‘An astonishing observer of life’: Acclaimed author Richard B. Wright dead at 79

By , on February 8, 2017

TORONTO –Award-winning Canadian author Richard B. Wright was remembered Wednesday as “an astonishing observer of life” who deftly balanced the demands of his accomplished literary career with his much-loved role as an educator.

Wright died in hospital on Tuesday after sustaining a fall at home, according to his literary agent, Dean Cooke. He was 79.

He made a literary splash with the publication of his debut novel, “The Weekend Man,” in 1970, recalled Wright’s editor, Phyllis Bruce of Simon & Schuster Canada.

“It was an astonishing international success coming out of Toronto at a time when many of our writers had started to go international,” said Bruce, who first teamed with Wright in the mid-1990s.

The St. Catharines, Ont.-based Wright also wrote the acclaimed 2001 novel “Clara Callan,” which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction and the Trillium Book Award.

Set in the midst of the Great Depression, “Clara Callan” unfolds in diary- and letter-form chronicling the lives of two sisters –one a school teacher in small-town Ontario, the other a radio soap opera star in New York.

“He captured so perfectly women’s voices in that novel –not only the main character of Clara, but that of her sister,” Cooke said.

“The other thing was it was about a family, and a family that had a member that had lived an unconventional life. And I think so many of us have lived that experience in our wider family of the aunt or the uncle that didn’t live by the conventional rules. And I think that appealed to a lot of readers.”

Bruce said the writer’s “great insights into human nature” are reflected in all of his works.

“He was an astonishing observer of life. He saw the large picture, but he saw all the small details of people’s lives. He was absolutely fascinated by the pattern of people’s lives, and he was so observant that the small details in his novels really make the novels real for the reader.”

Iris Tupholme of HarperCollins Canada, who published Wright’s work for two decades, described him as “a generous and gracious person, a stylist and a person of great wisdom and empathy for his characters, particularly for women.”

Wright juggled his writing with teaching duties at Ridley College in St. Catharines, where he taught English from 1976 to 1980 and again from 1986 to 2001.

Bruce said the novelist would start writing in the wee hours before heading to his full-time teaching position. She recalled the Ridley library had a dedicated Richard B. Wright shelf where the author’s publications and his photo were showcased.

“I ran into a number of his students over the years and they’d always say what a brilliant teacher he was,” she recalled. “I’m not sure they were entirely aware of his renown, but they always said to me they also talked about how exciting his classes were, how he clearly loved what he was teaching.

“He said the teaching kept him young. You’re meeting young minds and seeing what their lives were going to be like.”

Cooke also admired Wright for “his dedication and how hard he worked to become the successful writer that he did, something that I think young writers don’t always remember these days.

“I will certainly remember him as a bit of a curmudgeon but one of the most well-humoured curmudgeons that I ever knew.

“He had a great sense of humour about the world and about himself and the way things worked even when he looked upon it all with a bit of a gimlet eye.”

Just last year Wright published the Quebec City-set novel “Nightfall,” a followup to “October,” which made the long lists for the Giller and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

“October” is narrated by the character James Hillyer, a retired English professor who travels to England to visit his daughter who’s been stricken with cancer. “Nightfall” picks up after the death of his daughter.

“The ending of life and the passing of time have always been preoccupations of mine,” Wright said in a 2007 interview with The Canadian Press.

“I think it’s a preoccupation of most people in a secular humanist culture where religion for many has lost its potency. I’m conscious of how time is shrinking for me. I’m now 70 years old, and optimistically I’m only looking at another 120 months. Think of how fast a month goes.”

Wright’s other novels include “Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard” and “The Age of Longing,” which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 1995 and nominated for the Governor General’s Award for fiction.

“His books were so different from one another, which is something that I greatly admired about him,” said Cooke.

“He didn’t find a formula and stick to it. He always found something new.”

Wright is survived by his sons Christopher and Andrew, and grandchildren Gage, Millie, Sydney, Abbey and Nathan.