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Author Podcast: CS Richardson

abstract:CS Richardson has worked in publishing for over twenty years. He is a multiple recipient of the Alcuin Award, Canada’s highest honor for excellence in book design, and a frequent lecturer on various facets of publishing, design, and communications. The End of the Alphabet: A Novel, published by Doubleday Canada, is his first novel and it has just been awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize for A Writer's First Novel. Congratulations Scott!! [interview Feb 2008]


April 29, 2008


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Interview Transcript: CS Richardson: PART I

BB: What does CS stand for?

CSR: (laughs) Well, not to give away too many secrets, but CS stands for Charles Scott—my friends call me Scott, so please feel free to do so.

BB: When I received this book for review, I have to say that your lifelong skills as a book designer and the input that you must have had into this book was immediately evident: everything from the dust cover, the paper, the end jacket, the layout, the font. I wanted to first of all speak to the nature of book design and what goes into beautiful book design.

CSR: Well, as much as I would love to, I can't claim a whole lot of responsibility for the design of The End of the Alphabet, for two reasons. One: when I was writing the novel this was a writing project; it was not a project that if the gods smiled on me I would be able to design at the end of the day. This was very much for me writing, not designing, and I wanted the project to be treated as such.

When I was fortunate enough that Doubleday was going to publish it, I knew—only because I've been in the business as long as I have—I knew the senior designer involved, Kelly Hill, and I knew I was in eminently good hands. So my involvement in the design of The End of the Alphabet is pretty much as it would have been with any other author. Now, that being said, I tend to have a little bit of expertise (laughs) so I was given the opportunity to weigh in and give them my two cents' worth.

So that's part one of the answer. Part two, what goes into good book design? Well, number one is having a designer who a)loves books, and b)will have read—certainly in the sense of designing a novel—some if not all of that novel, but first and foremost has a sense of what a book is—it's more than just words on a page, it's a three-dimensional object. So in Kelly's case with The End of the Alphabet, she is arguably the best book designer in the country for the simple reason that she knows a book is a three-dimensional object.

For me as a designer, in my day job, my first thought is how is this thing going to turn into a three-dimensional object and what can I bring to the table in terms of look and feel?

BB: So the book designer was Judith Stagnitto?

CSR: Judith did the U.S. design and Kelly Hill designed for Canada.

BB: I produced a book last year and worked very closely with a book designer of a very good firm located out of Seattle. This man—this is who I've been imprinting on you, having not met you in person—was this incredibly sensitive person with an aesthetic ability to intune not only what was necessary but how to shape things. And so, in that, I think that the twenty years that you've spent working in book design and publishing has actually led to the culmination of this exquisite little novel, because all of those qualities come out in the writing.

CSR: Thank you very much!

BB: I wanted to ask if you could read on page 5, for our listeners, your introduction that sets the topic of the book for us.

CSR: I will preface it by saying that this is the first thing I wrote for this novel. Even though it appears on page 5, it was the first thing I wrote. (Reads excerpt): On or about his fiftieth birthday, Ambrose Zephyr failed his annual medical exam. An illness of inexplicable origin with neither known nor foreseeable cure was discovered. It would kill him within the month. Give or take a day. It was suggested he might want to make arrangements concerning his remaining time.

BB: Now that paragraph, it hits and clutches the reader immediately. We spoke about the fact that you were listening to this fabulous music during the writing process. Where did this idea come from for this book and the development?

CSR: Oh, well, I was mulling around various ideas and some sort of compelling story of one form or another, and I was thinking to myself that we've all played the classic power game of what would you do if you won a million dollars. We all have our mental lists of the houses we would buy and the cars we would buy and the places we would go and the things we would do.

And I thought to myself, well that's great, but let's turn that on its ear a little bit. What about the notion of what would you do if you were given 30 days? If you had a finite amount of time, and you could stay in reasonable health until the end of those 30 days so you could, in effect, do whatever you wanted to do, but that was it. What would you do, where would you go, what would become important to you in those last 30 days?

So that was the basic premise, the fact that I wanted this protagonist, this man, to be in reasonably good health in the prime of life, reasonably successful, all those good things, and suddenly to be stricken with this death sentence—that he was given 30 days and what was he to do with those 30 days?

I relied very heavily on the imagination of the reader to assume that the reality that we will probably all be faced with, that we would put our affairs in order and that we would go quietly into that long, good night . . . we get to suspend that for the sake of the novel, and for the sake of fiction, and for adventure and imagination, and stuff like that.

So that's basically what this was: What would you do if you had 30 days?

Part II

BB: When you were imagining your characters—you've set what the theme is going to be about, but the characters themselves are actually living in London, they're British citizens, and Ambrose is not unlike yourself, in an artistic field, and has an aesthetic sense that's been developed throughout his lifetime, from his mother, I suppose, as an art appraiser and so on. So I think it must have been important to you to create characters which draw from your own background; and when the reader is reading this, you obviously think about the waste of a life of someone who's so artistic and a finely developed human being.

CSR: Yes, certainly, I wanted to portray a character or set of characters that would, frankly, be a sentimental portrayal of the unfairness of life, if you will. Here is a reasonably normal individual, a reasonably creative individual, struck down in the prime.

In terms of my writing of these characters and how much of me is in these characters or in the protagonist himself, I'd be the first one to admit that there are certain things about Ambrose that I share, certain philosophies, if you will, but I think that every author at some point in time has done that. I think there's a little bit of Ernest Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea, and I think there's a little bit of Jane Austen in Elizabeth Bennet [Pride and Prejudice], so I'm not treading any new ground here by any stretch of the imagination.

And also this project, this first novel was by its very definition a learning process for me. I had never written a novel before. I have dabbled in writing professionally in terms of advertising and marketing and those kinds of things, but I have never sat down and seriously strung together a fictional story. So I was learning the craft.

BB: That's why you stuck to a short format—you wanted to create this perfect little...

CSR: I think that was part of it: the fact that I didn't have the confidence in my abilities to write a great weighty tome, but by the same token I was also writing a book that I would want to read. My preference—to take nothing away from the 500-page novels or the sweeping epics or any of those genres—my preference when I'm reading a novel is something that's a little shorter, a little more what I call fatalistic.

I read a lot of European writers, Latin American writers, who tend to write shorter than, say, your...

BB: Dickens and John Irving.

CSR: God bless those writers, and God bless John Irving and Cormack McCarthy, who tend to write longer books. But my preference, certainly in the case of this, was to be short and fatalistic and perhaps a little bit magical.

BB: It is magical, and also in a sense it encompasses travel, which is a metaphor for escape or discovery, and I wonder if you could speak to the aspects of the novel and how you brought that into it; why do these people go on these journeys and what do they hope to accomplish on them . . . the literary technique that you use to draw the reader into their lives for this one-month period.

CSR: Once I had the basic premise I wanted to take the reader on a bit of an adventure. I could have, I suppose, just as easily written a novel that was more introspective and that was less filled with the sweep of moving from one place to another or one location to another.

But one of the things I wanted to explore was the notion that he's received this death sentence; let's give him a little bit of freedom to not do the things we would all end up having to do, like putting one's affairs in order and doing all the "boring" stuff we would have to do to wind down our days. Let's just have some fun with the whole notion of fiction and the whole notion that this is a magical fable and this is an exploration of the things that are important in one's life.

So that was the basic notion behind . . . well, he's going to do everything he wanted to do; he's going to go to the places he'd either been to before and wants to see again, or the places, things, people he has never met. He has this mental checklist. He literally, at a certain point early in the novel, once he's decided what he's going to do to deal with this 30 days, he literally makes a list from A through Z of the places and things that he wants to see. So that was the premise behind that notion of he's been given the death sentence so what happens next.

I was also in the process of learning to write this novel and learning the craft of writing a novel. I was searching for an architecture for the story: how to get the reader from page one to the end of the book. So the notion of the alphabet, while it may be affected, is also a standard frame and it offers the average reader benchmarks and touchstones: ah yes, A, and then we will go to B, and then we will go to C. So there's a bit of structure to the whole thing, which is what I was searching for in learning how to do this and then finally pulling it all together.

BB: When I read the book—you can read it in one sitting, which is absolutely delicious—I completely came unhinged. So your success at what you were driving at was totally effective in my case, and I know it is in many people's cases as well; so when people read this they'll be absolutely entranced.

Why don't we listen a little bit to the music that you were listening to, because I want to talk about the fact that the tone of this music definitely is very evocative, and I think it would be nice for the readers to have that.

(Plays excerpt)

BB: So this is Angelo Badalamenti's music that was written for the movie A Very Long Engagement, and it's obviously extremely romantic. He conspires with David Lynch and his breakout was with the movie Blue Velvet, and he's continued to go on and win lots of awards and Grammies and so on . . . with Mulholland Drive, A Very Long Engagement, obviously, The City of Lost Children, and the music is described as haunting, evoking passion and paranoia. You listened to this music as you were writing, you said?

CSR: Yes. I didn't listen to it constantly, but certainly in those moments when I was stuck, or when I needed a little creative jolt. I would go back to this music and close my eyes and imagine my protagonist, and it just seemed to push it along. I will be the first one to admit, and I will be shameless in this admission, that I am a sentimentalist...

BB: (laughing) Well, that's obvious!

CSR: ...And anything that tugs at my heartstrings is just fine by me, music being one of those great things. If you played me something in the key of D minor I would become a puddle at your feet. So that's the kind of thing that just pushes me along and it helped not necessarily with the creative process so much, but just to get me in the head space that I wanted to be in. It was a huge help.

I listened to other things as well as that while writing this one, and I'm continuing to listen to stuff while I'm working on my second novel now. Music, I found, was just wonderful, and in this case it was just the perfect piece of music; unfortunately it's been used on somebody else's movie.

BB: (laughing) That's right, but I'm sure you can speak with the composer and figure something out when this one gets adapted.

CSR: If I'm ever so lucky, all I'll say to the composer is, "Just put it in D minor and adapt it."

BB: Now that your book is out and you're making the rounds and giving talks and so on, I happened to notice when I was looking you up that you also were lined up with Ian McEwan—another lovely romantic writer—at the Harbourfront Centre for the International Weekly Reading Series. I wanted to talk about that. As a new author, here you are and wow, that's quite a person to be launched out with. What went through your head? As a writer, when you do a reading, do you have favorite passages and do you consider who your audience is and who else you're going to be going out there against?

CSR: When I first learned that I would be reading with Ian McEwan—in effect I was opening for him, I was the opening act,and we were all having a great chuckle: I was like the kid in the garage band who suddenly got the call from the Rolling Stones saying, "We'd like you to open for us"—it was a huge honor. I am a lifelong fan of Ian McEwan and his writing, and I think that as a master craftsman he has no equal.

I received two pieces of advice when I was going into that reading, and I've used them ever since. One came from my editor here in Canada who said, "You have 15-20 minutes; tell a little story. You can either do that by pulling one section out of the book, or a series of bits and pieces here, but just imagine that you're telling somebody a little story."

So what I've done most often is I read most of the beginning section of the book. I leave some of it out, I juggle it around a little bit, but I'm assuming that most people in the audience have never read the book, so I'm giving them a little taste of what they may experience. I basically read the portions that describe the two main characters, and certainly give the death sentence, the premise of okay, we have these two characters, now what happens?

That's basically what I do when I'm reading in public. I have since found out, though, from people who attend readings, that they would much rather listen to an author just talk about his book rather than actually read it. I've discovered that when people read books for themselves, they have a voice in their head and it is hardly ever the voice of the author.

So it tends to jar. I've talked to a number of people who have said, "It was great, you were a wonderful reader, and thank you so much for reading . . . but your voice was not the voice I was expecting to hear." Which is fine. One of the things I've discovered, or I've probably just been reminded of it, is the fact that no two people on earth will read a novel and read it the same way. They will bring something else from it; they will take something else to it. They will interpret scenes, passages, characters in entirely different ways, which I think is just wonderful; I think it's fantastic.


BB: And that also speaks to the fact that when books are adapted for film, even extremely successful books that everybody loved, when the film comes out, how critical everyone is. Of course, there's a whole art to adaptation and so on, but that's also true. I have to agree with you when you're talking about that. I go to a lot of literary events and have authors come here to speak to our village book group, and I think that the most effective and interesting discussions that we've had with authors have been when they talk about their life and their philosophies and what inspired them to write the book.

But you know, when I was looking you up I could find nothing about your life, other than your career—this wonderful career that can be encapsulated in this concise paragraph, whereas my life is like a beetle track on an old stump . . . it goes everywhere! So could you give us a little bit of an insight into your upbringing and where you came from?

CSR: Sure, absolutely, I wouldn't mind at all. I am of the tender age of 52, I was born in Saskatchewan, raised in Toronto, I have a younger brother who has nothing to do with publishing and public life. I am happily married to a woman named Rebecca, we have two children: a grown son who is 22, and our daughter is 13. We live in Toronto; we work in Toronto.

My day job is in the publishing business: I'm still designing books to pay a mortgage and put food on the table. Another thing I've been reminded of, having written one novel, is you will never get rich writing novels, unless you're Ian McEwan. So that's how I spend my days. I continue to design books for other writers, other authors, and I write at night.

The End of the Alphabet took me four years to write. I wrote exclusively at night. I started . . . it'll be six years ago now, when my daughter was much smaller. I would wait until the family had all settled down for the evening, then I would go off into the spare bedroom and write for a couple of hours a night, or an hour here and an hour there. So that's what took the four years.

I'm still doing that. I'm working on my second novel.

BB: And you're still writing at night?

CSR: I'm still writing at night. I talked to a fellow author the other day and we were talking about our writing habits. He's in much the same circumstances as I am: he has a day job and he has a family and all those other kinds of things, so he writes at night. But about a year ago he took a sabbatical so he didn't have quite so many pressures, but he still found himself writing at night rather than during the day.

BB: Sure, it's like your circadian rhythm, when your creative juices are flowing for you. For some people it has to be early in the morning. That makes sense, when the house is quiet. You obviously need peace surrounding you.

CSR: I'm one of those persnickety authors in that I can't have a lot of stuff going on around me and I can't be distracted by 'I have to do something else.' I need uninterrupted blocks of time. Also, part of the reason it took me four years is that I was learning how to do it.

BB: Did you take any extra writing classes or mentorship from people that you worked with, perhaps?

CSR: When I was about half-way through it, I showed it to a couple of friends who I worked with in the publishing business, just to get a fresh . . . my wife reads everything I write . . . she's very critical, she's a great reader, she reads voraciously, so she knows a good book from a not good book. But, you know, there's a certain sort of, she's already got a built-in positive-meter.

So I wanted a sense from colleagues of mine who are good friends more than they're just colleagues, who deal with books on a daily basis in a professional capacity. I showed a couple of people, about half-way through, and I received some encouraging words saying yes, absolutely, keep going, here are my comments. But I never took a formal course. I read a lot.

BB: What did you read when you were writing this?

CSR: I went back and I read books that I've always loved, but went back and read them far more critically. I went back and I read Hemingway to find out how he handled dialogue, what his sentence structure was like. I would read Ian McEwan, as a matter of fact, to just look at the basics of the craft of how they were putting things together: scene structure, plot structure, all of that kind of stuff. So I read a lot and just tried to get it all through osmosis as best I could. So a large part of that four years was also taken up with just learning.

BB: Now, you're on your second novel. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

CSR: Without jinxing it. I've been told by fellow authors that you're not supposed to talk about your next book until it's actually done. But I can tell you that the protagonist is a man who cannot read. The book is set earlier in the twentieth century—it starts at about 1910.

In those days they didn't know or they hadn't come up with a name for dyslexia. In those days it was called "word blindness," where a person of normal ability in everything else, i.e., they knew their numbers and math and were clearly intelligent human beings, for some strange reason could not read or could not comprehend what was put in front of them to read. And they didn't really know why at that point in medical history. But they described this affliction as being word-blind.

So this man suffers from word blindness, and that's about all I'll tell you.

BB: Okay, okay, fair enough (laughing). Sounds good.

Well, I think that I've covered just about all the questions that I had for you, and I would like to thank you for taking this interview. It's wonderful to hear you in person.

CSR: It was entirely my pleasure. I love doing stuff like this. I love talking about The End of the Alphabet and the writing process and books in general. It's been my pleasure entirely.

BB: I'm looking forward to your next book because this one really got me, and if you can do that in the space of a few hours...

CSR: My job is done.

BB: Exactly. We'll get the word out and we'll get lots of people buying it. Have you been to the west coast here for any readings?

CSR: No, they haven't sent me out to the west coast. I do love the west coast, but I haven't been there in connection with any kind of publicity at this point. You never know. If I do I'll look you up.

BB: (laughing) Excellent, sounds good. Thank you very much then, Scott.

CSR: Thank you very much.

BB: Okay. Take care.

CSR: Yes, you too.




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