Fighting words, champion prints


AT STONEY ROAD PRESS the art hangs on pegs from the ceiling. Today, Donald Teskey prints are freshly racked overhead, like the most expensive tea towels you can imagine. They are landscapes, identical but for the tiny differences that come from being hand-printed, and they are being settled in for a drying that will take weeks.

The writer Roddy Doyle is here, but not to see these. His focus instead is on the sheets gathered in a corner beside an old proof press. This is where his latest book is being printed. Painstakingly. Two hours per printed page.

It will feature short stories by 10 major authors – Russell Banks, Colm Tóibín, John Banville, Richard Bausch, Anne Enright, David Mitchell, Joyce Carol Oates, Sam Shepard, Salman Rushdie and Annie Proulx – plus a Sean Scully etching. There will be only 150 copies, each signed by the authors. It will cost €1,950, so it’s clear that we’re talking about a limited market for this limited edition.

That, of course, is the idea. It’s a fundraiser for Fighting Words, Doyle’s workshop for young writers, which has had tens of thousands of children through its moving bookcase in its three years at Russell Street, in Dublin’s north inner city. The book, which Doyle has edited but to which he has contributed only a perfunctory foreword (“I don’t think it’s good form for an editor to include his own work”), has been more than a year in the making, with the stories delivered last April.

Each story is a mere 800 words long. In the case of Richard Bausch, his is exactly 800 words. That would be impressive enough, if he hadn’t sent a second story by way of choice, and it was exactly 800 words too. “It was a little hell choosing,” says Doyle.

There was no set theme, nor were there guidelines other than length. Proulx has written about visiting Australia after its recent dramatic weather; Mitchell’s story contains characters from his novel Black SwanGreen; Banville’s is an essay on sleep and shift working; Tóibín’s is about a boy photographer. Only Rushdie and Banks overstep the 800 words by a smidgen, but they were given latitude, as they had stepped in late for a couple of writers who could not deliver as hoped.

“It’s funny how 800 words in a Jennifer Johnston novel would be five or six pages,” says Doyle, “but to someone else would be a page and a half. I suppose Russell writes big books, Annie writes big books, but they also write short stories. So if you’re a long-distance runner, you’re starting only when you reach page 800.” Each author then received a box with 150 pages of the thick, serrated paper on which the book is being printed, a pencil and a square stencil within which to write their name.

“I think one of the things we didn’t take into account was the geographical distance,” says Doyle. “We were just thinking great names. And when they said yes we didn’t realise that, for example, Annie Proulx lives down a lane. Now, a lane in an Irish context is a hundred yards. A lane in Annie’s case is somewhere probably about 43 miles long. And you can’t expect to dump the box at the end of the lane.”

Doyle doesn’t collect books – (“No. I read them but I don’t collect them”) – but he has gathered a couple of exceptions. “When I was shortlisted for the [Man Booker prize], twice, I didn’t realise it at the time, but you get this designer leather-bound edition of your book. The first one was The Van, and I got this incredible, mad cover of the book. And the guy who designed it,James Brockman, had gone into a wrecking yard and taken bits of an ambulance and embedded bits of the vehicle into the leather of the book, you know. And the inside cover had what looked like an old, check oilcloth, like you’d get in an old-fashioned chipper, with real ketchup stains, glossed over so it stayed as it should be. Amazingly creative thing. And nothing would persuade me to give it to anybody.

“And the same with Paddy Clarke; the same man, coincidentally, did it. And again all these elements from the book: a torn piece from a trouser knee; a match embedded in the leather. All these hints of what was contained in the story. Wonderful; really, really wonderful. And all done in a beautiful box. And I have no idea of its commercial value or any of that. It was just an extraordinary surprise to get it; beyond words to describe it.”

Doyle’s father, Rory, was a compositor at a printing press. “The house was always full of bits of copper, and paper with serrated edges. He’d get quite weepy in here. I should bring him here some day.

“The main reason for this book was to raise money for Fighting Words, like everybody else is trying to raise money for their organisations, but we spent a long hard time thinking who we would ask. So we wanted the writers to match the beauty of the book.”

This new book was inspired by the success of a similar endeavour for the Ireland Chair of Poetry. All 125 copies of Many Mansions, signed by contributing Irish poets, were sold, at €1,000 each. That was also printed by Stoney Road Press, although for it they used a press at the National Print Museum. Such a press is difficult to get now, says James O’Nolan, director of Stoney Road Press. “There’s a revival of letterpress printing in the US, so all these presses go immediately; it’s very hard to get them.”

That same traditional letterpress has been borrowed from the museum. “All of this is printed on this very old proof press,” says O’Nolan. “This would have been used just to take a proof to check everything is okay before it goes on a production press. But for small limited runs it’s very good.” Only Sean Scully’s etching has been reproduced elsewhere, by his regular printer in New York. The stories are done here. “It takes two hours to print a page,” says O’Nolan. “So it’s quite slow, but the result is handprinted and unique.” After printing, the books will be bound by Antiquarian Bookcrafts at Marlay Park, in Rathfarnham, and then placed in handmade slip cases. Each author will get a copy, and then it’s down to demand.

“I won’t name figures, but I would be hoping that the money raised from this book would be one-fifth or one-sixth of the money we need,” says Doyle. “That would lift a certain amount of anxiety. We would raise enough to stay open for two, maybe three months . . . We’re associated with a growing group of major writers, which is fantastic. All coming from different directions and areas. So it’s not just the money we’d raise, although that’s the primary purpose.”

Fighting Words classes remain free, and the centre quickly developed its range beyond the printed word into areas such as documentary film-making and graphic novels. “The mere mention of graphic novels and they’re pawing at the door to get in.”

It is reaching a point at which it will start to develop an alumni, where the names will leave the classes and find shelf space. “We have a thing called Write Club on Wednesday afternoons. There is a girl called Bríd Ni Chomáin, who had a story in [last year’s Fighting Words] supplement in The Irish Times. She’s still only 16, and I’ve no doubt at all that we’ll be hearing from her. The way she approaches the work, it’s not something she’s doing just because she wants to do it at the moment. She’ll be doing it again and again and again. So, yeah, give us another couple of years and we’ll see them.”;