Working with Lost Art Press on “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” has been another highlight of being a custodian at Dick’s cabin. It has been one more delight in choosing to work to the best of my ability.
My wife, K Schubeck, and I spent 19 summers caring for and giving tours at Dick’s cabin; the summers immediately after Dick could no longer live there. As tour guides, we met visitors so emotionally affected by arriving at Dick’s cabin that they kissed the beach, wept or spent time wandering around the cabin in a world of their own. After their initial reaction, they wanted to see everything, always wanting to know more than their time with the airplane flying service allowed. In our later years, I was asked almost daily what would happen when we were not there.
It became clear I had a responsibility to write this book. Shortly after starting to write the manuscript, the National Park Service made available a CD of 7,000 pages of Dick’s transcribed journals. Reading his journals I discovered I had not talked about dozens of handcrafted items with visitors at Dick’s cabin. I also learned that my interpretations of other items had not been completely accurate. Reading Dick’s journals opened up a whole new world, one I knew that reverent visitors would have had a deeply felt an interest to learn. Having restored Dick’s cabin, cache and woodshed along with restoring and replicating many of his handcrafted artifacts, no one held the insight into Dick’s handcraft more than myself. For each visitor with an interest in Dick’s handcraft, I knew there were others who would visit in the future, and more who would never be able to make the trip; all would be fascinated by all I knew of Dick’s handcrafted life.
Assuming the writing of this book would be a major effort and result in a voluminous manuscript, hundreds of photos and possibly illustrations, I thought it might be impossible to find a publisher to publish the book in its entirety. I thought I would likely be asked to shorten it by half. If only a shorter version could be a reality, I planned to use the money from that book’s sale to someday self-publish a few copies of my full book – a few books for the historic record. Little did I understand how unrealistic this plan actually was. I wrote the book I knew visitors to Dick’s cabin wanted to hold. Lost Art Press never hinted I revise it into anything else.
A few weeks after submitting proposals to three different publishers, Elan, my child, asked if I had made a submission to Lost Art Press. Being late 2018, I was soon reading Chris Schwarz’s blog, “You Are the Problem,” and the comments that followed. Then I read the blog, “Meet the Author: Jennie Alexander” by Kara Gebhart Uhl. With those two blogs, I knew I wanted Lost Art Press to publish my book.
Chris Schwarz first thought a book about the handcraft of Dick Proenneke was a little too far afield of LAP’s core focus, but he soon thought otherwise. An introductory phone conversation with Chris sealed my desire to work with Lost Art Press. Chris spoke of wanting everyone who worked on the book to be paid well, and that working with LAP would be a collaborative effort. I wouldn’t simply hand them the manuscript, and they’d publish the book. He spoke of using U.S.-sourced high-quality paper and a U.S. printer. And somewhere in there, he let me know it would require a lot of effort on my part.
The intent of this blog is to say “thank you” to the staff at Lost Art Press and especially to Kara Gebhart Uhl who accepted being the lead person in creating this book. Over the course of the past three years, just short of 600 emails have arrived from LAP. Likely 500 of those from Kara. I answered every one as timely as possible, but some required weeks of additional work. There were too many phone conversations with Kara to keep track of; usually when I wanted a clarification “right now.” And from the response rate I believe Kara never ends her workday even as she juggles life as a wife, mother and author. Kara edited and then reedited without complaint and never showed frustration with the task ahead.
Dick’s journaling contained a lot of misspelled words because that is how Dick wanted it written. Initially, I was not going to change any of his words because I knew it was his wish that any use of his journals hold true to what he was writing. As the manuscript started taking the form of a book, I started seeing words I thought Dick would likely appreciate having corrected and words that may have been impossible for Jeanette Mills, who transcribed all of Dick’s journals, to have deciphered. The process of what to change and what to leave as Dick wrote was ongoing throughout the process of this becoming a book. Kara was consistently understanding, engaging and questioning without directing the outcome. She was also tireless in getting sections of my own writing corrected and flowing smoothly.
In writing the manuscript, I noted places where about 350 photos or illustrations might fit. For 50 years I have been inspired by Eric Sloane’s books with his detailed illustrations. Kara, with Chris’ concurrence, suggested a mix of both photos and illustrations, which was almost too much for me to believe because that was what I had envisioned without clarity and had not spoken. I sent 1,200 photos (multiple photos for each of the 350 locations) to LAP with captions that located each within the manuscript. Kara and Chris went through all of them and made suggestions as to which photos they thought would best fit with the text, which would be best as illustrations, and which I needed higher resolutions images. I thought all of their selections were perfect.
I want to jump forward a little. Linda Watts laid out the pages of the book – the placement of the photos, illustrations and text. The single most high moment in the past few years of working with LAP was when Kara sent me the first few pages of each chapter, as Linda had designed them with photos, text, illustrations and open spaces. I was awed with Linda’s art, the craft of putting a cutout of a detail of an item over the corner of a photo of the entire handcrafted item. Linda’s design was beyond my wildest dream for the beauty of the book. Holding this book is to appreciate Linda’s amazing talent.
Elin Price provided a couple sample illustrations, each drawn from a photo and a sentence or two from me. They each required some minor adjustments to meet what I was looking for. It made me aware that if I were creating the 60 illustrations for this book, I would find it impossible to meet my expectations without much more written detail for what was being asked. I wrote 50 pages of instructions for Elin and felt awful for being so nit-picky. Of all the remaining illustrations, there may have been a couple that I ask for minor adjustments.
Upon reading the book, a friend said something like, “Years ago I had several books full of wonderful illustrations … I don’t have the books any longer but those illustrations were my favorite … you [Monroe] would know who I am talking about.” When I said, “Eric Sloane,” his face lit up. He said, “When I looked at Elin’s illustrations it brought me back to spending time enjoying the illustrations in Eric Sloane’s books.” His comments were the highest compliment anyone could bestow upon Elin’s contribution.
Brendan Gaffney accepted the challenge of creating the map. I didn’t have a vision of how to create three maps on a single page, each map is a more zoomed-in image or even that three maps on the same page was what was needed. It took a great deal of back and forth between Kara, Linda, Brendan and myself. Brendan kept producing image after image until everyone was completely satisfied. I could not be more impressed with Brendan’s map. I know it would have been a much more straightforward process if I had a clearer image going in. Brendan was the perfect person. If he was frustrated with the process, he did not let it show.
Elan Robinson, my child, was asked to create an illustration for the front of the book on very short notice just as it was going to the printer. It is now confirmed that Chris Schwarz never sleeps! Elan, Chris, Kara and I were all on the email thread throughout those last few days. Elan sometimes emailed a question to Chris very late at night from the West Coast, and I was always impressed with Chris’s almost instantaneous responses as if this was the only thing on his table.
Meghan was the first person I communicated with three years ago and is now the person making sure a few books are sent my way. With zero exceptions, collaborating with each person at Lost Art Press has been a beautiful experience.
I have not communicated with Nancy Hiller but many times felt her positive and supportive presence throughout this process. I knew she was close by.
I once pushed the send button on a whole string of messages between myself and Kara, to someone it was not intended for. I heard back from the unlucky recipient of the emails but will not get into their response. When I confessed to Kara, she responded, “Oh goodness, don’t worry about this at all. We all make mistakes like this. …
“Chris recently reminded me that he and John Hoffman have a saying when anything difficult comes up with any of our books (and know that every single one of our books – even those we write ourselves – have problems): If it were easy, everyone would do it.
“This book didn’t exist before because there was no one else but you who was willing to put in all the time and effort – and deal with all its problems. But that’s part of what makes it so special.
“Someday I hope you can make the trip to Covington, Kentucky, and we’ll take you out to dinner and share the many mistakes we’ve made over the years, and the many problems we’ve encountered, but also the many joys and wonderful experiences we’ve had because we’ve forged ahead regardless.”
Collaborating with Lost Art Press has been one of those wonderful joys of my life.
— Monroe Robinson