Communion Of Dreams


Take the long view.

Last fall, I embarked on a long-term project: doing exterior repairs and repainting our 140 year old Victorian Italianate home. As I’ve mentioned previously, this place has been in my wife’s family since the early 50s, and in all that time has basically been white with some color trim work. We’ve decided to change that, and here’s a little before & after from last fall to show you the difference:

I started back on this section of the house for two reasons: 1) it was fairly simple in terms of ‘gingergbread’, so it would give me a chance to work out the color scheme and get used to painting, and 2) the small, almost square window there in the corner actually needed a fair amount of carpentry work, to repair a stubborn leak that had caused some structural damage. I wanted to get that done before the damage got worse.

Anyway, I worked on it for a couple months last fall, until Winter settled in. And I got back to it in May, once the long and strange Spring turned reliably nice enough. I’m now finishing up work on the next major section, and as I’m inclined to do I’ve been posting progress pics on Facebook. And I’ve noticed a curious thing.

My friends have been posting encouraging comments as I go, which I expected (and hey, a little encouragement helps). But occasionally someone will post a comment to the effect that with all that I’ve accomplished, I must be getting close to being finished.

Say what?

Now, partly this is just due to the difficulty in getting a handle on just how big this place is. I mean, it’s no mansion, but it is a big ol’ 19th century farmhouse. It’s big enough that I can’t honestly take a decent pic to give a sense of the size. But take a look at the pics above. Note how there’s basically three different walls there. Got that? Yeah. Now, in total, this place has 20+ such walls (including the ones on the second story that are discrete from the ground floor walls. I also need to completely redo the 10′ wide front steps and railings, as well as the little side porch floor and railings. And about a third of the house has more gingerbread detailing that will take extra time.

Let’s put it this way: I’ll be very lucky if I can get it all done this year. Hell, I expect that it’ll take the better part of next year’s good weather to get it done.

And this seems to come as a surprise to many people.

But that’s not the curious thing.

To me, the curious thing is that a lot of people seem to think that working on something of this scale would be daunting. Intimidating. Scary. Whereas for me, it’s the most natural thing in the world, and not daunting or intimidating in the slightest.

Partly, I think that is just the perspective that comes with getting to my age (mid 60s): you tend to see larger arcs to life.

But it’s also because I’m a novelist. St Cybi’s Well took me the better part of a decade to write. Even discounting the long periods when I was just thinking through the novel, or was otherwise preoccupied, I still spent several years actually writing and rewriting it. I’m used to thinking in terms of taking the long view. Of working a little on a project when I can, slowly making progress, page by page, wall by wall. Here’s where I am currently:

For scale, that storm window is approx. 2′ x 8′.

I should get the repairs and priming done tomorrow, and the rest of the window frame painted on Monday. The storm window itself needs some repairs, then painting. Then there’s an identical one just out of the frame of the picture above.

One step at a time.

Jim Downey



Well, well, well …

Last May, I wrote about the process of designing and executing the artistic leather bindings of Communion of Dreams. Now that all of my Kickstarter backers have made their choices, I thought I’d give a preview of the process of designing and executing the artistic leather bindings of St Cybi’s Well.

I had a piece of Preseli Bluestone from the quarry at Craig Rhosyfelin (which is the source for the Stonehenge Bluestones in the inner ring). This site appears in a scene in chapter 8. Well, I had the stone cut into 14 slices (two times the magical number 7). Which I then used to construct a “well” as the cover design. The center of the well has thin blue leather to represent the water in the well. Like this:

Actual stones on the right, laser-cut ‘stones’ under the leather on the left.

Each of the 14 leather-bound copies will have one actual slice of the stone mounted on top of the leather, and thirteen ‘stones’ of bookboard under the leather for bas relief. In this way, all fourteen copies of the leather-bound edition will be connected into one “well”. Here are two examples:

I’m offering a choice between curvilinear and rectilinear water in the well.

As with the titling for Communion of Dreams, the letterforms are etched using my Glowforge laser, then infilled with real gold leaf.

The other major design decision was what to do for the endpapers. Communion of Dreams had marbled endpapers. For St Cybi’s Well I wanted something different. Thinking through the various visuals in the book, one recurrent image I used was of a Celtic spiral. A symbol of whirlpools and infinity, but also of the transition between realms of reality. Combine that with the ‘healing energy’ in the novel characterized as being a luminous blue. So this is what I came up with: a thin sparkly blue spiral, cut with the laser from commercial glitterpaper stock. It will be mounted onto black endpapers, one each on the paste-down sheets front and rear. Here’s an example:

Technically tricky to mount it without smearing the adhesive, but also making sure the spiral is uniform.

I do have all the text blocks sewn up and ready to use. I’ve ordered the leather, and soon will be completing these bindings. There are five text blocks and five stones (numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, and 11) still available. If you’re interested in one, you can still choose your color of leather. Details here. Once I finish the nine books for my Kickstarter backers, I’ll just finish the remaining five in leather of my choosing (and raise the price).

I’ll post pics when I have the first batch finished.

Jim Downey



At long last …

It’s been five years since I last wrote about my efforts to come up with a satisfactory cover design for the premium leather edition of Communion of Dreams. Well, needless to say, a lot has happened since then. Not the least of which was getting, and learning to use, my Glowforge laser.

And now I’ve finally resolved the many different design and execution issues to my satisfaction, to the point where I’m completing the promised leather-backed copies for my Kickstarter supporters. Here it is:

This is going to be a bit about this binding, and how it differs from the hardcover cloth binding.

First thing, the sewing is different. Rather than just being sewn onto linen tapes, the books are sewn onto heavy linen cords:

Why the weird arrangement? So that those cords provide additional texture to the spine of the finished book, along the location of where the tree branches are (see the first pic above). Once the sewing was done, the text blocks were glued up and rounded slightly. All of that was very straight-forward.

However, as noted in that blog post in 2016, the problem I had was trying to achieve the raised texture of the tree for the rest of the cover. I played around with a bunch of different solutions, until I settled on using the laser to cut out a slightly abstracted version of the Burr Oak image:

That’s in the bed of the laser. The material is archival 50pt board. Trying to cut out such an image by hand would take me hours, probably. The laser does it in about four minutes. (Though I did spend some considerable amount of time coding the design so the laser would do it.)

Here’s the image free of the surrounding board:

That is then pasted onto a sheet of paper, and the book cover boards are mounted on the back in the appropriate location. Then it is time to mount the leather, and impress it such that the tree is in relief, with this result:

(Actually, that was a practice piece, not the final version pictured above. But I forgot to take an image of the final version at this stage.)

The edges of the leather are then turned-in, and the corners formed. This gives you a finished case (what bookbinders call the cover).

Next, need to do the titling. And this is where the laser once again comes in very handy, though it took me a while to get just the right technique worked out. After the design for the title is done, the leather is masked and then engraved with the laser to an appropriate depth:

Once that is done, the engraved areas are cleaned of residual charred leather, and gilding size applied:

Once that cures, then it’s time to apply the gold leaf:

Now, that’s real gold, in multiple layers, about $25 worth. This process is different than traditional gilding done by bookbinders, so I had to work up a whole different process to do it (based on my experience with traditional gilding). The result is very satisfactory, though, since I have a much greater range of options for the final design.

Once the titling work was done, it was time to prepare to mount the text block to the case. First, I tear the outer page of the outer signature, and trim the cords to the appropriate length:

This combination, with the two liner tabs, will make for a *very* secure mounting to insure the cover and text block stay together. Then, you fray out the linen cords, so that they will not present excess bulk inside the cover:

Then the whole thing is pasted out and mounted inside the case, similar to how the hardcover cloth bindings were done. Once everything is dry and secure, I added endpapers of hand-marbled paper I made:

Giving the finished product:

I tried a lot of different color combinations, and have decided that this is the one I think works the best (and echoes the original cover nicely). My Kickstarter backers have the option of choosing a different color, but henceforth this will be the only color option available for other collectors.

Next, after finishing these bindings: designing the premium leather binding for St Cybi’s Well.

Jim Downey



Let’s talk economics.

Last week I went through the mechanics of turning words into books. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the economics of that, as well as being an author.

When I set up the Kickstarter for St Cybi’s Well lo these many years ago, a lot of my estimates in deciding on what goals to shoot for were based on … blind faith, to be perfectly honest.

I’d published Communion of Dreams, and had some sense of the possible income that could generate, as well as the amount of work that went into writing/editing/formatting it. But I really had no idea what the costs would be for printing and hand-binding copies of that book or the yet unwritten St Cybi’s Well. I had a pretty good handle on how much time it would take me to do the hand binding, based on my book conservation work. And likewise, what the cost of materials would be, other than the printing. Now that I’ve gone through all of that with both books, I have a much better idea of how costs break down, so I thought I would share all of that.

Based on 55 copies (edition of 53, plus two author/artist proof copies), the actual out-of-pocket expense runs about $50 per copy for the two different books. That covers the cost of the oversize archival paper (so the grain/drape of the pages is correct for hand binding), the printing, and going to collect the printed pages. It also covers the cost of archival bookboard and cover cloth. (The leather copies are two or three times as much, depending on the actual leather used.) Were I to bind a single copy, it would take me about 2 hours of labor. If I bind multiple copies at a time, that drops to about 1.5 hours of labor. (Leather is about 2x the labor.)

My Kickstarter goal was $17,000. Which succeeded. After deducting the fees paid to Kickstarter, and the costs of the different “rewards/premiums” for the backers, I wound up with about $12,000. Which, truthfully, isn’t a bad advance for a relatively unknown author.

It took me seven years of writing work to finish St Cybi’s Well, rather than the one or two years I originally expected. That was both embarrassing and stressful, since I made promises to people I didn’t fulfill. But it’s over, and everyone seems happy with the end product, so let’s just talk about the amount of labor that went into it. I’d conservatively guesstimate that I have something on the order of 2,000 hours of labor in writing, rewriting, editing, and then composing (the last is mostly thanks to my Good Lady Wife) the book. That *might* be as much as twice as long as it took me to do the same with Communion of Dreams, though spread out over a longer period of time. So, do the math, and I earned about $6 per hour.

That’s just the Kickstarter, of course. Now that the book is done, I’ll continue to earn money on purchases of the downloads, printed paperbacks, and special order hand-bound copies. How much is hard to say. I have had about 40,000 downloads of Communion of Dreams, though a big chunk of those are free downloads. Still, with Amazon’s system, 2/3 of every sale goes to the author (as opposed to like 5-7% for conventional royalties with a publisher), and that adds up. To date, I’ve only had about a thousand downloads of St Cybi’s Well, and most of those have been free downloads. Which has been a little disappointing, but we’ll see how things go over time.

As for the printed paperback copies, there I earn a bit more from Amazon than I would for the downloads, but not a lot. And they don’t amount to very many sales. The signed copies I sell directly do a little better still, but again, that’s just a handful of books per year.

As for the handbound books, there I do make a lot more, about $150 per copy. But my conservation labor is billed at $200 per hour, so at 1.5 hours of labor, I’m making half of what I would professionally. The return on the leather bound copies is even worse.

So, why do it? Why even offer those books on the websites?

Because I enjoy it. I enjoy knowing that the books that I create will be enjoyed, perhaps cherished. Read, and passed down to children and grandchildren. Like most artists, I’m willing to trade some financial reward for that satisfaction, and I can afford to do so. Maybe it shouldn’t be the case, and it wouldn’t be the case ideally, but we do what we can under the circumstances.

Finished product.

Anyway, my books will be available for free download tomorrow (the First of the month, as always). Give ’em a try. If you like ’em, you’re always welcome to either purchase a download or one of the physical copies later, if you can afford to do so. But don’t feel guilty if you can’t; as noted I can afford to give them away, and take joy in knowing people read them.

Jim Downey



Turning words into books.

As I noted a couple of months ago, I found a printer to produce the pages for a hand-bound copy of St Cybi’s Well. This is a photo-essay of the process of turning those pages into finished books. This is not intended to be actual instruction on how to bind books.

My printer for Communion of Dreams had been bought-out and was no longer capable of doing the printing for St Cybi’s Well. I was able to source a new printer after some trouble. Everything was slowed down due to Covid, of course. Eventually I was able to drive over to Wichita KS to pick up the printed pages.

Printed pages and color cover stock. Note that these are oversize. This is necessary to make sure the ‘grain’ of the paper runs the correct way, so that the pages will turn properly once the book is bound. They get trimmed down after binding.

Each section (group of pages) has to be folded, then punched consistently to allow for sewing.

It’s easier to do the laser-design work on the section before binding. The design is that of the St Melangell Centre, of a hare, at Pennant Melangell. This is the location in the book where much of the action takes place.
Once the individual sections are all punched, they are gathered into books and then sewn. This style of binding is “sewn on tapes”.

Sewn text blocks. Note that these are oversize, using the full printed sheets.
The sewn text blocks, now cut down to finished size. This is done individually, using a c. 1915 guillotine.
I designed a simple thin-board jig using my laser, which allowed me to mark on the cut bookcloth where to mount the archival bookboard.
The marked sheets of bookcloth.
Mounted bookboard on the bookcloth.
Completed case, with the edges of bookcloth turned in and additional liners added. Those liners are needed to balance the strain on the boards cause by mounting the color cover stock label.
Exterior of the case, with color cover stock mounted.
Text blocks now lined with support paper along the spine, and endbands added at the head and tail. The outer page of the first and last section has been cut down to function as an additional hinge. This, combined with the sewing tapes, is sufficiently strong to mount the text block to the case covers.

Text blocks mounted into case covers, and allowed to dry under weight.
Finished books. If you look closely you’ll note a slight wedge shape to the text blocks. I wanted a flat spine to match the hand-bound copies of Communion of Dreams, but St Cybi’s Well is longer, and so required more sections. This made the swelling at the spine more noticeable. Once the books are opened and read once or twice, the wedge shape should disappear.
Finished copies.

If you would like your own hand-bound copy of St Cybi’s Well or Communion of Dreams, click the links. Each edition is limited to just 53 numbered copies, plus two Artist’s/Author’s proof copies. At either link you can also order one of the remaining copies of the Amazing Koob, as well as signed paperback copies. And of course, you can always download the books from Amazon (remember, they’re free on the first of each month).

That completes the next-to-last phases of my Kickstarter. The final phase will be the design and completion of the leather bindings.

Jim Downey



Reinvention in the time of Covid

So, about a year ago I made a fairly big change in my life, and posted the following to my professional website:

September 1, 2019 – Please note:  due to increasing difficulties with arthritis in my hands, I am curtailing how much conservation work I am doing.  Henceforth I am prioritizing established clients and works of notable historic value.

Yeah, this has been a developing problem for me the last few years, limiting just how much detailed work I could do. It’s gotten to the point where I can typically do only a few hours a week of the difficult, careful work required. Other kinds of hand work isn’t nearly as demanding, unless it involves shock to my hands, so for the most part I’ve been able to continue with the rest of my life with minimal difficulty.

So, after posting that, I started referring new queries about conservation work elsewhere, and focused on my established clients and institutional work.

Then Covid-19 showed up.

After we got a good handle on just what that meant, I stopped meeting with even established clients. Because while my health today is just about better than it ever has been, I am nonetheless at very high risk of having a very bad case of C-19, should I catch it. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t survive it. So I’ve been telling clients that things can wait until there’s a safe & effective vaccine, and I’ve gotten my dose(s) of it.

Which is fine, because there’s rarely a reason to “rush” conservation work. And besides, I had a backlog of work waiting for me in my safe, as I always have.

Well, had.

Last week one of my institutional clients popped by to collect the last couple of items I had to work on. Just a brief, masked, socially-distanced visit. Previous projects had been mailed off, or likewise returned to clients with minimal contact/interaction.

And now the cupboard is bare, so to speak. For the first time in literal decades.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that Covid had likewise changed something else for the first time in decades: my usual mild bipolar cycle. That’s still disrupted. Well, honestly, it’s almost nonexistent. I don’t really have any sense of change currently; I’m in just a new, vague limbo which is neither good nor bad. It’s an odd feeling. Like so much, these days.

Anyway, to ‘run out’ of conservation work isn’t really a problem for me. We’re fortunate enough to be financially stable at this point in our lives, and I had been accounting on much reduced income from conservation for a while.

And, in a way, it’s good. Just this last week I also got the ‘proof’ of the printed pages of St Cybi’s Well, so I can do the hand-bound editions of that book soon. Here’s the proof copy:

SCW proof

That’ll keep me busy for some time.

And beyond that? Well, reinvention is an American’s birthright. I have more artistic impulses to explore and revisit. I have more writing I want to do (no, I’m making no promises of anything). I have life I want to enjoy.

So, for the time being, I’m going to take reasonable precautions to make sure that I can enjoy it, and do those things. I’ll get back to meeting with clients, and doing book conservation, when it is safe (in my assessment) to do so.

Take care of yourself.

Jim Downey

 

 

 



The Covid Shift

I’ve been pretty open about my mild bipolar condition since I started this blog a dozen years ago. It’s real, and I have to pay attention to it, but I’ve understood it and been able to manage it safely for decades. My natural bipolar cycle (from trough-to-trough or peak-to-peak) is very long, about 18 months, plus or minus a few weeks, and has been remarkably stable since I was in my 30s.

Until now.

As expected, I hit the bottom of my trough sometime last December. I tend to be stuck in that condition (or in the manic peak, which is actually more dangerous) for a month or so. Then things will slowly start to rise, I’ll feel the depression clear, and energy will return for six or seven months until I get into a truly manic state. And early this year, going into the spring, that’s what happened. And that, in large part, is why I was able to finally finish St Cybi’s Well.

Of course, at the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Now, I’ll be honest: Covid-19 has had minimal impact on my life. I’m semi-retired from book conservation due to increasing problems with osteoarthritis in my hands, so I seldom meet with clients. I’m a strong introvert, so I rarely feel the need for much human company beyond time spent with my wife, and easily resist temptations for socializing. I have plenty of things to do at home, and our financial situation is stable. The lockdown and need to be socially distant were not a hardship.

But still, Covid had an impact on me. More than I realized. Because rather than continuing my bipolar climb, I started the downturn back towards depression sometime in May without ever entering into a manic state. It took some weeks before I could be certain that this shift was real (minor fluctuations up & down is normal within the overall bipolar cycle), but it’s been long enough that I am now certain.

When you’ve lived with something like this for literally decades, it’s disorienting and a little frightening to have it suddenly change like this.  I can’t predict my baseline psychological state a month from now, or six months from now, or a year from now. I don’t know if this is just a one-off truncation of my more manic period, or if the cycle is now shortened, or is gone altogether.

Kinda like what the pandemic has done to a lot of things we used to consider ‘normal’. We’re left off balance, uncertain of the future.

Now, there’s no reason to worry about me. Having lived with periodic depression for so long, I well understand how to deal with it. My coping skills are very good (writing like this is one example), and I know what to watch for, when to turn to help if I need it.

But take this as a cautionary note, and pay attention to your own mental health. This pandemic is more far-reaching than you might realize.

Jim Downey

 



“If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales …”

I’m just going to post this entire review:

Reviewed in the United States on July 28, 2020

From the very first page, St Cybi’s Well steeps you in the rich culture and landscape of Wales. It has a feel of ancient otherworldliness—until the scientific and political realities hit you full-on.

This book sounds uncanny echoes of our present predicament: Pandemic. Police. Politics. Racism. Rioting. Revolt. You can hear the ripping of the social fabric as fear overcomes reason.

And yet, there is hope. Hope for healing. Hope for a better future. Hope for us all.

With protagonist Dernell Sidwell’s quest for hope/healing/redemption set in the mystical, ancient sites of Wales, the reader feels deeply drawn to the power of the past—all while checking over their shoulder for what new nightmare the present has to offer.

You’d think the author was a time traveler, considering how closely Sidwell’s journey parallels the challenges we now face. You will appreciate Sidwell’s determination, his acute survival skills, and his willingness to consider, confront, and accept some things that stretch his perceptions of what is possible.

If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales, take the trip now. This is an urgent adventure that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the last page. I’ll see you at St Cybi’s Well.

St Cybi’s Well, and my other books, will be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month. Please download & share! And as I’ve said before: “And please, if you do read it, leave a review.”
Jim Downey


Thoughts while walking in the rain.

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last few weeks. Which, on the one hand, is surprising, since I’m about at the top of my natural long (18 months), mildly bipolar cycle. On the other hand …

… we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, one which has been incompetently managed at the federal level to the point where we’re likely to see hundreds of thousands of additional unnecessary deaths here before the end of the year. (Don’t bother to post a political comment disagreeing — I’ll just delete it.)

St Cybi’s Well has failed spectacularly to find an audience as of yet, with fewer than 500 total downloads/sales. Given how long I struggled with the book, and the very positive responses to it by people who have read it, that’s very frustrating.

… I’m having increasing problems with arthritis in my hands, which greatly limits how much book conservation work I can do. Given that I love doing this work, that’s been another source of frustration.

So it’s not terribly surprising that I would have this reaction. Lots of people are struggling with the stress of this current time. I know I am extremely fortunate in most ways, so I’m not asking for sympathy or anything.

But it pays to understand what is happening to me, and why. Only by doing so can I decide on the best way to proceed. And my morning walk helped.

I now walk 3 miles a day, about 5 days a week. Two or three days a week I take a break to allow my joints to recover a bit, or to accommodate appointments, inclement weather, et cetera. This morning I was supposed to have a solid couple hour window between thunderstorms to get my walk in, but I took along an umbrella just in case.

And it was a good thing I did. About 2 miles into my walk the skies were too heavy and unburdened themselves. I decided it was something of a metaphor, and that I should do the same. Hence this blog post.

No brilliant insights from this to share. I know how to deal with the frustrations, and am well equipped to do so. More precautions, in spite of the isolation. More writing, in spite of the failure. More work, in spite of the ache. More reaching out and doing what I can for others, in spite of the funk.

Jim Downey



The Waltz Dystopic

Why on Earth would you want to read a novel about a pandemic during a pandemic? Or why would you want to dive into a world where America is a dystopia of racial hatred and theocratic overreach when America is, well, trying to sort out racial hatred and theocratic overreach? There’d have to be something wrong with you to join in such a dance, wouldn’t there?

This was touched on in an interview on NPR I listened to this morning on my daily walk. In it, author Josh Malerman said that reading about a pandemic during a pandemic was somehow comforting; it was a way of saying “we know how to deal with this”.

In writing St Cybi’s Well I used an old literary technique to create some psychic space between the reader and my criticism of our American society, by not placing the story in America, but by having characters in the story reflect on and discuss what a dystopia American had become. This way the reader joins me in a dance, following my lead, but themselves moving through the story I’ve set out. The dystopia is there, but together we have defined it, perhaps tamed it enough that we can see it for what it is.

Of course, our reality is not the reality of St Cybi’s Well. Though it is still very early in the Covid-19 pandemic, I don’t think that it will be quite as devastating as the Fire-flu is in my book. And though we are perhaps at a turning point in the political history of our country, we’re not yet in a constitutional theocracy.

Take the lesson — or the warning — for what it is. That’s why you join the dance.

Jim Downey