Suspend Your Disbelief

Letterpressing “Composition,” by Nicholas Delbanco

"We have books in our fingers now, and books in our arms. We have a flicker of what the old printers had."


Shop Talk |

Letterpressing “Composition,” by Nicholas Delbanco

In honor of Professor Nicholas Delbanco, and on the occasion of his retirement, Fritz Swanson and Wolverine Press have printed a chapbook edition of his very first short story, “Composition,” originally published in 1979. There are 250 copies in the edition, and 10 of them have been set aside for FWR's fundraiser.


Composition InteriorBack in 2012 I produced an edition of a poem by Charles Baxter for the 2012 Great Write Off (you can read about that project here). In 2013, I did an edition of “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. This year, the Helen Zell Writers’ Program has helped me to build an entire letterpress shop here on the University of Michigan campus called Wolverine Press. Now, with the help of graduate student apprentices (we call them “Printer’s Devils”), I’ve been able to print many different projects for visiting writer events on campus. And this year, for the Great Write Off, we’re pleased to bring you an ENTIRE SHORT STORY.

In honor of Professor Nicholas Delbanco, and on the occasion of his retirement, we have printed a chapbook edition of his very first short story, “Composition,” originally published in 1979. There are 250 copies in the edition, the majority of which were produced for “The Janus-Faced Habit: The Art of Teaching and the Teaching of Art,” a symposium to celebrate Delbanco’s legacy as a writer and teacher. But 10 copies have been set aside for participants in this year’s fundraiser for Fiction Writers Review.

Printers DevilsDoing a chapbook like this presented a wonderful problem: in order to set a 2384 word short story, we would need a lot of type in one size, and one design. The story has 790 a’s, 1391 e’s, 906 t’s and 5 j’s, for example. For this project, we cast 100lbs of Kennerley Old Style 14pt.

I tracked the story down way back in May, so I’ve been working on this project for a total of 8 months. I designed the book, selected the typeface, developed a letter count, cast the type with Phillip Driscoll at Irish Hills Type, then distributed the type into five cases, prepared a composition plan, directed four devils in typesetting, justifying, proofing, locking up, and ultimately printing the whole book. We printed four internal sheets and a cover, cut every thing, assembled it into 32 pages, a fly leaf, and the cover. We hand sewed, hand glued, hand numbered, and otherwise assembled the whole thing. If I could have made the paper, I would have.

I even had to manufacture a whole new set of wood spacing material out of planks of maple, in order to accommodate the number of forms we had to lock up in the press. Every line of the book had to be spaced with a strip of lead. Even that I had to cut by hand, more than 360 lines of white space.

InteriorIt’s my first book, a sort of journeyman’s project, and I am pleased that it all went so well after all my careful planning. I hope everyone who gets a copy is as pleased as I am. So, enjoy this edition, but I want to thank you for giving us a reason to make this book.

We now have everything we need to make another book, and it won’t be nearly as hard, and we have learned a whole bunch of lessons that will make the next one faster, and better.

The handskills, and the shop experience, are more precious than all of the type and machinery. We have books in our fingers now, and books in our arms. We have a flicker of what the old printers had.


Editor’s Note: We’re in the midst of our fall fundraiser, and we’d love your support. Please help us keep the digital lights on for another year by donating to The Great Write Off.


Contributor

Fritz Swanson

Fritz Swanson is the director of Wolverine Press, the letterpress studio of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He teaches creative writing, essay writing, and literature at the University of Michigan. His writing has appeared in The Believer, Best American Fantasy, McSweeney’s, Mid-American Review, Esopus, LSA Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, and The Christian Science Monitor. He owns and operates Manchester Press, a letterpress studio. Fritz lives in Manchester, Michigan, with his wife Sara and his children Oscar and Abigail.

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