'He took a death march and transformed it into a parade': remembering author Paul Quarrington

Martin Worthy shares memories about his life-long friend, writer and musician Paul Quarrington. And you'll hear an extraordinary performance of Quarrington's story "The Conversion", recorded just five months before he died.

"He embarrassed death": Remembering novelist Paul Quarrington

3 years ago
"He embarrassed death": Remembering novelist Paul Quarrington 1:12

In the spring of 2009, Paul Quarrington received devastating news. He'd been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Doctors told him he might only have a year to live.

It's the kind of shocking announcement that can lay a person low. But according to Quarrington's close friend, Martin Worthy, the news had the opposite effect:

"He inflated his life. He blew it up to such a huge proportion. He took a death march and transformed it into a parade. And we all jumped on the floats and careened towards the precipice together."

Paul Quarrington was a noted Canadian writer. His novel Whale Music, which was loosely based on the life of the reclusive Beach Boy Brian Wilson, won a Governor General's Award in 1989. His novel King Leary, won the Stephen Leacock Award for humour in 1988 and the CBC's Canada Reads competition a decade later. Quarrington also won awards for his writing in film, television, and magazines.

He was also a songwriter and musician.

Paul Quarrington onstage reciting his story "The Conversion."

After his diagnosis, Worthy said Quarrington embarked on a mission to drink up everything life had to offer: "He was going to make the most of that time. He was going to do everything and anything that was going to come his way."

One example of that feverish embrace of life was an on-stage appearance at the Forest Festival in Haliburton in August, 2009. There, in the logging museum turned concert venue, Quarrington performed his short story "The Conversion", accompanied by friends from his band Porkbelly Futures: Chas Elliott, Stuart Laughton, Rebecca Campbell, and Martin Worthy.

Paul Quarrington recited his short story "The Conversion" on-stage at the Forest Festival in Haliburton in August, 2009, accompanied by friends from his band Porkbelly Futures. It tells the story of a married couple in their sixties struggling with ways to connect after a family tragedy. 23:09

"The Conversion" is an extraordinary story, blending equal parts heart and Quarrington's signature humour.

But the performance itself is equally extraordinary. Martin Worthy played alongside Quarrington that day and recalls what a feat of strength and endurance it was:

"Paul was diagnosed in late-April. By August, he was probably operating on one-third of his lung power. He was taking a tremendous amount of medication, which renders the notion that he did this from memory astonishing," Worthy said. 

"We'd been performing already for 45 minutes up to that point. It was very taxing. So then he sits down to do this story, which is 21 minutes long... It's remarkable."

Worthy said his friend may have written about a conversion, but Quarrington was never religious.

"Given his diagnosis, eternity was never far away from his thoughts. But I don't think a deathbed conversion was in the cards for somebody like Paul. I don't think he would respect a god that would be so easily beguiled by such a selfish act. So I think he decided that the best thing to do would be, if there is an after, to show up at the Pearly Gates with a life well-spent. That would be, as he'd say, his best defense."

Paul Quarrington died January 21, 2010.

Click LISTEN to hear Martin Worthy's memories of Paul Quarrington and to hear "The Conversion", recorded at the Forest Festival in Haliburton, Ontario, on August 22, 2009.


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