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Canadian novelist Richard B. Wright, author of Clara Callan, dies at 79

Richard B. Wright at his home in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Richard B. Wright, an award-winning author whose contemplative, finely crafted novels turned life's ordinary moments into something extraordinary, died on Tuesday. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by his literary agent, Dean Cooke.

"He was a lovely man and a real writer," said Cooke. "It was one of the highlights of my career in publishing to know and work with Richard. His talent and achievements as a writer are a matter of public record."

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His long-time publisher and editor, Phyllis Bruce, said that Wright's "extraordinary grace as a writer was a gift to all of us."

Iris Tupholme, his former publisher at HarperCollins Canada, which published five of Wright's novels, called him "a world-class writer whose nuanced portrait of 'ordinary' people, particularly women, set a standard in Canadian literature."

It was for his portrait of two women in particular that Wright is best known. Published in 2001, Clara Callan tells the story of two sisters from the small town of Whitfield, Ont.; the eldest, Clara, a schoolteacher with a fondness for poetry, remains behind, while her younger sibling, Nora, heads to New York, where she becomes a radio soap opera star. Critically lauded and commercially successful (approximately 200,000 copies are in print, according to HarperCollins) it won both the Giller Prize and the Governor-General's Literary Award, as well as the Trillium Book Award, Ontario's highest literary prize, the first book to achieve this particular trifecta.

But Wright had been writing and publishing for more than 30 years before his breakthrough. Born in Midland, Ont., in 1937, Wright actually worked in publishing for several years before becoming a published author himself. He was working as an editor, and then in sales, for Macmillan Canada, when he published his first (and only) children's book, Andrew Tolliver, in 1965. (He submitted the novel to Macmillan under a pseudonym, Frank Sullivan; the book, about a boy who stops a bank robbery by a man dressed as former prime minister John A. Macdonald, was later rereleased as One John A. Too Many.)

Wright mined his experiences in the publishing industry when, several years later, he wrote his first novel, 1970's The Weekend Man, about a recently separated book salesman named Wes Wakeham; reviewing it in The Globe and Mail, Marian Engel described it as "a quiet novel, without pyrotechnics."

"My career was launched," Wright told Quill and Quire in 2004. "But I could see how hard it was to make a living as a novelist, especially on the more literary side of things. I thought about jobs I could do that would allow me time for my craft, and after all was said and done, teaching seemed like the best bet."

In 1976, Wright was hired to teach at Ridley College, the prestigious prep school in St. Catharines, Ont., where he remained until his retirement in 2001. During the decades that followed he juggled his writing, family life (Wright and his late wife, Phyllis, had two sons) and his teaching career, often getting up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to write before starting his other workday.

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"Richard's first novel was a critical success but out of necessity and perseverance he rose at 5 a.m. to write every day for 30 years before heading to his day job," said Cooke. "Only with the publication of [Clara Callan] came recognition and financial independence. His dedication serves as a reminder to authors and publishers that success in the craft often comes over the course of a lifetime of hard work, not six weeks after first publication."

There were times, over the course of his career, when he wasn't sure that work would pay off. Despite the success of his first novel, he spent many years as a classic mid-list writer – his work garnering solid reviews but less than stellar sales. It was not Clara Callan, but his 1995 novel, The Age of Longing, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Governor-General's Literary Award, that Wright considers his real breakthrough.

"[It] restored my confidence," he told The Globe in 2007. "By the early 1990s I had published seven novels. But most were out of print. It was the low point in my writing life and I have to confess that I was feeling decidedly unconfident about going on. I'd had good reviews; I had a cadre of fans … but I wanted a little more acclaim."

Then came Clara Callan, after which he published four more novels: Adultery, October, Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard, and Nightfall, which was released last year.

As well, in 2015, he published a well-received memoir, A Life With Words.

"It may sound odd, but I wrote this memoir to understand myself better," he told The Globe at that time. "Before it was too late in the day, I wanted to go through my life again and try to remember what I was like as a boy, as a young man, and then as a husband and father. What did I do all those years ago that I might have done better? What did I accomplish and what did I fail to do after all those years of writing books."

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About the Author
Books Editor

Mark Medley is the Globe and Mail’s Books Editor. Prior to joining the paper he spent more than seven years at the National Post, where he served as an arts reporter and books editor. More

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