Teh Talks is a series of interview conversations with creatives.
Interspersed with the interview questions and answers are my personal reflections.
This year, I published a dreamy little chapbook in scroll format and accordion book format, titled “If A Carp Dreams Of The Milky Way” 「若鯉魚夢見銀河」through Penrose Press, a scrappy anything-is-possible small press run by Brianna Tosswill and Natalie Lythe. I’d already acquired a few titles published through them, and knew that materiality and process were crucial aspects to their work. To me, a book is an object of art, material substance and labour, and it was so exciting to pitch a potential project to a small press that centers the bookmaking process as much as it does the finished books.
Gush about books in exactly 150 words
Brianna: I’m so grateful that my dad (who doesn’t read novels) took me to the library nearly every two weeks for my entire childhood because a love of reading isn’t inherent in us, it’s learned. Books to me are a physical manifestation of the feeling of reading, and the reading feeling is so good that sometimes it’s bad for me. I suppose getting lost in a book is a better coping mechanism than some! Every time I see a book or feel the satisfying heft of it, I get a tiny zing of the reading feeling. If I’m being too vague… the reading feeling is all the emotions of living but with lower stakes? So I can feel in the depths of despair without feeling the desperation of trying to fix it. I can feel pride or happiness or love without doing the work to earn them.
Natalie: Reading is incredible. I used to sneak out of my room as a kid to steal my mom’s Tamora Pierce books and read them instead of sleeping. For as long as I can remember, my dream house has had a room dedicated solely to books. I sink into a book so fully that I literally don’t hear or see what’s happening around me, and I get a specific taste in my mouth when I have to pull my attention away from a book too suddenly. It’s like waking up from one of those half-dozing, half-paying attention naps on a bus because the road is bumpy. I love the power that literature has in order to pull me so fully away from reality and into a totally new space, and the way that I can go anywhere—even magical places that don’t actually exist—and be anyone, whenever I want to.
What is it about bookmaking that draws you in?
Brianna: I think it’s the magical quality of books where they’re both flat design and sculpture. I like the cumulative magic that comes when different people bring their good ideas to something. I feel that as a visual artist by myself, I’m slightly above average in talent (how do you even measure?) and when I work with a few other people who are slightly better than average at what they do, the thing we make hits it out of the park.
What does language look like to you?
Natalie: Language is always changing. I find it really interesting how language is always shifting and moving. I think it’s this beautiful, mutable thing, and changes in language should be celebrated. It’s proof we’re growing as a society, that the words that represent our ideas are growing and moving to best illustrate new concepts we’ve come up with. I spend a lot of time on the internet and my speech changes depending on what is floating around on Twitter. I find myself reaching for Specific Capitalization for Emphasis a lot when I’m texting, switching between “you” and “u” depending on what tone I want to convey, using ,,,,,, when I’m confused. I think it’s brilliant how we use language and punctuation and grammar in technically “incorrect” ways to add tone and intonation into typed speech, and I’m really excited to see how this translates into literature.
Why the name “Penrose”?
Brianna: Roger Penrose was a mathematician who created a geometric, visual sequence to express the golden ratio. Penrose tiling is a binary tiling system that extends along a flat surface forever (like a pattern but without repeating). Penrose tiling also has five-fold radial symmetry, like a five-pointed star, or a pentagon. Pen- is also the prefix for 5, and a rose-window is one of those round, radial stained glass windows in gothic cathedrals. It blows my mind that Roger Penrose just happened to have the perfect last name for his work. Plus I’m a sucker for alliterative names.
Natalie: Brianna suggested it (because she’s an incredible, brilliant math nerd) and I also really liked the fact that the pen- in the name suggested that we made literature that had a lot of care put into it (written with a pen rather than a computer) and the -rose also reminds people that we make beautiful things. Roses always have a romantic connotation to me, and I think that a lot of what we do at Penrose is romantic in terms of the care, beauty and effort we put into each publication.
Our ideation conversations are nebulous in a way that only creative folk who have wandering built intentionally into their work process can sustain. We circle around images, ideas, placements, materials, designs, tones and methods. Decisions aren’t preset markers. They are inevitable arrivals. It is a kind of joy to work with people in this way.
Do you have a set editing process? Can you talk about what that’s like?
Natalie: When I decide I’m going to accept and edit a piece, the first thing I do is read it while actively trying to not analyze it. I find it’s important for me to get fully hooked onto a piece and enjoy it as I would an already published work because then I know what particular elements of the work I’m passionate about as a reader. From there, I do the first round of substantive edits on paper. I work best with big-picture edits when I have a physical book in front of me, and I work best with line and copy edits on a computer.
Editing is a hard task. It’s something that challenges everything you think you know, while also forcing you to rely on instinct. It’s rewarding, but it’s hard, and I think that every text I work on changes my editing process slightly, as I learn what worked and didn’t work with that specific piece.
Do you have rituals in your craft?
Recommend one. Name an inexplicable one.
Brianna: One of the things I learned during my work on Caterpillar Portraits is that I draw best when I’m working through the drawing, checking perspective, and form, and likeness. Originally, I drew the illustration on paper, worked through it, then traced it to the lino-block, and carved it. That’s too many translations and I was losing something. So now, I actually work the drawing on the lino block. The lines have better tension and a bit more immediacy? I have to be careful about that though because if you erase too much on a lino block you actually wear down a low spot that will print lighter than everything else.
Also, I binge Netflix while I book-bind.
Also! I never look at the manuscript while Natalie it editing it! I read part of it when we’re deciding if we want to go ahead with a project, and then I don’t look at it until it’s in final proof. I don’t want my impression of the story to be swayed by something that gets scrapped or build an illustration on a sentence that gets moved or changed.
What does the creative process sound like between you?
Natalie: We often talk about the Penrose Press Hive Mind as a joke, but honestly, a lot of times I feel that’s how we work together so well. I think a lot of the creative process between any group is about trust, ultimately, and Brianna is always the person I go to for input if I’m ever unsure of anything, and she does the same, from line edits to illustration colour choices. I don’t know if I could ever work on my own, now that I’ve experienced working so closely with another person. Having a second brain that you trust completely is an ideal scenario, and lets us be braver with our creative choices than I think we would be on our own.
Brianna: Have you ever experienced the foreign language phenomenon where you understand well enough but speaking is beyond you? It’s sometimes as if Natalie and I are speaking different languages that we can each understand more or less.
We also take turns playing creative brain and critical brain. I had a writing teacher who said that you could only be in one mode at a time. If you switch too early you’ll miss out on creativity, and if you never switch you’d be stuck in first draft land forever. Obviously considering our roles within Penrose we spend most of the time in our own zones, but when Natalie writes a blog post, I edit it.
How has your relationship with text changed since doing Penrose?
Natalie: I think I’m simultaneously more and less confident when editing a text now than I was when we started with Penrose. Before, I thought less about the author of the text when I was editing, probably because I was mostly editing work that would be handed in for some class or another and in the grand scheme of things, no one was really that emotionally invested in that type of written-at-2-am work. Now, I’m far more cognizant that the piece I’m manipulating and coaxing into its final form is one that means a lot to its author and that makes me a lot more careful with my edits. A lot of times, I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants through my entire relationship with the text—so much editing is about instinct, and that can feel a lot like you’re just winging it—but I’ve learned to trust my gut with the changes that I’m making. It hasn’t failed me yet.
What does inspiration look like?
Brianna: For me, inspiration often comes with the setting of rules. When I’m making a drawing I decide which colours I won’t use. When I’m making a series of prints I decide a cohesive style/composition/colour scheme/technique and I limit scenic interpretation by those rules. I think when I feel the most inspired is when a couple rules are set and the vague impressions of the whole are floating, untethered by words or sketches or even really clear images, and the project has the potential (that’s my favourite word) to be the best version of itself. Everything I want to do has the possibility of being perfect, and I haven’t hit any snags. It’s a great feeling. I think that’s why we (creatives) have such a hard time with critique; it pops the bubble.
I remember seeing the first linocuts for the Carp Dreams scroll. I also remember extended conversations about words. I remember sharing backstory about the manuscript and how it created a small but lovely shift. I remember thinking about placements. I remember looking at rows of ribbon. I remember not coming to launch with a script, but lots of possible things to share. My favourite thing about collaboration is the traces of dialogue that I carry with me long after the partnership has bloomed into its fullness and gone to new seasons.
Tell me the nerdiest thing on your mind right now.
Brianna: (ha! Remember, you asked!) In Edmonton the streets are organized by a numbered grid, like New York. Streets run North-South and Avenues run East-West. When you say an intersection out loud, you say it Street first, Avenue second. When you say or write a street number you use the letter suffix (1st instead of 1, 17th instead of 17). This is established knowledge. What I noticed today is that the addresses also correspond to the same cartesian logic. For example, my address is 10335 117th St and our apartment building is between 103rd Ave and 104th (think of it as 103.35). The library is at the intersection of 102nd St and 102nd Ave and their address is 10212. I can now find nearly anything in this city! I feel like I discovered a secret pattern. There is a really cool feeling (everything is a feeling with me) I get when I figure something out on my own and then someone tries to teach it to me. It’s like an overlap of satisfaction at being right and frustration that this teacher didn’t come along before I did the work myself.
Name a writer that’s a mood. Then name the mood.
Natalie: Neil Gaiman. He is sitting in your favourite chair with your favourite blanket and a long-forgotten cup of tea on a slightly foggy, slightly rainy October night with the window open just enough that you’re reminded of how cozy you are when the wind blows.
What’s a favourite anecdote of yours from working on all the manuscripts so far?
Brianna: I think we can acknowledge that all creative people have insecurity about the things that we make, and part of our job as publishers is to give our authors emotional support and reassurance. But then, we’re both creative people and historically I’ve expressed a lot more creative despair than Natalie. I had a particularly bad bout of doubt >:} right before we launched The Pink Of The Seams and I was crying to my partner about how I didn’t know if my contribution as an artist was compatible to helping authors in the ways that they most need to be helped, and he was all “no, you’re great, you’re so talented, I love you” and I remained totally miserable. And then I talked to Natalie and she was all “Shut up, you’re being stupid, this is what we’re going to do” and I felt immeasurably better. You need all kinds of love in your life.
Natalie: That’s definitely my favourite anecdote (not only because I like being right). I’m a firm believer in having a network of people who all offer different types of support. Sometimes you need that loving partner-level affirmation, and sometimes you need someone to tell you to just shut up.