Archive for the ‘Writers I revere’ Category

Enjoyed Toronto Premiere of Robertson Davies Play

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

As I’ve noted several times already in this space, Robertson Davies is one of my literary heroes. His novels were among the first to show me that literary prose, compelling stories, and deeply developed characters could coexist with a heaping helping of humour. John Irving also helped enlighten me on that score. That Robertson Davies and I appear together on the list of Leacock Medal Winners (he in 1955, for Leaven of Malice) still sends a tremor through me when I think of it. In December 1995, shortly after his death, my wife and I attended Robertson Davies’ memorial service in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto. It was the first time I’d ever laid eyes on Douglas Gibson, Davies’ longtime editor, and miraculously, now mine. Last night, some 14 years later, my wife and I attended Robertson Davies: The Peeled I at the wonderful Hart House Theatre, just across the quadrangle from Convocation Hall. It was a one man show featuring Reed Needles as RD. He bears a striking resemblance to the great writer. We thoroughly enjoyed the play. It only runs for a couple days, so if you’re a Davies fan and are anywhere near Toronto, check it out.

Here’s the photo of Robertson Davies that hangs in our third floor library, supervising my writing. Whenever I hit a dry spell or am struggling with a sentence, I look up at this photo for inspiration. Then I get back at it…

Paul Quarrington 1953-2010

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Like so many other Canlit lovers, I’m torn up today. There will no new Paul Quarrington novel to anticipate. Not any longer. Every few years there would be another, and we would line up to buy it. Then we would line up to hear him read sections to us (so much better than reading it ourselves). Then we would lament that we’d finished reading it. Then, the interminable wait until his next offering arrived. The Quarrington cycle. I know it well.

Long before I dared dream I might one day be a writer, I became an avid Quarrington fan. King Leary was my introduction. I was hooked. I quickly powered through the Quarrington canon and started collecting first editions (I do this for favourite authors). I loved his humour, melancholy introspection, and note-perfect dialogue. I can’t say I wouldn’t have written The Best Laid Plans without reading Paul Quarrington. But I can say with certainty, that his writing inspired me and taught me that it was possible to write a comic novel with a message and with a heart.

Sharing a car with Paul, and then the stage for a reading in Grimsby last spring, is a highlight in my fledgling writerly life. That, and appearing on the list of Leacock winners with him.

I will miss him. You can bet that I’ll have my nose in a Quarrington novel before the night is out, in tribute.

Here’s what I’ve written in the past about Paul:

The National Post’s online book site, The Afterword, collected tributes from the Canadian writing community today. Here’s my contribution.

John Irving on stage in Toronto

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

John Irving

Last Sunday I snuck away from regular family weekend activities to see John Irving at the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) here in Toronto. Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may recall that John Irving has been an inspiration to me. The emotional impact of his writing and the laughs along the way make him one of my literary heroes. A Prayer for Owen Meany, quite possibly my all time favourite novel, restored my interest in fiction back in the late 80s, and I’ve never looked back. Needless to say, seeing him in person, along with hundreds of other fans as part of the IFOA, was a thrill.

He talked about this writing process, including his immutable first step of writing the last sentence of his novel first, before anything else. It was fascinating to hear him talk about how it all comes together. He then read from his new novel, Last Night inTwisted River. One thing I’ve learned in the last year, as I’ve read with other authors at a variety of festivals and readings, is that not all authors can read. There is an art to reading well, not to mention a smidgen of theatre. It is a performance of sorts. John Irving had the room spellbound. I can’t imagine anyone listening to him read and then walking by the book table without snagging one on the way out.

Finally, he was interviewed by Seamus O’Regan, one of our TV morning show hosts, before the floor was opened for questions. It was a memorable event for me. I’m about to start Last Night in Twisted River, said to be his most autobiographical novel to date.

Last Night in Twisted River

Writers I revere: John Irving

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

John Irving A Prayer for Owen Meany

After reading almost exclusively nonfiction until I was nearly 30, I switched to fiction around 1988 and haven’t looked back.  It was to my great fortune that one of the first novels I picked up, and then could not put down, was John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  It was a revelation.

I’d been looking for a comic novel, but soon discovered that this was a hybrid.  In the same page, I could laugh out loud and then plunge into an emotional abyss.  The virtuoso juxtaposition of humour and pathos gave Irving’s words depth and heft.  This was no light beach read yet the stretches of melancholy were skillfully and beautifully offset by moments of unalloyed hilarity.  I was hooked.

I finished Owen Meany, reluctantly, and then rushed out to purchase every other Irving work I could find.  So I moved next to The World According to Garp, which I loved.  It had the same offbeat blend of humour and pathos that kept the pages turning well into the wee hours.  Then, Hotel New Hampshire. Another great read, though not quite as captivating as Garp and Owen Meany.  Then another hit – The Cider House Rules. Loved it.

It seems I’m a sucker for vulnerable, endearing characters on a quest.  And can Irving ever write.

But I must confess that the after Cider House Rules, Irving’s next few offerings didn’t quite do it for me.  I devoured The Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year, and The Fourth Hand, but found that they didn’t have the same impact on me as did Garp, Meany, and Cider House.  I enjoyed them but wasn’t flattened as I had been by his earlier books. Perhaps I was becoming inured to this master’s writing.  No I don’t think so.

Last year, I read his most recent work, Until I Find You, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It felt like I was reading an early Irving novel again.  Irving has admitted that this is his most autobiographical novel.  Again, his familiar formula, brilliantly executed.  A young boy coming of age, on a journey replete with twists and turns, ups and downs, humour and emotional body blows, and all written with extraordinary power and subtlety.

Regrettably, there can be many years between Irving novels, which is a very long time for his fans to wait. But the good news is, his latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River, is due to hit bookstore shelves on October 20th.  It’s a date that’s marked in my calendar.

Last Night in Twisted River

Here’s a recent conversation John Irving had with the editor of the New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus on the NYTBR weekly podcast.

Thinking of Paul Quarrington today…

Monday, June 1st, 2009


As I wrote recently in one of my little “Writers I revere” posts, I’ve been a fan of Paul Quarrington for over 20 years.  I’ve read all of his novels and have first editions of each one.  I’ve always admired him and his writing.  So it was wonderful to share the stage with him in April at the Grimsby Author Series.

I started my day this morning as I often do, reading the Toronto Star.  To my great shock and concern, there was a story about Paul and his lung cancer diagnosis made two weeks ago.  What a bastard this disease is.  It’s fitting that today is dreary, overcast, and melancholy.  That just about sums up how I feel. Paul, your many fans are sending you positive vibes…


Writers I revere: Paul Quarrington

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009


I first read King Leary, Paul Quarrington‘s 1987 Leacock winning novel, shortly after it was published, and then proceeded to read everything else Quarrington has written before and since.  I loved King Leary.  Its mix of humour and pathos is masterful.  And, it’s about hockey!  Sports figures in a number of Quarrington’s earlier works that I also thoroughly enjoyed including Logan in Overtime and perhaps my favourite of his books, Home Game.  In fact, I recommended Home Game during my recent  interview with Hannah Sung of the CBC Book Club.  But Quarrington is no one-trick pony. His fiction ranges from sports, to the early days of the movie business in Civilization, to life in a small town in The Life of Hope, to the story of a drugged out and freaked out rock icon in Whale Music (1989 Governor General’s Award), to the world of Las Vegas magicians in The Spirit Cabinet, to storm chasers in Gavelston.  His latest book is The Ravine and is his most autobiographical novel.

Quarrington’s uncanny ability to make you laugh one moment and then break your heart in the next, is a gift that has always kept me turning the pages.  His humour is never gratuitous but is fully embodied in the story he’s telling. He creates characters that, while larger than life and sometimes even picaresque,  are fully realized and ready to step off the page.  There’s a John Irvingesque feel to his writing yet Quarrington is never derivative.  He’s an original. I confess that while I have loved all of his novels, I think I enjoyed his earlier offerings most of all.

I have collected first editions of his novels, including his very first, The Service, published by Coach House Press in 1978.  A high point of the last year for me, was driving to Grimsby with Paul, having dinner with him, and then sharing the stage with him as we both read from our novels at the wonderful Grimsby Author Series.  What a thrill.  As I wrote in an earlier blog post, Paul dutifully inscribed my first editions of his novel that I lugged in a backpack.  Nice.

Paul also writes nonfiction, screenplays, and music.  A man of many talents.  If you haven’t yet read a Quarrington novel, do yourself a favour and pick one up.  Then get ready to read the others…

Here we are signing at the Grimsby Author Series. This photo accompanied an article in Niagara This Week.


Writers I revere: Robertson Davies

Saturday, March 7th, 2009


I was a late convert to Robertson Davies.  Unlike most Canadian teenagers, I never encountered Davies in my high school English classes.  So I was well into my twenties when I read my first RD novel.  Like many, I started with the Deptford Trilogy, comprising Fifth Business, The Manitcore, and World of Wonders.  I was hooked.  I proceeded to read every one of Davies’ eleven novels.  That still didn’t quench my thirst for his wonderful prose so I read his book of ghost stories called High Spirits. Then his volumes of humourous diary entries written in the voice of his alter ego Samuel Marchbanks.

Why was I captivated by Robertson Davies?  I’m not certain I can explain the attraction particularly clearly. As usual, it’s a combination of factors.  His writing is of another time.  I’ve often thought he was born a century too late.  His novels tend to unfold in the present even though the carefully crafted sentences bear all the marks of an earlier age.  In a word, he writes beautifully.  His sentences don’t just tell a compelling story, they reflect the joy he clearly felt in writing them.  As well, his characters are rendered so clearly, so deeply, yet so effortlessly,  that you all of sudden realize as you read that you know these characters and care enough about them to love them or despise them.  You hardly feel it happening.  Such is the power of his pen.  I believe he wrote his novels in long hand with a fountain pen.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, my wife Nancy and I attended a public memorial service to mark the passing of Robertson Davies in December 1995 .  I’ll never forget it.  All of the CanLit heavyweights were there including my own editor and publisher, Douglas Gibson.  To close out the service, the crowd rose to its feet and belted out Adeste Fideles, which is O Come All Ye Faithful in Latin.

That Robertson Davies and I have both won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Award for Humour will always be one of the great and humbling joys of my life.  If you’ve not dipped into Robertson Davies, do yourself a favour and lose yourself in a great Canadian master.

Writers I revere: Stephen Fry

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

As threatened on this blog earlier, here’s the first in a periodic series of posts on a handful of my favourite writers.  They are writers who have made me laugh, made me think, made me happy, and in some cases, made me write.

The living writer with whom I would most like to have dinner is Stephen Fry.


You may be forgiven for thinking that Stephen Fry seems an odd choice to include among the writers who are important to me.  After all, most in our TV-addled ranks would know Fry as an actor or comedian or even improv artist.  He is all of those.  He was a TV star in England with his best friend Hugh Laurie when they were both still in their twenties.  A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder, and Jeeves and Wooster made Stephen Fry a household name and a national treasure in England.  He also earned critical and popular acclaim for his portrayal of Oscar Wilde, a hero of Fry’s, in the 1997 film, Wilde.

I won’t write his biography here but his story is worth knowing.  Fry’s memoir, Moab is My Washpot, is a terrific read covering the first twenty or so years of his life.

But to me, Stephen Fry is a polymath in the true sense of the word.  He is a man of “varied learning” as the Pocket Oxford defines polymath.  In addition to his prowess as an entertainer, he’s an intellectual with a first class mind and a brilliant writer to boot.  By all accounts, and I assume many of them are true, he’s also a very, very nice bloke.

I confess that I picked up his first novel, The Liar, with considerable trepidation.  I knew little of Fry, and what views I had were shaped by the silver screen and my TV.  A comic actor who tries his hand at writing fiction?  Seems a long shot.  The Liar was published in 1991 when Fry was 34.

It took about half a chapter for me to decide that Fry is not your run-of-the-mill actor who levers his fame to publish a bad novel.  The Liar is a great read that showcases Fry’s considerable intellectual and writerly gifts.  His reverence for the language is on display from page one.  His humour alternately burbles and bursts on virtually every page, always striking the right balance.  I thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel and was struck by its depth and substance, even as I chortled and guffawed my way through it.  This is no lightweight romp. (A deep romp perhaps?)

I devoured his next two novels, The Hippopotamus (1994), and Making History (1996) and enjoyed them just as much (although I’d have to say that The Hippopotamus is my favourite).  The blend of humour, intellect, and beautiful writing pushed all of my buttons.  And all of this from a writer the world knows primarily as a sketch comedy artist.  Quite a feat in my view.

His most recent novel (please let there be more), curiously entitled The Stars’ Tennis Balls (2000) (and eventually retitled in North America as Revenge) didn’t quite do it for me as his earlier books had.  There is a darker undercurrent that isn’t quite balanced by the humour.  But I’m quibbling.  It’s still a great read.

Since publishing his first memoir and these four novels, Fry, like the true Renaissance man and public intellectual that he is, published some nonfiction works including books on classical music, poetry, the speckled bear (?) and his whirlwind visit to every state in the U.S. He has also lent his wonderful voice to the Harry Potter audio books and has continued with his television and movie work.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

I doubt his writing will be every readers cup of tea, but I have loved his books.  I have tremendous respect for people who succeed in many different fields of endeavour.  Stephen Fry is in very select company as an extraordinarily versatile and gifted artist.

You’ll laugh yourself silly while you shake your head in wonder at his prose and his mind.