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Books by Bill Richardson:
There are writers so steeped in the hype and hubris around their work that talking to them is like going on an extended PR tour. Sometimes the work in question doesn't back this hype but it doesn't matter much to them. The machine is in motion and they follow.
And then there are those authors whose ability to write in several genres seems to push against their own success. Writers whose ability to tell many types of stories well and elegantly, combined with their own inability to see their work as important or meaningful, fights against the success of their books in the wider world.
Bill Richardson is the quintessential Canadian. One gets the feeling that, were you to step on his foot, he'd apologize profusely. The publication of his most recent work, After Hamelin, an enchanting young adult novel that continues the story of the Pied Piper, marks his 10th book. "But put them all together and they're the thickness of one real book. They're all small books."
And yet. In the relatively small region that has had easy access to Richardson's novels, there is a deep love and respect for his work. The writer's own unconscious charm and sincerity permeates every aspect of the body of work he's produced. A considerable body, when one keeps in mind that he's spent most of his career in the arms of the CBC: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where Richardson has been an on-air personality -- in both radio and television -- for a dozen years.
After Hamelin was born of Richardson's own fascination with many European children's fables, especially ones with ambiguous elements and conclusions. "If I look at any of the stories that have a kind of lingering appeal for me, that have lived with me for that long, that's usually the reason why. Because there's a question mark that's left hanging in the air. Where the endings aren't pat and firm and happily ever after, but where there's a kind of oddness or sadness to it."
In After Hamelin, Richardson picks up the Pied Piper story pretty much from "the end." We are guided through the tale by Penelope, 101 years old in the story and looking back to her girlhood when she was the child left behind. Penelope's world, through Richardson's craft, is vast and lovely. A dreamworld where dragons have fur and love to skip, harpies can be defeated by loyal dogs and the balance of Penelope's universe can hinge on the perfect music from a single, well made harp. Richardson manages the tale with a delicate combination of dry wit, happy irony, high adventure and the merest touch of sadness. The result is a story intended for children in the 10 to 13 age group but that all but the most staid adults will enjoy.
At 45, Richardson lives in Vancouver with, as his most recent bio says, "two small dogs, a mean black cat, and a harp on which he can play one tune." The tune proves to be Greensleeves and the cat isn't nearly as mean as the bio implies. "I feel badly about that," Richardson says about slagging the cat. "She must have been being a bitch the day I wrote it. But, for the most part, she's a very nice cat."
What possessed you to tell this particular story?
Yeah, possession. [Laughs] First of all, they asked. I shouldn't say I'd never thought of writing for young people and, in one way or another, I've always written for young people and just sort of disguised it as grown-up books. But [the editors of] Annick Books were looking around for people who hadn't written for this audience before and they asked me and I said I would.
That's the dumb practical reason. But the other reason, I guess, is that it's an idea that I'd been nursing for a long time. I hadn't thought especially of writing it for children, but then when it was presented to me as a possibility, I thought: Well, maybe this is what it's meant for.
I like stories that are open-ended and I like stories where the endings are ambiguous and I have done since I was a small child. And the ambiguity of the story and of its ending particularly is one of the beautiful and inviting things about the pied piper myth, so I just thought I would take a look at one way of telling the story of what happened to those children. Or not so much about what happened to those children: it's about the child that was left behind. So that was it really: it's an old, old, old fascination with me that goes back to my own childhood. And if I look at any of the stories that have a kind of lingering appeal for me, that have lived with me for that long, that's usually the reason why. Because there's a question mark that's left hanging in the air. Where the endings aren't pat and firm and happily ever after, but where there's a kind of oddness or sadness to it.
So if we knew which those were, might we know what books to expect?
Well, yeah I suppose in a way. The Hansel and Gretel story, for instance, is one of the greatest stories ever told because it has everything. And because they come back at the end and it seems that so much has been left undecided in lots of ways. First, the mother. She's gone. Something's happened to her. She's died or burst a blood vessel or something. The Rumpelstiltskin story I adore, for that very reason because... well, really I suppose any fairy tale you would care to name you could find something in it that's ambiguous.
Any European fairy tale.
Yes. Any of the classic Grimm stories.
Are you planning on revisiting those stories? Or are you already working on that?
I'm not now. I'm working on another book, but, yeah: I would like to. It's rich, rich territory. And it's not as though it's never been mined, but there's always going to be something else there. As long as those stories are around and as long as they have an appeal, I think they always will be. In a way, if there's anything that's risky about it, it's that, well, the question I had when I was writing After Hamelin was: Is it a good idea to challenge the ambiguity? Because its beauty lies in all the unanswered questions and to take a stab at exploring part of it, in a way I think you're always doomed to come up short in some way.
But do you feel you did?
I don't know that I did. I'm as happy with this book as with anything I've ever written. It was fun to write: it was fun to work out. In the end I guess it's a question that probably every writer asks of readers: Are they satisfied? And with [After Hamelin] it's too early for me to know.
How many books have you written?
Ten. I think. But put them all together and they're the thickness of one real book. They're all small books.
Are you working on something right now?
I am, but I don't really feel I can much talk about it. It's meant to be published next fall, but it's so far from being done and it has a kind of... but I think of Margaret Atwood, who is so resolute about not talking about what she's working on. In some ways I think about that thing where you can jinx it.
No: don't jinx it.
But I have talked about it. It's set in Père Lachaise Cemetery in France: the final resting place of a great many people who were lucky enough to die in Paris. Jim Morrison -- famously -- and Colette and Marcel Proust and Chopin and Sarah Bernhardt. When I went there for the first time in my early 20s I was impressed by the cats who lived there. There's a considerable colony of feral cats living in the cemetery. So I began to think about what it would be like if the spirits of the late and great who were buried there inhabited the bodies of these cats. What would they talk about? So that's what the book is. The working title is Waiting for Gertrude and the narrator is Alice B. Toklas and she's waiting for Gertrude [Stein] to remanifest herself. And while she waits she hears stories and collects stories.
It sounds like you'd have to take many enjoyable research trips!
I'm going there at Christmas. But I've been often and to that cemetery. I was there last Christmas, in fact, but [the cemetery] was closed the whole time I was there because they had those huge storms. But, apart from everything else, [the cemetery] is just an amazing museum of 19th-century sculpture and funerary art. And 20th century, as well. It's very beautiful and you can wander around and look for [various things]. The first time I went there was this troll-like woman who jumped up from behind -- literally -- from behind a gravestone and said: Would you like to see where Sarah Bernhardt is buried? And the [Jim] Morrison grave attracts huge crowds every day.
So that's the piece I'm working on. As for other children's books, once that's done, then I'll look at it, but I'd like to. But it's a funny business, the children's book business. I don't know very much about it, really, but I was a children's librarian for many years so I lived with the literature and I lived with the books but I got very little sense of a book's trajectory, unless you're J.K. Rowling or Philip Pullman and there's a big machine behind the book. In some ways maybe the path a book takes is quite true because, by and large, nobody is going to talk to you about a children's book. There's no media interest in them, again with the exceptions that I've noted. So what has to happen, I think, is what probably should happen with a book: the slow business of word of mouth has to do its work. But, what it means as well, if there was ever anything that ain't going to make you rich, it would be this. So you do it for the love of it.
Yeah: hand-selling is maybe most important in books for children. And, as you say, word of mouth.
If something good came out of the big success that's attached itself to Harry Potter -- and that success is fabulous -- and it's a very interesting phenomenon. When I read the first Harry Potter book I remember scratching my head and thinking: but it covers the ground that's been aptly covered and so well covered by so many other children's books, especially English children's books. Which is not to say that it's not a good book: it is. But why this book? And what happens is, I think, for reasons that are ineffable, this phenomenon occurs on a level and then when it becomes a media thing, then that's what it is. It's out of control and it has nothing to do with books.
But it started as a teeny little book. And that's fun: it means that anything is possible.
But what would be really wonderful if, as a consequence of the huge success that has attached itself to Harry Potter and has all these adults reading books that were written with children, first and foremost, in mind, is if maybe more adults were starting to read children's books as literature. And any children's book, if it's a good children's book, it's true that you can read it without any sense of reading something that you're making an effort to enjoy or that you [can only] understand if you can enter the mind of a child. And that's true of picture books, and it's true of novels too, I think. So that would be a great thing. But I don't know: I don't have any sense at all if that's what's happening.
One thing I have a sense of: I think there needs to be fewer lessons. I mean, in any kind of book -- adult or child -- there are usually lessons. Some kind of moral growth or change. But I've seen too many books where kids are dealing with divorce or issues of color or other stuff that was really groundbreaking to be talking to kids about in the 1970s. But it's really gotten a little too in-your-face. So it's fun to be able to see, in After Hamelin, there isn't any of that overt issue dealing that you see too often. You even do some stuff that maybe you couldn't have done five years ago. For example, the stuff with the harpy, I thought it was kind of scary. So it's an exciting journey for kids.
Well, it's a fantasy kind of book and there's room for that kind of thing, but I was very deliberate about putting some lessons into the book. From the mouth of Penelope as a 101-year-old, that was part of who she was, somebody who couldn't hold back from giving advice: I've been there, I've seen this and I'm going to tell you.
Of your books that have been published so far, have the Bachelor Brothers' series been the best received?
Well, the first of the three is the one that sold the best.
What year was that published?
1993. And they're very light and they found an audience and continue to sell: slowly, slowly, slowly.
What was your first book?
It was a collection of short pieces that had originally been written for radio called Canada Customs. Don't look for it anywhere any time soon. Last seen, I believe, in the Hadassah Bazaar. And then there were a couple of collections of these doggerel poems. It's been a very light career. Literature light.
You know though, Bill: your work is much more respected than you would apparently give yourself credit for.
I have no sense of being respected. I don't know what that means. I don't know anybody that... I'm not sure. I think if you write light -- I take it seriously, I want to write well -- but you know that it's going to occupy a particular kind of niche in the great big critical scheme of things and it's not going to be taken seriously as writing. Sometimes that bothers me.
Don't you think writing a children's book means you'll be taken more seriously?
I have no idea. I doubt it. Look: what evidence do you have that anybody who writes children's books is taken seriously, except in that community of people who read children's books? Look, for example, at the Marian Engel prize. It's one of the Writer's Development Trust Fund prizes. It's given to a woman writer in mid-career: whatever that means. [Laughs] This year it went to Anita Rau Badami and it's never once gone to someone who has written books for young people. Look at the way children's books are reviewed in this country. It's insulting almost. It's usually a roundup. It's always couched in that revolting language of cloyingness and cutesiness. But there's a kind of discounting that takes place.
Of the author?
Well, of the writing. Of the literature as literature. It's some sub-genre. On the other hand, mysteries get the same thing, I suppose. Science fiction gets the same thing. There's always some columnist who's the mystery columnist or the science fiction columnist.
Is writing a full-time thing for you?
Well, I don't do it full-time. I don't sustain myself by doing it. I mean, if I did I'd be living in an attractive refrigerator car, you know? If I was lucky. [Laughs] Like most other people who write, I have a day job. Luckily for me it's a day job that I happen to love and that gives me a lot of satisfaction. But I do find it harder and harder -- especially as I age -- to have either the energy or the hunger to keep on doing it. To keep on writing in corners, to keep on devoting evenings, weekends, early mornings: the kind of stuff that you need to do. In the end I'm not sure that the book is very well served.
Tell me about your day job right now, because I know it's changed over the last half decade.
Well, I host a show for CBC radio in the afternoon. It's called The Roundup -- or formally Richardson's Roundup, though I never call it that -- it's a show that is really a kind of magazine program. It's about a kind of column response with an audience. It's like a scrapbook or an album of some kind and little bits of sound get pasted in. So there is fiction throughout and there are radio dramas, but what people really like about it is the way it's audience driven.
So my job, along with my colleagues, is to encourage people to tell stories about, for the most part, the domestic round of things. For instance, we'll ask people: Who taught you to iron? Who taught you to play poker? That's sort of the theme we have going: Who taught you to...? So what happens is you get these small, slice-of-life stories called in from all across the country. It's that thing that happens where something that's absolutely small and overlooked and domestic becomes a window into the wider life. It's what I like in books, as well. So, it's very rich, in that way. And I know that the show will come to an end and my job will come to an end -- probably sooner rather than later -- but that will never come to an end. It's what drives people. It's what keeps them going and sustains them: these stories. And all the show does is to make that human imperative a little more formal. People like to hear stories that they can identify with and that will make them think of their own family stories. So that's what it's about. And I've been very lucky with it. It's been a good gig.
How long has it been on for?
It's in its fourth season.
You've been with CBC a long time?
Oh yeah. Since 1988, full-time. Let's do the math. [Laughs] I like it. You hear so much about the dumbing down of the CBC and, until recently, about the money crunch. With the money crunch, especially, while it's still true even, it's turned around a little in the last while [but] it's always been a great place to work. I've always had a real sense of privilege about working there. It's been a good education.
So you see yourself as a radio guy then, as opposed to an author?
No. I don't see myself as a radio guy because I don't have any of that radio stuff. I don't have the kind of pipes that would lead to a radio career.
I don't know. I think you have kind of the CBC voice.
Oh, no. And I like radio as a storytelling medium and that's what I do. I facilitate the telling of stories and sort of make it possible. I give [listeners] a forum to tell their stories. Nobody listens to the show from beginning to end: that's just not the way people listen to the radio. This is known. Not a bad thing. But I always try to design the show so, though it's two hours, there's an arc to it: it's got a beginning, a middle and an end. In a way, it's a magazine that gets made every day, as well, like your own.
So you can come in and hear bits of it and not feel like you've missed too much.
Exactly. And for my own satisfaction as an editor -- which is really what I am there: an editor and presenter -- for my own satisfaction I try to make it so there's a continuity and one day relates to the next and one part of the show relates to the others. | December 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.