A journey in to the mind of Paul Maniaci

Long-Form Interviews

Booksmithing with Barry Moser

BM publicity shot 2005.JPG

Barry Moser

Western Massachusetts


While going to listen to some children’s authors speak about their new books, a very nice man with a distinct gray beard opened the door to the bookstore for me. When the event began I was amused to see him on the panel of speakers. Afterwards I spoke with Barry Moser about his most recent work, a compilation of inspiring quotes and stories about how we can all make a difference in this world. Far more than an illustrator Barry is a warm and insightful person who has designed and provided beautiful artwork for some of the most timeless stories. In our interview he discusses the reasons behind his choice of artistic medium and describes eloquently the thought process behind his trade. Barry also provides some wonderful advice for those interested in becoming a booksmith.  

CCB: I was reading an interview you did with Anna Olswanger, entitled “The Observation is that Bloody Book” and a very important and fascinating question was posed with regards to the distinction between being an illustrator, and a booksmith. Could you please explain again for our readers what being a booksmith entails?

BM: Illustration, as it is typically practiced, is the making of graphic images to throw light on a particular subject. It spans everything from direction cards for getting out of an airplane in an emergency to making images to accompany Dante’s Divine Comedy. An illustrator is one who executes such images. A booksmith, on the other hand, is a person who makes books. He or she may or may not make illustrations, but does—or might-- use them in the making of the book. A booksmith is also a typographer, a graphic designer, and often a pressman who runs the printing presses. Occasionally you will find one who makes paper and does the binding. All in all, the booksmith is a craftsman who is adept in the practice of most, if not all, of the book arts.

CCB: I am intrigued by the idea of not just illustrating a book, but actually designing it. How do you decide on the appropriate format for a book when designing it? Do you always try to cater to the specific story as you did with Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (making it a small book with a dark type face to reflect how Edward Hyde becomes a dwarf and the dark feel of the story)? What impact does such design have on a story or on the experience for the reader?

BM: I think that on a very important and primary level it is a matter of instinct. I have no formula that I can tap into, like, “Well, this is a horror story, so it should be therefore a 6 x 9 book.” It just doesn’t work that way. You are right about Jekyll & Hyde, though, and it’s a good example of what I am trying to say: when Jekyll transmogrifies into Hyde, he becomes, in essence, an ape-like dwarf. Compared to the Frankenstein monster, who was 8 feet tall, he is tiny. Tiny but extraordinarily evil. I had done Frankenstein years before I did J&H and when it came time to design J&H I instinctively bounced off my Frankenstein, which was a pretty large book, and designed J&H to be small, reflecting his diminutive stature.
Another very practical factor also comes into play, and that is the size of the paper I am using for a book. In the long run it is the size of the sheet of paper that decides the final “trim” of a book. To wit: a sheet of Mohawk Superfine is manufactured at 23.5 x 35 inches. Fold it once (a folio we call that size books) and you have 17 x 23 inches. Fold it again (a quarto) and you have 11.5 x 17. And so on. Different papers are made in different sizes, so thus we have a huge range of possible sizes.

CCB: When did you realize you wanted to be a booksmith?

BM: I never did, actually. I more or less segued into it: I was trained as a painter (oils), but was always fascinated with prints, especially woodcuts and etchings. After college I followed that fascination on my own and taught myself how to make woodcuts, etchings, and eventually wood engravings, my favored medium. Wood engraving is a book medium—that is, it was invented as an illustration medium and was used almost exclusively for that purpose until the early part of the 20th century. So it was a natural, if not easy, jump from wood engraving to bookmaking, which, as I mentioned before, was largely a matter of studying fine typography, learning to set type by hand, learning and understanding how to design books, learning all the various qualities of paper and book binding, and how to run a printing press.

CCB: What is it about wood engraving that you enjoy? Are there other mediums that interest you?

BM: Wood engraving…followed by watercolor. Both are extremely unforgiving, difficult media, and that’s part of why I enjoy working with them. My personality is kind of pig-headed and tenacious, so I like working with materials that are difficult.

Another appeal of wood engraving is the visual appeal of the stark contrast between black and white. There is no tone in wood engravings as there is in etching, say, only what the engraver can suggest by manipulating the blacks and whites to appear to be a tone.

CCB: How did you learn about painting, and printmaking?

BM: I studied painting in college. I took up watercolor twenty years later and basically taught myself. Well, taught myself by looking at and studying the work of the great masters: Durer, Homer, Sargent, and Eakins. Nobody learns anything in a vacuum. Same with engraving. I studied the masters, bought some wood and some tools, and jumped in. Leonard Baskin showed me a coupe of tricks, as did Fred Becker and Jack Coughlin. But in the main I am self-taught in both media.

CCB: Do you have any mentors? Is there anyone who inspires you now?

BM: My first mentor was George Cress, a quite well-known painter in the American southeast. I studied painting with him, and it was under his tutelage that I did my first woodcut—a not very successful woodcut, but a woodcut nevertheless. Later, after I left Dixie and moved north, I studied with Baskin, who was a huge influence on me. A powerful influence that was difficult to get out from under. Then there was Jack Coughlin and Fred Becker who were also my teachers at the University of Massachusetts in 1970.

CCB: You have a very unique style, the use of line in your prints and the expressions of the characters in your paintings and illustrations have lot of inner thought and mood. Do you derive the emotion on your characters faces from the stories or from your own feelings? Do you find that your own personality emerges in your paintings?

BM: I think it’s impossible to do such contemplative work as I do without the force of my own personality coming to the fore. I think that’s a given. Beyond that, emotion and mood come from the story or poem I am dealing with. If the author says some character is a wretch, I make that character a wretch. The problem comes in hitting the nail on the head, not understating the wretchedness nor overstating it. And, as you point out, it certainly is a matter of my identifying with the characters: I try to see myself in their shoes. Try to feel what they must feel as it is told to me by the author. It’s a matter of empathy.

CCB: How do you create all the characters and scenes for the stories? Do you read the works and then use your imagination, or do the authors you collaborate with tell you what they are looking for?

BM: Most of the authors I work with are dead—except those in the world of children’s books. I am thinking of Lewis Carroll, Dante Alighieri, Herman Melville, and so forth. But in both cases, live or dead, I try to listen attentively and acutely to what the author is saying, especially in his or her descriptions of characters and settings, paying significant attention to details. If Lewis Carroll says that the Queen of Hearts wears glasses, then I show her in glasses—BUT, what kind of glasses they are is my decision. That is what comes from my own imagination—or my research. That and what, in fact, the queen looks like. I feel that I am, as illustrator, a servant to the text. I cannot take liberties with it. However, if, as in my Queen of Hearts illustration, the author makes no mention of her being thin, fat, ugly, hirsute…whatever…then I have all the latitude I could possibly want.

There have been a few instances where I have collaborated with living authors and it was a joy. (Though some collaborations have not been quite so joyful, I have to admit.) Two projects come to mind: one with Nancy Willard and one with Willy Morris. In both cases we talked through the book together, throwing out idea after idea, and eventually arrived at a plan for the imaging of the stories. But let me say that this is a very rare connection. Usually I never talk with an author, and even more rarely meet them. 

CCB: How do you decide who you collaborate with on books? Do you seek out writers you enjoy or want to work with, or do they come to you? Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future? 

BM: Most of the time the publisher, more specifically the editor at the publishing house, puts author and illustrator together. This is why we don’t typically meet or talk.

Occasionally a writer seeks me out, and sometimes I seek out an author. It works both ways, always on the basis of admiration. There is an author who lives and works on the Gulf Coast of Alabama by the name of Sonny Brewer. I read his novel The Poet of Tolstoy Park last summer and was very impressed and moved by it. Eventually we made contact. (I wrote him a fan letter is what it was.) Well, he was a fan of my work too, as it turned out, and so now we are laying the ground work for a children’s book collaboration. And if I were to begin a list of authors I want to work with, I’d be sitting here all day long spouting off names. I mean, God how I would like to work with Jose Saramago. Oh…I can’t even begin to make a list.

CCB: Do you have any routines or rituals when creating a painting or print? Do you work on one story at a time or do you illustrate several books at once?

BM: Right now I have thirteen books on my “desk.” That is to say that I am currently working—as in making images—on two. I have another five or so that are under contract and have not yet been put into the design/illustration process. I have four that are “asleep,” that is not yet “put to bed,” slang for “finished.” Those four are completed, but have not been printed or distributed. The others are designed, but not illustrated. It’s pretty typical, I think.
As for rituals: yes, everything I do is ritual. Work is ritual for me. Work is for me what prayer is for others. It is a means of communication with something greater than I.

CCB: Do you have any advice for those interested in becoming a booksmith?

BM: Work. Work. Work. Never worry about being an artist and never call yourself that. There is too much garbage that passes for art, so who the hell knows anymore? Myself? I never think about it except at moments like this. Beyond that, never trust talent—trust only work. Talent is as common as house dust and about as valuable as teats on a boar. Have patience and courage. The road is a long one and has lots of potholes and dead ends. Be willing to accept the rough road and learn to live with the dead ends. The most important values of all are dedication, determination, indefatigable energy, a tough hide that can withstand rejections, and perhaps most important of all: a willingness to fail.
Then, of course, study. And study well. Study the history of printing and the history of literature. Read, Read. Read. Find a print shop somewhere and learn how to set type by hand, then learn to set it by computer. Let your hands learn it first.

CCB: When I first met you at Books of Wonder you seemed rather upset at the cover that had been chosen for one of the books you had worked on. Despite your desire to be in control of the design of a book, does it happen often that decisions are still made without your consent? Is that the nature of the business?

BM: It does not happen to me very often. I usually have some say in the final look of a cover. The one you mention is an exception. I did four presentations for the publisher. My editor liked each and every one, but the marketing department did not, and when you realize that the jacket of a book is basically a small poster advertising the book, that is prompting its sales, it makes perfectly good sense.

CCB: I read that your work has been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum, and other prestigious museums, how did it feel the first time you saw your artwork in a gallery or museum? How does that feeling compare to the first time you saw your artwork published in a book, or continue to feel as you see your current work published?

BM: I would be dishonest if I did not say that being exhibited in such hallowed places was not a rush. It is. When I saw my Alice (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) in the British Museum—accidentally, I might add—I was stunned. I walked around London the next few days on a cloud (my head had swollen up with hot air, I think).
The first time I saw my work in a book was in a book I printed myself, so it wasn’t on the same level at all because it was “home made.” And by the time I had my first commercial book published I had already seen my work in some pretty fine, privately printed books, like the Arion Press Moby-Dick.
Currently, I pay very little attention to it, and that’s unfortunate. I do get a sense of joy and completion when I see a book come in the mail—an advance copy—but it’s not like it was thirty years ago. You get used to it. It’s part of the business.

CCB: What is the Pennyroyal Press? 

BM: Pennyroyal Press is a private press, like Arion I mentioned before. It is not a vanity press, so don’t confuse the two. A vanity press will print anything for anybody for a price. They produce a lot of cheap junk. A private press is a printing and publishing enterprise that is overseen by a single person (usually). It is that person’s idiosyncratic tastes that drive everything—choice of type, paper, illustration (if there are any) and so forth. These books are frequently very expensive. The Arion Press Moby-Dick, for instance, appeared in 1978 at $1000 a copy and today is worth about six times that. 

CCB: How does it work when your artwork is added to a museum collection, do they purchase it from you, or do you donate it?

BM: I sometimes give work to a museum, but not if they have not already acquired something of mine either from me or from a dealer. Otherwise it seems to me to smack of padding out the old resume.

CCB: What did you initially want to achieve when you began your career? What drives you now?

BM: It has not changed from the outset: my ambition is to do (and has always been to do) as beautiful a book as I can possibly do. I have never done that, so I keep on trying. I think that complacency is perhaps the most insidious thing that can happen to an artist. If you ever become satisfied with your work and well . . . as William Faulkner said, “Nothing would remain but to cut the throat.” So we keep trying to better our personal best. Always. Always. At least until infirmity or death stops us.

CCB: What can we expect from you in the future?

BM: More books…unless I die before getting around to them.

*Look at more of Barry’s work: moser-pennyroyal.com