When I finished reading Richard B. Wright’s novel, Clara Callan, I felt ensconced in 1930’s Ontario, as if I knew Clara, and I was frustrated by the judgemental society at that time. In awe of Wright’s ability to create characters that seep under my skin, I’ve read all ten of his books and, as I wrote in my letter to him requesting an interview, his “journey as a writer inspires me, and your portrayal of the human existence makes me want to become a better writer.”
From the beginning of our conversation, I’m struck by Wright’s candour, as he admits that the beginning of every book is agony. “It’s
like being stuck in a bramble bush and the knife isn’t very sharp,” he says. “When I start I just want to get something down. The first draft is bad and I feel an overwhelming compulsion to go back and overwrite.”
Wright goes on to explain that the second draft becomes fun because he has something that looks possible. It takes him six months to write the first 50 pages, but once he has the voice, the story begins to unfold. Most of his novels, which are between 85,000 and 90,000 words, take about two years to write.
“I really get into the words and editing which is what I love to do; most of writing is editing.”
This attention to detail has clearly helped Wright achieve nine prestigious awards and nominations including the Governor General’s award, the Giller, and the Order of Canada.
With a career that spans more than 40 years, Wright has placed his novels into three categories which reflect his evolution as a writer: his early satiric books which he says were influenced by Richler and Vonnegut, the middle period where he feels his work became a little commercial, and his later books with more layered characters.
In fact, Wright says that his characters often take over his books, which is why he starts every book with a voice.
“I write a paragraph or two about who a person is and how they’re going to change. This is the joy of writing, this makes it interesting. Initially, I thought Clara’s sister would be more interesting but Clara’s voice became more compelling.”
When it comes to finding ideas for novels, Wright says that no writer tells new stories, we re-tell old myths and fairy tales in original, distinct voices. For example, his novel, Finer Things, came out of an actual crime in Toronto. A Portuguese shoe-shine boy was murdered in the 1970’s and Wright, whose son was the same age, was intrigued and disturbed by the idea of a parent losing a child this way.
“Finer Things is a classic revenge story,” he explains. “It’s an archetypal story about a father’s quest for revenge. Dark stories like this have always been popular; in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is much more interesting than God. People who step over the line, like the father in Finer Things who kills his son’s murderer, are far more intriguing.”
Wright has enjoyed a long collaboration with editor Phyllis Bruce, who has her own imprint with Harper-Collins. “She restored my confidence when I badly needed it,” he says. “However, Phyllis and I always have a tussle over exposition. Phyllis wants more exposition and I don’t like as much.”
In Wright’s most recent novel, Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard, Wright uses the biblical reference of Job when one character says, “surely Job has suffered more.” Phyllis said readers wouldn’t understand who Job was in this increasingly unread society.
“I wanted to maintain the integrity of the voice and I didn’t want to get outside the voice,” Wright explains. “Everyone read the bible in Shakespeare’s time so it would have been odd if the character had explained the Job reference.
“Reviewers have said that there is a distinctive quality to my writing, a certain understatement. You have to read between the lines. This is spot on, this is what I’m about.”