I can only imagine what dinner conversation at the Richards’ household sounded like.
David Richards, an Ottawa accountant, likely left his afternoon appointment with me feeling a little bit uncomfortable.
Richards, who works late only as the accounting cycle demands, is home at a regular time most nights. If he’d told his teenage daughter about our upcoming chat, she was probably surprised to find him home early (we’d bumped the appointment from 6pm to 4:30pm.) And interrupting a teenager’s Dad-less time is a formula for strained relations.
We met at the Standard to discuss The Fifth Pillar, his freshman novel. It’s about fraternal twins, Ryan and Dillon, as their relationship matures over a 10-year period. A major source of friction is Dillon’s closeted sexuality, which plays a bit ominously, but resolves in a comedy of errors at the book’s close.
In retrospect, some of the things I said probably made him wince. For example: with the twin teen protagonists, The Fifth Pillar reads a bit like a serial from the Hardy Boys franchise. I suggested the book would probably resonate more with teens than adults.
And that’s why I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during dinner between the possibly-territorially-infringed teenage daughter and her gay, possibly despondent accountant-turned-novelist father.
But seriously, I hope he didn’t dwell on my critique, because there’s much to rejoice about in this novel. The older gay character — gruff, brash Uncle Brian— is a nuanced character, whose shifts between sensitive role-model and ass-kicking parental figure in the first half feel natural and lifelike.
It’s clear that The Fifth Pillar represents the first tentative words of a new voice in Ottawa — one that we should welcome.
“I wanted to make it sound like you’re listening to someone recount the story of their life,” says Richards. “In the first third of the novel, I intentionally reduced the vocabulary as much as I could.”
In other words, he wanted the first-person narrative to sound teenagerly when the characters were recounting events from that period. That takes care of the Hardy Boys concern, doesn’t it?
Richards, who was interested in writing as a university student, abandoned his writerly ambitions for a decade while he secured his life as an accountant. During that period, he also fielded a marriage, the birth of his daughter, a divorce and his own “late bloomer” coming out.
“You wouldn’t believe how much English is a skill set,” says Richards. “And if you’re out of it for awhile, you lose it.”
And that meant chucking out a manuscript partway through and starting from scratch. It’s fair to say that The Fifth Pillar is the culmination of a developing obsession with writing.
“I was writing constantly and sporadically,” he says. “I’d be at my desk and I would send myself an e-mail if I had an epiphany.”
He began the book at a period of his daughter’s development where she suddenly didn’t “require or even want” his attention most of the time. So, he carved out space from his evenings and weekends — all told, four years worth of gathered odds and ends.
Richards pauses and smiles.
“Anyone writing their first book has my complete sympathy,” he says.
So, a sweet, warmhearted accountant’s telling of a gentle, familial coming-of-age and coming-out story? Really?
I have to admit, I poured through The Fifth Pillar hoping to find the moment of cathartic sexual release and didn’t find it. But there are inklings, for instance in Dillon’s intergenerational crushes — first on his girlfriend’s father, then on a swishy café owner. And that makes me curious to read Richards’ next manuscript, already in the works.
The book was put out by Publish America, a self-publishing hybrid. It was three months ago, almost to the day, that I interviewed self-publishing gay poet Kent Glowinski at the same bar. He hinted he would take civil action against the Governor General’s Awards because they bar self-published works from being nominated. In between, Terry Fallis’s self-published The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock award.
“I think the publishing industry is opening up,” says Richards. “But for now, self-published books are sort of cast aside.”
Still, Richards treats the experience as “paying his dues” and he’s looking forward to his second book. So am I.