Author, musician Paul Quarrington dead at 56
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, January 21, 2010 2:28PM EST
TORONTO - Award-winning author, filmmaker, playwright and musician Paul Quarrington, a Toronto arts fixture who gained national acclaim with his rock 'n' roll novel "Whale Music," has died of lung cancer. He was 56.
A statement on Quarrington's website said the multi-talented artist died peacefully at his home in Toronto early Thursday, surrounded by friends and family.
"It is comforting to know that he didn't suffer; he was calm and quiet holding hands with those who were closest to him," the entry read.
Quarrington, who was diagnosed with an advanced form of lung cancer last year, possessed a wide-ranging creative energy that did not subside even as his health declined in recent months.
He was working on his first solo CD release and another album with his band the Porkbelly Futures, who were to perform a free show in Toronto on Friday. He was also working on a memoir titled "Cigar Box Banjo" and a documentary film.
"He had lots of living to do, he had lots of plans, he was facing down the disease with tremendous zeal," friend and filmmaker Robert Lantos said from Los Angeles.
Lantos's friendship with Quarrington began when he executive-produced a movie adaptation of "Whale Music," which came out in 1994. The last time they saw each other was last fall, when the pair met for dinner in Montreal.
"Really all we talked about was all the trips he was going to take and all the writing he was doing and all the music he was making," Lantos said. "He certainly was determined to squeeze every drop of life out of what was left for him."
Quarrington's passion for music, writing and creative expression was evident even in the weeks that immediately followed his diagnosis last summer. In an interview in June 2009, he acknowledged that he likely had little time left but listed off a slew of creative projects he was eager to accomplish while he could.
"I think I said somewhat jokingly that a lot of the new material is kinda weepy and maudlin since the diagnosis, which isn't entirely true," Quarrington said.
"But the phrase, 'That changes everything' -- in connection with the diagnosis -- struck me as really kind of profound in a very simple manner.
"It does change the way you think about most things, the work you're doing, the songs you're writing."
Throughout his diverse career Quarrington achieved perhaps his greatest success as a novelist and author.
He won the Governor General's Literary Award for English-language fiction in 1989 for "Whale Music," which Penthouse magazine called "the best novel written about rock 'n' roll" upon its release. He also won the Stephen Leacock Award for humour and the Canada Reads competition for "King Leary," and has twice been a finalist for the Trillium Book Award.
Two of his more recent books -- 2008's "The Ravine" and 2004's "Galveston" -- were finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
"He was always sort of a powerful personality and a big contributor to the social fabric and to the cultural life of the city -- and the country, for that matter," said Toronto bookseller Ben McNally.
"When somebody else was launching a book, Paul was there. Paul supported all kinds of other writers and he had a band, so then he'd be out there playing in his band. I mean, you'd see him all over the place."
Quarrington was his jovial self at a Christmas party that he hosted last month with his bandmate and neighbour Martin Worthy, said Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy.
"Maybe he was sicker than he let on but he was just like the life of the party," recalled Cuddy, adding that Quarrington made the rounds with an oxygen supply in tow, entertaining guests.
"He'd haul around the oxygen and he'd laugh and he'd make people laugh and he'd be exhausted and have to sit down and the party would cluster around him. He was a pretty strong beam of light."
Quarrington's work ranged from novels to non-fiction, with a wide array of subject matter. Throughout, he displayed a keen sense of humour, along with a focus early in his career on down-and-out protagonists who slowly begin reconnecting with the outside world.
A lover of sports and music, Quarrington wrote celebrated literature about topics that were otherwise not considered highbrow. "King Leary" was about a retired hockey player living in a nursing home, while "Whale Music" follows a Brian Wilson-esque rocker-turned-recluse.
"Exploring those subjects in kind of an interesting way -- if he hadn't done that, there wouldn't have been any other example really of someone who was working in fiction and writing about those things and writing great books," longtime friend and former Rheostatics frontman Dave Bidini said last year.
Quarrington's creative career began with music. He played guitar, clarinet, squeeze box, bass, harp and piano and produced a No. 1 single in Canada with 1980's "Baby and the Blues," written with Worthy, whom he met in 1973.
His film and television successes included a Genie Award for best screenplay for "Perfectly Normal," the 1991 comedy he co-wrote with Eugene Lipinski, and Genie nominations for his 1994 film adaptation of "Whale Music." He earned a Gemini nomination for writing an episode of "Due South," and was executive story editor for the 1998 CTV series "Power Play."
No matter the medium, Quarrington's work resonated because he spoke from the soul, said Lantos.
"He writes from truth and that's what distinguishes his writing, the truth and the wit," said Lantos. "Which comes from a person who essentially loves human beings and loves life."
Quarrington leaves behind two children, Carson Lara and Flannery.