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Paul Quarrington, novelist, screenwriter, and musician, in March of 2008.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Paul Quarrington, 56, a beloved Canadian writer, musician and screenwriter, passed away early this morning after a heroic battle with lung cancer.

A statement posted to his official website said: "Paul Quarrington's brave battle with cancer is over. He passed peacefully at home in Toronto in the early hours this morning surrounded by friends and family. It is comforting to know that he didn't suffer; he was calm and quiet holding hands with those who were closest to him. The past few days saw a rapid decline in his ability to breathe."

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 Pork Belly 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, Quarrington 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."

Anne Collins, his fiction editor at Random House, said "Paul derived immediate gratification from his music, and income from his work for film and TV, but novels were like an itch he had to scratch. Although I think of him as one of our most accomplished writers, one who left a deep imprint on our national psyche, I don't think he could have raised a family on the proceeds of his novels alone."

In an official statement, Collins said: "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. I hate the fact that he has died, but I am so glad he did it in the company of the people he loved best. I am so sorry for their loss, and deeply sorry that Paul won't be able to sing us more songs or tell us more stories, both things he loved so much to do."

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 he was, in a tuxedo. And he said, "I don't think it's going to be a novel. Maybe a short story."

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."

For Quarrington, the dark stuff included a harrowing event in childhood, documented in his last novel The Ravine , and the death of his mother, also from cancer, 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. We spent a lot of time together, travelling, riding in long car rides, and he was such a great companion, just a lot fun to sit beside."

It was Bidini who nominated Quarrington's 1987 novel King Leary for the CBC's Canada Reads series, a competition it subsequently won. "I did no work for that," Bidini said. "The book sold itself."

One of Quarrington's 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 various Toronto clubs and church basements.

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."

In the summer, Hill began working with Quarrington on Are You Ready, a song about death, one of about a dozen new tunes written for his first solo album.

Later, they and Paul's brother, Joel, spent a week in Nashville, adding string arrangements to the tune.

Typically, said Hill, "Paul just wanted to be going all the time - the Country Music Hall of Fame, the RCA building, clubs, southern restaurants. Now I'm a pretty fit guy" - Hill runs 10 miles a day, at 56 - "but I could not keep up with him."

All proceeds from the sale of the song will be donated to the Paul Quarrington Society, a charitable organization that will provide scholarships to children showing talents in several artistic areas.

During a career that spanned more than 30 years, there seemed to be few artistic genres in which Quarrington did not demonstrate his remarkable talents.

He produced 10 novels, including Whale Music ; based loosely on the life of reclusive Beach Boy Brian Wilson, it was called the best novel ever written about rock music by Penthouse magazine. It later won a Governor-General's Award for literature. Two other books, Galveston and The Ravine , were nominated for the Scotiabank Giller prize. He also produced six books of non-fiction, one of which ( King Leary , the story of a broken-down former National Hockey League goalie playing on a minor-league team in northern Ontario) won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, as well as five plays, among them two musicals for children.

For the screen, he wrote the screenplay for Perfectly Normal , wining a Genie award in the process, and for Whale Music , and was nominated for a Gemini for his work on the hit TV series Due South .

He made quick work of his writing for film and television. "That's always been one of the writer's well-kept secrets," he once said. "It doesn't take as long to do an actual screenplay as one might think. But I know I'll be in trouble with other writers if I divulge the exact amount of time."

He loved both genres equally, saying, "I don't think my loyalty is to one medium or the other. I just love stories. But a movie can't hold as much as a novel. And that leads to a major problem when you're writing a screenplay. Producers want you to hand in 120 pages, but logic tells you that's too long. You know you are going to wind up cutting and it will be brutal."

In music, perhaps his earliest love, Quarrington show proficiency with half a dozen instruments - guitar, clarinet, squeeze box, bass, harp, and piano - and he wrote songs, including Baby and the Blues, which was a number one adult contemporary single in Canada in 1980.

Before he started writing novels, he toured as a guitarist and vocalist with Joe Hall and The Continental Drift.

For a brief time in the early 1990s he also fronted another band, The Mudwrestlers - so-called in honour of then Vancouver MP Chuck Cook's statement that more Canadians watch mud wrestling than read domestically produced books.

Raised in the Toronto middle-class suburb of Don Mills, Quarrington was the middle of three sons, and one daughter born to a professional parents. His father was a professor of psychology at York University; his mother had a practice in child psychology.

He demonstrated his gifts early on. His friend, music publisher Burke, vividly recalls the first time he encountered Quarrington at their Don Mills junior high school. "Paul had been asked to read the narrative of something called Little Bop Riding Hood , accompanied by the school band. He told me later he was petrified and had been coerced into doing it, but he walked in there and sat at the front and did it like a professional and I thought, 'the kid has balls.' And that remained. He came off as a little bumbling, but there was something intangible that he had, that thing, charisma, a star power. He had it in spades and I think it's the thing I will remember the most."

Indeed, it was while he was touring with Hall, staying in hotel rooms that, he later recalled, "cost about a quarter a night," that Quarrington started writing seriously, on an old second-hand portable typewriter. His second novel, Home Game , about baseball, published in 1983, was written on that machine.

"Musicians work from 9 p.m. to 1," Quarrington once explained, "so there are all those hours off during the days. Writing is a good way to kill time in those hotel rooms."

But writing had been part of his ambition for a long time. He'd spent two years studying English literature at the University of Toronto, and worked at The Book Cellar, a fabled Toronto bookstore of the period. In his early 20s, he wrote theatre scripts and short stories and analyzed different writing genres, trying to understand their differences.

He once recalled being struck by the power writers could bestow by a wordless scene in the William Wyler film, The Best Years of Our Lives , in which a soldier comes home from the war a double amputee. "It's evening and the soldier looks at his father, who nods. Then the father carries the soldier up to bed. No words - but it occurred to me then that a writer was responsible for that scene."

As for role models, he had many, but he once said that "if there had never been a Mordecai Richler, I probably would never have attempted to make a go of things as a writer of books. He was really the first world-class Canadian, or at least the first I became aware of. He truly inspired me." He once wrote Richler a letter, telling him, "If it weren't for you, Mordecai, I'd probably be a filthy-rich television writer or something."

"I think Paul could probably have been a bigger artist than he was if he had done things differently," said Burke, "if his characters had been a little slicker. If he had allowed himself to be manipulated by people. But he stuck with what he thought was right."

When he wasn't travelling with the band, Quarrington resided in a series of not terribly imposing downtown apartments and houses. For a time, he shared quarters with Michael Burke, then involved in the computer business, and Bobby Irwin - taking the occasion of their house-warming party, Burke recalls, to get drunk and pass out on the back lawn.

Burke said he was constantly amazed by Quarrington's ability to seem uninterested in things and then be able to write deeply and passionately about them. Musically, Burke said, "Paul was a pretty good bass player, a pretty good guitarist, a pretty good singer and a pretty good songwriter, but he could take all of this stuff and turn it into a gem."

One day, Burke brought home a new-fangled contraption called a word processor. "Paul immediately sat down and started writing a book on that."

In his novels, Burke added, Quarrington "took real characters and made them somehow larger than life, a kind of romanticized version of the people around him." And as good as the novels were, Burke said, "the saddest part is that I know his best work was still ahead of him."

"My humour is in my characters," Quarrington once explained. "I'm not what you'd call a comedy writer. I couldn't conceive of writing jokes, like Woody Allen does. But once I get into the way a particular character thinks, funny things can happen."

On another occasion he said, "All my writing has similarities. Most of my characters try to exclude themselves from life and then get drawn back in." Whale Music , he confessed, was written "to prevent myself from becoming a recluse like [the central character]Desmond. It's an appealing lifestyle. Like Howard Hughes in hotel rooms, watching movies all day? Sounds good to me."

He had already written a first draft of his memoir about his life in music when he was given the grim medical diagnosis. "Well," he quipped, "I guess I should at least rewrite the ending."' Somehow, Quarrington always seemed able to identify and express the comic underbelly of any situation, no matter how awkward.

Once, in the mid-1970s, he and Dan Hill were performing at Grossman's Tavern in Toronto. "Paul had been drinking beer and at one point excused himself to go to the men's room. When he returned, he found his bandmate Hill huddling with club owner and promoter Bernie Fiedler and manager Bernie Finkelstein. That, in a sense, was the start of Hill's extraordinary career in the music business.

"Geez," Quarrington later remarked. "If it hadn't been for my bladder, I could have been a star."

But Hill said Quarrington's wit could at times be lacerating. Some years ago, Hill's brother Lawernce, a novelist ( The Book of Negroes), produced a book called Some Great Thing.

Running into Lawrence, Paul gave him a sly look and said, "Gee, Larry, why didn't you just call it Three Vague Words ?"

Dan Hill later chastised Quarrington for the remark, to which "Paul replied, "Oh, you Hills are too touchy."

When he wasn't writing, Quarrington spent time with his two daughters - Carson and Flannery, the product of his marriage to actress Dorothy Bennie, which ended in divorce. He also liked to lift weights, watch hockey and to fish (two of his non-fiction books are about fishing).

In 1997, he also produced The Boy On The Back Of The Turtle, based on his trip to the Galapagos Islands with his father and daughter Carson.

It was envisaged as a conversation with God in the land of Darwin, but turned out to be "more about losing God than finding God. I did leave with the best intentions," Quarrington said, "but things just didn't work out that way." At the time, he noted, there was "quite a trade afoot for spiritual books, so I hope it's clear we were having no part of it. We don't want to be seen as cashing in."

In keeping with his professed atheism, perhaps, Quarrington requested that he be given no formal funeral. But friends and family started to gather today in his east end Toronto home for a wake, and said a formal memorial would be planned.

Although he did not live to see his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs win another Stanley Cup, he did manage - courtesy of his friend Michael Burke - to have his picture taken with members of the team of 1967, when they last won the cup. "Two years ago, there was a reunion and they auctioned the photo op," Burke recalls. "People bid $500, then $1000 and then I bid $10,000 and we got to spend an hour with the team. Paul was in his glory."

In 2001, Quarrington was asked to write a short scene for a theatrical sketch on the theme of mortality. "Of course I just thought about me," he told an interviewer at the time, basing the scene on the moment in childhood when you first realize that life may not be infinite. It was loosely based on the time he fell off a piece of playground equipment at the age of five or six, and had the wind knocked out of him. The character was an adult dancer who recalls the accident when she finds herself short of breath during a performance. The shortness of breath triggers intimations of mortality.

"What I liked," said Quarrington, "is that she wants her breath back."

His final novel, The Ravine , was his most autobiographical - dealing with, he said, "a writer who squanders his talents in television, drinks too much, screws around and ruins his marriage."

In an interview with The Globe and Mail at the time, Quarrington acknowledged that moving between artistic mediums and idioms had probably led some people to judge him a dilettante. But, he added, "in Bali, they make no distinction between dancing, painting and singing. They're all sort of ways of glorifying one grander thing. It's always seemed like I'm doing the same thing, whatever it is, and the root of it all is character, ways of exploring human beings [with]... affectionate empathy."

After his diagnosis last spring, Quarrington and the Pork Belly Futures went to Labrador. Part of the tour took them through the majestic Torngat Mountains. "They took what little breath I have away from me," Quarrington wrote. "That's when I realized ... that what I wanted to do was spend a little time getting to know the third stone from the sun; it has been my home for 56 years, but I have spent much of it confined in the settlements. I wanted to explore and examine, I wanted to interact - yes, in the broadest, most spiritual sense, I wanted to go mountain climbing."

These, he said, singing and (spiritual) mountain climbing would be "the two main components of my plan for (what remains of) my future...I think I'll go fishing this week, getting to know Mother Ship Earth a bit better. I think I'll go stand in a river just a few degrees above freezing and toss a yarn-fly into the current, over and over again, in the hopes of convincing some chromium-silver steelhead that the thing is edible. Or, I may simply go walkabout, kicking stones and major rock formations. I will build inuksuit (did you know that was the plural? I learned a lot on my voyages...) and I will try to build them across as much of the landscape as I can. In the meantime, I will be singing, all manner of songs."