Vancouver's Bill Richardson pays tribute to Canadian writer Mavis Gallant in her centenary year
‘The fascination is with the writing itself, but also her life was so extraordinary’
Vancouver writer Bill Richardson has an intriguing summer project: he's spending the season reading and writing about the work of Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant.
Richardson, a longtime contributor to CBC Radio and the author of several books, is revisiting Gallant's work through his online Substack newsletter Oh, MG: My Mavis Gallant Centennial Diaries. He plans to keep posting his daily reflections on her enduring literary legacy until Aug. 11, 2022, which would have been Gallant's 100th birthday — and happens to be his own birthday, too.
Gallant was a Canadian-born writer who lived in France and died in 2014 at the age of 91. Her more than 100 stories, most published in The New Yorker over five decades beginning in 1951, have influenced generations of writers and earned her comparisons to Anton Chekhov, Henry James and George Eliot.
Richardson spoke with Shelagh Rogers about why he wanted to pay tribute to Gallant through his own writing to mark the short story master's centenary.
What is it about Mavis Gallant's work that makes it such a touchstone for you?
Bill Richardson: I've always enjoyed her writing since I started to read her, probably in the late '70s, early '80s. I think like a lot of people, I began to read her with the publication of From the Fifteenth District. It wasn't her first anthology of stories published in Canada, but it was the one that made her kind of explode into Canadian public awareness.
I think what I liked right away were the things I still like. Apart from anything else, she's a wonderful ironist — she's just one of the funniest writers you will ever read. Which isn't to say that anyone would hurry to call her a humorist, but she's so sharp in her observations.
And then there's the themes of dislocation and disenfranchisement that she deals with. I don't know of anybody who has written more beautifully about children who find themselves in the hapless care of feckless adults.
Apart from anything else, she's a wonderful ironist — she's just one of the funniest writers you will ever read.- Bill Richardson
So the fascination is in part with the writing itself — the themes that she deals with, the luminosity of her expression.
But then there's the other part — which is her as a person, because her life was so extraordinary.
In the May 29 installment of your Substack diary, you put up a picture of the inside flap of a Mavis Gallant book that you borrowed from the library — and it's inscribed. How did that come about?
Bill Richardson: I had borrowed this copy from the Vancouver Public Library that was inscribed "To Don" from Mavis — that's it, no surname, no indication of who Don might be; couldn't be a more common name. So I took a picture of it and put it up on the Substack.
And lo and behold, the next day, a note comes through from a guy named Don Davis, who said he went to a Mavis Gallant reading in 1989 and she signed it for him. When he was downsizing, somebody else bought it, and eventually it made its way to the VPL.
But one of the things that's really fascinated me is her genius for friendship. She met people and she didn't let them go.- Bill Richardson
But the extraordinary thing about it was that of all the Dons in the world, this particular Don happened to be paying attention to the Substack, and we ended up having lunch a couple of days ago.
For all those years, he had kept the pen Mavis Gallant had used that he'd given her to sign the book. And when we met for lunch, he gave me the pen.
I love the interplay in your diaries between your life and Gallant's work — how much fun is it to imagine what Mavis might do?
Bill Richardson: She was such an interesting study. I don't think she was somebody who would much like to give advice. She did publish some diary excerpts in certain places, including The New Yorker — this is the diary she kept during a time of great ferment and excitement, but great poverty.
In New York, she had a crooked agent — she'd been selling stories to The New Yorker, but the agent hadn't been sending along the money, so she was totally broke. She was living in very, very reduced circumstances in Madrid. At one point in the diaries, she's selling off her clothes — and she says, "'Never buy cheap clothes' was the only piece of advice Mummy ever gave me."
So I don't necessarily think actively, "What would Mavis do in this situation?" But she was certainly not afraid to speak her mind.
I had the chance to interview her. People would say she didn't suffer fools, but I believe if she was offered the respect she deserved, it was very easy to be with her.
Bill Richardson: When first meeting her, a lot of people took away the impression of somebody who was cold or alienating or, frankly, snobbish. And I can understand well enough how that might be — she came from quite bohemian circumstances and her childhood was very fractured.
But one of the things that's really fascinated me is her genius for friendship. She met people and she didn't let them go. If they were willing to reciprocate, she stayed in touch with all kinds of people, so floating around out there in the world are thousands and thousands of letters.
She was a hugely social creature — she was always out and about; she was always travelling. That she managed to do so much, and for all of that to have such a high quality, is absolutely amazing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.