Next up in this year’s Giller Prize special coverage, we’re in conversation with author CS Richardson. His novel All the Colour in the World is a 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist.
"With stunning restraint and pathos, CS Richardson has given us a portrait of one man’s journey of the soul—across decades and continents, through loss and grief and hope. Both sweeping and minimalist, All the Colour in the World is Woolfian in its brushstrokes. Quiet moments of being are given as much weight as the chaos of war, and notes on the long history of art balance the depiction of one individual life. As much poetry and mosaic as it is a novel, with not a word out of place, this book is a triumph—a masterclass in how to paint an entire world."
C.S. Richardson‘s 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). His second novel, The Emperor of Paris, was a national bestseller, named a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year, and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. An award-winning book designer, CS Richardson worked in publishing for forty years. He is a multiple recipient of the Alcuin Award, Canada’s highest honour for excellence in book design. He lives and writes in Toronto.
What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about being human in 2023?
There will be times when your world will look bleak, that you will lose hope, that you will wish you had made better choices. Just know that there will be more good times than bad, that the better choices will find you, and that the girl in the back row you currently have a crush on is not the girl you will end up with (lucky you).
Just know that there will be more good times than bad, that the better choices will find you, and that the girl in the back row you currently have a crush on is not the girl you will end up with (lucky you).
In an alternate version of the world—one in which you are not a writer (or a book designer)—who would be you be?
A baseball player (#24, Yankees, shortstop) or an actor specializing in Shakespeare. Is astronaut taken?
If you could take a road trip with any author, living or dead, who would it be and where would you go?
The late and much-missed Jan Morris. I re-read her books (travel, history, even a novel) with alarming frequency. It would be a watery trip: Venice (she lived there before the tourists invaded, and wrote what is considered the quintessential portrait of the city.)
All The Colour in the World follows the life of a man called Henry, and spans much of the twentieth century. It’s written in short, tight, dense chapters that nonetheless convey rich depth and explore a broad range of compelling topics—history, art, philosophy, colour. Why did you choose to structure the novel this way?
As a writer (and a reader), I am as much interested in how the story is told as in what the story might be. The more original the telling, the better. So with ATCITW, I searched for a way to make non-fiction (normally the backdrop of a novel) a much more prominent feature of Henry’s story. In essence, as much a lead character as Henry himself. Thus Henry tells his own (fictional) story, through his all-too-real passions for art, for history, for colour.
What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?
The Bedside Book of Birds, by Graeme Gibson. Though not so much the book as the author. I was fortunate enough to design Graeme’s book, working with him for the better part of eighteen months, assisting him in visually editing and assembling a print version of his life’s passion for everything aviary. Over that time, Graeme taught me more about writing, about publishing, about how to exist in a literary world, than I could ever learn on my own. His guidance, his gentlemanly grace, his generosity of spirit has stayed with me ever since. Oddly though, he didn’t turn me into a birder. Rest assured he did try.
Excerpt from All the Colour in the World
1. Employing zuihitsu, a Japanese writing style characterized by both linked essays and disparate ideas, Sei Shōnagon considers her Pillow Book—a collection of anecdotes, musings about life as a courtier, favourite quotations, poetry, lists, daily affirmations—to be for her eyes only.
In Renaissance Italy such a personal almanac is known as a zibaldone: an informal miscellany containing everything from landscape sketches to currency exchange rates, medicinal recipes to family trees. The Florentine politician and merchant Giovanni Rucellai likens his to "a salad of many herbs."
Such salads might fill otherwise blank scrap albums, pocket journals, or composition books. One could just as easily find them straining the bindings of pre-existing books, a time-worn university text, perhaps.
Consider your beginning. Father in ill-fitting tweeds, waiting for an eastbound streetcar, worrying the coins in his pocket. Mother clinging to his remaining arm, her best cotton dress (generous with the letting out) billowing in the heat rising from the pavement. She carries low, a month early, knees buckling six minutes on the tick.
The morning editions, brash with their 60-points, predict another dog day, the hottest of the summer.
The indifferent vise of contraction tightens. Five minutes now.
You could set your watch.
The streetcar is nowhere to be seen. In your parents’ rising panic, the thought of giving birth in a stifling walk-up in the Shoreview Mansions grips each in a private nightmare.
Mother pictures herself flat on her back, a beached whale gasping on the parlour floor. Curses loud and blue, legs splayed for all to see, mysterious fluids ruining the rug. One floor below, her mother-in-law (soon enough Gran) dimples her ceiling with a broom handle, trying to silence the frankly unnecessary language coming from above. Father remembers other leavings of the human body: the thick red violence of it all, no matter that present (if pressing) circumstances might be considered more an affirmation, less a taking, of life.
Teetering at the curb, Mother’s fingers claw at her husband’s sleeve. She loses count, starts again. One Piccadilly, two Piccadilly.
Father’s tweeds: a mix of russet and umber. Mother’s dress: cerulean. The sky: murky, Turneresque, awash with Indian yellow.
The Dutch East Indies, spring 1815. On the island of Sumbawa, Mount Tambora erupts. The resulting cloud of ash, ten times the debris that buried Pompeii, circles the globe, creating a variety of optical phenomena. Prolonged sunsets colour European skies throughout the summer and fall. Abnormal twilights glow orange and red near the horizon, ethereal purple and pink above. Daylight skies appear muddy, as though skim-coated with yellow. Temperatures cool, triggering extreme fluctuations in weather. 1816 becomes the Year Without a Summer.
Meanwhile the artist J.M.W. Turner works his way through another sketching book—he will eventually fill 290 such volumes with pencilled scribbles, hasty watercolour impressions, and detailed notations concerning the play of light and colour in the natural world. This particular sketchbook concentrates on the optics of the English sky, including the colour anomalies caused by the Tambora eruption.
In finished paintings such as Chichester Canal (1828), Turner will move easily from sketch to canvas, putting the vermilions, the chrome oranges, the Indian yellows of his observations to characteristically evocative use.
Mother’s pregnancy is her first: a natural (one might argue predictable) denouement to an evening that occurs eight months earlier; an evening prologued by a day spent on a station platform pacing holes in her best stockings, at last to see a mirage of Brasso’d buttons and hollowed cheeks, pressed khaki and sunken eyes, step lively from a third-class carriage.