After Nancy Hiller’s death on Monday and the outpouring of grief, tributes and love from her friends, family and fans, I didn’t know if there was anything left to say about this remarkable woman. But I am willing to find out.
First, what you must know is that everything you’ve already read is true. Nancy was a true trailblazer. And her work will continue as an inspiration for woodworkers in general, and women in particular, for years to come.
My relationship with Nancy was a little different than most people’s. I was a fan, of course. But we were also business partners on three of her books: “Making Things Work,” “Kitchen Think” and “Shop Tails.” And so I got to see how she thought about her place in the woodworking world, including places she didn’t want to go.
As we were finishing up the Lost Art Press edition of “Making Things Work” (she published it first under her own imprint), she said she wanted to change the book’s dust jacket. The edition she printed had a tasteful arrangement of hand tools on the cover. She told me it was an homage to Peter Korn’s book “Why We Make Things and Why it Matters.”
Korn, however, didn’t take the compliment in kind. And he told me at a Lie-Nielsen Toolworks event that Nancy should change her book’s cover.
For those who knew Nancy, this misunderstanding was typical of her complex mind. Even if Nancy was making a statement by comparing her book (and work) to Korn’s book (and work), it came from a place of deep respect. If she commented on your work, it was because it was good in some important way. Or it was strong enough to elicit a serious and well-considered reaction. (If your work was uninteresting, she would just be polite.)
Nancy’s attention was never binary (i.e. I like you, or I don’t). Instead, when she talked about woodworkers she disagreed with, her words were chosen with care. She could love your work or (fill in the blank here) but dislike your (fill in the blank here). And if Nancy liked you, she never let you forget that.
Naturally, someone this wildly intelligent and honest was intensely interesting to others.
For me, what was interesting was trying to piece together what she thought of herself. After we got to know one another, Nancy asked for a high-resolution scan of a French postcard I had published on the blog. It was a photo of Juliette Caron, the first female compagnon carpenter in France. Caron, born in 1882, was such an unusual sight that people would show up on job sites just to watch her work. And there was a series of postcards printed up that showed her working: carrying a wooden beam up a ladder, using an enormous auger and carrying a bisaiguë like a Jedi knight.
We don’t know what Caron thought of her fame. But when I look at the postcards of Caron that I own, I suspect she didn’t give a damn about it.
Nancy thanked me for the image of Caron, printed it out and framed it for her shop’s bathroom. I didn’t give it much thought until years later when we began discussing how to promote her books.
Nancy was traditionally trained as a woodworker in England and received City & Guilds certificates as a result of her training. This certification is helpful in getting a job in a workshop in the U.K. In the United States the certification is solid fried gold marketing fodder.
American readers *love* a woodworker with Old World bona fides. America never had much of an apprentice system for furniture makers, so most of us train informally or are self-taught. So when someone whips out formal certificates of this or that, those papers are almost more important than the person’s work at the bench.
Nancy refused – flatly – to build her career off her training. I repeatedly tried to get her to discuss it. Or allow us to use it when marketing her work. She would have none of it.
She wanted to be judged by her work.
And that’s when I made the connection between Nancy and Juliette.
As an editor, her attitude was frustrating because I thought we could sell more books. But you learned to be frustrated when working with Nancy. And you even came to enjoy it.
When you worked with Nancy, she would do anything and everything to ensure that she was doing her part in the relationship. When I designed her “Kitchen Think” book, I would send her chapters for review at odd hours. Sunday. Maybe at 2 a.m. Maybe three chapters in a day.
It’s how I work. I always get consumed by the project at hand, and I work until I drop. But I don’t expect authors to respond in kind.
Nancy was the only author who has ever kept up with my stupid pace. And, in the case of “Kitchen Think,” she just about wore me out with her detailed notes and suggestions about layout, color and the way I was processing the photos in the book.
Her work ethic was, especially at the end, heartbreaking.
Her book “Shop Tails” has been a slow seller. From the outset, I knew it would be. But I also knew it would be a brilliant work, and so we threw ourselves into the tumultuous editor/writer/designer/publisher storm to get the book done before cancer was done with her.
And we succeeded. But after the first sales numbers for the book came in, Nancy called me, unannounced.
“I think we should do ‘Shop Tails’ as an audio book.”
“Well, OK,” I replied. “I’ll look into finding someone who can read the book for the recording.”
“No,” she said. “I’ll read it.”
I put up a little bit of a fight. “You are finishing chemo for a deadly cancer. Are you sure?” But I knew I would lose the skirmish. She said she would start looking for a studio to do the recording. Or she would figure out how to do the recording at her house.
Within a week, Nancy was behind a microphone where she managed to record hours and hours of emotionally difficult (but hilarious) material. She even recorded a bonus chapter for the audio book.
All this wasn’t for Nancy’s ego. It was because she didn’t want Lost Art Press to lose money on her book.
I told her the book would eventually make money. And anyway, that’s not why we published it. We published it because it’s a great book, and the work deserved it.
Nancy would have none of that. She wrote me an email saying she wanted to discuss some ideas she had for finding the book’s audience.
I told her to call anytime.
She didn’t call. And that’s because there was only one thing in this world that could stop her. And it got to her in the early hours of Aug. 29.
Though we all knew Nancy’s death was coming, it still feels like she was ripped from our lives mid-sentence. And that’s because she was.
I think this is how I will set our relationship down here on the table. Just me, waiting for her to call with her latest backbreaking but brilliant scheme to uphold her end of our work together.
I’ve kept her number in the contact list in my phone. Because honestly, if anyone could figure out how to make that call, it’s Nancy.
— Christopher Schwarz