It’s far too easy to look at something and overlook or dismiss the craft that went into it. Indeed, we are surrounded by countless items that are chosen precisely for the fact that they were created cheaply to the point where we no longer can detect one from the other.
But there will always be joy in the process, regardless if it could be done faster or cheaper.
I spent the afternoon amidst mechanical machines, smalls of solvents and ink, and a handful of happy people. It was cloudy outside and the breeze blew but barely could make it through even the two open doors so things got rather sweaty inside.
I see the same full time staff at Signal Return: Lee, Lynne, Joel, and one other that unfortunately her name escapes me because she’s usually on the other side of the room behind the counter. I’m sure I’ll get it in my head eventually as it’s clear that I’m going to be spending some time there.
I’m fussing with the words of a new book, and after working on it for all this time, the images started to become a bit clearer in my head through reading and sketching. Somewhere down the line I decided that color was necessary; not just because Zōsan lacked it, but because it might really add something to the images of this particular book. Plus, the process seemed like it was fun and had lots of possibilities.
I scratched the surface of those possibilities through a three color print on a Vandercook 4 proof press. I spent the week caving linoleum blocks with a transfer print after working on color studies using Procreate on an iPad. That really helped me figure out what I wanted to do, and once I locked that in the carving process was a straightforward process of translating to the carving blocks.
Printing like this is still quite stressful for me. There’s a lot that can go wrong, and I lot I don’t know. But that’s part of the appeal here: the learning by doing, the mistakes, the intuitive nature of it, the embracing of imperfection and the industry of every crank and pull of gooey ink.
We took a lot of time locking up the black plate first to print registration prints. I made seven but I now see there’s merit in printing more just in case. We used those to ensure that both the green and blue colors would line up properly. I had flashback to reading those wonderfully bad and terribly registered Bazooka Joe comics (and wearing out my jaw chewing that gum!) as we worked through correcting each. Lee definitely helped me do the lock ups and when I do this myself there’s going to be a lot more errors involved. I don’t think in picas much.
The magic happens like exhaling once you’ve held your breath through all the thinking and registration and setup. You crank away and admire each print with both a critical and enamored eye, tweaking this and that with each one. Each switch felt like a leap of faith to some degree. Was it going to work? Will it be perfect? The answer was almost always a “sorta-mostly”, and that was an important acceptance to go through.
No two were exactly the same; some were printed “too light” and others much more punchy, but as you go on you feel the judgements floating away and you begin to see the loveliness in each and every print, not just ignoring the differences but embracing them. And this happened even before the Corona was handed to me.
TLDR: the new book will most definitely have color in it. Probably a small handful of two- or three-color prints — because they are wonderful.
I ended up with 14 prints. If you want one, I’ll be picking them up next week. Let me know!
Sending out Zōsan was a bit like how I imagine NASA scientists launching a probe out into the great unknown.
There it goes…
The time thereafter is filling with so much silence, though you remain hopeful that it makes it to its intended destination.
…hope it makes it…
And then, weeks, months, sometimes years, that signal comes in.
Every now and then I encounter someone who has my book, and they take that couple of moments to mention a few positive words about it. They may as well have handed me a bucket of dark chocolate and given me a steady five minutes of high-fives. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t motivated by positive feedback. I don’t seek it out, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it!
I’m sure there are many out there who have read it and thought these things and for myriad reasons the feedback never got to me — and that’s okay too. Hearing it from even just a few—even with so few words—is enough. After all, the real motivation comes from the making and the doing, but it never hurts to get that faint signal every once in a while.
I loved working with Eberhardt printing in Portland to produce the offset edition of Zosan. However, the idea I’ve been working on I think would be better at a larger, squar-ish size and his Ryobi 3302 press can’t accommodate. So, I did a little research and voila, I found a printer local to Ann Arbor that can print a trim size as large 8.5″ x 11″, so 8″ x 8.5″ will work perfectly (I have another book I designed in this size and I think it’s pretty ideal)
This is bodes well for the idea I have forthcoming, I really wanted to push the size of the book a little larger and square to let the illustrations breathe more.
The big unknown right now of course is the cost. It was clearly be more than Zosan because of the physical size but at probably 44 pages it shouldn’t be breaking the bank. Since I’m probably going to reserve color for the letterpress (yes, my dream is also make a letterpress — with some color!) one color will suffice for offset and keep costs down.
This week I mailed out three letterpress editions: one to my cousin, who has been holding off reading the PDF for many months in order to fully experience the whole thing, a second to Clare, the talented illustrator and printmaker in Portland who helped me realize the whole dream, and a third to my fifth grade teacher, Ms. Kevra.
She got wind of my book through a friend’s mom — the parents and teachers of my elementary school were very much involved our collective education. She was our fourth and fifth grade teacher, with a reputation for being hard on students. Since then I’ve realized that the teachers that everyone said were “too hard” were simply the ones who cared enough to push everyone to be their best, and Ms. Kevra certainly fit that description. I remember half-assing one writing assignment and it came back with a big fat zero and a stern note, which cannot recall verbatim but the message stuck regardless: “You can do better”. She called me out on my own laziness and I never forgot that.
I wasn’t exactly sure how to tell Ms. Kevra how much my time in her class meant to me, but then I realized that for all the words I could throw together, Zōsan was concrete evidence of her influence.
Fifth grade is where I learned to really write. Thirty years ago (!) I wrote silly and not-so-silly stories loosely based on all the things I read. The entire fourth and fifth grade classes pretended we were astronauts, pioneers, revolutionary war figures or native americans, and for the span of a couple of weeks researched and wrote as if we were actually living in that time.
I read a lot more then. And like most kids in elementary school, I did book reports. But Ms. Kevra allowed us to do our book reports on tape, and I loved listening to books on tape already, so I jumped at the opportunity. I read many Paddington Bear books and by the end of those audio book reports I had slipped into a inconsistent British accent that I picked up from renting every Monty Python Flying Circus VHS Cassette that the local video store had to offer. I probably did more than a dozen, though only a handful still exist.
It’s funny to me sometimes because I once dreamed of being a cartoonist, and a writer. It seems that you can’t really run away from those dreams, they merely follow you around until you choose to notice them.
It’s difficult some days to think about where in this sea of writers and established authors and lifelong readers I actually fit. The only group I consider myself a part of is the first.
I don’t think it’s difficult to get your words printed anymore, but the task of getting noticed by anyone is far more intimidating. But I ask myself why I even care about the latter. This isn’t my full time thing. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be able to feed my kids. I don’t think that because I consider myself a mediocre writer, but rather because the field is so saturated now with writers, both phenomenal and notsomuch that I find it hard to fathom making a living off what I write at the moment. To start, there are plenty of people who are lifelong writers. But is that an excuse to just hang it up and never do this?
I never expected anything grand to happen overnight. It’s all I can do to simply keep looking ahead, keep writing, keep reading and seeing what’s out there, and not concerning myself with any kind of notoriety yet. Or perhaps ever. One of my concerns is falling into a trap where I could actually be noticed, but then I’d be forced to write in a way that isn’t me. I’ve noticed some authors that I read night after night have a couple of outstanding books that feel as if they wrote straight from the heart, with passion and vision; and subsequent books felt forced and not at all in the same caliber as the first. And my guess was because once they became “well known” the publishing companies put pressure on to produce, and that is counter to everything I want to achieve here.
The more I’ve read to my kids, the more I felt that no matter what the result I could do this.
Whether anyone outside of who I know cares or not about what I write is not the reason why I wanted to do this. I wanted to write without compromise. That isn’t to say I’m above criticism— I plan on finding writing groups and getting some critical feedback and training, while simultaneously attempting to retain all of the original fervor that made we want to do this in the first place.
To me it seems the only antidote to this bumpy ride to self-confidence and competence as a writer is to keep going, and stop thinking about this as much as I am right now. The only way achieve that it to have the goals be simple: keep it personal and precious. It may mean you’ll never ever see on anyone’s best seller list, but that was never my intent. I only write in hopes that somewhere, someplace, I make another kid (or perhaps grown-up-kid) lose themselves in my words for even a short while.
There is a new book well underway. I thought of the idea shortly after the Kickstarter books had first delivered, because after that milestone, I felt the emptiness of not having something to work on.
And so, I gradually pieced together the ideas for this new book, and recently, have been writing more consistently during the week, sketching and planning. I still don’t know if I’ll follow a similar style for the artwork. I know I want to add color in some respect, but I don’t think it’s going to be something so drastically different from what I did for Zosan. I think there is a way to add it such that it becomes an accent and a complement, rather than taking over the page. I’ve been looking at lots of other illustrators’ styles looking for ways to employ color in a less-than-wholesale approach. And I see there are many possibilities for that.
Will it be letterpress? I think so. I may have to print it myself, but at least there’s a possibility for that. Maybe there’s a way to share that task. All I know is that it was altogether worth the effort to have the book made that way, and I want to do it again.
The writing remains one of my bigger challenges. I’ve realized I want to create something that is neither a picture book, nor a novel. Books that are meant to be read to a child, with images that help them follow and discover and text for the adult to find their inner kid. I think of all the books that delighted me: Pooh, Bread and Jam for Francis, The Phantom Toolbooth, Howliday Inn, The House with the Clock in its Walls, Peter Pan, Stuart Little and Paddle-to-the-Sea. There’s a range of illustrative styles in there, but most of them are more story than picture book. I simply like both aspects of this enough to do both.
I’ve encountered another writer recently who told me he stopped writing, because he didn’t read much anymore and he didn’t think he had anything to write about. And that has been a concern of my own throughout this process. I have not historically prioritized setting aside hours to read, and in recent years that’s certainly been the case. But I told this particular writer what I’ve been telling myself: to write anyway. Read what and when you can, without worrying about the end result or the audience.
Why that is so difficult is the big question, but I try not to dwell on the cause, either. I just keep searching for a way to keep going.
They are here! The first limited run print of the book. Printed using a Vandercook press on French paper speckle tone by me in the Signal/return shop, there are only 10 of these (with the text) and 10 without.
I had some printed with the book – but they were inadvertently folded by the binder. So… I took the opportunity to make some myself.
You can have one these special 6″ x 18″ prints for $40 (plus shipping)
I had no idea it was also the day the Tigers started playing in comerica park this year. The traffic was bad heading into downtown but thankfully I sidestepped most of it, making that sharp right turn on to Gratiot to swing around to Russell street.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for but it felt like it was waiting for me because despite the reams of sport fans parading through the streets there was a single parking spot right outside the front doors of Signal-Return.
The person that practically greeted me at the door, entering at the same time, was in fact Lee, the printer in residence that I’d corresponded with some weeks ago. And so began this journey.
Despite calling myself a graphic designer for getting close to two decades now it had been years since I approached work this way, in such a a viscerally physical manner, and I’d never worked on an actual press before in my life. Never set type in the traditional sense of the phrase, though I know all the terms and can tell a bad rag from the rest. And now I was walking into the heart of it all, in the heart of Detroit.
Reintroduced to the word of metal, wood, and picas I was relearning a new but familiar language. I half followed everything Lee was telling me but refrained from taking copious notes, instead allowing myself to focus on doing. I stopped caring if I made mistakes, or understood everything and treated this like one big if, an experiment.
And Lee was the perfect teacher. Clearly passionate and a self proclaimed print nerd but neither too pedantic or methodical. We mixed ink by sight and tested it and slathered it all over the place. I suppose the measurements setting up the plates were one of the more meticulous tasks but everything else was very much trial and error.
But it all quickly felt satisfyingly familiar, as if I’d done it all before wait with all the adrenaline that comes from learning a new thing. I was eager to try but patiently awaited the advice from the mentor. Once into it everything from the turn of the crank to listening to the soft hiss of the ink being applied was a symphony of sensory input that created a fuzzy wholistic picture, both literally and figurately throughout the whole process. I ended up making about ten prints. Half with the text and half without, using a color close to Pantone 431, a dark cool gray composed of mostly translucent white filler, black and reference blue. It’s a lovely subtle color that resembles the celadon fabric of the book.
I’m not sure when I’ll be able to make it back but you can be sure I will, whether its to make more prints or try my hand at setting type, or learn new techniques from Lee to use in another book. This was going back to roots for me. Everything that got me started in this was all about handling objects, cutting things, manipulating by hand.
This is just the start of what’s going to be a brand new day.
The primary reason I chose not to initially offer the Zosan Audiobook on physical media was my own convenience. I knew there would be changes, updates and there was no way I wanted to lock myself into a box of 1000 CDs with a version of the audiobook that I would cringe every time I listened to it. There just wasn’t a way to get to that point in time to deliver.
But now that all that dust has settled, I finally found myself wanting a physical CD. I thought too, that the digital download might be simply more convenient for everyone else, but it seems that CDs are not dead yet — like the book itself, people are responding to something they can hold and see and experience directly. That alone gives the thing so much more worth.
So I went ahead and created some. They do look good, and they’ll be a better way of giving the audiobook presence when I show people the book. I may actually go through the trouble of printing and a bunch of them blank just so I can burn them on demand — and in case I ever update the audiobook again (not entirely out of the question) I’ll be able to always have the latest.