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

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. (Audio to follow).

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.

Continue reading “A trip to the Hudson Valley, Interview talk in Connecticut & Sandwiches in Maine”

Margaret Atwood, Literary Tourist in Kingston

Literary Tourist in Kingston, Ontario

A Biblio File podcast interview, in which: I talk, in rather rushed fashion, to great Canadian author and “bad” feminist Margaret Atwood about literary tourism: ‘place’ and her novel MaddAddam, Harvard and The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Kingston Penitentiary and Alias Grace, also about: the real and the imaginary, the unreliability of eye witnesses, following the research, Samuel Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, food and underclothing, bodies, space and smell, plus the importance of plumbing – all of which took place at the Kingston Writers Festival 

several years ago, a wonderful literary celebration that occurs every September in the city of wind turbines 

…of my (and now my youngest daughter’s) alma mater, Queen’s University 

with its Jordon Special Collections Library, full of Lorne Pierce’s Canadiana,

…of Berry and Peterson’s bookshop, where I regularly visit John and Richard to get the latest and hottest antiquarian book gossip

and learn stuff about books etc., like for example that important early editions of Canadian Forum magazine are worth diddly-squat.

…of Morrison’s where I used to go 30-odd years ago for hungover breakfasts (now I hear from famed Canadian book designer Laurie Lewis [ listen to our conversation about her time at the University of Toronto Press with Allan Fleming here]

that it’s not the ‘go to’ place anymore, Peter’s on Princess is, but still this is a pretty damned good photo so I’m leaving it in anyway)

…of the Belvedere Hotel

where I once met my hero, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee who signed about 25 of my/his first editions and after my yammering on for about 10 of the signatures I suddenly shut up, realizing that I don’t know J.M from Adam, and what the fuck am I trying to do here anyway? Convince myself that there is some sort of relationship when in fact there’s nothing? And why am I so obsessed with signed firsts editions anyway…

…of Chez Piggy where I’ve spent some stellar evenings shooting the breeze with friends about airy concepts out on the back patio, and

…of Pat Grew my best friend, and the best math teacher in the world. Okay don’t take my word for it.

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”

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.

Beach, Hemingway and smuggling Joyce’s Ulysses into the U.S.

I met with Krista Halverson, director of the newly founded Shakespeare and Company publishing house, at the famed bookstore in Paris. Listen here to our conversation

We talk, among other things, about the history of Shakespeare and Company, how Sylvia Beach started off, how James Joyce got Ulysses published,  how the United States banned it,  and how Ernest Hemingway figured out a way around this.  Here’s the back-story:

The SS Lansdowne was a railroad car ferry built in 1884 by the Wyandotte Shipyard of the Detroit Dry Dock Company. It crossed the Detroit River from 1884 to 1956, between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario

The first copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses to enter the U.S. came via Windsor, Ontario. The books were printed in Paris and mailed by Hemingway to a friend of his in Windsor who worked for the Curtis Publishing Company in Detroit.

The friend, a reporter named Barney Braverman whom Hemingway had met during his days either in Toronto or Chicago (found references citing both), commuted from Detroit to Windsor each day on the ferry. Braverman reportedly lived on Chatham Street in a house kitty-corner to the back of what is today The Windsor Star newspaper building. Once the smuggling plan was hatched, 40 copies of the novel, published by Sylvia Beach owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, were sent over from Paris.

Every morning Braverman set off with a package under his arm (or somewhere less obvious) containing copies of Joyce’s novel (I’m guessing no more than one or two at a time), strolled downtown  and somehow got past the border guards and onto the ferry. This was the only way to cross the river back then. At the time, construction of the Ambassador Bridge had only just begun.

These were in fact interesting times. Prohibition was in full swing. All sorts of people used to smuggle bottles of fine Canadian whisky across the border tucking them away in their trouser pants and underwear. Booze wasn’t the only thing banned. The authorities were also pretty uptight about ‘immoral’ ‘pornographic’ literature, though this really wasn’t what the guards were on the lookout for.

Each day, for what must have been several weeks on end, this innocent looking publishing salesman crossed the river, went to the Detroit Post Office and fired off first editions of what is now considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th Century. Beach’s friends and subscribers throughout the U.S. were on the receiving end, among them Alfred Knopf and Sherwood Anderson (if you’re intrigued by this escapade, check out Michael Januska’s novel Riverside Drive, it includes the smuggling of Ulysses into the States in its storyline).

Image from here.

Today a copy in fine condition fetches $75,000 (twice that if it’s inscribed).  Unfortunately the curious literary tourist can’t take a ferry across the river (only commercial trucks can do this), but he/she can visit John K. King Books on the Detroit side at 901 W. Lafayette Street. It’s humungus. How humungus? Here’s a video I took the last time I was there

Back in Windsor there’s a great shop you can stop off at too, at 1520 Wyandotte Ave. E.  Biblioasis isn’t quite as big, but  it’s filled with a good selection of new (many published by Biblioasis itself) and used books. Here’s one that’s sure to  please the literary tourist.