May Attaway—the protagonist of Jessica Francis Kane’s fourth book, Rules for Visiting—is not your usual middle-aged woman: She prefers plants over people, and at 40 years old, is still living with her father in her childhood home in Anneville. As a professional gardener at the local university, May lives out most of her existence toiling over trimmings and maintaining a safe distance from others. The premature death of a stranger, the flurry of heartfelt online tributes to this stranger and her generosity toward others, and an unexpected paid leave of 30 days forces May to look at the lack of friendship in her life. And so, she plans a trip to visit four friends from different parts of her life: Lindy, a childhood friend; Vanessa, a friend she met in the eighth grade; Neera, a college friend; and Rose, who was in May’s graduate landscape-architecture program. In preparation for her trip, May purchases a new rolling suitcase and names it Grendel, after the friendless monster in Beowulf.
Recently, contemporary literature has seen a multitude of novels and stories—such as Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl—exploring the theme of female friendship. Kane’s novel joins these ranks but, at the same time, the narrative shines as a singular story of one woman’s journey away—and toward—herself and others. With each excursion, the reader can’t help but quietly root for May Attaway as she seeks to rekindle friendships from years past and, later, makes an attempt at romance. An extra bonus: A handful of beautiful illustrations of trees by author/artist Edward Carey punctuate this elegant, moving narrative.
The Millions talked with Kane via email about the writer Amanda Davis, H Is for Hawk, urban gardening, and friendship during the social media age.
TM: When did you decide to write this novel? Had it been an idea that has been percolating for a while?
JK: The first inkling of the idea dates back to 2003 when I learned of the death of the writer Amanda Davis. I became a little obsessed with the tribute page that McSweeney’s created so that anyone who’d known her could share memories. Taken all together, it’s an extraordinary document of friendship, and it set me to thinking a lot about friendship just as social media began to take over the world. Facebook launched in 2004.
TM: When did you first encounter Davis and her work?
JK: I never met Amanda Davis, but I’d been aware of her work and had read her first book, a collection of stories called Circling the Drain. I’d been following the release of her first novel, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, with great interest, in part because she’d achieved my dream: After a collection of stories, she’d published a novel. I’d published a collection, too, but in 2003 I was at home with my first baby and beginning to feel like a novel was never going to be within reach. She was an inspiration and the news of her death was a shock. Then I read the tributes, and much like May in my novel, felt she must have known something about friendship that had alluded me.
TM: I love the quote from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as your epigraph. It’s one of my favorite novels, and in a way, The Waves is one of the original friendship novels with how it explores what we know about ourselves and our identities through our relationships with others. What in Woolf’s novel inspired you with Rules for Visiting?
JK: I first read The Waves in college when I took a whole course on the novels of Virginia Woolf. She was one of my favorite writers then, and her work is still important to me, but I must confess to finding this epigraph in a not particularly noble way: I saw the last line of it via a search in Bartlett’s for friendship-themed quotations, then reverse-engineered it back to the book. When I reread the full context and remembered what The Waves was about, it seemed too good to be true.
Originally the book had a different epigraph at the beginning of each of the five sections. These were hugely important to me during the writing years, but eventually my editor at Penguin suggested they were part of a scaffolding that could be removed, and I immediately saw that she was right.
TM: How did you land on May Attaway’s voice? Was there a particular novel or story that inspired you in finding a balance between remoteness and intimacy, reclusiveness and a desire for connection?
JK: Definitely Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Also Claire Messud’s Nora Eldridge in The Woman Upstairs. But also, and this may seem odd at first but bear with me, Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk. I loved that book so much, and after I finished it, I knew I wanted to try to write something with as many layers. MacDonald layered a story (grieving her father), with another story (raising her goshawk), and also gave us a mini-biography of T.H. White. In a similar way, I wanted my narrator, May Attaway, to sound as if she were writing a memoir (the story of a year visiting friends), layered with another story (the grief in her family), and also share a ton of information on the plant and tree world she loves so much.
TM: Do you consider May Attaway a reliable narrator?
JK: I’m not sure what May is. Sometimes she seems reliable because she is very accurate and forthright in her manner. Other times she’s unreliable because her very mission of accuracy belies a sorrow, or a gap in her understanding of how people behave. Maybe she is unreliable by virtue of trying to be so reliable.
TM: I loved how you weave so many different references to classic texts, particularly The Odyssey, throughout the narrative. When did you read The Odyssey for the first time? And did you know right away that you might use the epic poem as a recurring point of reference for your protagonist?
JK: I read The Odyssey as an English major in college, and of course it stands as one of the great journey narratives of all time. I was working on Rules for Visiting and I suppose thinking of literary journeys when I remembered the famous line “O Muse, I sing of arms and the man.” Right away I knew I wanted to recast that for my female hero on her series of domestic journeys. The line, “O Muse, I sing of visits and the woman,” came to mind. That was the beginning.
JK: I follow Edward on Twitter, where he will occasionally post a sketch or a bit of a work-in-progress or an exercise he’s set for himself, and one day when I was writing the book, I saw an amazing sketch (charcoal, I think) of a dead rat.
It was the summer of 2016 and I had most of a first draft of the novel. I began to think I wanted it to have tree illustrations, if possible, because I thought readers should have a guide to the shapes of the trees discussed. I don’t think many people have a working sense of tree forms in their minds. I wanted something fairly botanically accurate, but also with mood, and honestly, the very first thing I thought of was that Edward Carey rat. I wrote him an email, he asked to read the manuscript, and then he agreed. My only regret is that we couldn’t put more of his trees in the book.
TM: What is your personal relationship to flowers and trees outside of writing? Where do you find nature in New York City?
JK: I have a balcony in New York City where I have been trying different approaches to container gardening. I don’t love annuals either—May and I have this in common—so I’ve tried ambitious plants with mixed results: a rosebush (dead), a crepe myrtle (dead) a dwarf cypress (still alive, but struggling). My current delight is that I have some peonies coming up in a pot and I’m crossing my fingers they keep growing until they bloom.
TM: What do you think is being lost with friendship during this social media age?
JK: I think we might be losing the art of visiting. We are so busy and mostly unwilling to inconvenience someone else because we don’t want to be inconvenienced ourselves. Just look at the language around asking if you can stay with someone: “I don’t want to put you out.” “Please don’t go to any trouble.” “I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
Today we stay in touch with emoji buttons, text instead of call, and travel mainly for sights and experiences instead of friendship. Think of Jane Austen’s novels. They are full of lots of things we don’t seem to have time for: letters, walks, and visiting, the stuff of lasting friendship.
TM: It’s funny because you and I met through Twitter, and then IRL when you came to Austin last November. So, some aspects of social media produce authentic connections despite all of the artificial curated facets of it? Have you experienced this with other writers, too?
JK: Yes, a handful. And other readers, too. I love it when a Twitter friend moves into real life. It can feel awkward to make that initial contact—I remember we talked about this when I came to Austin and we met—but it has never yet been not worthwhile.
TM: What’s a favorite thank-you gift to give to others when you’re visiting friends or family?
JK: If I can’t think of something specific to the person, and there isn’t a favorite item that I know I can bring them from New York, then my favorite gift has been a hand-blown glass votive similar to some that I have. I like the idea of our households being linked by candlelight.
Writers, praise the typographers and designers: our words are in their hands.
Bookshelves line the walls of my office. The room is small, and with the door closed, it feels comfortably claustrophobic with words. Lately my twin daughters pull books from the bottom shelves. They laugh while forming piles of prose and poetry. Transformations by Anne Sexton is splayed next to The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover, which smothers The Comedians by Graham Greene. My girls smile, then run away while I assess the wreckage. While returning the books to the shelves, I found Players by Don DeLillo opened to “A Note on the Type.” A colophon.
Colophons are sometimes the last words of books; the Greek origin of the word means “finishing stroke.” They are the end credits of literature. Colophons are the ticket out of the imagined world and back to the world of late trains and heating bills. Although often formal and informative, colophons are also peppered with personality. Handwritten colophons first appeared in 6th century manuscripts. The first printed colophon appeared in the second book printed by movable type, the Mainz Psalter, created by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in 1457. The original colophon appears below, in Latin. Here is the translation by Douglas C. McMurtrie, from his comprehensive history: The Book: the Story of Printing & Bookmaking.
The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been diligently brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, in the year of the Lord 1457, on the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption.
Three years later, the colophon for Catholicon, a 13th century Latin dictionary written by Joannes Balbus, asserts it was printed “without help of reed, stylus, or pen, but by the wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types.” Wonder. Harmony. Letters.
Players was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1977. Fifty years earlier, an essay “Cult of the Colophon” appeared in Publishers Weekly. Skillin & Gay’s Words into Type notes that “In the early days of bookmaking, the colophon appeared on the last page of the book and gave most of the details now shown on the title page,” which accounts for the word’s other usage “for publisher’s device, trademark, or symbol” — elements that have now migrated from the end of the book to the spine and title page. Think The Modern Library colophon of a torchbearer. Jay Satterfield notes the “colophon’s twentieth-century revitalization as a quality trademark was symptomatic of literature’s commodification, although it drew on a tradition of fine printing consciously detached from commercial interests by its aesthetic progenitors.” Usage of colophons “by trade publishers illuminates a modern melding of interests: publishing sought to maintain an air of disinterested dignity associated with art and literature, yet also yearned for sales potential modern commercialization promised.”
Knopf said “a good-looking and well-made book will never do its author any harm anywhere at any time.” He attracted some of the nation’s finest typographers, although in Beauty and the Book, her consideration of fine book ownership in America, Megan Benton shows how some of those typographers thought that the Knopf colophons were “contrived.” William Addison Dwiggins, who coined the term “graphic designer,” said colophons were “shop talk.” He thought that readers “don’t care to know and they don’t need to know.” Benton also quotes Carl Rollins, who thought colophons were appeals to a book “buyer’s vanity;” a form of “free advertising for the paper merchant, the edition binder, the man who cast the rollers, and the provenance of the pressman’s pants.”
Through her particular consideration of finer texts, Benton notes that 20th-century colophons served two purposes. The first appealed to the “growing number of bibliophiles who were knowledgeable or at least curious about the particulars of bookmaking.” From a marketing standpoint, colophons “shrewdly enabled publishers to point out the craft-based aspects of production that distinguished fine bookmaking from ordinary:” the eternal tension of the book as art and product.
Players begins with an unidentified character’s speech, but quickly fades into the preparation for an in-flight movie. As the plane’s lights dim and the piano bar becomes still, the passengers seem to realize “for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble.” How beautiful, really, that only “One second of darkness” is “enough to intensify the implied bond which, more than distance, speed or destination, makes each journey something of a mystery to be worked out by the combined talents of the travelers, all gradually aware of each other’s code of recognition.” An appreciation for type is acknowledgment that good design enables enjoyment. The “one second of darkness” that is the union of reader, writer, and designer creates a form of literary communion.
When asked about the “raw materials” of his fiction, DeLillo thinks small. “I construct sentences,” he says, with the ritual sense of the Latin Mass of his youth. He continues: “There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look.” DeLillo says he is “completely willing to let language press meaning upon me.” Press, of course. Letters pushed into the page. A mark, a tattoo, a scar. He concludes:
Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence — these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger — I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.
Remember that books are crafted. Remember that books are words, words, words.
When writing about books — a world within a world — I always feel as if I am writing to save something. I might attribute this salvific sentiment to the self-importance all writers suffer from, the feeling that we are saying something worth noting. Or the origin might be my Catholic sense, the wish to transform and transfigure. Either way, a comparably venial sin in the service of something greater.
I spoke with Leah Carlson-Stanisic, associate director of design for HarperCollins, who thinks the decision to include a colophon is an important one, “because book publishing isn’t just the making and selling of something for the sake of consumerism.” Colophons — and the spirit behind them — are particularly essential now “during an important transitional period in terms of technology and how it is ever affecting our world and my industry.” In that vein, the colophon is a way to “reference and remember” the typographical tradition.
I am less than a novice in terms of design. My experience is confined to one undergraduate course, a few months of introductory work with weeks devoted to typography. I remember zooming in on the contour of letters, and how that closeness felt like looking into someone’s eyes. Afterward, I browsed books in the university library. A bit embarrassed, I found a study room tucked in the upper floor, and nearly put my face in books. I was convinced that I had discovered something new.
I love the right-justified colophon of Knopf’s The Stories of John Cheever. It looks like a pared wing. Part of a George Herbert poem.
Carlson-Stanisic explained her method in selecting a typeface. Historical Fell or Tribute might be appropriate for a manuscript dated by time period: both “are heavy and ornamental.” If a manuscript “is dense with elements [such as] lists, dialogues, e-mails,” she selects a “clean font with very crisp, readable serifs, that has a variety of weights so that I can distinguish all of the elements.” And “I always want a font that has a beautiful italic. I am a snob that way.” Beyond content translated to form, Carlson-Stanisic stresses the need for clarity: “If you set the leading too tight, and the lines are too close together, the page will overwhelm you. I want to select a typeface that is proportional, isn’t too fine but certainly not bulky, and that doesn’t have anything too stylistically unique about it that certain characters stand out too much and distract.” Her ideal is “a beautiful workhorse with an elegant italic.” Her favorites: Fournier, Filosofia, Perrywood, Garamond.
William Addison Dwiggins, for all of his aforementioned reservations about reader interest in colophons, is noted in many. My copy of Circling the Drain, the only book by Amanda Davis, ends with a terse colophon.
Dwiggins returns in my copy of Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan, a discard from the VA Hospital in Lebanon, Penn. His own trademark at the end is a nice touch.
This colophon appears at the end of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In 1993, Pope John Paul II had to cancel a planned live interview on Italian radio and television, but surprised the reporter by developing his responses into a full manuscript. Not every typeface earns the name of Dante.
I call for the return of colophons. The battle of the book is not to be won or lost in preferences of print or digital. The page will always remain. Letters will always remain. Colophons can send us back into books for another level of reading. If we love books, that second reading might be ecstatic in the same way good writing can lift us. Colophons are reminders that books are bigger than their writers alone. They are the measured exhale at the end of a satisfying experience. The sentence has end punctuation; the book has a colophon.
It is dangerous for a note on type to run too long, so even this appreciation must be truncated. The last words on type should go to a designer, so here is Carlson-Stanisic again:
Form and function is so important to us on every level — and people say that it is best when you don’t notice it — but I think design-oriented people will always stop to observe and appreciate it. There is something so sensual and so similar to the way we appreciate the curve of an arm on a well-designed chair, the elongated neck of a dancer, or the graceful curvature of a lower cased f set in Fournier italic. How could we survive without any of that beauty?