BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Mourning was widespread for mystery writer Bunny Wright when she died of breast cancer at age 61 in February 2001. Fellow writers penned personal tributes that were published in newspapers across Canada. Her two daughters, who had worked on the final copy-edit of their mother’s last novel, Menace, while she was in the hospital, also published touching newspaper tributes.
What would Wright have thought of all this adulation? She likely would not have been comfortable with it. Such was the impression I got from the one and only interview I ever did with her, and from the interviews she later did with other journalists. Bunny Wright did not like being the focus of public attention. As a former journalist, she was happier asking the questions than answering them.
I interviewed her in 1978 after she had won the Alberta Culture search-for-a-new-novelist competition. I knew her as a former colleague, who had worked as a reporter at the Calgary Herald when I was starting out as an arts writer in the mid-1970s. We had also connected outside of the paper when she and husband John and daughters Katey and Johnna moved to Edmonton in 1977. My wife Zelda and I bought their house in inner-city Calgary.
The Alberta Culture award, which included a publishing contract with Macmillan and a $4,000 cash prize, came on the heels of another, much larger first-novel award – the national $50,000 Seal Award – which had gone to fellow Alberta author Aritha van Herk earlier in 1978. Van Herk said she felt “more like a commodity than a writer” when reporters began pestering her for quotes. Wright told me she hoped the Alberta award wouldn’t bring the same kind of promotional hoopla. “I’m sort of hoping Aritha gets all the publicity so there’s none left over for me. I’m not very good at interviews and I’m not very comfortable about being in the limelight.” Wright planned to spend the prize money on a vacation trip to London and was hoping the fuss would have died down by the time she got back.
Wright was then 39 and had been writing fiction seriously for about two years. She would have started earlier, she said, but she had to earn a living first. So she developed her writing skills by working as a reporter for 10 years. Her first novel, Neighbours, evolved from a short story about mental illness that she wrote when Wright took time away from the Herald job to attend a summer creative writing workshop at the Banff Centre. She expanded the story into a novel when husband John was offered a television management job in Edmonton and she was able to quit journalism and devote all her time to fiction. “Edmonton isolated me and kept me from making excuses to do something other than write,” she told me. “In Calgary, I could always find something else to do and kept putting it off.”
She said her journalism experience helped with her fiction because it corrected any tendency she might have to over-write or to be unduly sentimental in her writing. Wright was also helped by the experience she had as a young professional actress before going into journalism. “The link between the two is closer than you might think because both involve pretending you’re somebody else.”
Neighbours was about the relationships between a mentally disturbed woman and the people around her. It wasn’t autobiographical, as first novels often tend to be, but it was set in Calgary and – I was delighted to discover – had my house, the author’s former home, featured as a character in the book. She wrote that the house, located just north of Memorial Drive in the West Hillhurst neighbourhood, needed to be painted (which was still true!) but was graced by the presence of a splendid tree in the yard.
Published under her legal name Laurali Wright, Neighbours was the first of three mainstream novels she wrote before achieving national and international attention as a crime novelist with a book called The Suspect. By that time she had moved to Burnaby, British Columbia, and become L.R. (for Laurali Rose) Wright. The publishers didn’t want to put her childhood nickname, Bunny, on the book covers because they thought it too cutesy. They suggested that using her initials would give the name the appropriate gravitas for a crime writer.
Wright didn’t set out to write The Suspect as a crime novel. It just happened to turn out that way. It started out with an 80-year-old old man killing his 85-year-old crony for no apparent reason in the seaside village of Sechelt on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. When she introduced an RCMP officer to investigate the killing, and saw the possibility of turning him into a major figure, Wright knew she had a crime novel in the works. The policeman, named Karl Alberg, would appear in eight more of her novels before Wright retired him from the force in 1997.
The Suspect brought Wright the 1986 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel, which put her in pretty heady company. Two of the other four books nominated in her category were by Ruth Rendell, who happened to be a writing heroine of Wright’s. “It was the last category of 14 to be announced, so it was a nerve-racking experience,” Wright told The Globe and Mail. She was the first Canadian to win the coveted genre award.
Because of the success of The Suspect, which was translated into eight languages, Wright was able to live entirely on her book earnings from 1986 onwards. She continued to write mainstream novels but they never did as well as the mystery novels. She was particularly disappointed when Doubleday Canada, which had published all of her mystery novels, refused to take on a mainstream novel that Wright had written in the 1990s about poverty and homelessness in East Vancouver. There was some suggestion after her death in 2001 that the mainstream novel might be published posthumously but her Doubleday editor, John Pearce, told the Edmonton Journal that this would not be the case. “Menace, sadly, will be the last Bunny Wright book we will publish,” said Pearce.
The breast cancer, diagnosed in 1995 when Wright was 56, went into remission for two years. When it returned, metastasized, Wright was pensioning off her policeman hero Alberg and introducing a new investigator, Sergeant Edwina Henderson. “It was time to bring in an important character who was a female,” Wright told Victoria’s January magazine. She recalled that when she started the Alberg series in 1985 there had been no women RCMP staff sergeants in all of Canada, so she had to make her protagonist a man. “They’ve really made progress since then.”
Menace was the second novel in the Edwina Henderson series. Wright finished the final draft in November 2000 and went into palliative care in January. Her daughters took over the copy-editing when she became too frail to continue. “It is not an overstatement to say that Menace kept L.R. Wright alive for a good while after her body was ready to quit,” her daughter Katey wrote in a “Note to Reader” appended to Menace, which was published posthumously. Wright wrote the following line about her terminal illness, which her family included in the obit: “As for her fierce battle with cancer and the manner of her death,” read the obit, “Bunny has this to say: ‘She died and the cancer died with her. It was a draw.’”
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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