Born in Toronto, he was raised in the suburb of Don Mills and studied at the University of Toronto but dropped out after fewer than two years of study.He wrote his early novels while working as the bass player for the group Joe Hall and the Continental Drift and as the guitar accompanist for Cathy Stewart, a Canadian singer who was popular at the time. One of his successful novels, Whale Music, was called "the greatest rock'n'roll novel ever written" by Penthouse magazine. His non-fiction books and journalism were just as highly regarded - he earned or co-earned more than 20 gold awards for his magazine articles alone.
He has two daughters with actor Dorothy Bennie, Carson and Flannery Quarrington.
Quarrington's most consistent musical colleague has been Martin Worthy; their friendship began in high school. He was also a high school friend of songwriter Dan Hill, with whom he re-united in recent years to collaborate on musical projects. Quarrington in fact collaborated on projects with many artists and in many different disciplines (a defining element of his overall body of work), who have achieved recognition in their respective fields. These include Nino Ricci, Joseph Kertes, Dave Bidini, Jake MacDonald, John Krizanc, Christina Jennings, Judith Keenan, Michael Burke, Peter Lynch, Ron Mann, Robert Lantos and many others.
Quarrington's novels are characterized by their humour (King Leary received the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour in 1988) although they address serious subjects. His protagonists are largely emotionally crippled antiheroes who have withdrawn from society; typically, in Quarrington's work, an agent of some sort ... a young woman in Whale Music, ghosts in King Leary, a hurricane in Galveston ... challenges the protagonist's carefully ordered life and draws them back into the fold of humanity.
His novel The Ravine was published in March 2008. At the time of his death, Quarrington had completed a short film adaptation of the work (Pavane, 2008) and was collaborating on a television series adaptation of that novel, which he claimed to be "semi-autobiographical." "It's about a writer who squanders his talents in television, drinks too much, screws around and ruins his marriage," Quarrington has said. "The reason it's 'semi-autobiographical' is the guy's name is 'Phil.'"
During his time, Quarrington has been a very influential figure in Canadian literature, not only as an author, but also through his participation in teaching (Humber College and University of Toronto), publishing circles, organizations and events. A large number of his literary influences were some of Canada's top writers, many of whom he eventually befriended. Amongst these were Timothy Findley. Quarrington and Findley held a mutual admiration for each other, with Findley once quoting that Quarrington was "an extraordinary writer with a rare gift". As a youngster, Quarrington came from a very musical background, and this showed consistently in his writing. While writing a review blurb for Leonard Cohen's book, The Favourite Game, he admired Cohen's "poetic craftsmanship". Another time, in typical whimsical Quarrington fashion, he declared, "I seem to like authors named John -- John Fowles, John Gardner, John Irving. John Gardner is my favourite ... he's sadly not so well known these days."
Quarrington's adaptation, with director Richard J. Lewis, of Whale Music was nominated for numerous Genie Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, in 1994. Actor Maury Chaykin won best actor for his portrayal of the drug-addled Desmond Howl.
He won the Genie Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1991 for Perfectly Normal, a comedy that combined ice hockey and grand opera.
Quarrington has also worked in the television industry, acting as writer and/or producer on such shows as Due South, Power Play and Moose TV the latter winning Best Comedy from the CFTPA Indie Awards 2008.
Quarrington collaborated with the band Rheostatics on the Whale Music film soundtrack, including a songwriting credit on the band's most successful hit single, "Claire".
Quarrington was also the lead singer/guitarist for the blues/roots/country ensemble Porkbelly Futures. Their first CD, Way Past Midnight was released in late 2005 by Wildflower Records (owned by singer Judy Collins) and spent six months on the "Americana" charts. Their second CD, Porkbelly Futures, was released by Cordova Bay Entertainment Group in April 2008. It contains many of Quarrington's original compositions. His solo CD called The Songs will be released in May 2010, also by Cordova Bay.
He participated in the collaborative "Canadian Songbook" tour in 2008 with Murray McLauchlan, Stephen Fearing and Catherine MacLellan.
In their teens, Quarrington and Hill also occasionally performed together as a folk music duo, billed as Quarrington/Hill. Paul and Martin Worthy achieved number one hit status with their tune "baby and the Blues" in 1980.
Even after being diagnosed with lung cancer in May 2009, Quarrington continued his plans to embark on various concert tours with Porkbelly Futures, while continuing to produce his own solo CD and the Porkbellys third release; complete his non-fiction memoir "Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on Life and Music (Greystone Books, May 2010), deliver multiple screenplays for episodes of a television series for Shaftsbury Films (Notes on Euphoria, Dir. John L'Ecuyer) as well as give generously on camera as the featured subject of a documentary film initiated by he and colleague Judith Keenan; the film is an adaptation tied to his written memoir (Paul Quarrington: Life in Music, CTV Bravo, May 2010). Rheostatics, who had broken up in 2007, reunited for a live tribute show to Quarrington produced by Humber College for Toronto's International Festival of Authors. Also appearing to celebrate Paul's body of work in multiple genres were: Christina Jennings, John Krizanc, Michael Burns, Wayson Choy, Nino Ricci, Paul Gross, Alistair McLeod, Joe Hall, Porkbelly Futures with David Gray, and talented family members Christine Quarrington, Tony Quarrington and Joel Quarrington. Michael Burke announced the launch of Quarrington Arts Society / Societe des Arts Quarrington, to provide support for working and emerging artists committed to multi-disciplinary practices.
Quarrington's final collaboration with Hill and Worthy, a song about his journey with cancer called "Are You Ready", was completed just ten days before Quarrington's death. The song was conceived by Quarrington and film producer Keenan as the focal point for their feature documentary. Many other songs were also conceived and produced by Paul during this fertile creative time, including "All the Stars" (created just days after the diagnosis) and "Wherever You Go," all of which will be included on the posthumously released CD.
Quarrington died of lung cancer in Toronto on January 21, 2010, aged 56.
King Leary won the Stephen Leacock Award in 1988, and Whale Music won the 1989 Governor General's Award for Fiction.
Galveston, published in the United States as Storm Chasers, was nominated for the prestigious Giller Prize. He lost to Alice Munro ... which, Quarrington stated afterward, "was hard to feel upset about. It's like losing to Chekhov."
In February 2008, King Leary was put forward by Dave Bidini as one of the five books considered on CBC Radio's Canada Reads. Bidini ultimately prevailed, and King Leary was named the book that everyone in the nation should read.
2008 and 2009 saw much evidence of his further renown - His short film "Pavane" adapted from his novel The Ravine garnered a Remi Platinum Award Houston's WorldFest, was juried in several other US festivals, and was broadcast in Canada on Bravo!FACT Presents and CBC Reflections. He and the creative team for ShowCase earned the CFPTA Indie Award for Comedy for the series Moose TV.
In 2009, the Writers' Trust of Canada awarded Quarrington its Matt Cohen Prize for a distinguished lifetime contribution to Canadian literature.
On June 10, 2010, Quarrington was awarded posthumously the honorary degree, Doctor of Letters, by Nipissing University. His daughter, Carson, accepted the award on his behalf.