A trip to the Hudson Valley, Interview talk in Connecticut & Sandwiches in Maine

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. (Audio to follow).

From here I travelled east

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.

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.’

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). 

Before the interview I went to this

decent pizza place around the corner from the Beinecke,

and later browsed Grey Matter Books,

Grey Matter bookstore

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

Yale Review

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,

deWolfe and Wood

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 

deWolfe and Wood

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. 

Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Syracuse

Literary Tourist on the road in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York State

If you take the northern route between ground-zero (in this case Montreal) and Minneapolis through Algonquin Park, crossing over at Sault Ste. Marie and then along past Green Bay, there’s pretty well nothing of literary interest to see. Nothing unless you count this

in, yes, rural Wisconsin. One consolation: we came upon a coffee drive-thru that had a pretty good name.

Zinger coffee

As usual, once my wife, Caroline, had thoroughly planned out our dates and destinations, I tapped the Rolodex to solicit suggestions of bookish people on-site who might give-up engaging interviews. This time round I asked John Randle, proprietor of The Whittington Press for his thoughts. I’d interviewed John years ago at his sheep-surrounded studio near the cathedral city of Hereford (with its famed chained-library), not too far from Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh booktown. 

John publishes beautiful fine press books, and Matrix: A Review for Printers & Bibliophiles, a gorgeously printed annual. #31 had just dropped. I dug deep and bought a copy, first to commemorate my visit and our conversation (Listen here):

Second, because it contained an article by David Godine and one on Rocky Stinehour, both of whom I’d interviewed for the Biblio File podcast. The Whittington Press archive also happens to be at the University of Minnesota’s rare book library, along with an important collection of African-American literature and one of the world’s great Sherlock Holmes collections. Curator Tim Johnson is definitely on my interview hit-list. 

John recommended I interview Phil Gallo, a well regarded printer, and visual/concrete poet. Phil and I teed up a meeting at his apartment in St. Paul. We met for a chat early one afternoon several days before Christmas. The first thing I noticed – after Phil poured me a stiff shot of bourbon – was several shelves full of books on typography. A lot of them are type specimen books. 

Phil gallo books

Phil is the proprietor of the Hermetic Press, which kicked off in the mid-1960s. He purposefully doesn’t do much promotion. 

After our conversation I headed over to this little shop 

Against the Current bookstore, St. Paul

It had only recently opened. I didn’t find anything – most of the stock was geared, naturally, toward readers. I did have a good gab with the young owner however, and wished him well. 

Owner, Against the current bookstore, St. Paul

Then it was back to home-base, in Eagan, a bedroom community near Minneapolis. Our dear friends Jeff and Laura Spartz live here. We’ve visited them often over the years, mostly at Christmas time. Jeff runs a food-bank for the local crow population (you can see how successful this is)

Squirrels

Laura knows everything that is humanly possible to know about Jane Austen and the Regency period. The two are the nicest, most welcoming, well-travelled, smartest, politically-engaged people you can imagine –  exactly the kind who give Americans (most of them, anyway) a good name. We’re lucky to be able to call them, and their families, friends. 

Last time we visited, I had the opportunity to Continue reading “Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Syracuse”

Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt

Literary Tourist in London, England. Day 2

The cold (English cold I should say, not Canadian) fresh air slapped my face as I exited the apartment. I didn’t feel like walking, but nonetheless, nutted-up and strode for 15 minutes over to the Thames, where the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) fairly sparkled in the morning sunlight.

The Bookseller magazine‘s offices are across the river from it. A 15 minute walk West gets you to the Tate Britain. Twenty minutes on foot in the other direction, along the Thames, and you’re at the Southbank Book Market.

Given that it was late October, there weren’t too many vendors out. I suspect there’s a lot better selection in the summertime.

In case you’re interested M16’s HQ is a short trot up the road from The Bookseller’s offices. And just so you know, the surrounding district is called Lambeth – as in Liza of Lambeth,

Somerset Maugham’s first novel about the travails of a young factory worker who lives near Westminster Bridge, written while Maugham was a medical student. Lambeth is also the place where John Milton lands after cometing his way down from heaven in William Blakes’ Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

I was here to interview The Bookseller’s chief executive and owner, Nigel Roby.

The magazine goes way back, to 1858, when Joseph Whitaker founded it in order to inform London publishers and booksellers about the latest books, launch dates, and various comings and goings in the trade. It has filled this role faithfully ever since – even published during the Blitz – only today, the coverage is global. Listen below as Nigel (Beale) talks with Nigel about the magazine’s past, along with current topics of concern to the industry. Brexit, which came up in virtually every interview I conducted during this visit to London, was certainly one concern. The uncertainty created is agitating everyone in publishing.

As members of the EU, the Brits have for many years had the English-language market on the continent all to themselves. With the ‘leave’ vote, this could change dramatically. A potential battle looms with American publishers. Britain is currently the largest book exporter in the world (Canada is one of the largest importers). Sales are close to $7 Billion a year, half of which comes from the EU. The U.S. is hankering for an invasion.

The British book business employs 30,000 people. If the country pulls out of the EU, and walls go up, literary culture is likely to become more isolated, a shrinking economy would mean less money spent on books, and writers could lose their generous Euro grants. No wonder it comes up in conversation. There’s much at stake.

***

I’d agreed to meet Henry Hitchings downstairs outside the building. There he was, right on time. We hiked briskly back to Airbnb HQ talking all the while about theatre (Henry is the critic for the Evening Standard), Samuel Johnson, and, yes, Brexit. Listen here as we nerd out about the smell of books and stories that can be told around buying them (books not smell), and a book Henry edited called Browse: The World in Bookshops.

Continue reading “Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt”

Brattleboro and Books, Greenblatt and Fadiman, Beowulf and Bookstores

If you have to drive for five hours in a row, there are worse routes to be stuck on than the #89 from Montreal to Brattleboro, Vermont

especially in the Fall (okay, this isn’t the actual highway, it’s an image from Vermont Tourism, but you get the idea).

I was heading down to the Brattleboro Literary Festival. We’d attended last year. Caught readings by Richard Russo and Claire Messud, among others. Very pleasant little town. Plenty of granola and veggie burgers on offer, plus a very good used bookstore.

I was pumped about who I’d lined up to interview for The Biblio File.

***

Ions ago, when in my late-twenties, I came across Clifton Fadiman’s A Lifetime Reading Plan.

I’d always wanted to read the great works – had studied politics in college, not literature. Clifton’s guide changed my life. Not only did I read all of its concise, well-crafted summaries – a hundred in total – over the years I’ve actually read many of the books on the list, taking great pleasure ticking off titles as I finish reading them. Clifton’s daughter Anne has written a memoir about her relationship with her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. I couldn’t wait to tell her what an impact he’d had on my life, and to learn more about the grand old man himself. Just listen to her. Energy level is off the charts, just as I imagine Clifton’s was:

***

Among other things Will in the World suggests that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic. It also details the bone-breaking cruelty that religion brings out in human beings. Heads chopped off, stuck on spikes, displayed on London’s bridges. Fascinating book, and yet considering how little can be proved about The Bard’s life, rife with conjecture. It took a lot of chutzpah to write this book, ergo, I wanted to meet its author. Stephen Greenblatt was appearing at the Festival promoting his latest book, Tyrant, about MacBeth, Richard lll, and Edmund of King Lear fame. A wicked Shakespearean cabal. None bare any resemblance to Trump of course.

Listen here as we debate this

I took this photograph of Stephen by lining myself up beside Beowulf (yes, his real name) Sheehan – using the same angle he used.

Stephen Greenblatt

Why? Because Beowulf is one of the most talented author photographers in the world. He hit it big with a shot of Donna Tartt. It graces the back cover of The Goldfinch, and the front cover of Beowulf’s beautiful new book of photographs, Author,

The writer Donna Tartt (USA), April 11, 2013, New York, New York. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com

Listen to Beowulf discuss photographing some of the world’s top literary stars, here

***

One thing I couldn’t understand as I stood in front of its closed, locked doors: why wasn’t this great used bookstore open?

Brattleboro Books

It wasn’t, the whole time I was here. You’d think, what with the Festival on and all, that this would be the time for them to make maximum hay. Perhaps they were busy helping the organizers? Perhaps they were the organizers. Perhaps making money wasn’t the most important thing.

Here’s some tourist information for Brattleboro and environs.

Toronto Trolley Buses, Torosian, Motherhood and Lista

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Next morning I road the rails to Michael Torosian’s Lumiere Press in the West end of Toronto. He has a workshop in his backyard where he produces the most impeccable fine press photography books. (Here’s a look at his latest:

and his immaculate shop reflects it

After our Biblio File podcast conversation (listen here

I jumped in a taxi – the driver was a big Dire Straits fan (he liked it very loud) – and travelled back downtown to spruce up for the Grad ceremony.

All went smoothly. Eleanor copped her diploma, and Marie Campbell (author of Halfbreed) got her honorary doctorate

and delivered a harmless enough convocation address – mostly birds, bees, flowers, motherhood about mother-earth. I’d have preferred something a bit more substantive and inspiring, but it was what it was – an important message that shouldn’t – lest we fry – continue to be ignored.

After champagne, cake and photos, I boarded the trolley bus West again, this time for Michael Lista‘s place, where steaks and wine awaited. I first met Michael a decade ago in his Montreal apartment, right before his first book of poetry, Bloom, was published; one which I think will, over time, come to be recognized as truly important. More people should read it. Given its nuclear content, it will blow your mind, guaranteed.

After perusing his skillfully stacked, wrap-around bookshelves – they carry all the books I first saw in Montreal, and many more I’m sure –

we set about talking. You can listen to what was said here: