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
58 thoughts on “Nancy & Juliette”
Good grief — why would someone refuse such an homage?!? mind boggled
I am still caught every day by my sadness over Nancy Hiller’s passing.
One of the remarkable things you’ll find here is the way other people are lifted up and celebrated. It’s genuine and it’s rare. Thank you for this piece.
Very touching entry. My sincere condolences to you all.
Ok. I cried a little.
Nicely done, Chris.
When writing about Nancy, your understanding of, and respect for, her has always resonated with me, Chris. I was up with my dog, Stevie, at 6 am-ish, this morning, when your post popped up on my phone, and subsequently blew me away. Love, gratitude, and health in abundance.
Such a wonderful tribute and story of Nancy’s character. The one time I spoke with her on the phone was a great pleasure, she had an easy way about her that made her a joy to talk to and a way of skipping right past any suggestion that she needed a break or rest. I feel lucky to have had the chance to speak with her for so long near the end of her time here, I just wish I had called her years ago so there would have been more time to chat.
Thanks for filling in one more piece of the complicated puzzle that Nancy seemed to be – scrupulously honest and kindly candid – we became social media friends as she did with so many of us folks who were if truth be told not worthy of the attention she would give but did so freely and warmly in her “Nancy” way – not likely to ever be another remotely close to her – my anticipation over IG posts has certainly been lessened after her death – thanks again
I have been so overwhelmed by the comments, the tributes and the praise for the woman that was my wife. I, of course, knew how wonderful (diligent, obsessed, demanding and compassionate) she was, but to keep reading it from all of these strangers, how much she was loved, appreciated and admired is just so beautiful and heartbreaking.
Thank you Chris for all your support and fine work on her behalf. Thank you to the world for your outpouring of love for my wife.
Thank you for that fitting tribute. The photos also were a treat and I have shamelessly saved them.
As to Nancy, the saying, “We stand on the shoulders of giants!” Is most fitting.
The world is a wonderful place. A few people help us be fit to live in it. Nancy is one of those.
Well said. Your emotions are powerful and you said what needed to be said. Although I never met her, I feel as if I had. Her three books have left their mark on me and now I must visit with her again as I reread them. Thank you Lost Art Press for preserving some of the essence of Nancy.
Beautiful tribute Chis. ❤️
Bought the book after the earlier tribute article some months ago. Read it cover to cover without pause.
Thank you Nancy, and LostArt.
Brilliant tribute for a brilliant craftsperson.
A great tribute to a great person, thanks for sharing this.
I never knew Nancy, but several people I deeply respect did and are truly shaken and saddened by her leaving. Beautiful tribute, Chris.
So Nancy’s the first person that I’ve cried over in a long time. First the post about her death, and then this post. You’ve made me cry twice in a week.
I’m ordering Shop Tails and Kitchen Think ( even though I’m probably past the age of using it ) in book format as soon as I post this.
That is a very nice and thoughtful tribute to Nancy.
That is a great tribute to Nancy. Long may she run.
Well said Chris, that was a sad and beautiful read. I read her first book non-stop. I was laughing out loud on page one .. and could not put it down. It saddens me there are only 2 more.. and yet I am glad Nancy had the opportunity to bless us with those after all!
What a tribute. As is your wont, your words take meaning beyond the here and now.
Thank you – very touching – the silence just prior to her passing was deafening.
Heartbreaking news and a wonderful remembrance. I only know about Nancy through Lost Art and scrolled eagerly to anything by or about her. She carried a light that went way beyond anything about craft. Condolences on the loss of a good friend.
Nice tribute to the gentle, curious and intelligent soul Nancy was. I have never met her or talked to her, but that’s always the feeling I got from reading her books, blog posts and magazine articles. It wasn’t only about the woodworking. My condolences to her husband, her family, her friends, and to you Chris.
Like many others, I had only “met” Nancy thru Instagram. For some crazy reason, she connected with me and would comment on some of my projects or pics of my gardens or dog (of course!) or even message me. Always so honest and kind. I’m so glad she did the audio version of Shop Tails so I could hear your voice, even though I’m sure it was different over the last 18 or so months. It’s still Nancy and the imagery is incredible as you listen. Thanks, Chris.
Thanks Chris. The closest I came to meeting Nancy was when she gave a presentation to our woodworking club via Zoom. I was excited for this event. Out of curiosity, and if isn’t too personal, what areas for work/woodworking did she not want to do?
Thanks for this beautiful tribute. We should all be so lucky to have a Nancy in our lives to challenge and inspire us to be better versions of ourselves.
Hi Chris, Thanks for the post! Some very nice insight into the real Nancy. I have MTW with the original cover and now I like it even more!
Damn. As I get older this sort of news is depressingly becoming more and more common, but this one is especially sad. Lovely tribute.
Thick throated love and respect and yes grief. Thank you for sharing yourself. I must get these books just so I can admire the author, much like the tourist in the art museum. Thank you
well said Chris!
my professor, Csaba Erdelyi a world class violist and teacher, once told me, “you are only as good as your last performance.”
i only know Nancy’s book kitchen think, but it’s a home run as far as I’m concerned. i have no doubt the rest of her work is right there with it–especially considering the team she was working with. after all, Roger Marris never would have hit 61 homers without Micky batting right after him (but he still would have hit as many as anyone would wish they had hit).
Beautiful and thoughtful tribute. Thanks Chris.
To be candid, my first exposure to Nancy Hiller was the piece sharing her diagnosis. I am still new to woodworking but felt connected to this community through the outpouring of love and peace for Nancy. I was saddened by her diagnosis and brought to silent tears when I learned of her passing. Special people have an impact on those they have never met. Rest In Peace, Ms. Hiller – you’ve touched many…
Nicely said, Chris. Thank you.
She will always be remembered through her books, her creations and her friends. RIP Nancy.
Chris, your tribute to Nancy, and all the comments here, are both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
I’ve been waiting for this. It is everything I knew it would be. Honest, insightful, wry and achingly poignant. Thank you for these words of tribute to Nancy and for enriching our lives, too.
Beautiful, thank you. I purchased Kitchen Think from Lee Valley Tools as I was interested in a potential kitchen reno, and loved getting to know Nancy through that read, was pleasantly surprised with her heartfelt craft sharing. …. As soon as I was able to purchase Shop Tails, I did, and read it cover to cover. Everyone should. A funny, enlightening, generous overview of life and love by a special individual.
Yes, I knew it was coming but still, I wasn’t prepared. She will be missed.
some friends never go away. They’re just waiting around the corner.
Thanks Chris. Shop Tails is one of my favorite books.
Kitchen Think and Nancy’s written voice accompanied wife & me through a gut rehab of house & kitchen. Equal parts stern and encouraging. And she shared such a rare ethos valuing a certain type of collaboration with clients over bottom line. And her frankness about failure, without which us younger folks would be more prone to despair. An inspiration. I am so grateful for her careful work over many years and she has shaped my career and development in the trades. Just knowing that craft choices like the ones she made, while difficult, were possible. She has raised the bar and we are better for it. Godspeed
Hats off to you Chris. Very touching. God speed Nancy
I think Making Things Work was great – the chapter with the strange neighbor behind the project house was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I’m not enough of an animal person to appreciate Shop Tails as much, but it was certainly told from the heart and a fine one at that. RIP Nancy. And, nice article Chris.
Nancy’s impact on me, and so many others, was profound. Her ability to hold and shine back to someone the best of who they are is unique and, in my long stretch of time being in this field, something all too rare. I am not sure how someone’s heart could possibly be as big as hers as she yielded this essential part of giving to others and it will resonate in all of us for years to come.
That and her genius wordsmith talent that told a story laced with all the experiences that were so relatable and sometimes would catch you off guard with a belly laugh that required a few minutes of audible expression before continuing the very good read that it was.
And, the sorrow that came with knowing that no matter how much she brought this community together, she had a journey that, inevitably, was a solo journey, never separating herself from one that we are all on.
As women in this field, for us, it was said that we have lost the Captain of the team. And when I read the Esherick tribute, it was stated that the woodworking community had lost a Giant. I think I know she would have glossed over these adjectives if they created any separation from others.
In the spring I will plant a peony in her honor, a flower that she so loved, and one whose bold statement will remind me of courage, honesty and truth, strength, determination and will. And like some other memorial plantings I have and renamed like the Rose of Sharon is now named the Rose of Katherine, I will call it Nancy’s Peony and visit with her often.
Thank you, Chris, for all that you, Megan, Kara, and all that Lost Press gives to keep everything so real and inclusive.
Thank you Chris for expressing what my troubled emotions can not about what Nancy meant to us all.
Nicely done, Chris.
I can only hope that someone will write something as beautiful for me one day. I wish I had the chance to know her.
It is the luck of the living to have to bear the burden of grief and loss. But it’s in those moments that we realize just how precious and profound someone was to us. As we pass through our own travails it is their presence and prescience turned into remembrance and reverence that sustains and invigorates us. She was special and her life was proof of concept. I never had the privilege of knowing Nancy but through her work. So thank you, Chris and LAP et al, thank you thank you for letting us get to know your friend.
beautiful writing. Going through some milder cancer myself. I hope. I think everyone hopes they might be remembered in more than a passing way by the people in there lives , at least she is. youve done a grat job of honoring her. off to the next dr. appt for me
Thank you, Chris. This was really moving. Nancy’s work–as a sharpshooter editor, observant writer, and meticulous craftsperson–has always been a source of inspiration for me, and I’m going to miss watching her work from afar.
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