Many dream of writing fiction but Harcourt-based author R I Sutton has gone one step further. TOM O'CALLAGHAN discovers she is using traditional crafts to create her book with her own hands.
By Beck Sutton’s own admission, shunning the mainstream printing industry was a “pretty crazy thing to do”.
The Harcourt author, whose pen name is R I Sutton, has embraced traditional methods, doing as much of the binding, printing and publishing as she can.
Fulfilling the dream has taken a two-and-a-half years already, with more work to be done as she crafts 140 deluxe, limited edition copies of her book Closer Than Breathing.
Ms Sutton has so far printed 104 pages of the book, a feat compelling one printing industry stalwart to tip his hat to her.
When bARt n PRINt’s Steve Bright began his career he was using the letterpress methods now in decline with the emergence of new technology.
In the days before computers, people across the industry set type by hand in blocks before printing.
So-called ‘letterpress’ techniques had fallen out of favour in part because they were dirty and time consuming, Mr Bright said.
“We were working with lead so we had to be very precise with measurements. It’s not like computers today, where you can hit ‘return’ and away it goes.”
Mr Bright loved the history of printing, describing the collection he had amassed as “an addiction”.
Many of the pieces in his possession resonated because they were the sorts of pieces he had worked with.
“I worked at a country newspaper, the Boort Standard, in the late 70s and the owners were very passionate about it (printing) and they sort of taught me about the historical side of it,” he said.
“When you come across something you have not seen for 40 years you get a bit of a rush.”
Piecing together a page
It takes Ms Sutton between two and three hours to carefully set type for a page. She can spend up to three weeks preparing batches of eight pages for each run.
“I’ve learnt what an incredible craft letterpress printing really is.”
“It has its own language, its own tools. There is something really special and meaningful about that for me.”
While letterpress printing had not become a lost art, people using it for a project the size of a book was rare.
“Having been in that trade I can tell you she is doing an exceptional job and I don’t know of anybody else tackling something like that,” Mr Bright said.
Ms Sutton has also delved into the traditional art of paper marbling and this year will turn her attention to the leather that will encase her books.
“I’m thinking the books will be bound with a board cover but with some leather along the spine,” she said.
There was a limit to the efforts Ms Sutton would go to.
“I’ve had people ask me ‘did you cast your own type?’ and ‘did you make your own paper?’,” she said.
“You could spend a lifetime pursuing all those other crafts. Even though this is a huge project I’ve tried to keep it as manageable as possible.”
What keeps feeding the press?
Ms Sutton began learning the skills to create her book in June 2016 in the hope of self publishing her collection of short stories.
Some had already been published individually in Australia, the United States and Canada.
Yet it was hard in Australia to publish short story collections, especially in a way that suited Closer Than Breathing’s content.
“As far as I can see, the novel is very much the focus here in Australia. Many writers are trying to write the great Australian novel,” she said.
“Short stories were popular in the 80s, not so much now. Whether that is because that is what readers are asking for or publishers want, I’m not sure.”
The collection is a “strange bird”, she said, literary in style but not easily fitting into a genre.
“They called for a different kind of presentation,” she said.
The book, and not just its contents, had taken on new meaning.
I’ve learnt what an incredible craft letterpress printing really is. It has its own language, its own tools. There is something really special and meaningful about that for me.Beck Sutton, author
“Its a very personal thing. The final book will have a quality that is more like an artwork than something that is mass produced,” she said.
As she had learnt more about the history of printing, Ms Sutton had come to believe its history was not being preserved as well as it could be.
She hoped her work could help preserve those crafts.
Mr Bright said there was no danger of the process vanishing, even if there was a risk of parts of printing’s history being lost.
“Some people see it as junk, some see it for its potential,” Mr Bright said.
“Unfortunately, more people see it as junk. We are in a bit of a throwaway world. But this stuff’s real. You can feel and touch it. Plus it is nice to work with.”
He said artists and designers were increasingly interested in letterpress techniques.
“It’s something you will never make a lot of money out of, but there is a satisfaction in it.”
Artists in residency mooted
In years to come Mr Bright hoped to set up an artist’s space at his Deborah Street business for others who saw potential in letterpress printing.
“People (visual artists) will do things like take an image and overprint it three or four times, rotating it 10 degrees to create some wonderful colours,” Mr Bright said.
“My aim is to teach it in the next few years.”
Plans were still being formed, but Mr Bright hoped when fully formed they would appeal to anyone interested in producing something using print methods.
“The goal is to have an artist in residence so it is being utilised all the time,” he said.
Ms Sutton hoped to finish her book before Mr Bright’s plans progressed that far.
It was a slow process, but she hoped it would be done by the end of the year.
“Once I’ve finished the printing and finalised the details of the binding I hope to start pre-orders,” Ms Sutton said.
“I want to have a really great launch that focuses on the process as well as the book itself.”
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