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Writing About Ghosts: An Interview With David Adams Richards

The author of Crimes Against My Brother speaks with Craig Davidson about the presence of God in his fiction, working class characters, and not condescending to the religious.

Writing About Ghosts: An Interview With David Adams Richards

CRAIG DAVIDSON was born and grew up in St....

|| Author David Adams Richards

In the early 2000s, I moved out east to work on an English degree at the University of New Brunswick. Until then I had been a voracious horror and spec-fic reader. Sure, I’d read Fifth Business and The Stone Angel in high school, and had genuinely loved The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Never Cry Wolf, plus I’d blitzed through The Handmaid’s Tale while on a dystopian kick, but otherwise I was shamefully behind on my Canlit. This was partially due to my sense, fairly or not, that there didn’t seem to be much in our country’s literature that spoke to me. And while not all of it does (in the way that no country’s literature speaks to its citizens in every instance), many of the novels I read during those years revised my opinion. I discovered Wayne Johnston, Mark Jarman, Alice Munro (pitiful, I confess, to come to her so late…), Ann-Marie McDonald, Alistair MacLeod, and so many others.

But none of them hit my sweet spot quite so … well, sweetly, as David Adams Richards. I remember sitting down with his novel For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (for my money, the most evocative title in all Canadian literature)—the hours bled past, the sun set, the phone rang, and I paid no attention to any of it. A ticker tape parade could have passed my door and I would have remained oblivious. Richards has that rare ability to transport: to take a reader like me, with my particular sentiments and sensibilities, completely out of my own skin and relocate me in the pages of his books. Soon afterwards he won the Giller for Mercy Among the Children (another kickass title, if you’re counting) and those readers who may have missed the Richards bandwagon began to hop aboard. I was amongst their number, clinging desperately to my seat.

Since then Richards has continued to produce strong books at a remarkable clip. His novels hold many of the same hallmarks: they are set in New Brunswick, mainly the Miramichi, a territory Richards has indelibly staked out. His characters are beset by cruel forces and made the playthings of fickle fate; they are questing and questioning; they are sometimes venal (Richards writes a certain type of character, the “small-town Machiavellian entrepreneurial bully” you might call him, as well as anyone I’ve ever read). Yet you can tell that Richards cares about these people deeply and passionately. His books are often about characters struggling for a little dignity, a few possessions, a fleeting glimpse of the divine in a realm where fate and circumstance conspire to make a mockery of those small ambitions.

You might think this would mean they’re dour narratives, leeched of wonder and happiness—if so, my description has done them a disservice. Richards’ universe is hard, yes, and often heartbreaking, but it is also suffused with moments of profound natural beauty, hard-won nobility, grace, and hope. He is unlike any other writer I’ve read, Canadian or otherwise. My own writing, its obsessions and outlook, owes a great deal to him. Our characters hold the same sense of hopeful expectation, that sense of straining towards an ennoblement of spirit that is too often withheld by fate, by circumstance, by forces unseen—though I realize I’m flattering myself in this comparison.

I sat down with David when dropped by Toronto in service of his latest novel, Crimes Against My Brother. We spent a lovely hour in conversation. As is to be expected, David was charming, gracious, and incisive about his own work, the presence of God in his fiction, and a great many other things.

Do you consider yourself something of an outsider as a Canadian writer? I’ve felt that way myself and only lately has that self-perception started to change. Where do you think you sit within it the culture of Canadian writing?

Well, probably for a person that feels that way, it’s almost impossible to define. I think that in many respects I’m a rather subversive writer in the Canadian establishment. I don’t want to belabour this because everyone’s an individual and everyone comes to the world in their own way, but I think in part, it’s because I’m not—though I’ve dealt with universities before—I’m not an academic, and I’m not a trained intellectual in any regard. My main focus for many years was not to exonerate my characters but to establish them as being vital and important.

When I first started writing, the characters I wanted to show were the [ones] most vital and important to me, and why I chose to explore their lives were dismissed as being non-essential by most critics. That put me in a place where I decided that I probably was an outsider. Now whether that has changed, it probably has. I still think my work is at times valued for reasons I don’t value it for.

You say non-essential. I feel that sometimes our characters share a similarity, they’re usually working class, they’re struggling in that way. Do you think some of the sentiment toward your work was dismissive because these weren’t the kinds of characters that people typically attach literary value to?

I only know that they were dismissed because people did not understand the nature of how people lived. The idea that it was a terrible thing to work in a pulp mill, but when millions of men and women worked in areas generated by the pulp industry. That the idea of working in forestry or working as a mechanic was somehow beneath the people writing the essays, and that if you worked with your hands, you’re probably poor.

While I have written a good deal about poverty, a lot of the characters I wrote about weren’t poor at all—they were assumed to be poor because they worked with their hands and didn’t have a college education. Sometimes they earned more money than the reviewer writing about them. These seem [like] non-important things for me to bitch about, but at times, they’re fairly essential. They’re essential because you’re missing the very nature of the work.

My early reviews, and I hold this up to the badge of honor, were as bad as Emily Brontë’s reviews. And sometimes the same things were said. These people are so brutal and live in such a backward area, why should we bother with them? Well that was the same said about Catherine and Heathcliff. Those reviews had nothing to do with the book, it had to do with the naiveté of the reviewer. And at the time, the naiveté of the reviewer allowed for a good deal of misinformation about what I was doing as the writer.

These seem [like] non-important things for me to bitch about, but at times, they’re fairly essential. They’re essential because you’re missing the very nature of the work.

But I had a certain thing that I wanted to say, come hell or high water. I think my work tends to be subversive in ways that are non-conformist. My characters don’t march on Parliament Hill but they’ll stand up to the death for something they believe in, which I think is a good thing in a lot of ways. My main concern is that these novels are filled with a striving for a sort of spiritual compassion, which I don’t think is very popular in some circles today. That kind of makes me as an outsider. But I’m too old to change now anyway. I’ve only a few novels left in me.

Speaking of which, you’ve always been prolific, but it feels like lately you’ve really hit a seam of productivity lately.

Other people have noticed it, and I take stock of myself and say “Yeah, that’s probably right.” I have written a lot in the last 10 years, 12 years, starting with The Bay of Love and Sorrows—I’ve written quite a few [novels], and non-fiction as well. I have two novels done that are about to publish—well, one that’s published and one with my agent. I’ve just finished the last one last month. What I’m trying to say is I’m taking the summer off. I’m going to ride my motorbike. My big dream is I’m going to lie around in the sun and tear the porch down.

In that period, as you mention, you started writing a lot of non-fiction. How did that transpire?

One guy asked me years ago what’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and I said, “The lies are in different places.” I think I started with the fishing book [Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi] and I found that I could enjoy doing it and it was a lot of fun so I did others. I did one on Lord Beaverbrook, an extraordinary Canadian which I’m really quite proud of—I think I got him in a way that a lot of people didn’t try to get him. But I’m also a closet poet.

That’s one muscle I just can’t activate.

I don’t know if I have it either, that’s why they’re not all getting away. But it’s fun! They’re fine, but I don’t know how good they are. I haven’t shown them to too many people.

Have you ever had someone come up to you after a reading and question you about, I can’t even think of another word, but the niceness of your characters, that they’re not nice enough. I’ve heard this, too—the sentiment that literature should be ennobling and help us unwind, so why do you thwart that with your mean and nasty characters…

Oh, that’s happened to me. One guy, Christ, I forget where we were. He said, “I think I speak for everyone here: how can you do this to us? How can you portray these awful people that we have to read? Don’t you realize what you’re doing?” And I said yeah, I do realize what I’m doing. The real secret is most of my characters are probably far nicer than he is.

It’s a matter of worldview. When I encounter a reader like that, I think: I can’t write a book that makes you feel the way that you think you need to feel about the wold. That’s not the way I see the world and that’s not the vision I want to present.

I remember someone talking about my characters in The Lost Highway and saying, the one thing about these characters is you’ll find most of them are unlikeable, or they’re all unlikeable. And I thought to myself, well there’s Sam Patch, who worked himself to the bone to keep his family alive, he’s unlikeable. There’s Mindy Patch who’s filled with love for everyone; there’s little Amy, who’s this brilliant little girl that Alex and Leo Bourque are trying to murder, and she’s taking care of this senile old woman and trying to keep her alive and herself alive, she’s not likeable. There’s the main hero of the novel, Marcus Paul, a First Nations constable who’s figuring the crime out, and no one in the department believes him but he doggedly does it because he wants to know the truth, he’s supposedly unlikeable. To me, you’ve missed the whole effing novel. That’s all you gotta say.

People like that betray a sense of not understanding their own life, or even being able to look at their own actions as having some awful parts to it. To speak of Crimes Against My Brother, every character is flawed. They almost have a fatal flaw, and that’s something you put very deeply into the book. And there’s not one of them, maybe excepting Lonnie … but even Lonnie, there’s an understanding there. He’s minted from a place, he’s minted from those streets. Places make people, right? People are products of that place and time. That’s not to excuse their awfulness in some instances, but at least it makes their actions and mindset more understandable.

As I say in one point in the novel, if you look closely, he [Lonnie] never really hit his intention. We have to give him that. You have to give him something, but I’ll give him a lot more, but you have to give him at least that.

You have written characters like Lonnie before. A Machiavellian-type. He’s the pivot around what so much of the narrative takes place, sort of the chess master. Some people would see him as unsavory, unlikeable. I don’t see him that way but I don’t think I’m the standard reader. When you sit down to write him is there a level of enjoyment? Because you’re so good at characters like that.

I love writing characters like Lonnie. The greatest thing about a conman is they have to con themselves. A con never works unless you con yourself. Even in Huckleberry Finn, the Duke and the King had to believe they were the long lost brothers of the dead man in order to con Susan and get the money. Huck had it figured it out but there was a point where they were weeping over the casket where they actually believe this. They’ve gone into their own con. Lonnie goes into his own con all the time. He believes what he says.

He believes he’s really helping the boys.

It’s in himself being beguiled that I love to create characters like that. He’s on the list of a long line of characters like that that I’ve dealt with in my career. I like creating the Lonnies of the world, and the Harold Dews.

Something I appreciate in your books is the constant striving of the characters, just carrying on into the next day, and waiting for things to get better just through the passage of time.

A lot of tragedy is self-inflicted, I wanted to show that in this book. A lot of the tragedy that comes between the three brothers is pretty well self-inflicted.

One guy asked me years ago what’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and I said, “The lies are in different places.”

One of the big concerns in your work is god, often because there’s this sense of divine intercession? Or is it something more diffuse, is it just circumstantial? Since you started your writing career, society’s perception of religion has changed. As you said yourself, you’re at an age where—and I am at that age, too—where you feel what you feel, and that can’t help but make its way into your book. Your books have a clear, clean sense of that running through them.

There’s an old saying that, “If you want god to laugh, tell him your plans.” This is what I’m exploring in this, the idea that you have to conjure up, even if you disbelieve, you have to conjure up a fallacy in order to make a pact against it. So it’s always there. The boys [in my novel] who don’t believe are sill making a pact against something they believe is not there. Its very form is before them when they make the pact against it. It’s almost impossible to deny that that’s what mankind is searching for, whether we believe or disbelieve. It’s almost impossible at points in our life to deny that we don’t seek it.

This is what I would argue with Chris Hitchens or anyone, that no matter how valuable we think our expertise is in denying, we’re still designed, something we have to conjure in front of us in order to deny us. We can never get rid of the idea. It’s the idea that has obsessed mankind for 40,000 years. We’re not going to be the generation to get rid of it. You can burn all the churches but you’re not going to get rid of the idea. There’s too much mystery in the idea to condescend to it. That’s why I try not to condescend to it.

What I find is that people who are consciously good people, when they condescend to it, feel bad. When Evan condescends to Ethel, who has this idea that the icicle she’s holding looks like the Virgin Mary, and he laughs at it, he feels terrible, because he knows he’s laughing at a person who doesn’t have all her wits with her. So his condescension is what troubles him, and it burdens him, because he’s done something against something that is innocent, which is Ethel, and that comes from the New Testament, the idea of doing something against something that is innocent. So really, the sins he commits, whether he believes these are sins or not, are still sins that plague him. The whole idea of the universe, whether you believe or disbelieve, acting in accordance with laws of the universe is still going to be the same. In my own clumsy way, this was what I was trying to get at with the novel. Whether we believe or disbelieve the universe is going to go on the way the universe is going to go on, and the way it’s told in ways in which we are not personally conscious. That is, we are not going to be the ones to figure it out.

One way I read your work is as an elegy for a way of life in these rural and small town places of New Brunswick. You’re not necessarily romanticizing that life, but there is a romantic sense from certain passages, like a description of someone walking through the woods when the snow is falling. That way of life and its passing, it’s got to be very painful for you.

It’s gone. The thing about it, it’s been gone really for 20 years.

You’re writing about ghosts.

I’m writing about ghosts in a way. I’m writing about an area, what it was like 30 years ago, it’s gone away. Now it’s filled with car dealerships and fast food, like everywhere else. It’s strip malls. It’s like everywhere else. The quaint little towns, they still exist, but the children don’t want to be there anymore because there’s nothing for them to do.

You’ll find in places like this that if you’re born with a bit of money, middle class or thereabouts, and your father, mother [are] professional, you’ll stay there because you have a certain kind of life that has been fairly affluent or at least comfortable. But if you’re born to a working class family who are struggling and in and out of work, and their father’s on one month and laid off the next, those are the kids that leave, and they never come back. Those are the majority of the kids.

It’s like these towns in the Mississippi Delta, with the old established families like you see in William Faulkner still hanging on to a past that’s not there, but all of the young guys whose fathers were scrounging to make a dollar, they’ve all gone away. They all live in Fort McMurray or Calgary or Edmonton, and they say, “I can’t go fucking back.” That’s what the tragedy is. It’s like Harold looking out the door and thinking about the movies with gamma rays and people being taken away. That’s what happened with our town. It’s not the same. Now people will defend it vigorously and say, “Oh yeah it’s the same and Richards doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” but it’s a different world.