Bill Richardson Talks with Roger

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In Last Week, Canadian writer (and Whole Foods clerk) Bill Richardson briefly sketches a child’s last week with their grandmother — and they know it’s the last week because Flippa, the grandmother in this story, has chosen to die via a scheduled, medically assisted suicide rather than suffer any longer from her terminal illness. Illustrated by Emilie Leduc, the short novel is going to present a where-do-I-shelve-it dilemma for many libraries, as so many of the most intriguing books do!

Roger Sutton: You were a children’s librarian, is that right?

Bill Richardson: I was. I graduated in 1980 from University of British Columbia library school. I got a job after that at the Okanagan Regional Library in southern British Columbia, and then I worked in the Vancouver library system for a while. I started getting into freelance broadcasting, and eventually I just did that full time for about eight years. How long were you at the game before you went to Horn Book?

RS: I think we’re exactly contemporaries. I finished library school in 1980, and I did that until 1988, and then I went to work for The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books for about seven years before the Horn Book.

BR: There you go. I started my job at the CBC as a broadcaster in 1988, so yeah, we’ve had very similar career paths, at least insofar as that part of the trajectory is concerned.

RS: We left the kids behind. Did you have to deal with questions all the time about “don’t you miss the kids?”

BR: I did not. I can’t remember that there were any questions at all. I was not a very good librarian. That was the reason I didn’t last very long. I was mostly interested in the performative aspects of the job. I liked doing the storytelling and the puppets. When I think of how many hours I spent with my hands sweating in those puppets, it’s amazing. The more administrative part I didn’t enjoy, and I wasn’t very good at.

RS: Same. You’re my brother from another mother, Bill.

BR: When you move into administration, you’re not doing what brought you to the work. Broadcasting was very much the same thing, in a way — it was all about storytelling. It never felt to me like a huge shift, somehow. Anyway, that’s all a long time ago.

RS: What would the children’s librarian Bill think of Last Week?

BR: Golly. That’s a question to which I’ve given absolutely no thought. I’m not sure what I would have thought. I’m not sure what librarians will think today. As with anything, I wouldn’t expect unanimity. Some will like it, some won’t, because of the subject matter, or the way it was treated, or the book itself. I’ll be curious to find out.

RS: It’s interesting to me to look at Last Week in the genre and history of books about death for younger children. Back when I was working at the Bulletin, we had a subject heading called “Death, adjustment to,” which always cracked me up. It’s somebody else’s Death, adjustment to, obviously. My question, when I asked you what would children’s librarian Bill do with this book, isn’t really answerable, because I don’t think that this book could have been conceived of, much less written and published, however many years ago it was when we were in the trenches.

BR: I think one of the things about this book — what makes it possible here in Canada — is that we have legislation that governs and regulates medically assisted dying. I think in the States it’s called Physician-Assisted Suicide or PAS. Here, it’s MAiD, Medical Assistance in Dying. The legislation that governs it was passed in 2016, and it was amended just last year. At the time it was introduced, my partner’s mother, Judy, was in her nineties and living in Victoria. She was an astonishing person. She was so smart and funny and warm and humane. But at the time, she had congestive heart failure and was legally blind. She decided, after the legislation came in, that she wanted to go out on her own terms. She applied, if that’s the right word, and they turned her down. She worked at it until she was able to persuade the representative physician to sign off on it. A date was set. Her family gathered, and her friends came. The situation I describe in the book is very much what happened around her. In fact, the doctor who presided at her dying was Stefanie Green, a pioneering physician in assisted death who wrote the afterword for the book.

My point is that Canada is five or six years into this as a well-established protocol. In my own family, there are three or four people who have taken advantage of it. Everybody I talk to knows somebody who knows somebody, or knows somebody directly. It’s far from unheard of. I think the reaction to it here might be different than in a country like the U.S., where there are ten states now that have legalized PAS. Am I right about this? It’s a state-by-state decision.

RS: Yes.

BR: Living in Canada is really what made the book seem like a possibility. It didn’t feel strange to me. This is something a lot of people go through. It’s a situation a lot of people encounter, and of necessity, children will also be dealing with it. So, one child’s experience of waiting with someone for their date with death, what’s that going to be like? It really changes the way you mourn. By the time my partner’s mother died, I was sixty, and I’d already had lots of experience with mourning. It was very interesting to have the experience of mourning in advance. When the final moment came, it was a different way of processing it, for sure.

RS: I think that that’s a very intriguing thing about the book — what’s being emphasized is the week, and the time, and how much time is left. It’s not a question of, is Gran doing the right thing.

BR: It’s a short and simple story. What was important for me was to be as clear as I could, in the voice that I was writing in, in the voice of this child. Can I ask, how did you gender the child?

RS: You know, I hadn’t thought about it until just before this call. On my notecard, I have a note to ask you the gender of the protagonist. I read the protagonist as a boy, but that’s probably because I’m a boy. But it really could be either, couldn’t it? Or any, I guess.

BR: It was one thing I was quite deliberate about. Not because I was trying to make any kind of political statement about gender identification. Mostly, I wanted to leave it open, in part as a kind of experiment, and also because I wanted to give the illustrator the option of doing whatever she, as it turned out, would do. I did say to the editor, when Groundwood acquired the book, that I was really deliberate about not gendering the child, so the illustrator can do whatever she wants. I’ve shown the book to a few people. One is the son of a friend who’s the right age, and he read the protagonist to be a boy. The one advance review of the book was written by a woman, and she genders the child as a girl. I suspect that it depends on whatever gender situation or bias the reader brings to the story — that’ll be interesting for me to learn.

RS: As a children’s librarian, I would buy this book for a collection. That’s not a question. I would put it in the general shelves of books for kids who are seven, let’s say. Past picture books, but not quite ready for chapter books. But I wonder what a kid who’s not in this situation — those child readers who are will be rare, just statistically — what will they make of it?

BR: It’s a really good question. Everybody deals with death. Everybody thinks about death. I have my own very vivid memories of being a child, about six or seven, lying in bed and having this visceral understanding that it was going to end. That realization had me sobbing, thinking about my parents’ dying. I think if a child has wondered about death, then a death is a death. They come in their ways. They come in their times. This is just a death that’s coming the way it does. I think it’s as much a book about loss as about the death of this one woman. How do we handle that?

RS: How do we say goodbye?

BR: Yeah. My own feelings about medically assisted death are far from unalloyed. I like the idea that it’s there for me, that it’s a possibility. If a bus comes along and takes me in the crosswalk, it’s not going to be an issue. But if I find myself in a situation where there’s not much point in hanging around here, it makes me happy to think that I might avail myself of it. I also have a lot of respect for people who out of the doggedness or stubbornness or sheer love of life —

RS: Or the Catholicism!

BR: Or the Catholicism — however they position themselves morally — just want to see it out. It’s a really good question, Roger, about how a child who’s never experienced this or thought about it would understand it. I guess time will tell, or it won’t.

RS: One thing I love about the book is that it’s not prescriptive. God knows we have plenty of books about death, adjustment to, that lay out a map for kids — it’s all right to be angry, for example. You can be angry that somebody’s dying. People will still love you. Life goes on. Barney the dog is going to turn into plants after he’s buried. Whatever. There’s a goal of getting the child to feel better when something terrible happens. I’m not getting that at all in your book. Which is a compliment.

BR: Thank you. I appreciate that. That was really the nicest thing you could have said. I’ve found this in reviews and in the way publishers position books — someone will always make a point about how a child can benefit from it. Where is the didactic core of the book? This is an idea that I personally resist. It’s not what I aspire to do, first and foremost, in anything I write. Writers like Sendak or Steig, books like Archie and the Strict Baptists by John Betjeman or The Stone Doll of Sister Brute by Russell Hoban are models for me. I admire books that puzzle slightly, or simply books that delight. They’re not trying to make somebody feel one way or another. The book’s ambition or intent is simply to charm. That’s what I want to do, especially when I’m writing for kids, rather than take out a slate and a piece of chalk and deliver a lesson.

RS: You usually write funny books, is that correct?

BR: I’ve always steered to the light. So yes, typically that’s so. Not to be disingenuous, I know them for what they are. Even though they’re light, I take them seriously. I work hard on them — some more than others.

RS: I don’t mean funny in a disparaging way. I just mean comic.

BR: Yup.

RS: So, what was it like finding yourself writing this not-funny story? It obviously has light moments, like the grocer who teases Gran about how much she complains about his produce.

BR: It wrote itself very quickly. I wrote the book when I was living in Winnipeg for a two-month residency at the University of Manitoba. It was September. I’d been thinking about Judy. It was about that time of year that she died. The family’s Jewish, so the whole yahrzeit thing is important. She was on my mind, and I began to think about what a younger child in that situation would have thought. I sat down and wrote it. It was one of those happy times that don’t happen often for me in my writing life — my writing life now is almost nonexistent. I do very little work anymore.

RS: Must be nice.

BR: I work at Whole Foods. I’m a grocery clerk.

RS: I read that essay. It was good.

BR: Oh, thanks. It’s not a bad thing to do. It’s social, and it’s active. It saves me from depression. But in any case, writing the book was the happy feeling of time being absent. The voice and the child were very clear, and it was clear right away that it would be a countdown. The daughter of friends of mine — a brilliant young woman studying science now at university — was a bit of a math genius kid; I remember them telling me that she said to them, “I find numbers calming.” I thought, that’s a great framing device. A countdown. That’s where the child’s comfort lies in the book, being able to name the process with numbers. Funny is my default position. It’s what I’ve always done. But this just seemed right somehow.

RS: It also seems very Canadian to me, in a way that you as a Canadian probably don’t understand. I tease Fred Horler at Groundwood about their books, saying there’s no way we could publish this or that book in America; we would see it as too strange in the States. There’s such a different sensibility at work. Do you know Sarah Ellis?

BR: Sarah and I were roommates once!

RS: She’s one of our resident Canadians. She’s been working for The Horn Book Magazine for forty years, I think. We get these books in, and I’m like, it’s got to be Sarah, because none of our American reviewers is going to understand it. I don’t know what the difference is.

BR: I don’t know. Maybe it has to do with government funding in some ways, the funding of the publishing industry. It’s that northern sensibility.

RS: There’s something matter-of-fact about it. If it were an American book, I think, there would be a lot more explanation and a lot more reassurance surrounding the story.

BR: It was important to me to include the afterword to address that. If a child has questions and an adult hasn’t given the subject much thought, Stefanie’s warm explanation at the back was important to me for that reason. There’s the didacticism for you. But it’s not that. It’s a necessary gloss on the fiction, I think.

RS: It’s at the back. It’s not part of the fictional world. Hallelujah for that.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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