Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
It all began in the summer of 2008 when I hit a terrible slump with my writing. I would sit at my computer for hours at a time typing insipid sentences and immediately erasing them. I felt like I had lost my identity as a writer. Worse than that—I felt like I had never been a writer in the first place. Who was I kidding? Who did I think I was? And who on earth would ever want to read the kind of books I wanted to write anyway?
It went on and on, for weeks. I remember one sweltering afternoon in particular, demoralized by the heat outside and the wordlessness within, wherein I threw myself on the sofa in a full pout of despair. “I must’ve missed it,” I half-prayed. “For some reason I thought I was a writer. But I’m not. I don’t have Story running through my veins. Or if I ever did, I’ve lost it.”
I had an appointment that day, so I heaved myself up off of the couch and went downstairs in a black cloud of melancholy. It felt like a death, and my heart was cold with the sorrow of it as I stood before the mirror brushing my hair. Not a writer after all, the words scorched my weary mind. And then, something magical happened. Even as I stared into those despondent eyes before me, a running commentary wakened in my head. It was a voice describing how I was feeling, the awful deadness of my discouragement, the misery of my misunderstanding—in vivid words and in third person.
I threw down my brush and took the stairs two at a time, flinging open my laptop before I’d even pulled out my desk chair. I spilled the description onto the screen, writing as fast as my abysmal typing skills would allow. And as the words grew under my flying fingers, a character emerged. (I was late to that appointment, by the way.) By the end of the next week, I had a story. Another followed, and another. I greeted the process with curiosity, seeing these people suddenly in my head and then following them around over a dozen or so pages just to find out what would happen to them.
The whole thing was so fun it just couldn’t be real writing. Where was the agony, the hair-pulling, the angst? (Those jolly friends save their presence for the editing process, as I later learned all too well.) But I couldn’t help myself. I just kept pursuing these little whiffs and signposts of Story—some buoyancy within seemed to carry me along—and, before I knew it, I had the makings of a book. The vision grew with the collection, and when I reached ten stories I knew, instinctively, that I was done.
I wrote this little book purely for joy, out of the most idealistic sensibilities of my heart. There were times I would actually have to get up from my desk and walk off the trembly feelings of happiness that made my hands shake and my heart skip a beat as I wrote. It’s not best-seller material. It’s not “marketable” or “mainstream.” It has no message, save that Love Exists and Beauty Matters, and it has no agenda. If anything, it’s unapologetically old-fashioned, very much in the style of my literary heroine, Lucy Maud Montgomery. It was the book I wanted to write seven years ago, and once I got out of the way of myself and quit trying to write what I felt was expected of me, out it came. As all of the stories have flower names, I titled it Poesy, a Nosegay of Prose. Poesy is a collection of love stories, some contemporary, some slightly historical, all with an old-fashioned aroma. It is a Valentine, of sorts, a personal declaration of sentiment and a bouquet of vintage ideals.
I knew that a book as gently outdated as mine would require special treatment, and as my imagination had already quite run away with me, I gave in and gave it its head. It was out of this untrammeled flight of fancy that the dream of Low Door Press emerged: whole runs of books made entirely by hand. I longed to create something that was simply as beautiful as I could make it, start to finish, and, somehow, this book I had secretly (and accidentally) written seemed the perfect candidate.
I started daydreaming out loud to Philip about this dancing vision I had. It was so absurd I couldn’t help being enchanted by it: Was it possible? Was it even remotely financially feasible?
Was I crazy?
I’ll never forget Philip’s reply. He looked straight at me and smiled.
“We can do this,” he said.
And, oh, how I love that ‘we.’ It has made all the difference.
In January of 2010 we made a plan. It was his idea to do a smaller run of a public domain title that was about the same length as my book, so I could get my processes down and see what I was up against. It was a brilliant suggestion, and I knew exactly which book it should be: Kilmeny of the Orchard by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I selected this title for many reasons, chief of which being that I fell in love with it as an impressionable teenager, and I wanted to honor Montgomery and her influence on my life with an affectionately handcrafted edition of her second book.
I was sixteen years old when I first made the acquaintance of Kilmeny Gordon, I wrote in the preface. I had known her older sister, Anne Shirley, for about four years at the time, and the blessed hours I had spent in her company had given me a love for Lucy Maud Montgomery and her writings that was akin to reverence—a reverence which remains steadfast to this day.
I duly began to acquaint myself with the mysteries and mazes of Adobe PageMaker. I read everything I could on the craft of bookbinding, and schemed over how I could maneuver a one-at-a-time process into a multiple copy run.
Philip built the presses for me—and there is a world of love contained in that one little phrase. He made them all by hand and set me up with everything I would need to make books. I still just sit in my shop sometimes and gloat over my tools, they are so beautiful. (And I realize, in bookbinding as in other arts, that I love the instruments and devices as much as what is produced by them. I get a little giddy over things like English bookbinding needles and Irish linen thread.)
As the year went on, that ‘we’ expanded to a circle of dear and extremely talented folks. My amazing and artistic brother-in-law taught me how to use that ornery old PageMaker, and spent hours on the phone with me, sending files back and forth, and formatting things exactly the way I wanted them. My sister—the one who introduced me to book arts in the first place—designed the logo for my press. And she created two supremely gorgeous original oil paintings to illustrate my book: one for the cover plate and one for the frontispiece. Local letterpress artisans and dear friends, Matt and Erica Hinton, helped me figure out how in the wide world we could deboss and imprint so many cases at once, and Matt invested literal days into making it work. The result of his labors took my breath. I was overwhelmed at the support and excitement these people lent to my project, and deeply grateful for the mark of their talents upon it.
The pages were acid-free rag content and the signatures were folded and sewn entirely by hand onto cotton tapes with Irish bookbinder’s thread. I used an archival PVA book glue and traditional English mull for the binding, and the headbanding at the head and tail of the spine were silk. The book cloth was Dover linen and the endpapers were Italian cotton. As I have mentioned, the artwork was from original oils painted by my sister, and the cases were individually debossed and inked on an early-twentieth century engraver’s press. I would not even be able to begin to say how many hours went into each book, but I can avow that every one of them was a labor of love.
Kilmeny of the Orchard was the first grand experiment (I’m still dazed and delighted at the way she was welcomed into the world), and all the while I’ve been working away behind the scenes to bring my own little book into the world in accordance with the dreams I first dreamed for her. All these years I’ve been editing compulsively, revising, rewriting, undoing and redoing. I hired a keen-eyed and kindred-spirited editor to give my girl a final spit and polish. I finally finished the typesetting during an online sabbatical and after one final (agonizing!) export to PDF, I took my little book to the printer’s. I was so excited (and a little flustered) that I left the house without any lipstick, and by the time I walked out of the shop with a proof in my hand and an order irrevocably underway, I felt rather dizzy. To be honest, I was totally unprepared for the shining excitement that snatched me up and has held me ever since. My book—my very first book—was being printed! After all the agonizing and obsessing, the scrutinizing of fonts and the millions of exports, after learning the ways of Illustrator and teaching myself to use InDesign as everything I knew about PageMaker was outdated by this time—this dream was becoming a reality!
Now that my book is in my hands and the binding is underway, I wanted to include all of you in the final stages of this project. I thought it would be fun to keep you posted periodically, in words and images, on the status of this second title in the Low Door library. I’m not ready to announce a release date yet (there are too many imponderables attendant upon the hand-binding process), but my hope is to have the first run ready by mid-autumn.
I am employing a somewhat different method of bookbinding on this particular project: whereas Kilmeny was essentially case bound (the text block created separately and the cases inked and debossed on an antique engraver’s press before assembly), Poesy will be created in the even older style of hollow-backed binding. This will allow for slightly more flexibility in the spine and a chance to try my hand at individually gilt-stamping the titles as the final step in the process. (I even commissioned a brass logo die based on my sister’s perfectly realized Low Door Press design, and I found a 1940s-era hot plate in an antique store that now doubles as a finishing stove!) Like Kilmeny, Poesy will be bound in linen with acid-free pages and heirloom quality endpapers. The headbanding is brown silk, as is the slender ribbon bookmark. My amazing sister has once again lent her talents to this project and created four stunningly beautiful original illustrations, in addition to the full-color cover art. She took the images I had in my head when I was writing and made them a reality to grace the pages of my book. I’m still stunned over how lovely they are. Such a perfect complement to the pale green book cloth I’ve decided upon.
So, why on earth would I attempt something so crazy? Am I glutton for punishment or a moonstruck lunatic?
Neither, I hope. But I am a lover of beauty and the God who authored it. And I long, like all of us, in my small way, to contribute to His great canvas of beauty that overspreads the world in spite of all the evil and darkness and ugliness. In the face of it, really. My brush is quite small, more suited to details, but I want to ply it with a confident hope that it matters. That in a world of automation and plastic and hurry, there is still a place for something impractical and time consuming and existing only for love. Ruskin said the most beautiful things in life are often the most useless: “Peacocks and lilies for instance.”
And maybe even handmade books.
“I’d like to add some beauty to life,” said Anne dreamily. “I don’t exactly want to make people know more… though I know that is the noblest ambition… but I’d love to make them have a pleasanter time because of me… to have some little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn’t been born.” Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maud Montgomery
Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.