Howard Anderson only told his story once.
There are six of us in the graduate-level Defense Against the Book Arts class, and we are all doing a “Donkey Man” book for this Wednesday. To make a long story shorter, the Donkey Man was an itinerant photographer in northern Idaho at the turn of the century (the last century, not this one) whose donkeys helped him get business because kids wanted their pictures with the animals. We were each given a short bio of the man, written by his son (and by “bio” I really mean a ramble of almost connected information punctuated with some tantalizing details) and a selection of his photographs. We could then do ANYTHING with that, as long as we could tie it back to the source material. We could use the source material or not, could limit ourselves to what we knew, could take wild flights of fancy inspired by the stuff. Anything. Subject, format, all up to us.
Bookmaking is a very organic process for me, so I didn’t try to force the story. (Bookworks, or artists’ books, are kind of the place where art and literature collide. With my English background, I tend to focus more on the story aspect rather than the art aspect, so the story usually comes first.) I spent some time shuffling through the Donkey Man’s photographs, letting them soak into my consciousness.
Some of them stuck in my mind’s eye, chief amongst them the wide-angle shot of the empty living room. The distortion of the lens gave the picture a creepy quality that seemed to rub off on all of the other images. A story began to brew in my mind, a story of evil and magic, of poor impulse control and short temper. It was a dark story, one that painted the Donkey Man – who was probably a very nice man – in an entirely different light.
Once the story had germinated, the physical structure came close behind. I wanted to create a book as auratic object – something that held, or seemed to hold, a mystical or symbolic power. I mentally engineered a book with velvet and satin covers, wildly bound with a crazy mane of fibers and beads – pages of thick paper – that old book smell – typewritten!
It took me six hours straight to write the 1,200-word story. I wrote three different drafts, each time fighting the impulse to write too much – more book than bookwork. I wanted it to be even more spare than it turned out, but this was as tight as I could get it. I pulled inspiration for the voice of the story from old memoirs from Ryan’s ancestors, books I’d read as a child about the Oregon Trail, and – perhaps moreso than anything else – the physical sensation of composing via typewriter. Sure, my machine is probably from the 1970s, but forcing myself to slow down as I typed had an effect.
Now I have two text blocks, four covered book boards, and the makings of two complete books. I’m anxious to bind tonight – “anxious” being used both in the positive and the negative sense. I’ve created this hybrid binding in my mind and I have no real idea whether or not it will work. Yeah, I probably should have done a dummy first. But that’s not how I roll. 🙂
By this time on Wednesday – hopefully by this time tomorrow – I will have at least one copy of Anderson’s Grimoire: A Forgotten History of Idaho in hand. And I’m really, really excited. (That’s my subtle way of telling you to look out for photoblogs in the next day or so.)