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"The Object Is That Bloody Book":
A Conversation with Barry Moser
By Anna Olswanger
In 1987 The New York Times named Barry Moser's Jump, Again! The Further Adventures of Brer Rabbit one of the "Ten Best Illustrated Children's Books." The same year Redbook named it a "Best Book for Children." More awards followed, including a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1991 for Appalachia, the Voice of Sleeping Birds, an International Board of Books for Young People's "Best Book" the same year for Big Double the Bear Meets Little Tricker the Squirrel, a Parent magazine "Best of the Year" in 1994 for My Dog Rosie, an ALA Notable Book in 1995 for Whistling Dixie and again in 1997 for When Birds Could Talk and Bats Could Sing. But Moser is more than a children's book illustrator. An author, painter, printer, and printmaker, he has designed over 200 books, including an edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which prompted the poet John Ashbery to write in Newsweek that Moser's work is "never less than dazzling."
Moser has designed and illustrated eighty-five books alone as the publisher of Pennyroyal Press. He will publish his monumental Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, the culmination of four years' work, in November, 1999. [Editor's note: Moser's Pennyroyal edition of the Bible has since been published, and is available in a nationally distributed trade edition.]
Moser grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but now lives in western Massachusetts. He talked with Anna Olswanger at a writers' conference in California about his dedication to bookmaking.
OLSWANGER: Are you an artist or an illustrator?
MOSER: I am often referred to as an artist, and I don't take exception to it. But when I hear my students refer to themselves as artists, or when I hear parents refer to their five-year-old kids as artists, I think, "You're not an artist at that age!" I mean, artist. My God, what does that mean? Michelangelo was an artist. Those kids are not in the same category. "Artist" is a title. It's like being called, "lord" or "baron." It's a manifestation of a life lived. I don't use that word much. In fact, the only time I use "artist" is when I have been drinking too much, or when my accountant uses it on my income tax return.
OLSWANGER: So are you a children's book illustrator?
MOSER: My skin goes a little rankly on "children's book illustrator." That's an artificial subdivision. You're either a book illustrator, or you're not. It's like with Mozart. He wrote some of the most profound music that has ever been written. He also wrote music that was light-hearted and frivolous. He had what we call range. You take people like the wonderful soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. I have her recordings of Richard Strauss' "The Four Last Songs," I have her recordings of Mozart, and I have her recordings of Hoagie Carmichael. She has range. I respect that. Too many people who illustrate children's books stay with children's books. I can't imagine Maurice Sendak illustrating The Divine Comedy--The Nutcracker, absolutely, but Dante? And I can't imagine my friend David Macaulay tackling The Bhagavad-Gita. Of course, he's not interested in doing it, and that's perfectly all right, but my point is that when you talk in terms of children's book illustration, it diminishes the possibilities of the profession. People who are going to be book illustrators should understand literature, read literature, and be willing to tackle anything. Even if they don't have the commission to illustrate Dante, at least--by God--they ought to read Dante.
OLSWANGER: Is illustrating books for adults more important than illustrating books for children?
MOSER: I'm about to step into something here I probably ought not to. It has to do with density. I have dealt with literature from some of the best contemporary writers of children's literature. I have also been fortunate to deal in the world of the rare book, with some of the finest writers of literature for so-called adults, people like Kaye Gibbons, Robert Owen Butler, Larry Brown, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike. Now, there is, damn it all, a difference. And when I get into this discussion with people who are in children's literature, they are defensive. They don't want to hear this. To them, there is no difference between children's literature and adult literature. Well, maybe there isn't. Good writing is good writing. I don't care who does it, or who the audience is, but as an illustrator, adult literature demands something of me that children's literature doesn't. By the same token, children's literature demands things of me that adult literature doesn't. And I'm not saying that one is easier, better, more important, less important. All I'm saying is that there is a difference in density.
OLSWANGER: Would you call yourself a book illustrator?
MOSER: I sometimes respond by saying I'm a booksmith, which comes closer to the truth.
OLSWANGER: Define "booksmith."
MOSER: An illustrator is someone who makes pictures for books, magazines, for advertising, whatever. A booksmith is a person who makes a book. I rarely put pictures in books someone else has designed. My books are my books--I design them, I do the typography, I do all of that stuff. Usually, I do the calligraphy, even though I don't publish it under my name. To me, it is a very simple philosophy. The object that people like me do is the book. It's not the paintings or the watercolors or the drawings or the engravings, or whatever it is that goes into those books. The object is that bloody book. So when I refer to myself as a booksmith, I am conscious of all those elements, and that includes the letter spacing, the small caps, the non-aligning numerals within the text, and how the ellipses are spaced. Ellipses, by the way, are one of the biggest bugaboos of typography. It's terrible. I drive compositors nuts with my revisions because I'm picky about things like that. Then there's the design of the binding, the decoration of the binding, whatever goes on it, all that kind of stuff, all the way to the jacket and the design of the copy of the end flaps. For me, bookmaking is the entire thing--the whole book. In fact, the pictures that go in it are the last thing I do, and in many ways, they are the least important element. So that's why I have a hard time when people talk just about my illustrations. I want them to notice the heart of my books. I want them to notice the subtleties.
OLSWANGER: What's the hardest part about being a booksmith?
MOSER: Making a living, paying the bills! Okay, the hardest thing as a booksmith is the concept--getting my mind around the body of the thing, understanding what I'm doing, understanding what the form is, what the text means, understanding what my limitations are, what I can give to it, and what I can't give to it. Second to that would be finding an appropriate format for the book. You notice I'm not talking about making pictures yet. So the first thing I struggle with is what that book is going to look like, which includes the pictures, but doesn't put the pictures in the primary position. The second thing is getting a handle on the typography and the design, the "heft" of that book.
An example of that is my Pennyroyal Press' Frankenstein. It's something like thirteen inches high by eleven inches wide--a big book. It's a big book because young Victor Frankenstein made his monster out of pieces of cadavers that he got from embalming houses and from the gallows, and also--in a very uncomfortable little piece of text that Shelley wrote--from slaughter houses. This creature that he made was pegged together from human and animal parts. If he hadn't used animal parts, how the hell could he have built a creature that was eight feet tall? And we know he is eight feet tall because Shelley tells us he is. Well, the format of my book is very big. And in my illustrations you never see the whole figure because I wanted to leave that to the imagination of the reader. I originally wanted to print the book and bind it unopened, which means that you don't cut the folded edges. You can't actually get in to read the text. My feeling was that Mary Shelley, while she had a brilliant idea and invented one of the most enduring myths of the modern era, wasn't a particularly craftsman-like writer. I found the story a little dull and boring, so what I was going to do at one point was to impede the reader's reading. I decided not to do that, but I did choose a type face which is quirky and doesn't lend itself to being read quickly. So, by my design, I make the reader slow down.
About six years later, I did The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I did it for the University of Nebraska Press, and it's a tiny thing. Just like a small prayer book, it's about five inches high by three-and-a-half inches wide. That's because when Henry Jekyll transmogrifies into Edward Hyde, he becomes a dwarf, a little bitty thing. So that's what I mean by getting my mind around the body of the book. I wanted Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to be a small book, but I wanted a dark type face. I wanted it to have that kind of a feel.
OLSWANGER: What do you do after you design the type?
MOSER: Once I have the type set, I say, okay, I'm going to have a picture here and I give myself space. It might be ten lines, it might be a full page. For example, I didn't have a clue as to what the white rabbit was going to look like in Alice--all I did was leave myself space for him. When I get all that done and build what I call a rotation dummy, then I go back and start making the pictures.
OLSWANGER: Are you disappointed that you've never won the Caldecott Award?
MOSER: The only thing the Caldecott would do is make my publisher more money, and make me a little more money too. My editors will kill me if I say this and you write it, but I don't care. My problem with awards, not specifically the Caldecott, is that they are given by a committee, which means at best, they are a dilution. I was giving a talk one time to a group of librarians in New Jersey, and they were talking about the Caldecott now and the Caldecott twenty years ago, the books that had not proven to be great classics, and the ones that had. And they asked me my opinion. I said, "You don't want my opinion. I should stay out of this." I had given my speech and I was sitting having coffee--they didn't have the manners to have a bottle of whiskey on hand--and I said, "Let me put it to you this way. How many of you in this room know what a metaphor is?" All hands went up. "How many of you know what a simile is?" All hands went up. "How many know what a sonnet is?" All hands went up. "How many of you know what simultaneous contrast is?" Not one hand went up. "How many of you can define a double-split complementary color scheme?" Again, not one hand went up. I said, "But it's librarians that give out the Caldecott." So people are giving awards for subject matter, not for illustrations. To me it's a nagging thing. It would be like a bunch of museum directors giving out literary awards. How many writers would sit still for that?
OLSWANGER: Now that you're writing, how do you approach it?
MOSER: I had been writing before, "how-I-do-it" things, and notes on the illustrations for Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, The Divine Comedy, that kind of stuff. But I had never written fiction. I discovered very early on that I could not write a story if it was not set in the South. I have been living in the North two years longer than I lived in Dixie, but I still consider myself a Southerner. When I'm writing, I cannot hear a New England accent. I cannot place the story in New England. It gets placed in the eastern hills of Tennessee, in the mountains. And it gets told in the voice of my family, in that east Tennessee twang. That's what I hear. I also found out that I couldn't write a story until I had the characters' names. I told my friend Paul Mariani this one day, and he said, "That's the adamic impulse." I said, "You stepped in what?" And he said, "The adamic impulse, as in 'Adam.' It was Adam's task to name all the creatures." I found out I couldn't write about just a man. He had to have a name. I feel a direct corollary in the visual as to how that would work. I know there are certain things which have to be perfectly defined in the drawing before I can proceed to the painting or engraving.
OLSWANGER: Are you using a computer in your work?
MOSER: Oh, God, yes. I am so wired you wouldn't believe. I have three computers in my studio. I use them as my sketching pad, and for typography and design. I have about six different applications in my computers. If it weren't for cybernetics, this Bible I'm working on wouldn't be possible. The typography is done in the computer. All my sketches are done in the computer. It allows me to do what I have always done, but better, faster, and with more clarity and flexibility. For instance, with the Bible you have a 1250 page text. It's got to be right. Can you imagine what it would cost to hire someone to proofread the entire text? And can you imagine if somebody sat at a keyboard and set the text by hand--letter by letter? What we do is import the text. It's already proofread. It's absolutely perfect text that is in the public domain. We download it into the computer, and bingo! We've got the text set. It took about three or four days to get that done for the entire Bible. That translates into dollars saved. Then all of that information is translated into relief printing plates. We're printing the Bible from the old techniques. We're printing it letterpress, not offset. There are no cameras that come into this thing anywhere.
OLSWANGER: What's it like for you to work on the Bible?
MOSER: I've been keeping a journal that deals with it. Here's an example.I have taken an intense interest in the musical form of the mass. Mozart's "Requiem Mass" is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, in my opinion. I've read in a few biographies of Mozart, but I cannot find anybody who has said anything about his religious life, leading me to believe he didn't have much of one. So does "God" work through reprobates like me and Mozart? Is that possible? Well, maybe we aren't really reprobates . . .
OLSWANGER: What's next for you professionally?
MOSER: I want to bring to trade publishing the sensibilities of the private press world, those rarefied typographic and design sensibilities. I want that to be my legacy. I've done that to a point with my trade books. But I plan to go back to my first love--fine books, hand-made books. People in the trade world don't know my work in the fine press world, but that's where I belong. That's where I cut my teeth.
Copyright 1999 by Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved. Copyright policy
Part of this article appeared in Book Links.
Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.
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