If ever there was a writer struggling for his art, it's David Adams Richards. 'I've never been in fashion and don't intend to be,' he says. 'I don't want to sound like I'm a prophet, but I have things to say about the nature of human nature ... [and] I will say them.' Wearing a lumber shirt, the grey-haired Richards, 53, speaks in a measured, muffled Canadian drawl. His books have an archaic, Dickensian tilt with unusual syntax. 'How I fought to keep that in my books.' he says. 'I don't know why the words fall into that pattern, but there's not an editor who hasn't tried to change me.' His idiomatic novels have been compared to Tolstoy, Hardy and Faulkner. Set in New Brunswick on the 'great, sad' Miramichi river, the latest, River of the Brokenhearted (Arcade), is based on Richards' grandmother, Janie King, 'a very tough lady' who ran the local cinema and had a bitter, long-standing feud with her competitor, Joey Elias. The cinema is taken over by Janie's son, Miles, an exuberant, eccentric alcoholic based on Richards' uncle Harry. Richards says he drew aspects of himself into the characters Miles King and his son, Wendell. River is fiction 'based loosely on fact' and spread over four generations. Richards waited until his father had died to start writing it. When growing up, his father was badly beaten by his Irish stepfather because 'dad had English blood'. Communal hatred between the English and Irish is a running theme. By turns bleak, endearing and tragic, it's a tightly crafted and soulful masterpiece with a raft of characters often driven to do terrible things, less out of evil, than desperation for survival. Richards says he's always been 'fascinated ... by good and evil as exercised by human beings, not by an omnipotent force'. He grew up in Newcastle, New Brunswick, a close-knit, wintry place, on the working river. He has personally known seven murderers, and their victims. 'It's a very small place. That's why it's considered so tough.' On reading Oliver Twist at the age of 14, he resolved to become a writer. A poor student, Richards was expelled five times from various schools 'for fighting and sneaking rum into class'. He still has difficulties with spelling. At 21, determined to pursue his dream, despite scorn from professors, he dropped out of university. Digs at the academic world are scattered through his work. Laughing in feigned surprise, he denies it, though: 'Oh, no way. I promise in the next book there won't be any.' For the first 15 years of his career, he was in a what he calls a literary wilderness. Few Canadian writers were given much publicity. Richards depended on his wife, Peggy, to pay the bills. 'I was a terrible, terrible drunk,' he says. 'For years I almost drank myself to death. I had a lot of fun with it.' His last sip of alcohol was at the age of 32, when he 'decided to have a glass of wine ... and [was] drunk for three months, ending up in the hospital. That convinced me, if nothing else.' Richards won the Canadian Governor General's prize in 1989. A decade later, he gained an international following. Some critics say he over-analyses, but Richards says he's 'happy with how I'm writing now'. As do the younger Canadian writers who increasingly cite his influence. 'After 18 books, I hope I've inspired someone,' he says. 'Even if it's just to write in a different way.'