C. S. Richardson is living a double life. As creative director at Random House of Canada, he spends his days fussing over typefaces, margin widths and cover blurbs. He has designed scores of bestselling books. At dinner parties, he often scours the host’s shelves for familiar covers. Given that he’s worked on more than 1,500 books in his three decades as a designer—everything from Giller Prize–winning fiction to volumes of financial self-help—there are always a few. (If he’s had enough to drink and is in a braggy mood, he’ll take some down and show them off.)
In his other life, the 57-year-old Richardson is a rising literary star. His debut novel, 2007’s The End of the Alphabet, about a dying man travelling the world with his beloved wife, was an unexpected international bestseller translated into 12 different languages, and winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first novel. After a five-year break, The Emperor of Paris, Richardson’s ambitious follow-up novel, hits stores this month.
Clocking in at a brief 150 pages, The End of the Alphabet was self-consciously literary and bristled with quirky details. Ambrose Zephyr, the dying man, works as a designer (naturally) at an advertising agency called Dravot, Carnehan, after the main characters in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”—a short story Richardson considers the best ever written. When Zephyr gets his doctor’s prognosis, he draws up a bucket-list travel itinerary in alphabetical order, starting with Amsterdam.
The novel’s throbbing, unabashedly romantic heart delighted readers who can spot a Kipling reference but also enjoy a little schmaltz. It was a fiendishly effective tear-jerker and catnip for book clubs, with a sense of whimsy that hit the sweet spot for people who gobbled up The Little Prince as a child.
The Emperor of Paris is a bigger book in every sense. Richardson says he was determined not to simply repeat the formula that had worked so well the first time around. Beyond challenging himself, he was also eager to prove he’s no dilettante.
The new novel tracks the agonizingly delayed coupling of Octavia, the heir to a family bakery in Paris, and Isabeau, an emotionally and physically scarred young woman who restores paintings in the basement of the Louvre. It’s the kind of story that could only work in a setting that drips with old-world amour. Paris also happens to be Richardson’s favourite city: “If I’m going to spend five years somewhere in my imagination, I should probably like where I’m going to be,” he says. He fills in the scene with subplots about the booksellers along the Pont des Arts, a homeless painter who nearly starves to death trying to create the perfect picture, and the horrific impact the First World War has on the baker’s family.
Despite inheriting his father’s “word blindness” (dyslexia), Octavia is a compulsive book collector, believing that filling his rooms with serious-looking volumes will compensate for the fact that he cannot read their contents. Isabeau, meanwhile, spends her lunch hours reading along the banks of the Seine. The prospective lovers pass through each other’s lives without actually meeting until the final page, when they are brought together by—what else?—a book. This would count as a spoiler but for the fact that Octavia and Isabeau seem preordained to meet from the moment they appear in the story. The novel ends on the first tentative moments of their relationship, thereby sparing readers scenes of growing boredom and resentment, allowing the couple to remain an eternal ideal. Any casting director worth her BlackBerry would have Ryan Gosling and Keira Knightley on the phone less than a minute after closing the book.
Richardson makes no apologies for his highbrow Harlequin approach. “I am a shameless romantic,” he says. “I love sentimentality.” While the authors he names as influences—Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago—land on the eggheaded end of the literary continuum, one of his favourite movies is the 2003 rom-com pile-on Love Actually. “When people berate filmmakers or actors or writers for tugging at heartstrings, I always think, ‘Isn’t that our job?’ ”
Increasingly, Richardson thinks of himself as a novelist who happens to design books. As a designer, he toils in relative anonymity; as a bestselling writer, he admits to having fantasies about getting a call from Oprah. The idea is not totally crazy: the combination of idealized love affairs and rampant bibliophilia that defines his novels makes them perfect for the 2.0 version of Oprah’s career-making book klatch.
The Emperor of Paris proves that The End of the Alphabet was no fluke, and may signal the beginning of the end of Richardson’s double life. He is published by an imprint of Random House, but keeps himself out of all marketing discussions about his books. He also chooses to have very little to do with their design, preferring to be treated like an author first (though he admits to making some last-minute tweaks to the look of The Emperor of Paris).
“One of the great luxuries I have, but also one of the great crosses I have to bear, is that I know how the sausages are made,” Richardson says of his day job. Once you’ve made readers cry, it’s hard to go back to prettying up other people’s books for a living, and he foresees a time when he is responsible only for writing the words on the page, not deciding how they will look. For Richardson, that would be yet one more romantic ending.
The Emperor of Paris
By C. S. Richardson
Available Aug. 14