By SUSAN FERRIER MACKAY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Writer Nancy Richler, busy washing her kitchen floor in the fall of 2012, stopped cleaning to take a call from her literary agent Dean Cooke. He was exuberant. The Imposter Bride, Ms. Richler's third novel, had just been shortlisted for the distinguished Giller Prize. Ms. Richler thanked him politely and said she had to get back to housework.
Several minutes later, the full import of his message sank in. Out of 13 contenders for a prize that was then worth $50,000, her novel had been selected to be among the final five, with a guarantee of $5,000. Being shortlisted placed her in rarefied literary company.
The story of The Imposter Bride, which opens in 1946 at a wedding in Montreal, germinated from an event in Ms. Richler's family history: Her paternal grandmother, immigrating to Canada from Russia for the purpose of marriage, encountered a crushing rejection from her prospective husband. Ms. Richler channelled the pain of the experience into her central character but changed the circumstances. On her website she wrote that The Imposter Bride, as with all her work, explored the slipperiness of morality and identity in the face of extreme loss and threat. In a review, The New York Times discerned another theme: Shared unknowability connects us all. The newspaper praised Ms. Richler's novel for being "beautifully written." Other reviews were equally laudatory.
Ms. Richler and her partner, Vicki Trerise, bought new outfits and travelled from Montreal to attend the glitzy Giller gala in Toronto. Although the prize went to another author, Ms. Richler still felt triumphant. Her Canadian book sales shot up. To date, the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies in Canada alone. It went on to sell in 14 other countries and has been translated into 10 languages. Six years after publication, it continues to generate significant royalties. Ms. Richler was working on a fourth novel but illness prevented its completion. She died of lung cancer on Jan. 18 at Vancouver General Hospital. She was 60.
As a curious, sensitive, book-loving child growing up in Montreal, she soon became attuned to the Jewish community's history of pain and loss. Her Canadian parents, Dianne and Myer Richler, escaped direct involvement with the Holocaust, but many of their Russian and Eastern European ancestors were persecuted.
The Richlers lived in Côte-Saint-Luc, a municipality on Montreal Island where The Imposter Bride is set. Born on May 16, 1957, Nancy Richler was the youngest of three children. The family, with two girls and a boy, was close-knit and distantly related to author Mordecai Richler, although Nancy never met him. Myer Richler, generous and outgoing, owned and ran an aluminum company, Ideal Metals & Alloys of Canada Inc.
His quiet, empathetic wife, Dianne, raised their children in a traditional home. Saturdays were spent at synagogue while wintry Sundays frequently meant skiing in the Laurentians.
Nancy embarked upon her first novel at the age of 7. On a biography page of her website she wrote, "Although the characters and stories I wanted to tell were vivid in my mind, my sentences weren't up to the task so I turned to other pursuits."
At the age of 18, she moved to the United States to attend Brandeis University, near Boston, graduating with a degree in history. She then studied social work and put her compassionate nature to the service of helping children at risk.
In 1986, she completed a master of arts in international studies specializing in the Soviet Union at the University of Denver Graduate School.
During her early 20s, she met and married another student who was studying psychology. The marriage lasted about six years, until it became apparent that Ms. Richler was more drawn to women.
In 1987, Ms. Richler left Colorado to work on pay equity for the Ontario government's Women's Directorate.
Vicki Trerise, a lawyer working on family violence for the same directorate, was asked to give her opinion on a pay equity issue. The attraction between the two was immediate, compelling and lasted 31 years, with a marriage in 2013.
In 1988, the couple moved to Vancouver, where Ms. Richler, then in her mid-30s, began writing fiction. She sent out short story after short story to literary magazines and journals. Ms. Trerise was surprised to discover a dark side in her partner's writing that belied her cheerful, bubbly persona.
She recalled manila envelopes arriving at their home like soldiers returning from war.
As soon as one envelope came back, another was sent out. Eventually, Ms. Richler's persistence paid off. A short story was published then later included in an anthology.
Literary journals and magazines began accepting her work; however, a clear path to novel writing didn't present itself until Ms. Richler read about female sex workers who'd gone missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. She couldn't understand why the story was buried instead of being front-page news. To her, the missing women were throwaway angels. The evocative phrase became the title of her first novel, published by Press Gang Publishers in 1996, six years before an arrest was made in the case of the missing, murdered women.
Throwaway Angels was shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime novel. Ms. Richler had established herself as a writer.
She worked slowly and meticulously, often at a café near her home, or at a cabin she and her partner rented in the woods. Each word in every sentence was painstakingly crafted and hand-written before being edited and transcribed onto a computer.
"There's no work I enjoy more than struggling with words and sentences to tell the story I want to tell and to capture precisely what I want to say," Ms. Richler wrote.
"When I have nothing I feel compelled to write I simply don't, but I'm always happy when a new voice or story comes to me."
According to those close to her, Ms. Richler was endlessly curious about people, giving them the gift of her undivided attention and making them feel as if they were the only person in the room. She liked to extrapolate from their stories, but her own past was a fertile source of inspiration. A second novel, Your Mouth Is Lovely, grew out of the circumstances of her birth: "My paternal grandfather died a few hours before I was born and I often wondered what it was like for my father to experience the joy of my birth at the same moment he was grieving his father's death." Your Mouth Is Lovely begins with a birth accompanied by a death.
Ms. Richler explained that its opening line came to her one morning "seemingly out of nowhere." The line is "Spring has come, even here." Beginnings proved easier for her to manage than endings, which were often a struggle and a source of anxiety. Only halfway through her second novel, perhaps as an impetus to complete it, she set out to find representation with an agent. Several rejected her, telling her to come back when the manuscript was finished. Not so Mr. Cooke, a relative newcomer to the agency business.
"The first half of the novel was so strong. I fell in love with it," Mr. Cooke said. "My response was 'Yes, absolutely.' " He sent it off to scouts (intermediaries between editors and agents) in the United States. A six-figure deal was soon on the table. Although she was delighted, Ms. Richler fretted over the second half of the story, even telling Mr. Cooke at one point that readers would have to figure the ending out for themselves. "I told her if readers were paying $30 for a book they'd expect it to have an ending," Mr. Cooke said with a laugh. "She'd insist she couldn't do it, but then she'd go away and apply her very considerable talent and she'd come through."
Your Mouth is Lovely was published in 2003 by HarperCollins and Ecco Press. Set in Russia between 1890 and 1912, it won the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award for fiction and the 2004 Adei-Wizo Award in Italy.
"The trademark of Nancy's work is her deep compassion for the frailties and vulnerabilities of people, whether in a shtetl in pre-revolutionary Russia or the Jewish community in Montreal post war" said Iris Tupholme, senior vice-president and executive producer at HarperCollins. "Nancy was able to conjure up complex, nuanced characters who had complicated motivations.
Most of her characters were haunted in one way or another by personal grief or community loss and yet they all had, as Nancy did, a joy and hope for life."
Ms. Richler leaves her partner, Ms. Trerise; mother, Dianne; sister, Janet; brother, Martin; and a large extended family.
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Nancy Richler, seen in Toronto in 2012, embarked upon her first novel at the age of 7.
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