Tree of Codes, Part 2: Visual Editions Interview!

Some of our readers may remember our post a few weeks back about the Nov 15 release Jonathan Safran Foer (by way of Bruno Schulz) book Tree of Codes. We got a chance to get the ear of publisher Visual Editions‘ Anna Gerber & Britt Iversen and ask them a few questions.

Owen Troy: Congrats on your edition of Tristam Shandy. You’ve not only reproduced Sterne’s formal experiments but layered on some new ones. Can you tell us a little bit about the making of this edition, and maybe where it sits relative to the history of printings of the book?

Visual Editions: We haven’t so much layered new experiments, more than anything, we’ve enhanced the elements that were already there (the missing chapter is now perforated pages) and introduced entirely new ones (a shut door is now a folded page). The book is so playful, so irreverent and we thought it was a shame that the “classics” editions didn’t do anything to help readers see and feel that playfulness. The current editions seem to be more about printing onto cheap paper, in as few pages as possible, rather than trying to get anything close to getting the book’s spirit across. When we briefed APFEL (the design studio we worked with on the book) that’s just what we said: make this book relevant again because that’s what it and its audiences deserves, and be sure you have fun doing it.

OT: We’re really excited about Tree of Codes. We heard Jonathan Safran Foer’s account of how it came to pass that he’d be doing a book for Visual Editions but we’d love to your side of the initial contact?

VE: We’re really excited about it, too. We wrote Jonathan a sort of “love letter”. We had just started talking about the idea for Visual Editions and thought: Jonathan Safran Foer explores this kind of writing better than any other contemporary writer. So we emailed him, told him what we had in mind for VE and said something like “while we can’t offer you money, there are plenty of other things we can offer you.” We signed a two book deal with him shortly after.

OT: And then when he reached the conclusion that he wanted a book where each page was individually diecut, did you agree to it in advance of finding a printer capable of producing it? Was there ever a worry that it mightn’t be possible?

VE: Yes and yes. We made initial contact with the printers who produced Olafur Elliason’s House book [Your House], who said it was possible. But what they said was possible was very different to how we ended up having the book made. They said making something by hand in a very small quantity was possible. When we first started approaching printers with the view to mass produce the book, we literally got turned down by every single printer. They just kept saying that it wasn’t technically feasible. Die Keure in Belgium were the first printers who were up to the challenge, but there were even moments with them when they said the tests weren’t working. We just kept saying, we’ve got to find a way to make this work. And we did.

OT: You have on your website images of other visual innovations in the book form. Do you include these as a sort of primer into the tradition you will be creating books in? Or are you positioning VE as a sort of nexus of a community larger than just the books it publishes?

VE: That’s an interesting question. The images of other books are other examples of what we’re calling “visual writing”. Visual writing is the starting point for our press: we’re only setting out to publish books that are as visually engaging as the stories they tell. And the idea to include other images was to say, look, this has been done before, but never as the driving force behind a publisher. We also think it’s the right time, in terms of how we read, how books are being made, how books are being thought of, to be publishing visually rich books that also tell wonderful stories (in sometimes unexpected ways).

OT: Do you think there’s a line between books that use visual or formal innovation and “artist’s books?” Or is this largely a distinction of production and marketing, where Tree of Codes might otherwise have been an edition of 100 and sold only at Printed Matter, but you’re able to bring to a wider readership?

VE: There’s a long and rich history of artists books which is a very separate area to what we’re setting out to do. One of our biggest ambitions is for our books to have a democratic reach. The main reason for this is because we think that more people read in a visual way. One of our visions, from the start, has been for our books to be read on the London Tube or the New York subway. Our books are produced to be durable and robust, not precious or niche. You’ll see that Tree of Codes, despite having holes on every page, feels very familiar as a book. It’s not only easy to handle, but most importantly, it’s easy to read. Which is just what we set out to do – for our books to be read, not just looked at.

[Note: This question sort of inspired an extended blog post from VE that expands upon this answer]

[More than just familiar as a book… in these pics it reminds me of one of Keith A Smith’s books about book form. Happy coincidence or sly book design?]

OT: Are there other books in the public domain or authors with an experimental bent that you have your eye on? Anything you want to share about upcoming releases?

VE: Our next book is a re-issue of the first ever “book in a box”: Composition No.1 by Marc Saporta and was first published in the early 1960s. Universal Everything, who mostly do screen-based interactive work, are designing the book for us, which we’re really really excited about. That’s set to come out next Spring.

Thanks for taking the time, Anna and Britt!

Original French edition of Composition No. 1, taken by Jill Walker

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