Q&A with Henningham Family Press

Henningham Family Press is a microbrewery for books.
Our ingenioous handmade editions can be found in the V&A, Tate, National Galleries Scotland, National Poetry Library and Stanford University.
Our Performance Publishing shows compress the creation of printed matter into hectic live events.
Now our Fiction brings to you authors who are reinventing the conventions of Modern writing.

 

Today I welcome David from Henningham Family Press who kindly answered my questions on his innovative press and the form of the book. I recently reviewed their most recent publication, The Blackbird, noting that as well as being a fine story, the book itself is a work of art.

 

Can you tell me a little about Henningham Family Press and why it was set up?

Ping and myself have been working together since 2006, making fine art prints, Artists’ Books and Performances. Our work is collected by places like V&A, Tate, Stanford University, National Galleries Scotland, as well as by regular people. We started our fiction list in 2018; we wanted to see if we could get the same pages on the shelves of High Street bookshops that we were placing with national collections.

How do you select the titles you wish to acquire?

The books we hunt for have the same playful, intellectual spirit as the work we’ve been making since 2006. We look for formal invention, like Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths, or books like The Blackbird by Claire Allen or Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin, which take the conventions of the novel in new directions. Vivid imagery or process-based writing is good for us, as we can develop them as Artists’ Books. We aren’t ideal for the debut novelist; we can accomplish so much in our studio that the newbie tends to be overwhelmed by the possibilities. So we most often work with people who have already cut their teeth in another discipline, such as the poet Chris McCabe, or Griffiths’ music criticism and librettos.

What about the form of the book – what do your buyers want?

We make a paperback and a handmade deluxe edition of every novel, using the same offset litho printed pages for both. All the covers, paperback and deluxe, are handmade in our studio, most often on our foil debossing press. The paperbacks are bound by TJ International. We insert handmade additions and hand-bind the deluxe editions in the studio — we make them up as we go along.

The Blackbird is no exception. Both editions are illustrated in black and yellow. One of Claire Allen’s characters, Robert, was a civic sculptor in his prime. As a Sculpture MA (Slade), this was something I understood very well. I did drawings from life as he would have done for his public artwork Hide And Seek. We took children to the park to play the game. When they were discovered, they had to remain still for as long as the countdown had taken, and my drawing was executed within that time. 30, 10, 5, even 1 second. This way the pose was natural. I also did charcoal sketches of a Blackbird that took up residence in our back garden. We’ve never had one before, so — thank you Mr Blackbird.

We were approached by G.F Smith papers, to see what we could do with their new Urban range. The paper is, I believe, literally concrete. It has a varnished concrete texture, which goes with the Brutalism of the Blackbird estate in the novel very well. And a slight glitter, like paving stones have. We like to choose papers that have a thing-character like that. Mr. Beethoven had recycled coffee cup lining (Extract), a nod to the composer’s love of coffee houses. As pulp-dyed papers they don’t crack or scuff and feel nicer than laminate. We pay close attention to typesetting too. The Blackbird pays homage to William Golding,
author of The Spire. We chose two classic Faber fonts to support Claire Allen’s equally accomplished voice: Minion and Albertus, plus Futura as a nod to the Brutalist architecture of the Blackbird estate. The chapter titles sort of represent 2014, and the body text 1941. Ancient and Modern.

These days readers are used to a nice white gap between the text and the page numbers and headers, but in the olden days that would have required a sackful of lead and they always abutted. To evoke the ‘40s, but avoid distraction, we printed the page numbers and headers right next to the body text, but in yellow so that it would sit back. Black with a dash of yellow makes each page a little blackbird too! The strictly limited deluxe version will have a cloth spine (half-bound) and a unique hand-drawn fold-out insert. We will make about 20 of these. They tend to sell-out before we even make them.

What is the most rewarding aspect of independent publishing, and the most challenging?

Being able to invent in collaboration with an author and have nobody put their oar in and sink it. Books are often engineered for the middle of the road, but that’s a dangerous place to be!

Promotion is the most challenging. It is back to front. You have to announce a book and show everyone the cover seven months before you make the book. It would be better to be able to say what you have when you have it and reveal the process as you go. That is where we are heading, I think. Once we are established enough, I think we will have enough people following our books to be able to reveal information in a logical order.

How do you connect with booksellers and readers?

A condition we imposed on ourselves before starting the fiction list in 2018 was getting the agents we needed to sell books. Inpress Books voted us in unanimously, and their sales reps are amazing — their support and training peerless. Arts Council England have also supported us with funding and training to reach readers. We also had a great partnership with Gemma Seltzer, who was at Kickstarter back then, and now with John Mitchinson at Unbound; these were to run direct-to-reader presales. We do a lot of Social Media, but basically we let the experts do the selling so we can concentrate on doing impossible things with books.

 

You may visit the Henningham Family Press website here.

This post is a stop on The Blackbird Blog Tour 2020. Do check out the other varied and interesting stops on the tour, detailed above.

May I urge you to buy the book? Click here.

 

Book Review: The Blackbird

Liverpool Cathedral was built over the course of the 20th century. As may be expected for such an impressive structure, it took many decades to complete. Progress stalled during both World Wars due to shortages of manpower and materials. The cathedral now ranks as the fifth-largest in the world. Built on St James’s Mount, the shape of the site required that the nave be oriented north to south rather than, as is traditional, west to east. Some believed this would bring bad luck.

The principle characters in The Blackbird certainly suffer their share of misfortune. Across alternating chapters, the story has two main timelines. It opens in 1941 with an accident on a building site where a much reduced team of masons are constructing the tall, central tower of a cathedral. As a result of the incident, a young man is grievously injured. Will Jenner, the on-site manager, blames himself for being persuaded to set the men to work.

Will is married to Mary and they have an eight year old daughter, Hope. The family moved to the city, away from family in rural Derbyshire, when offered the prestigious job opportunity. Will expects his wife to share with him every detail of how she spends her days. When she takes an interest in the hospitalised worker, Will grows suspicious of her motives. He requires that she be quietly obedient, becoming angry if she acts in any other way.

The growing cathedral, and Will’s behaviour, cast a shadow over his family. This is exacerbated by regular, night time aerial bombing raids. Homes have been razed and many killed. People must continue to function despite fear and sleep deprivation.

Moving to 2014, a young mother, Louise, has recently moved into a new flat with her toddler son, Jake. It is a fresh start and one she is content with. Jake’s father, Benny, broke her heart when he left them. Now she is in a relationship with an old friend, Carl, although still relishes her independence. When Benny shows up on her doorstep expecting to be taken back, Louise rejects him. Angered by her reaction, Benny refuses to leave them be.

There is a linking character across the two timelines – Hope – who in 2014 is struggling to care for her elderly husband; Robert has dementia and his behaviour is deteriorating. Through Hope’s thoughts and recollections the reader gains a different perspective on the events her father had to deal with through the war years and beyond.

Undercurrents of male violence percolate along with the limitations in agency women suffer due to their circumstances. The veracity of memory and perceived impact on subsequent decisions is explored and queried. Characters’ choices not to share their reasoning and personal justifications with those around them have damaging consequences. Jealousy and blame pervade.

It took a few chapters before the quality of the writing gripped me. What at first appeared an unremarkable if smoothly told tale established pleasing depth. The plot, whilst engaging, became secondary to my interest in character development. The impact of experience and situation are used to particularly impressive effect.

The structure is well balanced between detail and flow. This was a story I was eager to get back to each time I had to break away. Layered and nuanced yet never heavy, a good read that I am happy to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.

This review is a stop on The Blackbird Blog Tour 2020. Do check out the other fine posts, detailed above.

 

Giveaway time!

The publisher has kindly offered to send a copy of this book to one lucky reader who enters my Twitter giveaway. Follow me here and RT the relevant tweet (from around 8am today) to be in with a chance to win (UK only, ends 5pm BST 31/7/2020).