. It certainly got some very good reviews also. But the harsh reviews managed to be harsh without ever saying what was so bothersome about the novel. What a number of critics wanted was to have their values reaffirmed with guidelines on how to help people they ultimately felt superior to. Among certain schools of critics all the questions have now been answered, so we should not be allowed to ask them again -whether those questions are about family violence, the true nature of goodness, or any other issue. But I always ask questions in my books, especially about the nature of violence and what constitutes a good action. To me, only spontaneous action is good action. Violent action is never spontaneous, as much as it may seem so, but is always determined action. Evening Snow is, in part, about the nature of the tie behind determined social altruism, as opposed to the value of spontaneity as it appears in someone who is considered violent. I don't think this side of the novel was more than glanced at.
BiC: Your new book is the story of Jerry Bines, a murderer who first appeared in Road to the Stilt House (Oberon, 1985). Bines will inevitably be discussed as a fictionalization of the serial killer Alain Legere.
Richards: Not if people actually read the book. It does not interest me to write about Mr. Legere. This novel is about the character Bines's attempts to find his way toward some kind of truth during the last few months of his life. Jerry Bines has committed violent crimes in his past, but the book is about his attempts to find redemption, to deal with what he's done, maybe salvage something of his life from his past. The book's not a gruesome murder-on-the-Miramichi book. In fact, there's no real violence in it at all. So anybody who comes to the book looking for a true-crime story will find a novel about unsolvable questions of redemption and coming to terms with your past. People will say Bines is Legere whether or not I go on national TV and say he isn't. I can't control that. My interests are deeper, they're about the "eternal" questions - discovering truth, the nature of sin and redemption -and I don't think they can be looked at when all the attention is focused on the acts themselves.
BiC: It must be almost impossible to work out an ending for such a novel, one where you admit you've taken on unanswerable questions?
Richards: I had this novel's beginning and end in my mind when I started. It's the process of arriving at the character's own conclusions that was difficult. I knew what sorts of things I wanted Jerry to discover, but I didn't know how he got there - more unanswerable questions. I think all in all it's a moving story, and I'm glad I wrote it. I'm working on a new book now that takes place in Fredericton and Saint John.
BiC: At the risk of asking the same question, will this be a New Brunswick Wilderness Tips? A roman a clef?
Richards: No. I'm not sure if I've ever written about any one person anywhere, or if I ever would. I think writers have to have a lot of themselves in their books to make them work.
BiC: Do you still write poetry?
Richards: I wouldn't mind trying it again. It's been an awfully long time since I thought about poetry. Whenever I think about writing, the idea of writing, it almost always takes the shape of a novel or a screenplay. There's a screenplay in the works for Nights Below Station Street.
BiC: You're the latest winner of the Canada-Australia "ter's prize, which has a somewhat odd premise - that the two countries have a special bond in their literatures.
Richards: I'm looking forward to the trip. But I don't agree that it's unusual for Australia and Canada to feel a connection. I would guess both countries feel somewhat disconnected from the "grand markets" - London or New York - and that maybe we both think we're writing from the periphery. I've never been there, and I'm supposed to do a reading tour and see some of the country. It's an interesting idea, this literary connection. I don't think the model works as welt for French-Canadian writers. The Australians, like us, think their work is important and yet they're uncertain about where it belongs, how viable it is in a global sense. All the usual frustrations, I guess.
BiC: Does your frustration over the politics of regionalism ever prompt you to write for the mass media?
Richards: I'm not sure I'd trust that because I'm not sure how useful the media can ever be. If you start to use the media for various things it will come back at you. I think basically a novelist's job is to bloody well write novels; even though you could say my writing has changed stylistically and become more objective, less internal, which is the style of most non-fiction or media writing.
BiC: You recently spent some time in the southern United States, and you have an interest in the American Civil War. Do you see parallels between the post-Confederation Maritimes and the American South?
Richards: I think there is a relation there, but I don't know how accurately you can express it, because I think it's more of a spiritual thing. There are definite parallels between our writers, unconscious parallels, particularly in the works of the last generation - someone like Alistair MacLeod. Both are lands of defeat, and both retain a rural sensibility and a Celtic tradition - many old Maritime family names from Ireland, Scotland, or Wales are present in the South as well. Alden Nowlan once said that both are lands of soldiers, because poorer parts of a country always are, and certainly up until the late 1950s that was true here. Many young kids joined the forces to get ahead. One of the other great similarities is that both places have a history of being parodied and condescended to by the urban centres. The stereotype of the fat, bigoted Alabama sheriff is everywhere in American entertainment. Well, if Toronto ever did have an idea of New Brunswick it would be an idea learned from a movie about Alabama.But the South has grown so much over the last decades that maybe we don't have as much in common as we used to. Places like Texas are as big and developed as the northern United States, so maybe we're less alike now.
BiC: We don't have all that oil money.
Richards: Certainly not. In a way, with all due respect, our centre's inability to embrace its "margins," the so-called rest of the country, betrays a sad provincial mentality. New York City can embrace artists from Texas or Tennessee or wherever because it is sure of itself, knows who it is. I don't think central Canada has that ability because it's still insecure about where it belongs, or to whom it belongs. So, the irony is that central Canada's resistance to the east is not so much a superiority complex in action as it is fear: a very parochial fear of the outsider.