Quirky Quarrington

An author fills his books and movies with likable eccentrics.

Maclean’s, October 3, 1994 

Paul Quarrington was beginning to wonder if he was still a novelist. By his late 30s, he had written a total of six books, consolidating a reputation as one of Canada’s leading younger authors. The accolades had begun with his third published work, King Leary (winner of the 1988 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humor), and continued with Home Game (1983), Logan in Overtime (1990), and Whale Music (winner of the 1990 Governor General’s Award for fiction).


Then Quarrington got sidetracked by the movies. “After Whale Music, I was writing more screenplays,” says the 41-year-old Toronto author. “And for about a five-year period, I had no real novel to write. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience, because you don’t want to have been a promising novelist and then become a screenwriter. That’s a career path I really didn’t want; then you go to TV, and then to being a drunk.”


Eventually, Quarrington did find a novel to write. And not coincidentally, Civilization — just published by Random House of Canada — is about the film business. It is the tale of an early movie star making cowboy adventures for a maniacal director during the medium’s infancy. The battle of wills between actor and film-maker has fatal consequences. But Quarrington says that his own cinematic adventures have been mostly rewarding. His screenwriting debut Perfectly Normal (1990), a collaboration with Eugene Lipinski, won a Genie Award for best screenplay. Camilla, slated to open later this year, has an A-list cast including Bridget Fonda and the late Jessica Tandy. Whale Music, an adaptation of Quarrington’s novel co-scripted by the author and Richard J. Lewis — who also directed — opened the Toronto International Film Festival in early September and is scheduled to première in Canadian theatres on Oct. 28. King Leary, another adaptation co-scripted with Lewis, may soon go into production.


Despite the anxiety he experienced during his five-year novelistic dry spell, Quarrington says that the dual nature of his career suits him. “I have this model of the great composers,” he says. “Beethoven, Brahms and those other people, they would never say, ‘Well, I only write symphonies.’ But they saved that part of them that was most important for the symphonies. I feel a little bit that way. I can save what’s most important for the novels.” Screenplays, meanwhile, are akin to concertos. “They’re important; they’re just not symphonies. Barring some major breakthrough on the sales front, you have to do what you can to support the family.” Quarrington’s consists of his wife, Dorothy Bennie, 35, and two daughters, Carson, 5, and Flannery, eight months, named after two of his favorite authors, Southerners Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. “And we’re gonna stop having kids, because the next one will have to be either Eudora or Willa.”


In his fiction and movie writing, Quarrington tempers a mordant wit with sympathy and affection. Those elements were apparent in his first novel, The Service (1978), in which the main character pays a huckster $50 to solve all the problems in his life. He has continued to hone a style marked by lampoon and strange flights of oddly poetic language that he calls “riffs.” Quarrington’s use of a jazz term is not surprising — before deciding to be a writer, he wanted to be a musician. His love of music came from his psychologist parents, Bruce and the late Mary — particularly his father, who played trumpet in dance bands in his free time. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Paul and his brother Tony played in a rock band called Joe Hall and the Continental Drift, known for its satirical songs.


Quarrington’s stories are told from the point of view of their protagonists, people inspired by real-world personages who have mutated into the author’s own comic specimens. When the author began writing King Leary, for example, he was thinking about the early Toronto Maple Leafs star, and later coach and vice-president, King Clancy. “But that’s a case,” says Quarrington, “where I did start to research his life, but then found out that King Clancy was a wonderful human being, which is great for mankind but really rotten for a novelist.”


Whale Music tells the story of reclusive rock musician Desmond Howell, holed up in his dilapidated mansion on the coast of northern California. A huge star during the 1960s, Des is merely huge as the story begins, weighing, by his own admission, “about 350 pounds.” He eschews everything but self-medication and work on his magnum opus, a symphony for sea creatures called Whale Music. Des’s obsessive toil does not bear much artistic fruit until his heart blooms with love for an uninvited housemate, a troubled runaway from Toronto named Claire.


Superficially, Desmond Howell bears a similarity to Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, who went through some psychological and substance-abuse travails of his own. But Quarrington says that he was mainly interested in imagining why someone would end up spending his time “wandering around his house. It became a matter of saying, ‘Well, everyone just assumes that the man’s crazy. But I bet you I can construct a predicament for him where this kind of response — to hide yourself away — is really the most sane response.’”


Quarrington’s ability to inhabit the souls of such protagonists is what initially attracted filmmakers to his work. “Paul Quarrington has an unparalleled ability with character and voice,” says Steven DeNure, president of production for Alliance, which made Whale Music. “Nobody creates characters like his. They’re quirky, they’re unique, and there’s been some tragedy in their lives.”


Just as Quarrington’s early days as a musician amplified the authenticity and detail of Whale Music, his movie exploits have inspired the new novel. “Three years ago, I went to the Canadian Film Centre — you know, Uncle Norman’s [Jewison] school — as a resident, because I wanted to see if I could direct things, in case I write a screenplay I feel I should direct” says the author. “They had this huge library, and I became intrigued with the early days of filmmaking. In one book, there was a photograph of this odd mountain on which they built this Biblical city for a movie called Civilization. I saw the photo and something registered. I was out for a jog one day, and the first line popped into my head: ‘I am damned, all because I wanted to be in Civilization.’ You hear that, and you run for another mile or two, and you begin to think, ‘Well, who said that?”‘


Quarrington sees his novel Civilization as the first of a trilogy about the film business. But before turning to the second installment, he wants to complete another novel, and to write “a nonfiction book about a kind of quixotic fishing trip I went on.” As well, he and Lewis hope to get King Leary in production. “So I’ve got enough to keep me busy,” Quarrington says. “You know what it’s like in one’s 20s when you have no work and no prospects of any kind, and then when you do, you start saying yes to everything people suggest. You keep getting into these messes because you’re reneging on all these contracts. So I think that I’ve reached a point where I can now say no to some things. Maybe I’ll take a little time and just clean up my office.” But it’s hard to imagine a work slowdown in Quarrington’s imagination. And chances are that while he is sorting through papers or cleaning out his files, another outlandish character will spring to mind, demanding that his story be told.