David Adams Richards

David Adams RichardsPhoto: randomhouse.com
David Adams Richards
Photo: randomhouse.com

David Adams Richards (novelist, essayist, non-fiction writer, poet, and screenwriter) was born in Newcastle, New Brunswick on 17 October 1950. Considered one of the most original and controversial figures in Canadian literature, he has lived in various parts of Canada, from Victoria to Saint John, but has dwelled most of his life in central and southern New Brunswick. He currently splits his residency between Fredericton and Bartibog, NB.

His parents, Bill Richards and Margaret (Adams), owned and ran the movie theatres in Newcastle. Their third of six children, David was born prematurely due to an accidental fall; Margaret had been hanging laundry when she slipped and landed on her stomach. As a result of his in-utero trauma and premature birth, Richards would be lame on his left side for life. He struggled with the separation from childhood activities caused by this physical impairment.

Religion also separated Richards from others in the community where he grew up. Newcastle was a predominantly Protestant town where positions of power and wealth were held by Protestants. The Richards family, however, including Margaret who converted from Presbyterianism soon after marriage, was Catholic. Because of this, and despite the fact that the Richards were well-liked and active in the community, the family experienced marginalization. As biographer and foremost Richards critic Tony Tremblay observed, Richards himself "was hardly sheltered by the protective benevolence of town, family, or church" (David Adams Richards of the Miramichi 60). Richards attended St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic primary school, until the third grade. Alongside his family's instruction, his schooling at St. Mary's imparted Catholic values, especially of social justice and personal responsibility for charity, that would follow him throughout his life. He would explore his Catholicism explicitly in the non-fiction memoir God Is (2009).

Richards completed his primary, middle, and high school education at Harkins Academy, a public school, excelling in literature and history, though he failed English literature in the eleventh grade. In his high school years he began drinking, was expelled, had to retake an entire year, and frequently skipped classes he did not wish to attend in favour of writing. Despite those turbulent years, he graduated from Harkins in 1969 and went to work at Heath Steele Mines.

Doug Shanahan, a teacher at Harkins and one of Richards' writing mentors, arranged for him to be accepted at St. Thomas University (STU) if he could pass his provincial exams. He did but, because of low marks, the Registrar accepted Richards based mostly on references submitted by Shanahan and a high school principal. Richards moved to Fredericton in the fall of 1969 to attend STU. In his first year, he studied philosophy under Leo Ferrari and literature under Allen Bentley. He did not perform well academically, but convinced some professors to let him substitute creative work for essays, an indication of his preoccupation with starting a literary career. He completed The Keeping of Gusties, an unpublished first novel, for an English class instead of writing a final paper. He withdrew from STU shortly after the beginning of his second year and returned to Newcastle, much to the chagrin of his parents.

In 1970, Richards self-published a poetry collection, One Step Inside. The following year, in the fall, he returned to STU. On 19 November 1971, he married Margaret "Peggy" McIntyre, whom he had met and started dating in 1967. Around the same time he began attending the weekly meetings of the Ice House Gang, where he drew ever-increasing admiration for his quirky and original narrative voice. His work from that period appeared in The Antigonish Review and The Fiddlehead in 1972. A chapbook, Small Heroics, was soon published and, most importantly, he began writing the novel The One in Many, later titled The Coming of Winter.

Around this time, Richards began visiting Alden Nowlan at his on-campus home. Nowlan had been writer in residence since 1968 at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). The two developed a close but rocky friendship, yet Nowlan became an important mentor. His advice and critiques of Richards' work were invaluable to the novice writer and are the most significant influence on Richards' identity as writer. Richards was one of Nowlan's pallbearers after the poet's death in 1983.

When The Coming of Winter was completed, Kent Thompson, a member of the Ice House Gang, sent a letter of introduction and the manuscript to Michael Macklem, the editor of Oberon. Oberon accepted the manuscript, but did not send Richards a contract. When the galleys arrived months later, with a standard contract, the manuscript had been considerably altered. Infuriated, Richards repossessed the manuscript, and he and Macklem met to discuss editorial changes. They reached an agreement, which retained the original manuscript, and a contract was signed.

In 1973, with only 5.5 credits (not the 3 commonly asserted) remaining to obtain his degree, Richards dropped out of STU, feeling that "university was very suppressive but there was conversation and intellectual activity there, and if I had chosen that, I wouldn't have gotten my writing done" (Richards qtd. in Tremblay, Miramichi 156). He subsequently became a full-time writer. Later that year, he won the Norma Epstein Prize for the first five chapters of The Coming of Winter, an Ontario Arts Council Fellowship, and a Young Artists and Writers Canada Council Grant, which, together, allowed him the financial security to focus on writing Blood Ties (1976), his second novel. In 1974, The Coming of Winter was launched by Oberon alongside Elizabeth Brewster's The Sisters and Joseph Sherman's Chaim the Slaughterer in Fredericton. Southern New Brunswick was again securely on Canada’s literary map.

After the manuscript for Blood Ties was finished and sent to Oberon, Richards visited Spain, where he wrote most of the first draft of a play, "The Dungarvon Whooper." Soon after, in Victoria, BC, he began writing a collection of short stories, later entitled Dancers at Night (1978). His alcohol consumption increased dramatically as the year progressed, and continued after he and Peggy returned to Newcastle in 1976. Blood Ties was published shortly after, at a time when Richards was working on his most complex early novel, Lives of Short Duration (1981).

On 13 January 1978, Richards' mother died of complications resulting from surgery that she had undergone a few months prior. This profoundly affected Richards. He drank more heavily and lapsed into long periods of inebriation. Over the next three years (until the end of 1980), Richards drafted and redrafted Lives of Short Duration, much to the dismay of Oberon. The novel, which demonstrates the consequences of modernity in the lives of three generations of the Terri family, was finally published in 1981.

The book became an occasion for his first national reading tour, an elevation of status, perhaps, that accelerated his sobriety. With the help of a friend, and AA, he quit alcohol and drugs at this time; he has remained sober since.

After Alden Nowlan's death in 1983, Richards accepted the position of writer in residence at UNB, and he and Peggy returned to Fredericton. The following year, he began writing Road to the Stilt House (1985), a novel that depicts the suffering and socio-economic entrapment of the Masseys, a family who had previously appeared in Lives of Short Duration.

Richards left UNB after his three-year term ended in 1986 having almost completed the novel Adele. He sent the manuscript to a publisher other than Oberon. McClelland and Stewart accepted the novel, which underwent extensive revisions before being released in 1988 as Nights Below Station Street, the beginning of Richards' Miramichi trilogy. The book follows Adele and her alcoholic father Joe through their difficult relationship. It advocates for spontaneous, personal kindness instead of calculated altruism and progressive ideologies. For this novel, Richards received the Governor General's Award for fiction in 1988.

The same characters from previous novels reappear in the next two novels in the trilogy, Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993). Written in 1989, the same year Richards moved to Saint John, Evening Snow shows the social fallout experienced by Ivan Bastarache after he and his wife have an argument that touches the extended family and friends around him. For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down centers around Jerry Bines, a character first seen in Road to the Stilt House, who returns home after being acquitted of murder, and who attempts to protect his family from another convict who breaks out of prison. Both novels deal with redemption and whether or not it is possible to escape one’s past. In 1996, Wounded was made into a film.

1996 marked an eventful year. Besides the movie release of Wounded, Richards published two more books. The first was the novel, Hope in the Desperate Hour, which examines the consequences of abusing and misusing power and ambition. His second publication was his first non-fiction book, Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn't Play, for which he sought a different publisher: Doubleday Canada. The book is both a memoir of playing hockey as a child and an extended essay on the significance of hockey in the Canadian imagination, which includes, inevitably, its Americanization.

In 1997, Richards moved to Toronto. The novel The Bay of Love and Sorrows (1998) followed, as did the non-fiction memoir Lines on the Water: A Fisherman's Life on the Miramichi (1998). The novel deals with the effects of individual actions on others and, like earlier work, the focus is on redemption, the recurrence of the past, and personal responsibility for altruism. It was adapted into a film of the same name in 2002.

The non-fiction book Lines on the Water is an account of fishermen on the Miramichi, including Richards’ own experiences and philosophies. It received the 1998 Governor General’s Award for non-fiction, making Richards one of only three writers at the time to have won the award in both the fiction and non-fiction categories.

In 2000, Richards published Mercy Among the Children, which also won the Governor General’s Award. The novel is narrated by Lyle Henderson, who tells the story of his father’s pact with lifelong pacifism and its effects on his family. It deals with the capability and freedom that every person has to act with either humanity or inhumanity, the toxic influences of self-serving motivations, and the corrupting forces of power.

Richards’ next three novels, River of the Brokenhearted, The Friends of Meager Fortune, and The Lost Highway, explore similar themes. River of the Brokenhearted (2003), perhaps his most overtly autobiographical novel, traces the rivalries and betrayals of the McLeary family as they run the local movie house.

In 2008, Richards broke from his previous practice of using autobiography to write about the subjects of his non-fiction work and published Lord Beaverbrook, a biography of Sir William Maxwell Aitken for Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series.

Most recently, Richards has published God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular World (2009, memoir/non-fiction), Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul (2011, novel), and Facing the Hunter: Reflections on a Misunderstood Pursuit (2011, memoir/non-fiction).

God Is and Facing the Hunter are both condemnations of modern society, though on different fronts. Often through personal stories, God Is seeks to be a “reflect[ion] on the plethora of anti-religious elitism that passes for both comedy and concern among people who lecture from the stage” (Richards, “Canada’s Literary Community”). Facing the Hunter is likewise a stab at urban dwellers and moralists who demonize hunting, while also being an exploration of Richards’ own hunting experiences.

Although never stated explicitly in his novels, the Miramichi region is the primary setting for his work, though it is fictionalized. His preoccupation with his place of birth and its people extends even to his non-fiction, where his subjects have significance in Miramichi history and culture. As a result, critics have often branded Richards with the “regionalist” label. Richards has responded that he uses characters as “a small microcosm of the world” through which he can explore all of humanity (Linda Richards).

His most recurrent themes, introduced in his early publications, have informed his entire body of work, both fiction and non-fiction. He focuses on the divisions and conflicts of class, race, religion, education, and economic circumstances, especially of marginalized or disadvantaged characters. He frequently explores the implications of power in the lives of characters, which he believes is “almost always … a corrupting influence sooner or later” (Linda Richards). By contrast, the exhibition of humanity in Richards’ work is related to his advocacy of individual obligation and responsibility for charity and self-sacrifice. An example of this is seen in Nights Below Station Street when Joe Walsh completes a repair job for Vye, the more socially powerful man:

Joe then kept trying to ward off Vye who was writing him a cheque. This to him was the main point, the one which he was readying himself for. Vye tried to shove the cheque into Joe’s pocket as if Joe were a child. He did not want to take money, and Vye was just as convinced that he should take it – in fact that he must take it.

But Joe would not take it. They stood looking at each other for a moment; Joe leaning against the counter with a stooped expression. “No no – I don’t want cher money,” he said. (157)

This study of the intersection of power and the human condition touches Richards’ exploration of Catholicism, particularly the concepts of compassion and grace.

Richards' early novels, though commercially successful, were not well-received by critics. If critics did give favourable reviews, “they generally felt it necessary to qualify their praise” (Connor, “Coming of Winter” 31). According to Tony Tremblay, this was the result of an inability of predominantly urban and central Canadian critics to understand novels written from a Catholic, rural, eastern Canadian perspective (Miramichi 165-67). Since Nights Below Station Street, however, Richards’ work has enjoyed an expanding readership and acclaim, though some readers feel that his work has become “overly didactic and polemical” (Wheaton 120) or still levy charges against his characters as being “‘bleak,’ ‘dour’ and ‘inarticulate’” (Lynes 34).

In addition to winning the Governor General's Award three times, and in two categories, Richards has been bestowed several of the most prestigious literary awards for his work, including Member of the Order of Canada in 2009, the Order of New Brunswick, the Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Matt Cohen Prize in 2011, the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace in 1991, the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best Book for Friends of Meager Fortune, the Giller Prize (co-winner) for Mercy Among the Children in 2000, and the Thomas Head Raddall Fiction Prize in 2012 for Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul. The Writers' Federation of New Brunswick has also honoured Richards by giving out an annual award named after him: the David Adams Richards Prize for Fiction.

Cynthia Bouzanne, Summer 2013
St. Thomas University

For more information on David Adams Richards, please visit his entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Richards, David Adams. The Bay of Love and Sorrows. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1998.

---. Blood Ties. Ottawa: Oberon, 1976.

---. “Canada’s Literary Community Gets Religion All Wrong.” Globe & Mail [Toronto, ON] 15 Aug. 2009: F1. June 20 2013.

---. The Christmas Tree: Two Tales for the Holidays. Toronto: Viking, 2006.

---. The Coming of Winter. Ottawa: Oberon, 1974.

---. Dancers at Night. Ottawa: Oberon, 1978.

---. "Drinking." Addicted: Notes from the Belly of the Beast. Ed. Lorna Crazier and Patrick Lane. Vancouver: Greystone, 2001. 107-21.

---. Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.

---. Facing the Hunter: Reflections on a Misunderstood Pursuit. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2011.

---. For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993.

---. The Friends of Meager Fortune. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2006.

---. God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular World. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2009.

---. Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn't Play. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1996.

---. Hope in the Desperate Hour. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1996.

---. Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2011.

---. A Lad from Brantford & Other Essays. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 1994.

---. Lines on the Water: A Fisherman's Life on the Miramichi. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1998.

---. Lives of Short Duration. Ottawa: Oberon, 1981.

---. Lord Beaverbrook. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.

---. The Lost Highway. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2007.

---. Mercy Among the Children. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2000.

---. Nights Below Station Street. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988.

---. One Step Inside. Chatham, NB: David Adams Richards, 1970.

---. Playing the Inside Out. Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions; Moncton: Université de Moncton, 2008.

---. River of the Brokenhearted. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2003.

---. Road to the Stilt House. Ottawa: Oberon, 1985.

---. Small Heroics. Fredericton: New Brunswick Chapbooks, 1972. New Brunswick Chapbooks 17.

Richards, David Adams and Jon Pedersen, screenwriters. Tuesday, Wednesday. Dir. Jon Pedersen. Capitol Films; Pickwauket Films, 1987.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Armstrong, Christopher, and Herb Wyile. “Firing the Regional Can(n)on: Liberal Pluralism, Social Agency, and David Adams Richards’s Miramichi Trilogy.” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en Littérature Canadienne 22.1 (1997): 1-18.

Bemrose, John. “Harmed and Dangerous.” Rev. of For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down by David Adams Richards. Maclean’s 106.34 (1993): 47.

Butler, David F., and Jules Lewis Hallett. “David Adams Richards.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2012. Historica Canada. 22 May 2013

Byrne, George. “The Blood Hardened and the Blood Running: The Character of Orville in Blood Ties.” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en Littérature Canadienne 7.1 (1982): 55-62.

Connor, H.W. “Coming of Winter, Coming of Age: The Autumnal Vision of David Adams Richards' First Novel.” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en Litérature Canadienne 9.1 (1984): 31-40.

---. “The River in the Blood: Escape and Entrapment in the Fiction of David Adams Richards.” World Literature Written in English 26.2 (Fall 1986): 269-77.

Cormier, Audrey M. Regionalism in the Fiction of Alistair MacLeod, Alden Nowlan and David Adams Richards. MA Thesis. U of New Brunswick, 2000. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 2000.

Currie, Sheldon. “David Adams Richards: The People on the Roadway.” The Antigonish Review 99 (Fall 1994): 67-75.

Doucet, Robbie. “Trajectory of David Adams Richards’ Fiction.” BA Honours Thesis. U of New Brunswick, 1999.

Falconer, Tim. “Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn't Play.” Rev. of Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn’t Play by David Adams Richards. Quill and Quire 62.11 (1996): 39.

Fullerton, Anne. “Deconstructing the Ivory Tower: David Adams Richards’ Re-Visioning of Intelligence in Mercy Among the Children and Friends of Meagre Fortune.” BA Honours Thesis. U of New Brunswick, 2011.

Lever, Susan. “Against the Stream: The Fiction of David Adams Richards.” Australian Canadian Studies: A Journal for the Humanities & Social Sciences 12.1 (1994): 81-9.

Lousley, Cheryl. “Knowledge, Power and Place: Environmental Politics in the Fiction of Matt Cohen and David Adams Richards.” Canadian Literature 195 (Winter 2007): 11-30.

Lynes, Jeanette. “The Bay of Love and Sorrows: A Novel by David Adams Richards.” Rev. of The Bay of Love and Sorrows by David Adams Richards. The Antigonish Review 117 (Spring 1999): 33-8.

Maillet, Greg. “God Is in the Lost Highway and Mercy Among the Children: Paradox, Peace, and the Existential Power of Christian Faith.” Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 67 (2012): 116-128.

Mason, Roger Burford. “Lines on the Water: A Fisherman's Life on the Miramichi.” Rev. of Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi by David Adams Richards. Quill and Quire 64.2 (1998): 38.

McNaughton, Janet. “Bay of Love and Sorrows.” Rev. of The Bay of Love and Sorrows by David Adams Richards. Quill and Quire 64.11 (1998): 41.

Murphy, Patrick W. “There Is Something About the Land:” An Ecocritical Approach to the Works of David Adams Richards. MA Thesis. U of New Brunswick, 2005. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 2005.

Pyper, Andrew. “Hope in the Desperate Hour.” Rev. of Hope in the Desperate Hour by David Adams Richards. Quill and Quire 62.5 (1996): 27.

Rigelhof, T.F. “Take That, New Atheists!” Rev. of God Is: My Search for Faith in a Secular World by David Adams Richards. Globe & Mail [Toronto, ON] 22 Aug. 2009: F9.

Richards, Linda. “January Interview: David Adams Richards.” January Magazine. N.d. 3 June 2013

Robertson, Ray. “Outsider: David Adams Richards Gives Voice to the Hopeless.” Quill and Quire 66.6 (2000): 14-15.

Scherf, Kathleen. “Blood Ties: Essentially Women.” Room of One’s Own: A Feminist Journal of Literature and Criticism 14.4 (1991): 23-39.

---. “David Adams Richards: ‘He Must be a Social Realist Regionalist.’” Studies in Canadian Literature / Études en Litérature Canadienne 15.1 (1990): 154-70.

Sturgeon, Linda-Ann. David Adams Richards: Loving Against the Odds. MA Thesis. U of New Brunswick, 1987. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI, 1987.

Tremblay, Tony. “Answering the Critics: David Adams Richards and the Paradox of Unpopularity.” The Antigonish Review 128 (Winter 2002): 119-28.

---. “David Adams Richards: Canada’s ‘Independent’ Intellectual.” Hollins Critic 36.4 (1999): 1-14.

---, ed. David Adams Richards: Essays on His Works. Writers Series 16. Toronto: Guernica, 2005.

---. David Adams Richards of the Miramichi: A Biographical Introduction. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010.

Wheaton, Margo. “Mercy Among the Children.” Rev. of Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards. The Antigonish Review 127 (Fall 2001): 117-21.

Wiersema, Robert. “Mercy Among the Children.” Rev. of Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards. Quill and Quire 66.8 (2000): 20.

Williams, Jocelyn. “The Rifle Kicks Hard Both Ways: Rereading David Adams Richards’ For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down.” The Nashwaak Review 16/17.1 (2006): 46-66.

Woodford, Gillian. “‘Voices That Sputter Against the Background’: Communication in the Novels of David Adams Richards.” BA Honours Thesis. U of New Brunswick, 1995.