C.S. Richardson's love letter to Paris

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (16/9/12)


C.S. Richardson's The Emperor of Paris is a story told in reverse. The setting is Paris in the 1920s. Octavio, a baker's son and avid book collector, and Isabeau, an art restorer and fanatic reader, are destined to meet. This is obvious to the reader, but it doesn't happen until the very last page.

The Emperor of Paris is also another kind of love story. Richardson is in love with Paris. "[It's] a chronic obsession bordering on madness," he revealed to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright. He didn't visit the city until he was in his mid-30s, but it immediately stole his heart. "I remember distinctly getting off the bus from the airport at the Place de l'Etoile and just going, 'I cannot believe I am standing here.'"

It was in France that The Emperor of Paris began to take shape, thanks in part to the love of Richardson's life, his wife. After the success of his first novel, Richardson was toying with the idea of setting his second book in his favourite city, "knowing full well that every writer in the history of writing has either done it or wanted to do it." But then his wife suggested he make the main character a baker and that it begin with a fire, and it all came together.


Like his characters, Richardson has a life filled with books: he pays the bills working as a book designer for Random House of Canada and has designed more than 1,500 book covers in his 25-year career. This experience helped immensely when he decided to try his hand at writing books instead of designing them. "I literally form the picture in my head. I form the scene or the setting or the character in my head so that I can almost see them, reach out and touch them," he explained. "At that point I can almost literally put down on paper what I'm seeing in my own head."

That doesn't mean writing came easily to Richardson. He learned "by doing" and went back to his favourite works to examine how they worked technically: how scenes were set, how dialogue was constructed how characters were fleshed out. He then took this information with him to the page. Each of his two novels took more than five years to write, and each book went through several drafts.

The drafts, however, are Richardson's favourite part of the writing process. The Emperor of Paris went through six complete revisions. "Getting it out of your head first is the hardest work ever," he said. "But once you've got it down on the page, then you can go back and start rewriting and tweaking and polishing. That is infinitely more fun than getting it out of your head at the first go."

His process seems to work: his first novel, The End of the Alphabet, won a Commonwealth Writers' Prize and The Emperor of Paris is currently longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Despite these accolades, Richardson thinks he still has a long way to go before his writing skills are as strong as his design skills.

"Books by their very nature are full of things, filled with all kinds of themes and symbols and subject matter," he said. "I'm still learning the craft."

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