Ottawa Writers Festival: David Adams Richards holds up an uncomfortable mirror in new novel Mary Cyr

David Adams Richards. Photo: Bruce Peters

Last summer the novelist, playwright, essayist and poet David Adams Richards did something he had never done before. He swore an oath to Queen and country and entered the Senate of Canada as an independent representative of the people of New Brunswick.

It was, he said in an interview after launching his latest novel called Mary Cyr Thursday evening at Library and Archives Canada, about putting up or shutting up.

“My wife Peggy said to me, ‘You have talked enough. Why don’t you do something about it — just apply and we’ll see’.” So he did taking advantage of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s invitation to the country and he got in.

“I am very glad that I did. It’s late in my career now. I have one more novel that I want to write.”

It turns out he likes the work and he’s hopeful he’ll get some things accomplished for his province.

“My thing is to try to remain independent and to vote my conscience. But the thing about it is, it’s like anything else, you can split hairs on these votes. There is no one way to look at issues.”

He has discovered on the Senate floor how hard it is to reach a consensus on things. Despite that however, he thinks the Senate “has a real role. As a functioning body, some form of the Senate is necessary. Sober second thought is absolutely necessary. Yeah it gets long winded and a lot of bills take a long time but even so some form is necessary and I’m glad my wife talked me into doing it.”

He’s even managed to put in a lot of writing on the side.


In between Senate committee meetings, Richards has managed to complete a novel called Darkness featuring Orville McDurmott, a character from his second novel Blood Ties, along with a collection of essays. Both will be published in the near future. And there’s that other novel that he promises to get down to in earnest during the summer recess.

As Orville McDurmott shows, Richards has a habit of following up on the lives of his creations.

Mary Cyr is a case in point. She was a minor character in his 2011 novel Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul.

“She was a younger kid in the cottage and her grandfather was wealthy. And then she flew off to university in Toronto and left it all behind. She was rather a spoiled debutante back then.

“I thought then that I was going to deal with her again as a person and this novel just came. I was interested in her as a tragic figure, not just a spoiled brat.”

His characters take over his novels, Richards told the launch event crowd Thursday night, using an anecdote by way of explanation.

“When Leo Tolstoy was writing Anna Karenina he would come downstairs in the morning and say to his wife at breakfast ‘I wonder what Levin is going to do today? Levin was one of the main characters but he had taken over the book. And Tolstoy did not know what Levin was going to do.”

Mary Cyr is that kind of character. She looms large in Richards’ mind so much so that he calls her “one of the truly great women I have ever written about.”

One student/fan of Richards’s writing has called her a fallen angel.

“There is a lot about her that is conflicted in her own soul, but Mary Cyr never attacks anyone unless they are trying to scapegoat a friend of hers or abusing her.

“She finds out the hard way about people but she doesn’t completely exonerate herself. She admits she is deeply flawed. She is used by these guys but people like Mary Cyr are used all the time.

“She is in a desperate fight with her (exceedingly wealthy) family and she wants to get back at them and hurt them so she joins these causes and sees the people there aren’t much better than the family she left behind.”

In many ways the novel, through Mary Cyr, is holding up a mirror to society and exposing its hypocrisies. It’s the kind of thing Richards does. He speaks uncomfortable truths.

For example, here he is on pipelines (which are mentioned in the novel because the Cyr family is involved in these projects):

“I love a clean environment and I hope we get one, but everything we touch and own is petroleum-based and some people are fighting against it so much while they wear clothes (made of oil) and drive cars and turn up the heat.

“You can’t use people like Mary Cyr as scapegoats for selling you oil. You can’t neglect to look at your own life in this. I’m just saying what Tolstoy said much better than I ever could: ‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself’.”

Richards is known for his books on the downtrodden, disadvantaged and devalued. Mary Cyr is not disadvantaged, but she has been devalued.

“I realized you don’t have to be poor and marginalized to have that happen to you. You can be exceedingly rich and comfortable in your surroundings and have this happen to you,” he told his audience. “And it happened to Mary Cyr in a number of ways.

“By the time she is 16, she is isolated from her family and those around her. She is considered a bigot. People think she is full of hate and joyless when actually she has a heart filled with joy and hates no one. But I will leave that to the reader to decide that for themselves. It is what I have decided when I was writing this novel.

“She is not a bigot and a racist at all; instead she is probably as close to a saint that we can get today. She always takes the side of the underdog because she herself is an underdog. I just want to show that having life devalued can happen to everybody.”

Nothing ever really works out for Mary Cyr, he said. Her marriages fail. Her best laid plans fail.

“Everything in her life seems to fail, but seems is a important word here,” Richards said. “In her inner life, there is an enormous strength of character.”

The problems come, he says, because she is part British and part Acadian and she sided with her English mother who was a war bride against her Acadian family. In many ways, he agrees later, Mary Cyr is a metaphor for New Brunswick itself.

Book launches are opportunities to learn more about writers. After he read from his novel, Richards answered some questions from the audience.

On dealing with editors: “If you are certain you have written a good story, you ignore what the editor is asking you to do. If you feel they are giving you suggestions that are competent and you trust them then you can work on it.

“When I was younger, the editors never trusted me because I was young and the publisher never trusted me, I would do an outline of my book and say ‘This is what will happen in my book’ and I would send it to them. When I got a contract I signed it  and then I’d throw the outline away and write whatever I wanted.

“That might sound underhanded, but all they were really interested in is having a good book.

“Editors are good at editing but many of them are not very good at writing. In the final analysis it should be the writer’s decision. I have had six or seven editors and they are all good. But you you have to be careful because sometimes they can give you really bad advice.”

On balancing being a senator and a writer: It’s tilted right now. But I have gotten three books done: Mary Cyr which has just come out, a book called Darkness which is about Orville McDurmott.

“I’m sure almost no one here would know him. He was in my second novel Blood Ties which I wrote when I was 23. In Darkness he becomes a famous archeologist and he spends his life searching for beauty because he wasn’t very beautiful. He had a tumour on his face when he was a child.

“The whole novel revolves around what is beauty. It is a subject that has plagued me most of my life. I have that done and a book of essays done. I have started another book, but it is going slowly.

On writing and Alistair McLeod: “We got along on almost everything except writing a book. He would plan his books meticulously. And I wouldn’t do that.

“The characters take over in my books. If my books are going well the characters take over. If they don’t, the book is not going well. Once the characters take over then it’s up to them what they do. I know that sounds a little schizophrenic but it’s how I have always written.”

Mary Cyr (Doubleday Canada) will be in bookstores on April 10.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.