Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Cutting Paul Quarrington Down to Size

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It is said that Phil Spector, the infamous producer of over 25 Top-Forty hits during the 1960s, found the title for one of his best-selling songs (No.1 in 1958) on his father’s gravestone: To Know Him is To Love Him. Like many in the arts community, I mourned the loss of Paul Quarrington, who was as versatile a writer as they come: novelist, screenwriter, playwright, author, songwriter (and musician, to boot). I didn’t know Paul well but knew him well enough to offer a spin on Spector’s song title: to edit him is to know him.

Ours was the kind of relationship defined by the casual encounters that unfold in brief conversations on neighbourhood streets. We first met at a radio drama workshop in the 1990s. You didn’t have to spend much time in his company to get a sense of his sensibilities, his generous spirit, his sense of humour. Paul had the ability to laugh at himself and I am sure he would not have found the notion of being ‘cut down to size’ offensive, or somehow inappropriate or insensitive in a tribute that comes within a week of his passing.

I did cut Paul down to size, though it had nothing to do with a bloated ego and everything to do with King Leary, which won the Canada Reads free-for-all in 2006 (Bloated? Paul didn’t have an ego big enough to bruise). I edited the book for broadcast on CBC Radio, which meant cutting swaths of the novel in order to reduce it to a manageable 20 episodes. There is no joy in gutting a book that an author has laboured on for years, parsing words with the patience of a watchmaker, hovering over phrases as if they were brewing on a stove. But the rationale behind presenting an abridged version of a book on air is that it may tempt listeners to read the book in its entirety at their leisure.

And so, inevitably, a book loses some of its colour when it is reduced to 2500-word episodes. Turns of phrases are turfed. Choice words are chucked. What you strive for is ensuring the essence of a book remains, that its heart keeps beating. It was in this way I got to know Paul from a different perspective. To edit a novel to its core means preserving the spirit of a story, and thus the storyteller. Here stands an author, disrobed. There is no crutch of a well-turned phrase to lean on. Much of the text is unvarnished: the flowers are gone from the table, the paintings removed from the wall. We are down to the basics. It was in this way I got to know another side of Paul, a side in which his prose is stripped of all extras.

Here is a glimpse of that process, the cutting to the core. What follows is a passage from King Leary, a fictitious chronicle of hockey great Percival Leary which nabbed (somehow, ‘nabbed’ seems more Quarringtonian than ‘won’) the 1988 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. The text in bold was cut. The challenge was to find the sacrificial lambs amidst the narrative without draining the story of its power.

THE RINK THAT THE BROTHERS of St. Alban the Martyr built was round. Hockey rinks are curved in the corners, as you likely know, but basically they should be squared. Our rink was a circle.
One night, I couldn't sleep. I didn't usually have that problem (I do nowadays, in my dotage-I have actually snoozed for periods of seven seconds and been wide awake for the rest of the night) but that evening, there in the reformatory, I was restless. There was a full moon, and it filled the window across from my cot, and for some strange reason I could make out all the mountains and craters. The moon was a strange color, too, a silver like a nickel had been flipped into the sky.
I heard the sounds, the soft windy sweeping of hockey sticks across ice. At first I thought I was dreaming, but then I recalled that I never did dream to speak of. I moved across to the window, soft on my feet so as not to wake the other delinquents. The moon was so bright that I do believe I squinted up my eyes. I have never seen it like that since.
I could see the rink, and I could see the shadows moving on it. The monks were playing a little midnight shinny. It quickened my heart. I threw on some clothes and flew outside.

Now that he is gone, anyone who knew Paul, either personally or through the work he left behind, can’t help but consider all the books and scripts and songs that were waiting to be unspooled by a writer described by novelist Nino Ricci as “someone who strove for inclusivity.” I wish he was still around to cut down.

1 comment

I saw Paul Quarrington play music solo at Jeanette Lynes' reading a year ago or so, in Toronto. He knew he was ill but still seemed full of energy and good will.
I like the way you reflected on your editing process here... I wonder how Paul liked it?
John Oughton

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page