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Books Richard B. Wright: ‘What did I do all those years ago that I might have done better?’

Richard B. Wright

Simon and Schuster

Richard B. Wright is the author of a dozen novels, including Clara Callan, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor-General's Literary Award and the Trillium Book Award. A member of the Order of Canada, Wright lives with his wife in St. Catharines, Ont. His latest book, A Life With Words: A Writer's Memoir, was recently published by Simon & Schuster Canada.

Why did you write your new book?
It may sound odd, but I wrote this memoir to understand myself better. 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? To get a clearer perspective on all this, I decided to tell my story in the third person. Somehow it felt more comfortable than all those sentences beginning with "I did this" and "I did that." It was more like writing a novel than a memoir. Or so I imagined as I worked my way through the story of my life.

What is the best death scene in literature and why?
I think you would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling and complete death scene than the one in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a successful middle-aged bureaucrat who has an accidental fall in his home. At first, it seems only minor, but as the weeks and months pass the wound in his side begins to hurt and no one seems to know why. Friends and family begin to weary of the poor man's anguish and many begin to abandon him. Only his faithful servant Gerasim, a strong young man, remains to comfort Ilyich who often howls like a wounded dog in his bed. The intense pain is relieved only when Gerasim holds the patient's legs up. And so he sits beside his master until the end. I don't think anyone could read this painful tale without feeling emotionally wrenched.

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What agreed upon classic do you despise?
Despise is an awfully strong word to paste on a book. One imagines the reader throwing a book across the room and accidentally breaking Aunt Edna's vase (a Christmas gift). But why would anyone reach such a state over a book unless of course the reader is under compulsion to possibly answer questions about the book. I remember struggling with Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone in Grade 10 a hundred years ago. Collins then was a highly regarded writer of detective fiction in Victorian England. The Moonstone didn't light any lamps for me. Still, I don't think I despised it. I have always been a great admirer of Nabokov's work, but I found Pale Fire irritatingly pretentious though certainly not despicable. But perhaps these books don't qualify as agreed-upon classics.

What is the best romance in literature and why?
Well for me I have to go back to Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. This is a novel that absolutely proves that you can die for love. Tolstoy's remarkable insight into Anna's heart and mind fascinated me when I first read it some years ago. I've always been interested in fictional portrayals of women by male writers. This is not so much prurience as just curiosity about how male writers deal with female characters. Tolstoy seems to have been a student of the female psyche of Anna Karenina. If anything to go by, his portrait of Anna seems deeply felt and intricate. Her wild love for Count Vronsky, her bitter disappointments and her moments of happiness are handled with exquisite subtly by the old master.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or to time travel?
I think having the ability to time travel might be diverting on a dull day in February. Dropping in at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's England say, or peering over the shoulder of Jonathan Swift as he works on Gulliver's Travels. Or what about being in Palestine when the famous loaves and fishes are being divided up? Yes, I think time travel would work for me.

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