Paul Quarrington, 56, a beloved Canadian writer, musician and screenwriter, passed away early yesterday at his home in Toronto after a heroic battle with lung cancer.
Quarrington was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in the spring, but managed to keep working on a range of projects that reflected his diverse artistic interests and talents - a new solo album of his own songs, another album with his band, the Porkbelly Futures, a new screenplay, a new novel, as well as a memoir, Cigar Box Banjo. He also continued to perform, at times even while hooked up to an oxygen machine, toured Labrador, chronicled his illness in a series of newspaper articles, and worked on a documentary film inspired by the memoir, Life in Music.
In the last several months, he had managed to maintain a pace that would have exhausted a healthy man - demonstrating a prodigious work ethic that belied his familiar persona as a rumpled, slightly undisciplined laggard.
"I've never seen anybody keep going like he did," said Rob Sanders, publisher of Greystone Books, Quarrington's non-fiction publisher. It was endless. He had the creative passion of a comet."
Sanders said the writer finished final revisions for the memoir, to be published in May, on the weekend.
He said Quarrington in recent days was finding it increasingly hard to breathe. He cancelled one scheduled public appearance this week. Although additional oxygen tubes were brought in, they were unavailing.
"Paul was a remarkable person," said his long-time friend, music publisher Michael Burke. "He was able to see the bright or humorous side of almost everything. When I saw him in August, he said he was making two lists. One was of all the people he admired who lived shorter lives than he did, and the other was of all the people he detested who lived longer lives than he would."
Paul Quarrington brought humour, grace, energy and joy to the dark business of dying Anne Collins
Anne Collins, his fiction editor at Random House, said in a statement: "Paul Quarrington brought humour, grace, energy and joy to the dark business of dying, in the same way he brought those qualities to his remarkable fiction. He was one of our funniest writers and surreptitiously one of our most profound."
Collins said editing Quarrington was mainly a process of "striking the right balance between the humour and lightness that came so naturally to him and the darker stuff that was always roiling around underneath."
He had been mulling over various ideas for a new novel only recently, Collins said. "I saw him at the Writers' Trust dinner in November and he looked good. He'd had a heart attack in Calgary the week before, but there was, in a tuxedo. And he said, 'I don't think it's going to be a novel. Maybe a short story.' "
For Quarrington, the dark stuff included a harrowing event in childhood, documented in his last novel The Ravine, and the death of his mother, from a stroke, when he was just a teenager. He addressed the latter subject in his contribution to The Heart Does Break, a book of short memoirs about grief and grieving.
Another close friend, musician and writer Dave Bidini, with whom Quarrington was scheduled to have dinner tomorrow, said "it was Paul, so open, friendly, funny," who first showed him the possibility of being a writer. "He showed me and many other aspiring writers that there could be depth in humour. He just fizzed with joy."
It was Bidini who nominated Quarrington's 1987 novel King Leary for the CBC's Canada Reads Series, a competition it subsequently won.
One of his closest friends was songwriter Dan Hill, with whom he grew up in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills. Hill, his brother Lawrence, and the three Quarrington brothers, Tony, Paul and Joel, were all friends - part of that "strange, eccentric, hyper-talented constellation" of alien spirits that existed on the margins of straight-laced, WASP Don Mills adolescence.
At one point, Hill wanted to be part of a band Paul had formed, but was told to "come back when I knew more about Wilson Pickett." Later, however, they formed a folk duo, Quarrington Hill, and performed their own material in Toronto clubs and church basements.
Stop drinking cheap wine immediately and enjoy what one can Paul Quarrington on learning he had cancer
Hill had been with Quarrington virtually every day in recent weeks. It was during a benefit performance in April in Kingston, he said, that he first noticed Quarrington's "weird cough." A few weeks later, Paul called him from the hospital to tell him he had just had his lungs drained of fluid, three litres worth. "It's probably pneumonia," Hill said. But Paul said, "it might be cancer."
When the grim diagnosis was confirmed, Quarrington said he went home and sat, stunned. "I took a walk in the Bluffs, and blubbered a bit like anyone would. I sort of said, 'Well, you know, let's make the most of it.' You know, stop drinking cheap wine immediately and enjoy what one can."