(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is “Paul Quarrington: A Life in Music, Words, and on Screen,” featuring Margaret Atwood, David Bezmogis, Wayson Choy, Roddy Doyle, Alistair MacLeod and Nino Ricci, and numerous others. Hosted by Dave Bidini.)
I stepped into line for the Paul Quarrington event with very little idea of who the author was. After the David Byrne event, which was completely packed, I’d figured the Quarrington event, having less star power, would be sedate and moderately attended. I was completely wrong. It was a madhouse getting in, and it took so long to place everyone who wanted to attend that things started about 20 minutes late.
During the wait I asked the woman sitting next to me who this Quarrington was, and the answer demonstrated the difficulty of breaking authors into the American market, no matter who they are or where they write. Paul Quarrington is huge and beloved in Canada, she explained to me. He’s a multiple recipient of the Governor General’s Award (among Canada’s biggest book prizes), he’s known for his films, and one of his books was even recently selected for the Canada Reads program (the book was King Leary, apparently among his most regarded), somewhat similar in the U.S. to the NEA-sponsored Big Read.
The event had the feel of a variety show, starting out with a performance by the Pork Belly Futures, Quarrington’s band, on a stage under dimmed lights. From there the event’s host, Dave Bidini, offered a list of alternative event titles, which should give a good idea of the kind of individual Quarrington is regarded as being: “A Talk About That Guy Who Wrote the Book About the Talking Leopard”; A Talk About That Guy Who Lost at Cards to Nino Ricci”; “Do You Know Where Paul Quarrington Is? He Still Owes Me Fifty Bucks”; “Let’s Just Hope the Bastard Shows Up.”
Essentially, the event was a number of writers and filmmakers each delivering a short tribute to Quarrington, who was recently diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The first was Roddy Doyle, whom I had never seen in person before and who (to judge by what he said here) is a remarkably sardonic and funny person. To give an idea, Doyle worked into his tribute an extended joke about the Great Famine in Ireland, remarking that he came from a place where people preferred to starve (or worse, move to Canada) than to go out and eat the fish that were never more than 100 yards away. This was all in service of demonstrating how much the Irish disliked fishing, one of Quarrington’s favorite pastimes.
Doyle also mentioned that his favorite Quarrington book is Civilization–And Its Part in My Downfall, which is about American cinema and which inspired Doyle to write his own movie biz book (“Well if that Canadian bollox can do it, I don’t see why I can’t.”)
With a somewhat stiff delivery Margaret Atwood recalled an event that she claimed was Salmon Rushdie’s first public event after the fatwa, in which everyone was afraid of being bombed except Quarrington, whom she characterized as acting like Humphrey Bogart mixed with a violin player on the Titanic: “We’re doomed to hell—this is cool, eh?”
There were also stories about Quarrington’s work in a bookstore, where he was reportedly required to: return the many unsold copies of his first novel to the publisher; remainder unsold copies of his second novel; and strip the covers of yet another novel of his for pulping (prompting Quarrington to muse “Wouldn’t it be easier to run me over with a truck?”)
Although the event included very little information that pertained to Quarrington’s writing as such, it nonetheless had the effect of making me very eager to read one of Quarrington’s books. I suppose this was a combination of: so many of Canada’s most esteemed writers coming out to tribute Quarrington so enthusiastically, the packed and energetic nature of the event, and the sense I got of Quarrington as an extremely wry, hard-living individual. King Leary seems like a good one to start with.
Canada’s National Post also wrote-up this event.