David Adams Richards was determined to be a writer by the age of 14.
He realized his calling when he read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist while growing up in Newcastle, N.B., a neighbourhood on the north bank of the Miramichi River.
Richards went on to study at St. Thomas University and published his first novel, The Keeping of Gusties, at the age of 20.
“That’s what I decided to do, and come hell or high water, that’s what I did,” he said.
The internationally-acclaimed author, poet, playwright and STU artist-in-residence is entering a new chapter of his life — serving in parliament. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Richards to represent New Brunswick in the Senate on Aug. 30.
In a phone interview from Ottawa on Thursday, Richards recalled his studies at St. Thomas. He spent a few years at the university, but left in 1973 to focus on writing his first novel. He later returned for a semester but then left permanently to dedicate his time to a second novel that same year.
“I was also writing at the time, and I realized I had to do one thing or the other,” Richards said.
While in university, he said he was influenced by the works of Canadian writers from the region, including Alden Nowlan. His courses also introduced him to works by Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy and Ernest Hemingway’s short stories.
“It’s been instrumental in my life,” Richards said of his experience at STU.
“I thank a lot of those professors for showing me what literature could do and how important it was.”
Richards said he believes his studies provided him with a solid foundation for the written word.
“I might have been a different writer if I didn’t go to STU,” he said.
“The people there were so open and friendly, and many of the professors wanted to be writers themselves.”
The university awarded Richards with an honorary doctorate in the late 1990s and presented him with a bachelor’s degree in 2008, counting his novels as academic credit.
Richards has served as the artist-in-residence at STU since 2011, a role he has held at other universities around the country. As part of that work, he’s held office hours in Sir James Dunn Hall to meet with students interested in writing.
“I really like the kids at STU, they’re young and energetic, and some of them want to change the world,” Richards said.
Plans for Parliament
Richards, who begins serving in Senate on Sept. 19, said he has a range of concerns about human dignity and everyone “getting a fair deal” which he plans to voice.
“It’s implicit in my work. I have always written about the underdog, not because it’s cool to write about them, but because I’ve known so many,” Richards said.
He described New Brunswick’s economy as being in “terrible shape,” and said the start to change is sharing opinions. Richards said the last two generations have seen an exodus of residents to the west in search of employment, including his son and about two dozen friends.
‘Stories from the heart’
Richards has written about 13 books and draws much of his work from his home region, exploring the experiences of poor residents in the Miramichi area and spiritual themes from his Roman Catholic faith.
Richards is one of only three authors to win awards in both the fiction and non-fiction categories of the Governor General’s Award. He was also made a member of the Order of Canada in 2009 for contributions to the Canadian literary scene.
Throughout his career, Richards has published stage plays, poetry, novels, short stories, and non-fiction work. His craft revolves around one essential element — writing “stories from the heart,” something he encourages aspiring authors to do.
“Write what you know, but write what you feel about the world. Not what others tell you to feel, but what you actually feel,” Richards said.
Common themes of the human experience translate regardless of the reader’s location, he said.
“If people write from the human heart and how they feel, rather than how others tell them to feel, they have the opportunity to produce beautiful writing.”