I liked listening to Bill Richardson on CBC years ago, and so my ears perked up when I heard him talking to Shelagh Rogers (The Next Chapter) in June, about an online diary that he’d started, involving Mavis Gallant. Readers of Canadian Writers Abroad know that Mavis Gallant is one of the inspirations behind the site’s launch ten years ago, and she has long been one of my favourite authors. All the more intriguing.
Richardson shares a birth date of August 11 with Mavis Gallant, and were she still alive, Gallant would be turning 100 this month. The coincidence of their birthdays is part of Richardson’s personal and quirky approach to the diaries. But he has a more serious intent. He wants her to be celebrated as a great Canadian author ought to be celebrated at their centenary, and is quite disappointed that no fanfare seems to be in the works. (Much as I felt when the February 2021 death of Christopher Plummer was not followed by front page memorials or a series to rescreen the films he’d been in, not by any cinema nor by the CBC or NFB, to my knowledge, and this outraged me, made me feel the smallness of culture’s importance in Canada.) And so I completely understand what Richardson is getting at when he introduces his diary on April 6, 2022, in an entry about the word connascent:
MG’s was a great voice, a noble voice, a provocative and important voice. I don’t know when I began reading her, actively, but I can say that she has been, for me, for perhaps 40 years now, a kind of pillar of fire, one of the writers I’ve followed, one of the writers to whom I turn when I want to be reminded of just how beautiful a thing a sentence can be. Her body of work is magnificent. And this is her Centennial year. As near as I’m aware, there are no plans to put her face on a stamp. There hasn’t been a run on the bunting market to accommodate all the parades and grandstands and so forth. This is wrong. I am an old man with a computer. I’m going to do what I can to mark the occasion. I am going to keep a Mavis Gallant diary.— Bill Richardson, Oh, MG: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diary, April 7, 2022 (but the entry itself is dated April 6, 2022).
He has a point. Why is there no proper edition of her Collected Stories, why no biography, and whatever happened to the publication of her diaries? But maybe expecting mugs and t-shirts is a bit much for Canadian literati?
Richardson’s diaries are packed with tidbits about Gallant’s life, and references to interviews and articles, as well as Richardson’s readings of her stories. By readings I mean both his thematic interpretations (father’s day brings quotations from Gallant’s work about fathers, for example, while July 1 brings MG’s comments on Canada) and his actual reading aloud of part of at least one. The diaries begin humbly, with Richardson declaring his lack of expertise, and we chase his thoughts down various alleys, from harpists to dogs to gardens. By June, a seriousness sets in – is it an awareness of audience, or simply a desire for change – and we find such things as recorded interviews with Gallant experts and friends, including Nancy Baele, Neal Besner and Marta Dvorak (accessible as a podcast on Richardson’s Substack site).
Richardson’s informal style is a delight, such as this July 23 entry: “In the late spring of 1994, someone from The New Yorker coaxed — surely not much was required by way of coercion — seventeen of the literary thoroughbreds in its gilded stable to doff their oat bags, trot from their particular paddocks, and enter the show ring (oh, Bill, excellent use of equine imagery, you’re amazing, give yourself a day off, also a lump of sugar!), there to suffer the ministrations of a makeup artist and then be objectified in a photo spread by Richard Avedon.”
That said, Richardson really takes off, writes at his best, his most moving, and his funniest, when he is not writing about Gallant, but writing about his life. Former CBC broadcaster, he now lives in a small apartment in Vancouver, where he gets up early to write (3 AM) because his job at Whole Foods starts early, and while he shares his life with another Bill, he lives alone. But the tone he sets is not unhappy. We read instead about dive-bombing crows, nut scattering as self-defence, and what happens on the pavement outside his apartment and on the shop floor.
He writes about his father, for example, with mixed emotion. On June 19 he notes how often the word “father” and the word “mother” show up in Gallant’s work (“The word “father” appears in her Selected Stories 547 times; mother, 749”), and I think it would be interesting to see what the same count would show in his diaries. In one entry, he is gently reproving of his father’s advice on a blue blazer (May 5), but for his father’s death, he takes a light touch: “it became clear my father, Stan, was trimming his sails in earnest, and would soon cast off.” … “Now and then the night nurse — she was lovely beyond telling, gentle, intuitive, reassuring — would check in. She would say, “Soon,” and show me how the colouring of his legs had started to change, the flesh demonstrating the corruptibility to which it’s heir. A thermometer registering a rising coolness. Death by inches.” (June 19)
Richardson leaves his father’s deathbed to walk his dog, and “Stan, considerate to the end” doesn’t die until after he returns.
Nor is it only his father that he writes about; take for example the small story of the father and son seeking pizza dough in the shop (May 6).
I love that, “death by inches.” Richardson is good at that last-word punch. Here’s another, coming in a passage about why he learned to play the flute — about fitting in with classical music geeks, about how he was full of desire and longing that could not be fulfilled at that time and place. And the kicker: “Also, the case matched my shoes.” (April 22)
Here we are, in a throw-away line about one of his 25 published books: “I wrote a book called Scorned and Beloved: Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics. (Whoever the reviewer [was] in The Globe and Mail, I believe his name was Dickhead McHalitosis, called it “a thundering disappointment.”…) [Scorned and Beloved was published by Knopf in 1997.]
Dickhead McHalitosis. Reviewers beware.
Expect the number of Bill Richardson’s books to increase to 26, for surely there will be a publication of these diaries.
I think Richardson’s diary campaign has had an effect. As I type, the CBC is rebroadcasting a 2008 interview with Mavis Gallant, on Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company: “Mavis Gallant: celebrating the centenary of the masterful Canadian short story writer.” Eleanor Wachtel reflects on the interview. And look, for those not in the know, CBC gives us “30 facts you might not know about the renowned short story writer Mavis Gallant.” Not exactly a bandstand fanfare, but it is a modest celebration of a great writer.
Bill Richardson’s book, Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast (Douglas & McIntyre), won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1994. His most recent book, for children, is Last Week (Groundwood, 2022), illustrated by Emilie Leduc. As for Richardson’s abroad credentials, he lived for a year in Montpellier (according to the Wikipedia entry for Bill Richardson Broadcaster). For more publications by Richardson, including his many books of poetry and books for children, check out his page on BC Bookworld, and the 2013 entry for him in The Canadian Encyclopedia.
- Bill Richardson’s Oh, MG: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diaries, Substack
- On his book of short stories, I Saw Three Ships: West End Stories (Talonbooks) at Vancouver is Awesome.
- Interview at The Tyee.
- Bill Richardson interviews at the CBC (not his broadcast episodes).
- Nancy Baele’s recollection of Mavis Gallant in the Citizen.
- Mavis Gallant on Canadian Writers Abroad: Marvellous Mavis, Great Gallant and Going Ashore with Mavis Gallant.
Header photo of Mavis Gallant’s apartment building in Paris by Debra Martens.