David Adams Richards, the third of six children, was born to Margaret Adams and Bill Richards, who operated a movie theatre business in Newcastle. He attended St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic primary school, until third grade before continuing his education at Harkins Academy, a public school in Newcastle. He graduated in 1969 and briefly worked at Heath Steele Mines before enrolling at St. Thomas University in Fredericton to study philosophy and literature.
In 1971, Richards married Peggy McIntyre, whom he had met four years earlier. Around this time, he began attending literary meetings with the “Ice House Gang,” a group of writers who met weekly on the University of New Brunswick campus at McCord Hall, a building once used for ice storage. The late poet Alden Nowlan, who named the group, and other writers in the “Ice House Gang” had a significant impact on Richards’ career.
Richards’ initial publications were poems, featured in the privately printed “One Step Inside” (1972) and the chapbook “Small Heroics” (1972). His first novel, “The Coming of Winter” (1974), introduced his Miramichi “homeground.” The prose and plot’s sparse naturalism received critical acclaim, and the first few chapters won the Norma Epstein Award for Creative Writing before the book’s publication. Buoyed by this early success, Richards left St. Thomas University just before graduating to dedicate himself entirely to writing. In 2008, he earned an undergraduate degree from the institution, which recognized his novels as academic credit.
David Adams Richards’ second novel, “Blood Ties” (1976), centers on the MacDurmot family and chronicles approximately two years of their challenging lives during the late 1960s. While working on his third novel, “Lives of Short Duration” (1981), Richards published a collection of short stories titled “Dancers at Night” (1978). The third novel is arguably his richest and most technically complex work, capturing aspects of Miramichi history from around 1825 to 1980 through at least five generations of the Terri family. Their relationships are often tumultuous, and the characters oscillate between personal highs and lows—financially and emotionally—at a sometimes breathtaking pace.
“Road to the Stilt House” (1985) is perhaps Richards’ shortest and most pessimistic work. The poverty, violence, and bleakness are only slightly offset by subtle depictions of the human capacity to rise above even the worst circumstances through spontaneous generosity.
Richards then wrote a trilogy of critically acclaimed novels: “Nights Below Station Street” (1988), which won the Governor General’s Literary Award; “Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace” (1990); and “For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down” (1993). This trilogy, connected mainly through setting and recurring characters, focuses on the various ways people assess and judge one another. Richards’ protagonists grapple with deterministic pessimism in a community that has a long memory for past mistakes. Characters like Joe Walsh, Ivan Basterache, and Jerry Bines attempt to break free from alcohol and drug abuse, criminal backgrounds, and society’s frequent predisposition to assume the worst about people. Although complete escape is usually unattainable, moments of redemption are achieved.
Richards’ later work increasingly delves into complex investigations of conscience, morality, integrity, and consequences. His fictional Miramichi world serves as a unified setting (similar to Alice Munro’s Huron County, Ontario, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, England), emphasized by the reappearance of characters from his earliest books.
“Hope in the Desperate Hour” (1996) illustrates how any claim to superiority—intellectual, moral, or otherwise—by those with higher formal education is, at best, misguided and, at worst, dangerous. “The Bay of Love and Sorrows” (1998) delves into themes of love, betrayal, murder, conscience, and redemption.
“Mercy Among the Children” (2000), which shared the Giller Prize with Michael Ondaatje’s “Anil’s Ghost,” narrates the story of Sydney Henderson, who maintains his integrity despite facing jealousy, rejection, and hostility from his community. His long-suffering son, Lyle, recounts the story. “River of the Brokenhearted” (2003) spans the 20th century and delves into aspects of Richards’ own family history, the appeal of cinema, and the occasionally drastic, unforeseen consequences of decisions and actions initially thought to be final. The community’s early alliances and antagonisms formed by protagonist Janie King continue to impact her grandchildren’s social standing long after her death.
In 2008, Richards published “Lord Beaverbrook,” a brief biography of Sir William Maxwell Aitken, the Canadian business tycoon, for Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians Series. His next book was also a non-fiction work titled “God Is.: My Search for Faith in a Secular World” (2009). Part memoir and part essay, it examines the role faith played in Richards’ life, documenting his struggles with alcohol and the enduring, intricate impact of his Catholic upbringing. “God Is.” also serves as a rebuttal to prominent atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, whom Richards believes argue crudely against the existence of any form of God. In the introduction to “God Is.,” Richards writes that his book “simply states God is present, and always was and will be whether we say we have faith or not, whether we observe His presence or scorn His presence.”
Richards returned to fiction with “Crimes Against My Brother” (2014), a novel set in the familiar setting of working-class rural New Brunswick, tracing the rise and fall of three cousins. His subsequent novel, “Principles to Live By” (2016), tells the story of John Delano, a middle-aged RCMP officer haunted by personal tragedy, including the disappearance of his young son and ongoing PTSD from a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. Philip Marchand praised the novel in the National Post for its “bracing and fearless facing of the reader, eyeball to eyeball.”
While some critics have deemed Richards’ fiction fatalistic, others argue that it contains more elements of hope and transcendence. Richards depicts hardship with great intensity and conveys immense faith in human generosity and spontaneity. He challenges readers to confront their own perceptions and prejudices. His fiction can be uncomfortable but is always rewarding.
Vivian Zenari from Athabasca University points out that Richards’ primary literary influences, “Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky… manifest themselves in his books’ realism, strong sense of place, and interest in family histories… Although Richards sets his work in the same small geographic space, his work examines many themes, large or small, that contribute to the broader dialogue about what it means to be Canadian… In fact, by insisting on the physical and psychological details of ordinary life, his writing argues that all larger economic and political questions, in all parts of the world, inevitably play out in the smaller moral and social questions that every community struggles to answer.”
Richards has also worked as a screenwriter. His projects include the original screenplay “Small Gifts” (1994) and screen adaptations of “For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down” (1996) and “Nights Below Station Street” (1997).
David Adams Richards has received two Gemini Awards for his original screenplay “Small Gifts” and his adaptation of “For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down,” as well as Writers Guild of Canada Awards for “Nights Below Station Street” and “For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down.”
On August 30, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed David Adams Richards to the Senate as a representative of the province of New Brunswick. “His dedication to the arts, his love of place and country will be an extraordinary asset to the independent thinkers in the Senate,” the Prime Minister said in a press conference following the appointment.
Richards, who mentioned that friends had encouraged him to apply for the position, was surprised and honored to have been chosen. “Hopefully, I can be a voice for some of the things that are happening in New Brunswick,” he said in an interview. “I’ve always done that in my work.” On another occasion, Richards remarked, “I have always written about the underdog, not because it’s cool to write about them, but because I’ve known so many.”
Richards is one of the few Canadian writers to receive a Governor General’s Literary Award in both the fiction and non-fiction categories: in 1988, he won for his novel “Nights Below Station Street,” and in 1998, he won the non-fiction prize for “Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi.” In 1992, he received the Canada-Australia Literary Prize in recognition of his body of work. He was made a Member of the Order of New Brunswick in 2005 and the Order of Canada in 2009.
Richards has been a writer-in-residence at various universities, including Mount Allison University (1982), the University of New Brunswick (1983–87), University of Alberta (1990–91), and University of Ottawa (1992–93).
He also served as artist-in-residence at St. Thomas University for two years beginning in January 2011. Though he dropped out of St. Thomas in 1973, he received an undergraduate degree from the school in 2008 (his novels were counted as academic credit). St. Thomas University and the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick both bestow annual writing awards in Richards’ honour.
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