The Making of Worth Our Breath
From fall 2014 to spring 2015, the Literary House staff, with the help of book designer Jim Dissette ’71 and Chestertown artist Stuart Cawley, began assembling the newest fine press chapbook from Literary House Press, a short story by James Magruder.
Magruder is a Baltimore-based fiction writer, playwright, and translator. His adaptations of works by Marivaux, Molière, Gozzi, Hofmannsthal, Lesage, and Dickens have been produced on and off-Broadway, across the country, and in Germany and Japan. His debut novel, Sugarless, was a Lambda Award finalist and shortlisted for the 2010 William Saroyan International Writing Prize. His linked story collection, Let Me See It, was published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in June 2014. He teaches dramaturgy at Swarthmore College.
For this particular project, a darkly funny story called Worth Our Breath, we wanted to incorporate original illustrations that evoked an atmosphere we can only describe as “Edward Gorey goes to Baltimore.” Gorey’s iconic pen-and-ink line drawings of the gothic humorous are personal favorites of the Literary House Press staff and so they shaped our initial imaginings of this story visually. Luckily, local freelance artist Stuart Cawley, whose artistic style can also be described as Goreyesque, was up to this task.
We gave Stu a copy of the short story and asked him to pick five scenes that he felt were ripe for illustrating. Finding these scenes wasn’t a difficult task; it was narrowing them down to just five that was the challenge. We don’t want to give away too much of the story here, so we’ll just describe the five illustrations and let you try to extrapolate possible plot and characters on your own (if you can). On the title page, you are greeted by a toothless black cat sitting cantankerously beside a large ceramic container in the shape of a molar. The second illustration appears on the first page of the story: a copy of the iconic Baltimore Sun spread out on a tabletop, the obituaries section laid on top, and a half-empty Café Hon coffee mug set on top of that. Rings of spilled coffee adorn the newspaper beneath. A few pages later, the third illustration is a Polaroid photo of a young girl, a toddler with her dark straight hair clipped back with a barrette. She is not smiling. In the middle of the book, the fourth illustration is a centerfold, a panoramic shot of a street full of Baltimore rowhouses and the blank sky above them. The final illustration is the bleakest of all. A bare mattress covered in old semen stains leaned against the wall of a dark, empty room lit by a bare bulb. The whole story is bookended by a close-up of this bare bulb.
Stu’s pen-and-ink illustrations were turned into photopolymer plates for us by Boxcar Press. It is from these plates that we can letterpress print custom images that have not been carved in wood, linoleum, or stone. Thanks to the skills and design work of Jim Dissette (who also designed and printed Lost Originals in 2013), both the illustrations and the text turned out beautifully. The typeface of the book title and the decorative dropcaps scattered through the chapbook are another homage to illustrator Edward Gorey that help to set the visual tone of the story. It is a typeface called (believe it or not) Gorey that is taken from the extensive hand-lettering work on all of his books. All printing was done in-house by Jim on our Vandercook 4 Proof Press during the winter months of early 2015. Aside from the book’s interior pages, Jim also printed a ghosted image of the Baltimore rowhouses illustration on the cover papers.
After the printing was completed, the Literary House Press staff went to work hand-tinting the illustrations in all 150 books in the edition. Our color palette for this project was shades of brown. Brown cover paper with a much lighter brown spine cloth and bronze embossing of the title and author name on the cover, brown endpapers, dark brown ink for the title on the title page and for each decorative dropcap. For the illustrations, we chose one piece of each to add a spot of color to with brown watercolor: the hinge on the cat’s tooth container, the coffee in the mug and the rings of spill on the newspaper, the barrette in the toddler’s hair, a couple of rowhouse windows, doors, and roof turrets, the semen stains on the mattress, and the metal base of the light bulb in our story bookends. This tedious but meditative watercolor work was undertaken by each staff member during the spring of 2015: Jehanne Dubrow (series editor), Lindsay Lusby (assistant editor), Owen Bailey (sales & marketing), and Nicolas Anstett (2015 Literary House Press Intern).
The next step was to fold and collate all of the printed pages and endpapers into their chronological signatures in preparation for shipping them off to the Campbell-Logan Bindery in Minneapolis to be hand bound in hard cover. Once all parts arrived there, the binders sewed together our folded and collated signatures. They wrapped our printed cover papers around stiff book board and glued them into place, then wrapped and glued the spine cloth around them. Worth Our Breath by James Magruder was stamped onto the newly assembled covers in brass foil. Lastly the sewn books are glued into finished covers and kept under weight in a book press to flatten as they dry.
Just a couple of weeks ago, two big, heavy boxes arrived at the Rose O’Neill Literary House. When we unpacked them, with the help of our 2015 Summer Interns Aliya Merhi and Ryan Manning, we discovered our beautiful, finished books in careful, even stacks. We have just completed the final design for the offset paperback edition of Worth Our Breath and sent it off to the printers. We should get those back in about a month.
At its heart, Worth Our Breath is a love letter to the city of Baltimore from author James Magruder. The Literary House Press was so honored and thrilled to be able to bring this love into the world of print. To celebrate this book-birth, we will be holding an official book launch on Tuesday, October 6, 2015 at 4:30 p.m. at the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. James will join us to read from the book, and this reading will be followed by a book sale and signing, as well as delicious refreshments. Please mark your calendars for this special occasion and join us for the release of the new letterpress chapbook from the Literary House Press!