Hugh, Me and the Book
The project is Hugh’s idea. He sends me an email: “I hope you can see all the trouble your writing has caused.”
He wants to publish the stories I’ve been calling The Paradise Project. The pieces are slight. Whimsical. I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t ask.
I’m touched that these stories have got their hooks into Hugh, although I don’t quite believe it. I feel like a teenager invited to a party by the most popular boy in class, a boy who can’t possibly like me. I suspect a mistake. Or worse, a trick.
Hugh Barclay introduced himself to me more than a dozen years ago, which sounds very civilized, a calling card on a silver salver. Not the correct impression at all. He showed up at my book launch for The Convict Lover, which took place in the Penitentiary Museum that occupies the old Warden’s House across the road from Kingston Penitentiary, then home to sex offenders and stool pigeons. Canada’s Alcatraz, although the architects clearly forgot that Lake Ontario freezes over in winter, a slippery expressway to the United States for anyone who could scale the high stone walls.
On the day of the launch, the museum is packed. The entire village of Portsmouth has turned out, it seems, and half of Kingston, too. During the eight years of writing The Convict Lover, I was convinced no one would want to read it. The story was too old-fashioned. Too odd. But here I am, standing at a limestone plinth chiselled by convicts, signing book after book, the room crowded with people bursting with stories of their own: the old man who had a convict as a nanny before he went to school (his father was chief keeper); a woman who, as a girl, passed peaches to the convicts as they marched through the village on their way to the quarry to break stone. The lineup is so long and discombobulating that when my sister hands me her book, I pause over the page, simulating a cough, as I try to remember her name.
I notice Hugh right away. Or rather, I notice his black beret. He’s short—something peculiar about the curve of his spine—but his rakish beret keeps bobbing into view until it is right beside me.
“Here!” he says, shoving a green bookmark under my nose. “I’m Hugh Barclay! This is my wife, Verla!” The man doesn’t speak, he proclaims.
“We made this!” Hugh taps the length of thick paper. It is the colour of mashed peas. “We have a printing press. Thee Hellbox Press.”
I make noises of gratitude and prepare to add the bookmark to the stack of photos and mementoes others have given me.
“You see. You see,” he says, tugging the bookmark back to the centre of the plinth, tapping it more insistently now. “You see? The C and T at the end of ‘Convict’? The bit that connects them? That’s called a ligature. We chose the type especially. It’s like the letters are handcuffed together.”
He is chuckling. So is Verla. They both stare up at me, delighted. Expectant. I look again, more intently, at the bookmark.
Verla’s wheelchair has cleared a space like a stage around the three of us. The room and the milling crowd fall away, and it is just the three of us, gazing down at this unexpected chunk of raw, ragged paper, visibly dented with words, letters joined by a curving line defined by a term I’ve never heard before.
“Amazing,” I say. And before I know it, I’m chuckling, too.
Hugh is a fixture about town. His beret, tilted at a dapper angle, can be seen at every literary gathering: book launches, readings, festival performances. He’s almost always pushing Verla’s chair. And then he isn’t.
Hugh is not young, although I can’t guess his age. Over sixty. Under eighty. His body is misshapen, as if wracked by some extended, torturing condition, yet there is something child-like about his face. Not innocence: the wisdom in his eyes is hard-earned. Delight, yes. Wonder, perhaps. Optimism, for sure. It’s his enthusiasm, I decide, that makes him seem so young. A frank and forthright zeal that cares nothing for propriety or convention, the accepted rules of adult intercourse.
I find myself watching for him at public events, edging over for a chat, craving a shot of his fervour, his wit unstained by irony, unmarred by the faintest glint of condescension or cruelty.
“You know, don’t you, that you haven’t really made it until you’ve been published by Thee Hellbox Press,” he says to me at a gathering of the Kingston Arts & Letters Club. My husband, Wayne, and I have just presented a talk on the art of collaboration, based on our experience writing a travel memoir together, Breakfast at the Exit Café.
“You should send me something,” Hugh says.
“I don’t have anything.” It’s a bit of a lie. I’m not a prolific writer, and it’s true that I don’t have stacks of unpublished manuscripts stuffed in a bottom drawer. But I do have a thin pile of stories, stories I can’t yet imagine releasing to the world.
The Convict Lover was my first literary book. Over the next fifteen years, I launched six more: a book of stories, a novel, a travel memoir, a book of essays, two anthologies. When Hugh sent me that email calling me a troublemaker, I was working on another novel, a long, slow exploration of solitude and refuge. From time to time, as I wrote the novel, bizarre short fictions would flash onto the page. The same thing happened when I wrote The Convict Lover, stories that I eventually gathered up and published as The Lion in the Room Next Door.
These new stories are different. Shorter. Stranger. Leftovers, of a sort. Like remnants of a dream that interrupts my consciousness long after I stir awake. For years, I had been writing about my garden. Not just my garden: gardens. My novel The Holding began as an exploration of the nature of control and the control of nature. When Alyson and Margaret work their plots, are they trying to make nature do what they want, or are they trying to sidle up closer to it, bring it into their too-concrete lives? A New Leaf carried on that conversation within the borders of my own gardens at The Leaf, the patch of woods and cleared land where we lived in Eastern Ontario. It was a gardener, I came to realize, who changed the course of human history, plucking a seed and planting it where she wanted it to grow instead of where it randomly fell. A gardener who made farming possible, and cities, and trips to the moon.
Neither the novel nor the essays contained anything like the lyric fantasies that were erupting now. I had never written anything like them. When I was writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia, I tacked a few to the end of a reading.
“I don’t know what these are,” I said by way of introduction.
“They’re poems,” a friend said afterwards. She is a poet and a teacher; she brought her entire class to the reading. The students vigorously nodded their heads.
“They can’t be poems,” I protested. “I’m not a poet.”
Some were clearly stories—very short stories of a few hundred words or less. Others were lyrical: sixteen words, three lines, a single sentence that trailed down one page and onto a second.
I called them flash fictions and titled each one for an element in a garden—stone, leaf, petal, vine.
“Stone” was the first. It came out whole, each of its 265 words irrevocably attached to the next in ways I could not unlock, could only separate with commas, hitching a clump together here and there, setting a few on a line all their own.
A friend who was an editor at the Antigonish Review published “Stone” and a selection of others. More were collected in a special Canadian edition of Literature and Arts of the Americas. Both journals were sufficiently distant from me geographically that if critics threw rotten tomatoes, I wasn’t likely to know. I needn’t have worried: the reviews were kind. Maybe there was something in these stories after all. My youngest son, Erik, is a book designer, and we’d been tossing around the idea of self-publishing some of my out-of-print work as ebooks—and maybe these stories, too. When Queen’s Quarterly, the magazine of the local university, asked if I had anything they might publish, I emailed a selection of the flash fictions and, in a fit of confidence, copied them to Hugh.
It was a whim. An act of sharing, one literary weirdo to another. I have pressed Send a thousand, a million times. How was I to know that this time it would change my life?
“This should definitely be in a book,” Hugh says when I finally give in to his urging to visit him at his print shop.
Without saying a word to me, he has set the type for “Stone.”
“Super stuff,” he’d said in response to my email with the poem/story. “It starts movies running in my mind and takes me back to my childhood spent exploring stone hedgerow fences, expecting to find some great treasure hidden in a crevasse.”
The test proof he hands me is beautiful. Dark red ink on paper so creamy and thick it might be birchbark or a peeling of sandstone. I run my fingers over it, feel the physical texture of my words pressed into the page. I’m used to the feel of them in my mouth, invisible objects that force my lips into taut circles, a flattened gap, my tongue pressing up against my palate, stroking the inside of my teeth, humping at the back of my throat. But never this.
Hugh has given my words substance.
He takes the page from me and holds it flat, at eye level. Instead of reading the words, I look across the terrain of paper, shaped now into hills and valleys, pools of commas, fjords of t’s and f’s, rushing rivulets of s’s.
“Words make an impression,” he says.
Hugh’s print shop is attached to his house—almost. The house itself was designed and built specifically for Hugh and Verla, with wheelchair access and a courtyard plan that has every room opening through a large doorway to a central hall. The building that houses the print shop looks like a garage jutting towards the street, connected to the house by a wooden deck.
The shop is a mess. Hugh ushers me in past a counter heaped with paper. The walls are plastered with print projects. One shows a bank of words—Saffron. Fireflies. Baffle. Truffle—the lowercase f’s in scarlet ink. When I ask what this means, Hugh gets a little irritated.
“Mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a gorgeous ligature.”
There’s a block print of a dancing figure, various quotes, some handwritten, some set in type: Fragile as I am, I am strong.
I’m a quick study. I don’t ask where the quotes are from.
Once, this shop was hung was prosthetic body parts. Back then, Hugh was into orthotics. He was also writing poetry. In the early 1970s, he met a man named Bill Poole who taught at the Ontario College of Art. He sent Bill his first poem.
“Bill got back to me and said, ‘I solved your problem.’ I didn’t know I had a problem. ‘I bought a press so now I can publish your poem,’ he said. I told him I’d rather do a book.”
A New Respect, Hugh’s one and only book of poems was published by Poole Hall Press in 1972. He helped set the type and run the press.
“That’s how I got ink in my veins,” he says. He means it metaphorically, but it strikes me as literally true. I imagine the watershed of his body flowing red, yellow, blue. His fingers are perpetually smudged as if ink is leaking out through his skin.
Through the next couple of years, he and Bill produced a magazine called Symbiosis.
“People could only pay in kind, and we refused to say what it was worth.” Hugh is chuckling again. He seems to be perpetually chuckling, as if life is one big joke. A joke on him. A joke on all of us.
“We had fifty to seventy-five subscribers. We got sent wine, hand-knit mitts and socks. A woman in Newfoundland sent us cod and brewis. One fellow wrote a song about us, ‘The Press Gang Blues.’”
As he talks, I lean to look into the other room. The print shop is divided in two: the back room where Hugh does his typesetting and printing and this other room, which is tidier—one long table stacked with various sizes and colours of paper, each in its own neat pile.
Hugh is tapping the test proof of “Stone.”
“This should be a book,” he says.
I came to Hugh’s shop intending to dampen his fire, but I find myself nodding as if what he says makes perfect sense. Yes, these stories should be between covers. When there are enough, my saner brain says. When I hone them to something I understand.
“I mean now.”
“But I only have a dozen.” Printed on paper, the book would be so thin it would hardly qualify for the name.
“That’s plenty! It will be a handmade book.”
I imagine readers paying for the book with macramé hangers, out-of-date pesos, their children’s first drawings.
My saner brain tells me I should be appalled. I barely hear it for the chuckling.
Hugh asks to see all the stories, and I send him everything: those that have been published, new pieces, unfinished fragments.
“I’ve just sat down and read the manuscript and it is amazing. A lot of new pieces, at least to me. Some brought a tear to my eye, but you need to know that my bladder is too close to my eyes.”
We agree to meet for dinner to discuss the book.
To my alarm, almost as soon as I sit down, Hugh bursts into tears. We are sitting in the city’s finest restaurant, a favourite, we discovered, of us both. The owner, Zal Yanovsky, was lead guitarist in the Lovin’ Spoonful, a ’60s band I danced to (on tabletops, if I remember correctly). The first time I met Zalman he was on roller skates, scooting around his dinner guests, stopping at my side to ask if I had a cigarette.
“Do I look like a smoker?” I laughed. I was being taken to dinner by James Lawrence, founder, publisher, and editor of Harrowsmith magazine, the back-to-the-land bible of the 1980s, a magazine that was about to get into book publishing. They wanted me to write their first book. None of them smoked anything but weed. I wanted to make a good impression—my Du Mauriers were well hidden—but Zal had sussed me out. I opened my purse and offered him a fag, tossing smiles around the table in penance. Who can resist a man on roller skates?
Now Zalman is dead and Hugh is crying and we are at the worst table in the restaurant, the one in the middle of the room, where every waiter and diner has to pass us by to get in, or out, or serve a dish of Mediterranean stew. We might as well be onstage.
I lean close to Hugh and put my hand on his arm. “You okay?”
He has been telling me about the school children. Immediately after he published his first book of poems, he went out and bought a letterpress. It was a whim, he says.
Hugh, I am about to discover, is a great follower of whims. He set up the press at his daughters’ elementary school and worked with students to print their own magazine.
“Those kids! They wrote the stories. They set the type. They did it all!”
He dabs at his eyes with a flowered serviette.
“Don’t worry,” he says, picking up his fork to attack his stew. “Stupid Hugh cries a lot.”
Stupid Hugh has all the bad habits. He forgets the comma in the first line of type and doesn’t notice until the whole page is set. He prints the wrong text over an image. He leaves his fingerprints behind. Until I met Hugh, I didn’t realize that I, too, have an incompetent, wastrel twin. Stupid Merilyn was the one handing out cigarettes and dancing on tables. These days, she spends most of her time inserting misplaced modifiers and splitting infinitives in my carefully composed text.
When Hugh points out a mistake in one of the stories, I know exactly what to say.
“Sorry, Hugh. You’ll have to forgive her. Stupid Merilyn never learned to spell.”
Both Merilyn and Stupid Merilyn have a lot to learn. Hugh will be our teacher. Over the next year, he will rock our world, upend everything we think we know about writing, about paper, words, ink, and presses, and how they come together to make a book.
A PAPER WORLD
My sons and I belong to the last two generations to grow up in an entirely paper world. The first words we read were pressed into paper. By the time I was thirty, I was writing on a computer; by the time my sons were adolescents, most of what they read was onscreen. But our first books, both theirs and mine, were printed much as Johannes Gutenberg printed books six centuries before.
When Hugh proposed publishing The Paradise Project, the process he had in mind would have been entirely familiar to Gutenberg: hand-set type impressed on handmade paper with a hand-operated press.
Meanwhile, Erik and I were discussing the production of the same manuscript as an ebook. His daughters were learning to read onscreen. The novels by my bed, as often as not, were ebooks.
We’re caught in a paradigm shift. Words are the constant, with paper on one shore, pixels on the other. My sons and I stand in the middle, a foot balanced on either side. My parents would never have believed that a world without paper was possible. My grandchildren will never fully grasp the extent to which paper served us all we wanted and needed to know. I have walled every room in my house with books; my granddaughters can hold more books than that in just one hand.
“So,” says Hugh, embracing his print shop with outstretched arms. “Will we do this?”
I feel as if I am being invited to enter Doctor Who’s TARDIS. I know what will happen if I refuse: my life will go on pretty much as it has—writing, reading, observing the world from the sidelines, surrounded by what I know.
Stepping inside Hugh’s world will change everything.
“Sure,” I say, not understanding a thing. “Why not?”