There's a novel by the late Brian Moore in which an ordinary Belfast woman -- a doctor's wife named Sheila -- has a torrid affair with a younger man. Sheila is so gripped by passion that she is prepared to abandon husband, son, house and country for her lover. The affair ends badly, as they do in most cases, with Sheila living alone in a bedsit in London and working in a shop. It is years since I have read the book, but I have never forgotten the last sentence: "She went through the gates and walked off down the street like an ordinary woman on her way to the corner to buy cigarettes."
In a different context, that woman could be the protagonist of Richard B. Wright's ninth novel, Clara Callan. Wright, like Moore, is fascinated by the person you barely notice sitting next to you on the bus or grabbing for the same tomato in the supermarket. And like Moore, he can imbue these imaginary figures with such rich inner lives that after a few pages they move into your psyche like emotional squatters and refuse to leave.
Unlike Moore, alas, Wright remains a cult figure instead of an international success, despite characters such as Wes Wakeham in The Weekend Man and Howard Wheeler in The Age of Longing,the 1995 novel that was shortlisted for both the Governor-General's Award and the Giller Prize.
Clara Callan is the spinster schoolteacher in a small Ontario town much like Midland, where Wright was born in 1937, just after the Depression peaked. Back then, ordinary women could choose career or family, but not both. In fact, women were usually obliged to give up their jobs when they married.
"I had a lot of women like Clara Callan teaching me in grade school," explains Wright, a slight, gnomish figure with a silvery goatee, a twinkle and a squeaky voice. "Most of them were single and I used to wonder about their lives."
Wright never really thought about becoming a writer when he was growing up in Midland, which is also the hometown of novelist Susan Swan. "Yeah, her father was a doctor," Wright recalls, "I remember old Doc Swan, he drove an old '34 Chrysler . . . " As Wright lapses momentarily into the past, I wonder if another character has started to germinate in his fertile imagination.
As a boy, he loved to tell stories to his brothers and other kids on a summer evening. "I'd make them up as I told them. I had that narrative gift." His mother had it too, and would tell him stories before bed rather than reading to him.
Looking back, Wright thinks he took his early jobs, such as writing continuity for a radio station in Orillia and working as an editor for Macmillan back in the 1960s, as a way of "edging closer to where writing occurs." While he was still at Macmillan, he submitted a children's book under a pseudonym and had the odd pleasure of sitting in the editorial meeting where they decided to publish it. Still in print, it is now distributed by Nelson under the title One John A. too Many.
In 1968, he quit publishing and wrote The Weekend Man,which was published to stellar reviews. Even so, he found it pretty tough to make a living as a novelist, and since the 1970s he has combined writing with a job teaching English literature at Ridley College in St. Catharine's.
Wright loved teaching, but at 64, he has taken early retirement. The last year was especially wearing, he says, not surprisingly, since he was getting up at 5 a.m. every day to write Clara Callan before going in to work.
"Everybody has some kind of inner life," he continues, even as some dubious candidates saunter through the downtown park, where we are sitting on a breezy late summer afternoon, as if to test his hypothesis. "With Clara, I was building on the sort of person who tends to have a dry spinsterish existence, but who is actually quite passionate about life." Sooner or later, that passion has to find its way, which it does with Clara when she goes to Italy and sees a seemingly respectable English woman embracing a young Italian man and then riding off with him on his bicycle.
Contemplating the possibility of a love affair is one thing, but how could a respectable woman like Clara, the object of scrutiny by her pupils during the day and her neighbours at night, pull it off? "There is a yearning side to Clara," he agrees, "a yearning for love and there is certainly nobody around in that village."
When the novel opens in 1934, Clara is 33 and living alone in the family home, a prisoner of the coal furnace that needs stoking night and day. She has no telephone, no radio, no car -- she sold it after her father died because she can't drive -- and Nora, her flamboyant younger sibling, has just moved to New York. "We take it for granted now," he says, "but the casual way people enter into relationships and leave them is a fairly new phenomenon. I don't think young women today realize how difficult it was for their grandmothers to have any kind of relationship with a man outside of marriage."
Wright was fascinated by the barriers -- finding a partner and a place to meet, the fear of pregnancy -- that denied a "kind of carnal happiness" to a lot of women like Clara. Toronto was a train ride away, but "Toronto in the 1930s was the apotheosis of Protestant rectitude, an Orangeman's town," Wright says. He knew people must have been having affairs, but how did they do it? That was the puzzle he set himself in imagining the affair that Clara has with a married father of four who lives in Toronto and is Catholic to boot.
Carnal happiness was not Wright's only compulsion in writing Clara Callan. He is fascinated by the 1930s, the decade he also explored in The Age of Longing. Partly that's because even though Wright was born near the end of the decade, the superficial trappings of the 1930s -- the cars, the wallpapers, the lamps -- stayed much the same during the long years of the war. But if the look of the era is imprinted on his imagination, so too are the political and cultural upheavals created by the Depression and the growing fear of another European war. As always, what matters to Wright is the effect these changes had on "a lot of brave, ordinary people who had to cope with genuine poverty without very much help." The constant stories on the radio and in the newspapers about Germany and Italy upset Clara and drive her back to her lover.
Then too, he hadn't used up the material he had researched for The Age of Longing and was still reading The Globe and Mail on microfilm. "We do a lot of bragging now about the Internet and cell phones and so on, but there were tremendous changes going on in the '20s and '30s," he says. There was the radio, which not only transformed popular culture, but brought it into your homes, and the telephone, which allowed you to connect immediately to the outside world, but also allowed the world to intrude upon your solitude and your privacy, especially if, like Clara, you had a party line. Movies offered an escape from the dreariness of ordinary life, a respite from the summer heat, if the cinema was air-conditioned, and a cover under which to meet lovers. The automobile was not only a vehicle, it was a place to have sex.
The great underlying theme of Clara Callan is communications, making and breaking connections, a point Wright has underscored by writing an epistolary novel, a form both limiting and demanding.
In the beginning, Wright thought the novel was all going to be letters between Clara and Nora, with the occasional missive to and from Nora's worldly friend Evelyn, but "I found it was too hampering and I introduced the idea of the journal so that I could get Clara's innermost thoughts, which she might not reveal in letters."
He says he wasn't deliberately setting himself a challenge, the way poets might decide to write a villanelle. "I just thought I would like to try it and once I got out of that straitjacket of the total epistolary, it seemed to work," he allows with typical Upper Canadian understatement. Still, he was surprised at the end to realize that "in this age of throw-away e-mail, I had written a novel about letters."
Now that he is no longer teaching, he can devote himself more fully to his own inner life. "I've always written books for myself," he says. "I've never been too interested in making the bestseller list."
Still, after 30 years and nine novels, even a writer as dedicated to the craft as Wright might be happy to settle for a little mainstream attention.