Literary Tourist on the road in the U.S.
The destination was Richard Minsky’s place in the Hudson Valley, just south of Albany, NY. Richard was/is the founder of The Center for Book Arts in New York. I’d heard about him some years earlier thanks to a book he’d written called The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930. On the drive back north from a visit to New York City one summer I called him up out-of- the-blue to ask if he’d like to be interviewed for The Biblio File podcast. He gamely agreed, and promptly fixed up a bountiful cheese plate (and drinks) for my wife and her brother, who was travelling with us, out on his patio. The two of us then got down to business inside. He poured me one of the best Negronis I’ve ever thrown back. We then sat down together to talk about the book arts. Listen above.
Richard owns cattle
and wildlife can frequently be seen on his property.
Hard not to be taken with his collection of beautifully illustrated
book covers too.
I visited again not so long afterwards to talk about his impressive career as a bookbinder, and book scholar. Listen to our conversation here
This time round I was down to interview Barbara Slate, Richard’s better half, about her newly revised book You Can Do a Graphic Novel (stay tuned for the audio). Here’s a shot of one of her feet along with equipment and other essentials necessary to the conduct of good interviews.
Not only are there purple cows grazing Richard’s grass, the house is filled with a colourful, eclectic selection of art.
The decor is a charming bohemian/pop/rustic.
Because I planned the trip well in advance, and mailing costs for books from the U.S. to Canada are these days exorbitant, I had a number (okay 6-7) delivered to his place, including a monster package of fine press & related journals acquired from Pradeep Sebastian. My wife decided to avail herself of this opportunity as well, and had a honking great barbeque shipped. It barely fit into the car. Richard patiently withstood the imposition.
From Minsky’s I drove about a half an hour north-east to interview Laura Claridge about Blanche Knopf.
The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire is a racy read, full of detail ‘n dirt. Despite being criticized by a few as fake news, I found the book credible and very entertaining. Alfred, from page one, is made out to look like a Grade A prick, while Blanche’s importance is elevated, as it should be. Listen here:
From here I travelled east
John lives in a bright, spacious, comfortable house on a large, sloping corner lot in a pleasant residential area that reminded me, somewhat surprisingly, of North Vancouver, where my father used to live. John has been training personnel at ESPN on how to conduct interviews since 2004. He only recently ‘retired.’
to Burlington, CT where, the next morning, I met with Canadian interviewing guru John Sawatsky. It was a glorious, sunny day and I was in a good mood having slept the night before at an Airbnb apartment situated right on the water. It was late when I arrived (at the Airbnb) (basically just brushed my teeth and went to bed), and lovely to fall asleep in the dark to the sound outside of the fast running Farmington River.
I knew that following the arc of a life was a good straight-forward way to structure an interview, so I started off by asking about John’s birthplace, Winkler, Manitoba. He talked about his early years on the prairies, his move as a young boy to the West Coast, his education and his subsequent relocation to Ottawa to work as a journalist. Ottawa was heaven for a news junkie like him. He then got into investigative reporting, and started writing a book on Brian Mulroney and teaching journalism at Carleton University. When we started talking about the standardized interviewing approach he’d developed at the time, things veered off the rails.
I got impatient and started pressing for details on what kind of questions elicited that best answers, and how I could best conduct ‘author interviews.’ John’s freely offered story arc, thanks, ironically, to me, crashed into the ditch. I couldn’t seem to get a succinct answer out of him from this point forward. I wasn’t sure if it was my ineptitude or John intentionally playing possum. I did however eventually get some intelligence: that storytelling is key to maintaining audience interest – but no real detail on how to achieve this (in retrospect it seems pretty simple: just shut up).
It was up to Sheila Rogers, who I emailed about John, to tell me that it was all about asking questions that encourage stories to be told (this from notes she’d kept from a workshop of John’s she’d attended years ago). John is currently working on a book about interviewing. I will be among the first to buy it. Stay tuned for our arc-less Biblio File conversation.
From John’s, I headed South to New Haven. I’d originally hoped to interview Lucy Mulroney about her recent book Andy Warhol, Publisher, but alas, we couldn’t co-ordinate calendars (I interviewed Lucy about the Grove press some years ago in Syracuse). I did have the chance however to interview a couple of her colleagues, Raymond Clemens, curator of early books, and Diane Ducharme, archivist, at the Beinecke Library.
They helped curate an exhibition called Bibliomania; or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance – a celebration of ‘all who are mad for books.’ Since this describes most of The Biblio File’s listenership, I thought I’d join in the festivities (Stay tuned for our conversation about the renowned 19th-century bibliomaniac Thomas Phillipps, who basically set a goal of collecting every book in the world). Update: here it is:
Before the interview I went to this decent pizza place around the corner from the Beinecke,
and later browsed Grey Matter Books,
a used bookshop on the next block – sister store to a much larger establishment in Hadley, MA (I happened to have attended the SHARP Conference in Amherst just down the road from it, last month – but more on this anon).
Matthew Zapruder told me about it. He wrote a great book called Why Poetry (Listen to our conversation about it here). He also recommended that I try to get in touch with Meghan O’Rourke the new editor of The Yale Review. She was super busy at the time, working on introducing some exciting new changes to the magazine
some of which we got to discuss (stay tuned), because she graciously let me in the door on the very first day she actually spent time in the office! A fun fact I learned from her: famed book designer Chip Kidd was the husband of J. D. McClatchy, president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and longtime editor of the Review. Chip is responsible for the magazine’s current, longtime-but-about-to-change, design.
I over-nighted on the outskirts of New Haven and got off to an early start, hitting the road to Maine at 7am the next morning. My destination was Don Lindgren’s place near the town of Alfred. I’d interviewed Don about collecting old and new cooking books when he had an open shop in Portland – always loved its name: Rabelais. He gave me a copy of his first catalog. It’s got one of the best covers I’ve ever seen.
I finally arrived, no thanks to my malfunctioning GPS, for a late lunch. Don had bought us some award-winning sandwiches
We ate them in his garden overlooking a wavy ocean of bluish green grass,
and we talked about his gigantic community cookbook collecting project and how women raised huge money publishing them, without getting any credit at all from the churches (read: dominantly male) involved. Don, with the help of Scott Vile, has produced another impressive catalog that documents this collection.
We talked for several hours, not noticing the time. The original plan was to have visited DeWolfe and Wood, the great used bookstore in nearby Alfred. I’d have to stay over another night.
Next morning I stormed the bookshop. First thing I did was to survey the ‘Book on Books’ section in the basement. I fished out several publisher’s histories and a nicely printed bibliography of The Colt Press, 1939-1942.
Both partners were in,
so I suggested to Scott deWolfe on the spot that I interview them together. Frank Wood took me on a nickel tour of the building
which was much more interesting than it appears from the street – and then the three of us sat down upstairs for a conversation. DeWolfe and Wood plays a very important role in the American used/antiquarian book-selling ecosystem. Stay tuned to learn more. And BTW, Scott allowed me to swap some books in exchange for the ones I’d found. One of mine was a first British edition of Lawrence Durrell’s Clea, in F/F condition. The next day at home, I happened to be browsing one of Between the Covers’s online catalogs. And there was Clea for sale for a heart-stopping $750.00.
I didn’t begrudge them asking this at all, it’s an important book, I just didn’t want to miss out on my pound of flesh, hence the stopped heart. So I hurriedly checked the Internet, and, as confirmed with Scott, yes indeed, it appears you can get the same edition for as little as $30 online, in the same condition – or at least this is what the seller says. I accepted Scott’s take on the situation – he’s an experienced and ethical bookseller, but, still, I’m left shaking my head.