Behind the book: The making of Letterpress Now

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[Allyson Van Houten] Back in January we shared with you news of the release of Letterpress Now, a how-to guide for letterpress printing. Recently I got to (virtually) sit down with author Jessica C. White and talk about what it’s like to be your own hand model, working with a publisher for the first time, and what’s next.

What made you want to write this book?
Before this, I had no intention to ever write a book. I’m a book artist; I “make” books, not write them! I was approached by Kathleen McCafferty, a former editor at Lark Crafts, about ideas she had for a DIY letterpress book. She’d met me at a few local crafts fairs and was familiar with my work shown in regional galleries. I was hesitant at first, but her ideas, enthusiasm and an unwavering confidence in me being the right person to write the book convinced me to jump on board. It certainly turned out to be a wild ride.

What were your first steps in the process? 
The first step was to write an overview that included the goal of the book, the audience and a summary of the contents. I worked on this with Kathleen, who was essentially acting as my agent, to present this to Lark’s parent company, Sterling Publishing. We needed a green light from them before going any further.

Once we got the thumbs up, we celebrated—with a champagne toast with friends, of course!—then buckled down and got to work. With Kathleen’s guidance, I created an outline that included an introduction and history of letterpress printing, a chapter on how to get started—which turned into about a third of the book—a list of 20 projects and a list of additional features, such as artists spotlights and how to build your own lo-fi press. Some of those features stayed, but I’m sorry to say that a few had to be cut to keep the book at a manageable size.

Although I pulled tidbits of some instructions from my own teaching handouts, everything in the book is written from scratch. The hardest part was figuring out how to take what I do and put it into words. I’m used to teaching the process in person, but for the book I had to learn how to explain each step in words and a few photos, rather than showing it in person. I also did a lot of technical research to make sure that the way I do things really is correct, and that I got my terminology right.

What is your favorite project in the book?
Because I have a special place in my heart for books, I’d have to say the Chapbook project is my favorite [p. 163]. That project also shows prints made from ornamental type cast at the last remaining type foundry in Taiwan; I picked them up when I was there visiting family last year. The tiger on the front cover represents me, born in the year of the tiger.

Did you make each of the pieces in the book yourself, or did you work with other letterpress printers to produce them?
I made each one myself, but I definitely draw inspiration from other smart and talented printers. One is the Thaumatrope project [p. 95], a toy that I fell in love with when I saw the bird-in-hand thaumatrope by Kathryn Hunter of Blackbird Letterpress. The woodland animals masks by Pistachio Press was the inspiration for the Masquerade Mask project [p. 81].

I really like the printer bios that are dispersed throughout the book. Was there anyone you wanted to include, but didn’t make it in? 
Yes, for various reasons a few didn’t make it in. Two that I really admire and wish were included are Sycamore Street Press and the Firenze Arti Visive School of Fine Arts print shop in Florence, Italy.

Whose hands do we see in the demonstration photos? 
Those are my hands! I was nervous about how they would look in the book, so I was careful to moisturize regularly in the days leading up to the photo sessions, and to make sure I scrubbed all the ink from under my nails. I’m wearing my grandmother’s watch, which I didn’t realize was quaint until they had a little discussion about whether I should remove it or not. Did you know that nobody wears watches anymore? I hadn’t noticed.

In your book you have projects for several different types of presses. Do you own and operate a version of each? If not all of them, what do you operate?
Other than the cylinder press, I own each one, and the ones you see in the book are my own. My favorite press is the cylinder press, but sadly they’ve quadrupled in price over the last few years, and I’m still saving up my nickels and dimes. When I do need to print on a cylinder press, I go to Asheville Bookworks. In the meantime, I’ve become well acquainted with my Chandler & Price platen press and my Showcard sign press.

The C&P is my most recent purchase, and for some reason, I feel like she needs a name, though I’ve never named my other presses. It’s been almost two years and I’m still mulling it over. Flannery seems to be the best fit so far. I’d love to get more suggestions from your readers!

You teach at a couple different colleges at the moment. Is this book a resource you will use with your students?
At this time I teach book art, papermaking and printmaking, but not a letterpress class. There is a good possibility, however, that I’ll be teaching a full letterpress class at Warren Wilson College starting next fall, and of course we’ll use this book as a resource! I had that in mind when I wrote it, especially the section on getting started. I’ll use it as a resource for college printing classes and also for printing workshops, and I hope other teachers find it useful, too.

Do you have any other book ideas you’re working on, or was this a one-time deal?
Yes! I have an idea for a follow-up book that’s about…well, I think I’ll keep it to myself for now, because I think it’s an awesome idea, and I’d hate to see someone else run off with it. Give me a little time to recover, and I’ll be sure to keep you updated when I start on book number two.

We look forward to hearing about your next release! Until then, stayed tuned for upcoming how-to and beyond-the-book content from Jessica.

You can purchase Letterpress Now here.

All photos courtesy of Jessica C. White

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by Kseniya T on 02.27.13 at 6:13 pm

    Perhaps the only letterpress book you’ll ever need! Go Jessica!

  2. Posted by Donna Miller on 03.9.13 at 9:35 pm

    Your book will stay in my resource library as long as I print…

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