The Man Behind the Curtain

September 7, 2012

CS Richardson is an author (and book designer) based in Toronto. His first novel, The End of the Alphabet, was an international bestseller, published...

This week's guest blogger is CS Richardson, author of the recently published The Emperor of Paris. 

I began a recent post with a vague declarative: I write. The only qualifier I added was the what. Novels, I said. I did not elaborate.

“I write” has since pressed heavy on my conscience. Vague is the least of the statement’s sins. There is a hint of the pompous (of course I write. Don’t you?), the superior, the raised eyebrow of self-assurance. And there squats the weight: nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing did not come naturally to me. The inspiration to create fiction did not appear—like Marley with his rattling cashboxes and his moaning suggestions that Scrooge try a different approach to life—when I least expected it. No, I did the deciding: soberly, deliberately, more-or-less rationally. (Given my experience in the publishing business, and knowing how “the sausages are made,” some could argue the sober point.) There was no burning need: publish or perish. One minute the thought hadn’t occurred, the next it had. No epiphany, no Marley, no magic. I simply dove in at the deep end.

Fifteen years later and my swimming slowly improves. But should the ghost of future Christmases appear tomorrow, waggle his boney finger and say my writing days are done, I’m confident I could survive. Devastated certainly, at loose ends for a while, but able eventually to pull myself together and carry on. I would neither crumble emotionally nor shrivel creatively. In other words: writing is not a “calling” for me and any talent I have is no fluke of genetics or cosmic alignment. Writing for me is work. A labour I would do for nothing, to be sure, but damned difficult nonetheless. And if that weren’t enough, I write at night. (Current time: 1:45 am).

There are nights when it is light lifting indeed. The fingers leap across the keyboard, the words land exactly where they should. Such are rare moments and when they come along the cliché of being a mere vessel for a greater power can seem an accurate description. But there are other nights, so many other nights, when I stare at the screen (or the notebook or the post-it), the gears in my head sputtering and wheezing, grinding their cogs flat, if not seized outright. And yet, through countless false starts, jettisoned characters, abandoned drafts, nit-picky rewrites, tweaks, comma vs. semicolon debates, and rewrites of the rewrites of the rewrites, I manage to craft a novel. How many nights? In the fifteen years I’ve been taking this work seriously, I have managed to finish two novels. My total published word count: approximately 70,000 words. A poor innings, the English might say were sheer quantity the scorecard.

But literary value is my scorecard, and I have been fortunate with my efforts. Both novels have been well met by critics and readers alike. The first one even won an international prize. More than a few reactions have been wildly enthusiastic. The man’s a natural, some have kindly said. A gifted artist, a magician with words.

And there the weight increases. As pleasantly befuddled, honoured and grateful as I am when I hear such accolades, there is a small part of me that feels, not like Scrooge miraculously transformed, but more like Professor Marvel (aka the great and powerful Oz). I see myself frantically spinning dials, flipping switches, pumping levers, all the while shouting into a microphone: pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

CS Richardson is an author (and book designer) based in Toronto. His first novel, The End of the Alphabet, was an international bestseller, published in fourteen countries and ten languages, and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). He second novel, The Emperor of Paris, has just been released by Doubleday Canada.