An interview with Rollin Milroy, owner and creator of Heavenly Monkey, a remarkable letterpress and binding studio based out of Vancouver. In addition to its many individual followers, the productions of Heavenly Monkey are collected by Yale University, Brigham Young, the University of California, and many other institutions. In the following interview, Rollin shares details about his work, creative process, and plans for Heavenly Monkey.
Books Tell You Why: For those of our readers unfamiliar with Heavenly Monkey, could you give us a quick overview of your press and your focus areas?
Rollin: HM has been publishing books - almost always printed with a handpress - since 2000. Probably around 40 titles by now; I can’t be bothered to keep count anymore. From the start I’ve published books I would want to own. There is no agenda or focus per se. I swore I wouldn’t publish poetry - because it isn’t something I have a foundation in, plus the world is awash in fine-press poetry - and so far I’ve broken that rule at least four times. I’ve always been interested in printing history and things like press bibliographies, so those kinds of projects are always happening. But the publishing has been all over the map, which is one reason I don’t have subscribers, or even sell directly to collectors. No one would ever want every book HM publishes - the choices are too schizophrenic. Except for booksellers, who have the customer base to place such a variety of topics. So I only distribute through booksellers, and that’s worked well. They get the books to people and places I never would, and I only have to deal with a handful of booksellers, which really cuts down the time I lose to things like invoicing, shipping, and shmoozing.
I’ve always issued comparatively small editions - 50 max - which was less common when I started than it is now. I did this for a couple of reasons. Foremost is the simple constraint of how many sheets one can print on a handpress in a day. I’ve never liked a form to take more than one day (i.e. two days for a sheet, maybe three if there are additional color runs), in part because I print on damp paper, and it can only be kept damp for so long. Another reason for small editions was the annoyance I always felt when the colophon of a book mentioned a subset of “deluxe” copies. It always seemed like the main edition - the “regular” copies - was a compromise in materials or production, while the deluxe ones were the fullest expression of that book. So I imagined doing just the deluxe copies - uniform editions where everything was the best possible choice for the project.
That got corrupted pretty quickly, although I’ve preferred to use weaselly words like “variant” issue. I justified this to myself by approaching the variants simply as alternate presentations. I also gave in because so many people wanted something “extra.” I don’t think we’ve ever done a variant that contained actual content that made the book more complete or comprehensive than the other copies. I’ve always been interested in binding, and frustrated that so many presses seem to cheap out when it comes to the binding, so these variants usually have been opportunities for me to work with professional binders, using materials and techniques I’m not skilled with. I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of collaborations. Typically I just hand things over, give the binder some general thoughts about the project, and then stay out of the way while they play. I’ve never seen the point in inviting creative people into a project, and then telling them what to do. The fun lies in giving them an opportunity to go where they think the work should go. Sometimes it’s not where I would have taken it, but that’s not what matters: it’s about them, not me.
About a decade ago I started a parallel imprint, HM Editions, to publish books conceived by other people. Usually these are people who have a good idea but not the access to production or experience in publishing, so I contribute to the effort as required. Sometimes that means actually printing the book, sometimes it simply means being a sounding board during development and production, and then handling the marketing and distribution - the things artists are notoriously bad at. The HM Editions books that people probably would be most familiar with are the collaborations between Claudia Cohen and Barbara Hodgson. Their books have basically taken over HM Editions, to the point that they’ve become de facto partners in HM (minus any implied or real liabilities…). We’ll be issuing their latest work, Decorating Paper, this spring. It’s a massive two-volume survey of techniques from around the world for creating patterns on paper, with over 500 original samples in each set.
Books Tell You Why: What sets Heavenly Monkey apart from other fine press? What makes your books unique?
Rollin: I guess one aspect that is uncommon is that HM books are printed on a handpress, which means the paper is dampened, the type is inked by hand, the impression is pulled by hand (arm & back really), and as a result everything happens quite slowly. I published a whole book (Elements in Correlation) which was my long answer to why I print this way, while most other contemporary presses print with 1950’s-era commercial presses, papers, techniques and results.
Books Tell You Why: What is the history of Heavenly Monkey? Did you have any mentors? And, if you are willing to share the secret, what is the story behind the name?
Rollin: There certainly were people whose work inspired me. Robert Reid is one. When I saw his first book - a B.C. historical reprint titled The Fraser Mines Vindicated - which he printed on a treadle press while in university in the late ‘40s, I wanted to one day do something as visually & technically pure, as clean & simple as that book. He’s been a mentor and a friend for years.
I was introduced to the basics of letterpress during a week-long course with Jan & Crispin Elsted at Barbarian Press, around 1998. I couldn’t have done anything on a handpress without Gabriel Rummonds’ Printing with the Iron Handpress (which I think all letterpress printers, regardless of the kind of press they use, should read). But it’s not complicated, it’s just exacting, so you have to do your 10,000 hours, which is about what it took me to become proficient with a handpress and all its associated requirements (hand inking, damping paper, etc etc).
Regarding the name, it’s not really a secret, it’s just that the question is more interesting than the answer. There seems to be a standard structure for naming a press - the [blank] Press. Kind of like how all the bands in the ‘60s were The [somethings]. Eh. I wanted a name that would stand out in booksellers’ catalogues. I always thought The Press of the Indiana Kid had the kind or irreverence I wanted.
Books Tell You Why: Could you tell us about the physical operations behind Heavenly Monkey? What sort of presses do you use and why?
Rollin: My main press is an Ostrander-Seymour extra-heavy (Washington style) handpress, with a bed 20 x 26 inches. It came from Kalamazoo, and may have once met Paul Hayden-Duensing. It’s quite ugly - a mixture of mortuary green & bile yellow parts - but it’s beautiful to work with. I also have one of Steve Pratt’s foolscap Albions, which is beautiful but I’ve only used it twice. With the O-S right there, why would I use the puny Albion? I need to show it more love.
From the start I wanted to contain how much “stuff” I accumulated. When you’re using obsolete technologies, there’s always the urge to take in every piece of equipment that comes your way because you might need it “some day.” The Washington is a big enough anchor, I don’t need lots of others. I have three California cabinets of type. The latest addition was a drawer of 24-pt Deepdene cast for me by LA Type & Rule, for a new project I’ll be doing with Harold Budd. I also use polymer as & when it makes sense. (I don’t understand people who fetishize metal type but are happy to have it printed on machine-made paper with a mechanized press. It’s not the what that matters, it’s the how.)
While most of my projects involve one or more collaborators, I work alone - the setting, the printing, sometimes the binding. I’m happy to answer any technical questions people have (where I can), but I have no interest in taking on staff or apprentices. I don’t do any commission work: I have no interest in printing things for other people.
My latest addition to the studio is a small etching press. I’ve always been interested in books that combine two or more printing techniques on the same sheet, particularly letterpress and intaglio. In the past I’ve had to rely on an intaglio printer to help with this, but now I’ve got it all in one place, so I’ll be experimenting with that this year.
Books Tell You Why: On your website, you mention that the digital age of books may become a “renaissance” for well-crafted books. Has this been your experience so far? How do you see this playing out for antiquarian books?
Rollin: I spent most of the past year doing research on a book called Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) published in 1992. It’s infamous because a lot of people think it doesn’t actually exist (it does). It’s a complicated story, but it involves a long poem by William Gibson that was issued on a disc which auto-encrypted the content as soon as it was opened - you could only read the poem once. I found this comment from the book’s publisher, Kevin Begos, which I think reflects my own opinion about the future of the well-made book:
"Even Gibson had written in his books about a future age in which hand-made objects would still be the most incredibly valued things. Even if computer networks got incredibly powerful and able to re-create reality, an actual hand-made object, whether it was a book or a sculpture or piece of jewelry, would still be incredibly special.”
The revival of vinyl is an example of this desire to have well-made physical manifestations of art that’s important to you. I don’t think book collecting will ever be the common middle-class activity it was 100 years ago, but I think a text that deserves some permanence - a physical presence in your life - will have to exhibit the best of the crafts that combine to make a book.
Regarding antiquarian books, I’m less sure. For many centuries their primary value was the content - right through much of the 20th century, scholars built their own reference libraries. That’s gone. I’m certainly not an expert in this area, but I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the antiquarian trade is now focused on books (deemed) important for some reason unrelated to the content - the printer, the type used, the binding, association, etc etc. Simply being a comprehensive and well-edited collection of so-and-so’s works isn’t enough anymore, because I can get it all online.
Books Tell You Why: You collaborate on your books with some very talented people. Could you tell us about these relationships and how they began?
Rollin: HM has always been about collaborating, preferably with people not already making books. I felt the same names keep popping up between presses, like rappers who appear on each other’s records. I wanted to bring new talent to the game. I’m not an artist, so if I wanted to publish a book with any kind of imagery, I needed to recruit talent.
Shinsuke Minegishi was the first artist I worked with. I saw a suite of wood engravings he did as a student at Emily Carr (the big art college in Vancouver), and chased him down. We’ve done a number of projects together over the years. Need to do another one soon.
Another Emily Carr student I encountered was Briony Morrow-Cribbs She was already making beautiful books full of etchings of bizarre creatures, with these dense zoological descriptions. She had unique artistic talent but also an appreciation for technique that seems lacking in many young artists. So she had an open invitation to do a book. I had to prod her a few times, but eventually a text that inspired her turned up, and after two years of back & forth, we published Iskandariya. It remains, in my opinion, one of HM’s best books - the execution matched the vision. Briony’s fantastic.
I knew Barbara Hodgson’s work because she was publishing engaging illustrated fiction & non-fiction books starting in the late ‘90s. Not picture books, but more like an artist’s book. She did all the design work, and incorporated a lot of her own artwork, so the narrative wasn’t driven just by the words, padded out with pictures: the images were as much a part of the narrative as the words. So I knew that, if you removed all the technical constraints she faced when creating a book for a trade publisher, the possibilities would be boundless, and they have been. I met her somewhere and floated the idea of a book around 2002. She agreed to try something, which ended up being Good & Evil in the Garden, and we’ve just gone on from there.
Some collaborations, like Harold Budd, are just gifts that fall from the sky. The trick is not dropping them once caught. Claudia was another. She moved to the West Coast around 2005 and didn’t know many people out here. One day I got a call: "Hi, it’s Claudia Cohen." Of course I knew and loved her work, and therefore couldn’t imagine why she’d be calling me. That’s been one of the best gifts. And then being in the room to watch what she and Barbara come up with - it’s a privilege.
Books Tell You Why: What is the process of creating books at Heavenly Monkey? Could you give us an overview your operations from beginning to end?
Rollin: It basically just a loop that continues until a book pops out. If it’s someone else’s book, like the Claudia/Barbara collaborations, I’m just available as and when needed (which isn’t much). If it’s one of my own - just me, no collaborators - it starts with getting the text hammered out. My background is in journalism and publishing, so I’m quite comfortable writing non-fiction. (Whether or not I should is for others to decide…) But I try not to let HM become my vanity press. If a topic interests me and I can find an existing text or suitable author, great. If not and I’m insistent, I’ll do the research and see what I can come up with.
If it’s a collaboration with an artist, usually they bring in the text, so then it’s a question of us talking about presentation options. You go back and forth for as long as it takes to develop a joint vision. I would never try to direct the artist’s work, but I do bring up logistical issues - how will we print that on the same sheet as this, or how would can different sheets or formats be combined to work in a binding. Practical things.
Once the overall vision is settled, it’s a pretty simple division of labor according to who is best skilled for each task. Generally I do the overall design and setting, the letterpress, and often the binding. I have also done some relief printing - engravings and linocuts - but I prefer whenever possible for the artist to print their own work. That’s why combining their parts and mine takes some planning.
Books Tell You Why: Your publications are quite varied. How do you choose your projects? Is it a difficult decision process? Do you have any personal favorites?
I once got to work on a small project with David Sylvian and while going back and forth about something I asked why - just for my own edification - he wanted to go a certain direction with some aspect. His answer was, simply, intuition. I found that incredibly insightful & also freeing. I’m not interested in explaining what HM does or why. The great thing about books is that people encounter them in their own unique ways. Resonance, maybe, is a goal? And something can resonate at different levels, depending what (who) it’s interacting with.
In terms of favorites, I basically never look at a HM book once it’s issued. There are no secrets in it for me, and more often than not all you see is the shortcomings. There are a couple I can look at and not feel useless. Iskandariya definitely. The second collection of Harold’s poems, Angel. The Sylvian broadside (Uncommon Deities). The second in the HM Artist’s Pamphlet series, My Dark Room. Those come to mind. Types/Paper/Print looks OK and serves the function for which it was intended, which is to be the HM inhouse type reference when starting a new project. (I also like that none of the Lovecraft fans have yet realized it’s the first separate publication of one of his short stories). And although it was printed on a little table top press in tiny type, with inconsistent results, my first real book (Fragments & Glimpses) is OK. It’s a biography of Aldus’ typecutter, Francesco Griffo, told entirely through quotes from various sources. I might do an enlarged and illustrated second edition of that.
Books Tell You Why: You recently upgraded operations at Heavenly Monkey. What did that involve?
Rollin: Mostly a lot of me talking about it but not doing much. I’ve landed in a slightly larger & newer space in a very kool part of Vancouver - surrounded by artists’ studios. I’ve always likened HM’s studio to the kind of boat people sail solo around the world - everything needs to be close to hand, tidy, and must justify the space it takes up. For the most part, I have resisted the urge to adopt every piece of equipment that comes my way. But I do have a weakness for book & copy presses.
Books Tell You Why: What projects are currently in the works at Heavenly Monkey? Any major plans for 2015?
Rollin: One of the koolest collaborations I’ve enjoyed has been working with the composer Harold Budd. I’ve been listening to his music, regularly & heavily, since high school (i.e. early ‘80s). I got the opportunity to co-publish his first collection of poems in 2009, through a mutual friend, and that’s spun into several other projects. Right now we’re working on a new collection of poems that’s connected to the series of compositions he wrote & recorded for short films by the artist Jane Maru (available from Darla Records). She’ll be contributing artwork, and we have a few other ideas we’re kicking around. I generally don’t like to meet people whose art or work I like - I prefer to maintain the distance & mystery. But getting to know & work with Harold has been everything I could have hoped for. He’s a true artist, and not being one myself, it’s fascinating & inspiring to see how a true artist creates. Shinsuke Minegishi is the same. It was thanks to Harold that I got to do the project with David Sylvian, who’s working in a place all his own. These people - artists - give me glimpses of things that just aren’t part of my everyday life.
Claudia Cohen and I have been kicking around a couple of book ideas, and need to pick one to focus on. Briony Morrow-Cribbs and I have just settled on a new project that we’re excited about. A lot of people have asked when HM would publish more of her work. I also gotta get around to finally publishing the long-promised book about George Wither’s 1634 book of emblems, which will include a few original leaves, and a facsimile of the “lotterie” game that he included at the back but which is missing from most extant copies. That’ll happen in 2015. If I say it in public often enough, it’ll have to happen.