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C.S. Richardson publishes his much-anticipated second novel, The Emperor of Paris
By day, Scott Richardson is a book designer, and vice-president and creative director of one of Canada's largest publishing companies. One day, he decided to try writing a novel of his own in his spare time.
The result was The End of the Alphabet — written in the evenings over the course of several years and published under his writing name of C.S. Richardson. The novel went on to win the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book in Canada and the Caribbean.
He still has his day job, and now C.S. Richardson has returned with his novel, The Emperor of Paris.
Set in Paris in the years following World War I, the novel tells the story Octavio, an illiterate, book-worshipping baker who falls in love with Isabeau, an art restorer who feels more comfortable among books than with people. While a shared love of stories helps to bring the two together, the novel is as much about the things that end up standing in the way of two people whoseem destined to share their lives. The story paints a vivid picture of Parisian life in a period that has come to become mythologized in both literature and art. Much of the novel's charm, however, comes from the fact that Richardson offers readers a look into life behind the typical postcard façade of Paris.
Richardson recently sat down with Calgary Journal reporter Karry Taylor to discuss flawed characters, e-books and why he loves Paris.
What is it about Paris, and in particular Paris in the early 20th century, that is so beguiling?
I wish I could put my finger on what makes Paris so special, and why it does to me what it does. I think it's just this perfect storm of architecture, history, food and people — all those things come together for me in Paris. That time period in Parisian history was as tumultuous as almost any other in the city's entire history. In the early 20th century, you had the First World War, new advances in technology and an explosion of the visual arts. So that period has always fascinated me.
I knew this book was going to take me a long time to write. I thought to myself: "if I am going to spend that much time in my head in one place, I better like where I am going to be." But I could have set this book anywhere. Hopefully the story is more universal, rather than tied to one specific place. But I wanted to see if I — like all of the thousands of writers throughout history who have written about Paris — could throw something in there and make it stick.
How did you decide to set the story in and around a bakery?
Going back, again, to the tumultuous times that Paris was going through, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to dive into what was it like for the Average Joe who was living in Paris at that time — the people who were just trying to get through their lives. I wanted my protagonist to be a tradesman. I thought "what's a more characteristically Parisian vocation than being a baker?"
All of the characters in this book have obvious faults or face significant barriers of one type or another to overcome. Why did you decide to make them flawed?
I wanted to be as real and as truthful as to what human beings are really like. We all have flaws, to one extent or another. Some of them are imposed upon us — sometimes it's a physical scar, sometimes it's something emotional. We all have that, to one extent or another.
I wanted my characters to be as real as I could make them. So I wanted to give them all something — they weren't going to be perfect. They came from "the wrong side of the tracks." Or they were thrust into situations that they had no business being in. Or they were in lives they didn't want to be in. I hate reading books that either have characters who are absolutely perfect, or who do things that, as you read about them, you say "they would never do that!"
Books — in particular their physical aspects — are very important to several of the characters in this novel. Given your profession as a book designer, what are your thoughts on the future of the physical book? Will e-books completely wipe them out?
You are right to point out that The Emperor of Paris, as much as anything else, is homage to the physical book and to the great craft of creating a physical thing. I didn't want to get on a soapbox and start talking about the role of physical books, or the supposed death of the book. But by the same token, that is how I spend my life. So I wanted to talk a little bit about that.
E-books were "the next big thing." They suck all of the air out of the room and that is all that anybody can talk about. Of course every time there is a new technology that comes along, everybody says that the old one is dead. But the dust is settling. Physical books are still around. If anything, I think that the advent of e-books is making physical books even better. For me, they are just one more format of book. You can have a hard cover, if you like. You can have a paperback, if you like. Or you can have an e-book. If that is what you want, publishers will provide it.
I think that the calls for the death of the physical book are falling on deaf ears. They have been around for half a millennium, if not longer. They have survived just about anything you can throw at them, and they continue to roll along. I consider a physical book almost a perfect thing. Whether you live in the grasslands of Africa or in a Paris apartment, you can read a book. You don't need to plug it in or keep it charged. There will always be physical books.
Did you design the covers for your two novels yourself?
No, I didn't. There are two reasons why. The first reason is that I am still very much learning how to write. For this book — as well as my first book — it was all about the writing. That was my job. I couldn't muddy the waters by thinking about what the book was going to look like. The second is that I am blessed with a fantastic publisher who employs the best book designers in the country. I knew going in that I would be in the best possible hands. So I could easily step away from it.
What is next for you in terms of writing?
Next will be another novel. I will just keep going with writing until somebody tells me to stop. I am in this for the long-haul. Even on its darkest day, I love doing it.
Editor's note: questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.