He was one of Canada’s most prolific alternative writers – quirky, sharp, funny, original. R.M. Vaughan’s slender books of poetry, fiction, drama and essays, all from small presses, were gems of insight into the human condition, both gay and straight.
“I can’t even count the number of books he produced or contributed to. I have never counted them, but there were – I don’t know – about 60,” his friend, the novelist Jared Mitchell, said in an interview. Mr. Vaughan’s last published work was a monograph titled Contemporary Art Hates You attacking the pretensions of the art world, with photographs by Mr. Mitchell.
“Richard loved art, but hated all the baloney that was attached to art,” Mr. Mitchell recalled, “especially the inflated artist’s statement that’s deemed more important than the actual art.”
In addition to writing books, he contributed essays and commentary to Canadian Art, The Walrus, This Magazine, Eye, the National Post, as well as this newspaper.
He could write as deftly about garden gnomes or goldfish or his chronic insomnia as he could about the death of his beloved mother. But basically his subject was always his own life and experiences. In a short essay titled Paper Boy, he admitted that he was “proud of the fact as well as a bit heartbroken by it that my newspaper and magazine work had and always would reach a far wider audience than any of my poems, plays or fiction.”
Multitalented, he revelled in creativity in the visual art and literary fields without commercial considerations. Instead of monetary reward, he was rich in friendships, and his sudden death at 55 by drowning in Fredericton, N.B., last month stunned a wide circle of writers, actors, artists and others in several cities who had been close to him.
Richard Murray Vaughan was born in Saint John on March 2, 1965, the second adopted son of Murray and Dorothy (née Loughery) Vaughan. He grew up in Quispamsis, a suburb of Saint John, cherished by his family. “He was a normal boy. I played a lot of sports and he didn’t like sports,” his elder brother, Paul, recalled in a phone interview. “He was more creative, more artistic. He always felt picked on. That was part of life in the 1970s.”
When New Brunswick announced that it would unseal adoption records, Richard was opposed. He was irritated by people who asked about his “real parents” and usually answered that the parents who had raised him were real enough.
He attended the University of New Brunswick in Saint John as an undergraduate studying English literature and later took his master’s degree at UNB Fredericton in the late eighties. During the same period, at the time of the AIDS crisis, he came out as gay.
“In Saint John, in the 1980s, it was a brave thing to do,” recalled Clarissa Hurley, who met him in the MA program at UNB and was a close friend for over 30 years. “He became an incisive chronicler of his time. There weren’t too many people then writing openly about their perspective as a queer person.”
The two friends ended up in Toronto, sharing a flat. Ms. Hurley was acting and Mr. Vaughan was writing poetry and finding the supportive gay community he needed. At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, he found his voice as a playwright, starting with a one-act play, then going on to longer monologues.
“That early play was quite experimental and fragmented,” she recalled. “His three published plays all focus on women characters. He was interested in women’s lives and experiences.”
In 2018, Ms. Hurley had directed the last of these theatre pieces, titled One Year After, in Fredericton. It is a monologue by a woman who is taking poison as she packs up her things.
Mr. Vaughan produced many poetry collections, including A Selection of Dazzling Scarves, Invisible to Predators and Ruined Stars, and novels (A Quilted Heart and Spells.)
A most unusual poetic work was his book Troubled (2008), which tells the disturbing story of his sexual exploitation by a Toronto psychiatrist to whom he had gone seeking relief from his anxiety. It includes redacted transcripts of the disciplinary hearing the psychiatrist eventually underwent before the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. The book is dedicated to his friend Kirsten Johnson, who had given testimony.
A selection of essays, Compared to Hitler, in 2013, took its cheeky title from overwrought complaints against him for an art review he had written.
That same year, Mr. Vaughan moved to Berlin and lived and wrote there for the next six years with occasional trips home. He explored Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, attracted by its tangled history. Friends back in Canada received numerous quirky gifts and handwritten letters and postcards when everyone else was sending e-mails.
In Bright Eyed: Insomnia and its Cultures (2015), he revealed his inability to sleep more than two or three hours a day since the age of 10. The book was an unexpected bestseller and was also published in South Korea.
“He wrote every day – either working on his next book or poem or penning a bread-and-butter article,” recalled Dawn Boyd Aronson, an illustrator and writer who had known him since their student days. “He told me he did that early in the day; the rest of his time was filled with an endless assortment of collaborations, art shows, crafting, treasure-shopping and, of course, friendship. Friendship where you could sit and talk for hours about everything, laugh till you cried, be vulnerably open, until you see it’s 2 a.m. and you thought it was only 10.”
After he moved back from Berlin, Mr. Vaughan lived in Montreal until he was invited by his alma mater to be a writer in residence – the first time he was offered such a position, though he had returned from time to time to give readings. “He started in January and he was great at mentoring young writers and at reaching out to others. He was warm, funny, friendly, inclusive,” recalled professor John Ball, chair of the UNB English department. “He won a lot of admirers in the community.”
Because of a funding shortfall, he was offered only a four-month position, but had wide impact.
According to Prof. Ball, he was good at coming up with collaborative projects: “One was called Cut, Paste, Resist and anyone could submit words and images to make a cultural or political statement.” Mr. Vaughan collaged together all the contributions and the resulting work was displayed in the Student Union Building.
He passionately opposed the notion of urban theorist Richard Florida that there is a separate group called the creative class. He believed, Prof. Ball said, that everyone has a story and can be a writer.
In Fredericton, Mr. Vaughan was living in the basement suite of his friends Nathaniel Moore and his wife, Amber McMillan, who last saw him on Oct. 12, during the Thanksgiving weekend. When Ms. McMillan went to check on him the next day, he had disappeared and they reported him as a missing person. Search parties were organized over the next 10 days before his body was found Oct. 23. Police announced that no foul play was suspected.
Richard Vaughan was predeceased by his parents and leaves his brother, Paul Vaughan, a niece and two nephews.
Appreciations of RM Vaughan
- Alana Wilcox: ‘He wrote exquisitely in every genre, with panache and precision, and with impeccable professionalism’
- Vivek Shraya: ‘RM consistently showed me kindness and generosity – a reminder of how vital kindness from strangers is’
- Bert Archer: ‘He was, like Derek McCormack and Kathy Acker and Gary Indiana, someone a small group thinks the world of’
- Andrew Gorham: ‘I asked him if he would be a columnist. He warned me he would say whatever the hell he wanted’