Bill Richardson is happy – really. He doesn’t miss being on radio. He has just published a children’s book. He has started a Substack specifically about Mavis Gallant. And he finds the job he does now extremely satisfying in ways he says he could not have predicted.
“I don’t know what anybody else who’s publishing a book this spring is doing at five in the morning, but what I’m often doing is emptying a 50-pound bag of buckwheat groats into a gravity bin,” he says. “I’m 66. And I can do that. It never occurred to me that I could or would or should.
“I suppose there are times when I miss the life of the mind or whatever it was that I had before, but not that much, not that much,” he adds.
“The career stuff – had it. Had a good life, it ended, and then there was space to fill.”
We were sitting at the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver’s West End on a rainy day turned sunny. This is Richardson’s neighbourhood. All afternoon, locals came up to say hello; he seemed to know half the people in the place. He was comfortable in his bunny t-shirt under a blazer, his wild socks and shoes, all a perfect complement to his eclectic, dry wit. We had met to talk about his new book, Last Week: a slim, illustrated volume about Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) – inspired by a personal experience.
“Thoughtfully, Richardson sipped his glass of water and looked at the choppy waters of English Bay,” he joked. He knows how this all works. He had years to figure it out.
Born in Winnipeg, Richardson fell into broadcasting at CBC Radio in Vancouver beginning in December, 1984. He was working at the library and was invited by a producer to record a family-friendly story for a holiday broadcast. “I felt at home in the studio, which was airless and quiet,” he recalls. He contrived ways to return, and started writing commentary pieces. Meanwhile, Richardson was also writing books. His first, Canada Customs: Droll Recollections, Musings and Quibbles, came out in 1988.
He began working more steadily for the radio show Gabereau. Host Vicki Gabereau’s departure left a mid-afternoon slot, and thus was born Richardson’s Roundup in 1997. The Roundup was a quirky, delightful show – a reflection of its host, in many ways. There was music, author interviews, calls and letters from listeners.
The show was beloved, but by 2004, its host had had enough. “I just thought, I can’t really spend much more time saying 1-888-SAD-GOAT.” (That was how the show, famously, broadcast its toll-free number.)
After the Round-Up, Richardson hosted his even quirkier short-lived show, Bunny Watson. It was a series about connection: across areas of the arts, between people.
He was the host of Canada Reads for several years. Other CBC work included a regular appearance on a TV show, with a segment he called “Cooking the Books,” shot in his kitchen. He would dress up in outrageous outfits, talk about a new work of literature, and then cook it: put it in the blender or in a pot.
His final CBC foray: Richardson was offered the job hosting Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and Sunday Afternoon in Concert (now In Concert) on Radio 2. He took it – a decision he says he now regrets.
“That was a case of bad casting,” he says. “And bless their hearts for giving it to me. Hubris. I should have had the humility to say no. It was fun, I really enjoyed it, but I was not the right person for the job.”
They parted ways in 2013, the CBC’s decision.
He’s being glib, but honest. As we sat at the Sylvia, listening to oldies pumping out of the sound system, he said something that really surprised me: he doesn’t think he was built for radio. He fell into it and he’s not sure it was the right place for him. “You hear it now in the conversation we’re having,” he said. “I’m stumble-mouth.”
For the record: I did not hear it. He was articulate – elegant, really – and hilarious, throughout our long conversation. But this is how he feels.
“I’m not good on my feet, I’m not quick off the cuff, and radio requires that. So I spent all that time kind of thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m making a mess of this, how is this happening, why is this happening, what am I doing here?’”
Since his break-up with radio, parts of his life have changed dramatically.
He has continued to write books, about 25 (he has lost track), mostly for children. But not all – Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1994. His 2021 recent picture book Hare B&B made the Globe 100 and was shortlisted for an International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY) Canada award. His partner, Bill Pechet, illustrated the book.
Richardson and Pechet have been together for 20 years (although they keep separate homes).
Last Week – aimed at older children – was inspired by Pechet’s mother, Judy. In her early 90s, she made the decision to have a doctor-assisted death shortly after it became legal in Canada. She was initially rejected as a candidate, but persevered; she was resolute to have her life end on her own terms.
“To watch her – this highly intelligent, well-read, accomplished woman, just unwavering in her determination to employ her agency, I found that incredibly moving,” Richardson says. “I was deeply touched by it. Who wouldn’t be?”
It was around the third anniversary of her death that Richardson had the spark for Last Week. He was writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba at the time. “And I thought: what would it have been like to be a child witnessing this?”
In Last Week, a child counts the seconds left with a beloved grandmother Flippa, who always said “Make every second count” as she lived her busy, full life.
The book is illustrated by Émilie Leduc and includes an afterword by Stefanie Green, the physician who performed the procedure for Judy Pechet. Green, a former maternity doctor, uses the term “delivery” for the process. “It’s important that this book is written,” says Green, who has also just published her own book, This is Assisted Dying: A Doctor’s Story of Empowering Patients at the End of Their Life.
Richardson has faced other significant deaths in these past few years, altering his life and its trajectory. Beginning in 2012, Richardson was spending most of his time in Winnipeg, where his father, Stan, had dementia, and died in 2014. Then in 2018, Esther died – Richardson’s beloved standard poodle.
“And it pitched me into this really dark, horrible place,” Richardson says. “I just I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
He became depressed and extremely lonely. He realized he needed to be with people. Beyond Pechet, he says, he doesn’t have a wide social circle.
On a Thursday afternoon, walking by a community centre, he peeked inside. Seniors’ bridge. He thought: I could do that.
And then he thought: I can’t. I can’t do that.
He kept walking. The Whole Foods nearby was holding a job fair. Richardson applied for the position of dishwasher. His résumé was filled with his radio experience, his published books. He got the job.
On his first day, his manager warned him: You know this is terrible work, right? (She didn’t use the word “terrible.”) Then the guy tasked with showing Richardson the ropes asked him if he was just out of prison.
That same night, Richardson received a text message: He was being offered an honorary doctorate from a university. “Here was this message that had nothing to do with the here-and-now and everything to do with what was gone,” he recalls. Then a text from Pechet: “Hey, you were just on As It Happens.” They were replaying an archival interview Richardson had conducted.
“And there I was in my gloves and my apron and spattered with who knows what kind of schmutz and I did think, Okay this is just about the way it probably should be: setting all that stuff aside and trying to do this for a while instead,” he says. “My point being that I did kind of have to get over myself a little bit in order to do it. But that didn’t take long.”
And as he got over himself, he got very into the job.
“I just liked the people I worked with and I liked the place and I liked the physical work and I liked the repetitiveness of it. It’s making things clean,” he says. “I liked lifting things and I liked going home at the end of the day tired.”
He eventually left for the writer-in-residence position, and back in Vancouver, he returned to dishwashing, this time at restaurants. When the pandemic ended that, Richardson – employing his agency – went back to Whole Foods, this time stocking shelves, for the most part.
“I think I have just enough OCD that it gives me more pleasure than I could tell you. Left-justify with the price tag, neatly in the row. The only thing that makes me as happy is a well-placed semi-colon.”
Cans and bottles – anything round – present a challenge. Tetra Paks are hell, he says. Packages of tea too. “There’s no weight to them. They move if you breathe on them.” And don’t get him started on the complexities of stacking bags of chips.
He enjoys the walks to the store, often very early in the morning; he enjoys being there; he appreciates how different it is from other parts of his life.
“Nobody talks about what’s on Twitter. Nobody’s obsessing about questions of social justice. Nobody worries about identity politics. Nobody talks about cancel culture,” he says. “And it’s such a relief.”
He has found there are many “operatic” personalities in retail, and he has colleagues with backgrounds in theatre, science, industrial design. People from other places getting experience in a new country. He loves hearing them in the break room speak to each other or on the phone in various languages. Operatic indeed.
Now that he’s out in the store, he occasionally sees people he knows. They often think he’s there gathering material, research for a book – which he has no intention of doing. “Sometimes they would say: ‘You’re not doing that for the money, are you?’” he laughs. “Well actually, yes, I mean, in a way. It’s dough; it pays my water bill, which is substantial.”
Does it bother him? “I stopped caring; I never really did care that much. And I just began to enjoy the culture of the place. And I still do.”
One of the great gifts of the experience of coming out, he says, was the realization that people don’t care. “And that applies to a lot of life, including this.”
He does get recognized every now and then. Recently, loading oat milk onto shelves (Tetra Paks!), a woman approached and asked: “Do you remember Bill Richardson?” Thinking she must be joking, he said “vaguely.” And she told him: “Well, you know, you look just like him. … You could be his brother.” And off she walked.
Richardson found the encounter hilarious.
“I’m long, long, long, long past any sense of ‘God, what if somebody sees me?’ That worry is long dead,” he says.
The work, as an antidote to loneliness, has been terrific. It’s more than that, though. Simple acts are, in their own way, so satisfying: “To slit open a bag of grain, to use your body to hoist it up, to dump it into a gravity bin, hopefully not spill any, and then it does spill, that’s its own kind of amusement. Yeah, that’s been good. More than anything else, that’s been good for me.”
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