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The Ivory Buckle of the Winter Solstice
15 August 2012

On 8 August 2012 we finalized or “locked down” Old Law Farm and thus the first half of Little, Big. Books One, Two, and Three are now in their final forms and no further changes will be made to them. Books Four, Five, and Six are all close to final (and already were when we began the current — and final — pass). In each of the remaining chapters it’s a matter of checking John D. Berry’s work executing the lockdown correction documents, correcting any new or remaining errors and finding final solutions to all art-related issues (which are fairly numerous — getting the art right from a framing and reproductive-quality standpoint is the single biggest, most time-consuming task), and executing final text changes arising from John Crowley’s audiobook reading of the novel. These may sound like simple, straightforward processes but in fact the sheer number of things to check and to treat in each chapter are fairly large and often difficult. That said, though it took us four months to finalize the first half of the novel, I have concrete reasons to hope that we can finish the second half of the novel in less than half that time. I can’t guarantee that, but I will do my best to keep the pace of our work steady and at a goodly clip. I’ve said before and say again: no one is more eager to get this project wrapped up than I am. Yet as much as I wish we could rush through the final parts of the project and get it done already, I am honor bound to maintain the quality standards in our performance of the final tasks, the level of care and attention to detail, that we have observed from the beginning.

As I write, correction documents for John Berry’s third execution pass through 4.1 and his second through 4.2 are on his desk, audiobook-inspired text queries for 4.3 and 4.4 are on John Crowley’s desk, and I am in the middle of checking Berry’s first execution pass through the lockdown corrections for 4.4. The work continues.

Of Epicycles, Accretion, Repetition, and Echo

One of the challenges of this Project for me, albeit a relatively minor one, has been figuring out how best to describe the work to others. When you’re crouched down in a forest garden that’s both familiar and yet alien and new, examining the flora and fauna in detail, and considering whether and where and how and in what ways to best reshape or reframe everything from small sections of it to the garden forest as a whole, and then later when you’re conducting and coordinating that work from the largest details down to the smallest, it’s not always easy to figure out how to talk usefully about what you’re doing and how. Despite the three books I’ve previously published (among them John Crowley’s Antiquities), and the myriad other publications and publishing environments I’ve worked on and in over the last thirty years, nothing prepared me for the complexities of creating this edition of Little, Big with its extensive editorial redaction and auctorial revision and its 300+ reproductions of Peter Milton’s art.

In recent weeks I find I’ve been talking about our work in a new way. Obviously, none of that work would have been possible without the incredible sustained creative efforts of John Crowley in writing the novel in the first place and of Peter Milton in creating a lifetime’s worth of original art, upon which we have so copiously drawn. Amazingly, neither man’s work was created in response to or with foreknowledge of the other’s; what’s new, as I’ve written elsewhere, is their juxtaposition.

Less obviously, this is a project with its very own guardian angel, one who must for now remain nameless, and secret benefactors too, and a patient potential interlocutor peeking intermittently from the wings, and numerous other angels as well, including our (mostly) patient, kind, and encouraging customers: without all of whom none of the work we have done would have been remotely possible.

The above being emphasized, allow me to provide a little perspective on the human scale of the Little, Big Project per se. Though many people have worked on the new edition, all to its great benefit and to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude, the vast majority of the work has been performed by just two of us: John D. Berry and myself. Berry’s work as co-designer, compositor, and graphic executor is absolutely critical, but proportionally speaking my workload is about an order of magnitude greater than his: I do everything else, including serving as the Project’s publisher, editor, art director, co-designer, and production manager. Chief cook and bottle washer are among my roles too, and much else besides. What this means workwise, again speaking proportionally, is that the Little, Big Project is effectively a one-point-one-man job (or, to use an alternate orthography, “a 1.1 man job”) — and I’m the one man.

What I did when we began production work on this project was simple: I started at the beginning of the book and went through it till I got to the end, performing a certain set of tasks as I went along. (That first pass through the book consisted of my reading a dedicated copy of the HarperCollins edition of the novel with a red pen in hand and thoroughly marking it up with copyediting and proofreading marks, editorial queries and suggested changes, and formatting and other notes.) Then I went back to the beginning and started over, going through it to the end and doing another set of tasks. (The second pass consisted of my dismembering a copy of the book and scanning its pages one at a time to create the first-ever computer-based text of the novel.) Then I went through the book again, beginning to end (the third pass was a painstaking proofreading of the electronic text, correcting thousands of scanning and other errors, while simultaneously further editing and copyediting it). And we went through the book again (the fourth pass was the first time someone other than myself went through it, when John Crowley read the scanned and corrected manuscript and marked it up with his own changes and corrections). And we went through it again. And again. And again… Soon enough John D. Berry conducted his own first pass through the book, the first of many (only I have gone through the book more times than he in the course of production). Eventually Peter Milton made the first of his brief, concentrated passes. Proofreaders Janice Ronish, Donald G. Keller, and Carolyn Foreman made their careful and eagle-eyed passes. I have to check and approve everyone’s work, which are themselves passes through the book and which inevitably generate further new passes, to implement corrections and changes. Each time we went through the book, another layer was added, another set of tasks was performed, and the new edition very slowly and incrementally grew up and, growing closer and closer to its final state, began rather regally (if I may say so) to settle into its final form.

It never occurred to me to actually keep numerical track of how many beginning-to-end passes we’ve made through the book, though most of them can and will be recalled and enumerated — after the book is done! But I’d say conservatively that it is well over twenty times and quite possibly pushing thirty or even forty, when all passes by all who’ve actively worked on the book are taken into account. Mind you, only a few of those passes actually consisted of me reading the novel in its entirety (for editorial and production purposes, I’ve read the novel beginning to end three times, and among many other tasks I am presently in the middle of a fourth and final such reading), though every pass has included the necessity of rereading a seemingly endless number of bits and pieces of it. The longest single pass — mine, to chose and place the art for the first time — took a year and a half to complete. But that pass was echoed as I went along with a complete first art-related pass through the book by John D. Berry, to execute my choices.

It’s not always obvious how best to define a “pass”; the word can be used in both collective and individual senses. So that, in the spring of 2011, when I first announced we had commenced the final pass through the book, as indeed we had, a pass we are still working on and thank goodness nearing completion of, it didn’t occur to me at the time to break that “final pass” down, for reporting purposes, into its component passes. As it happens, in practice that “final pass”, by the time we finish it, has and will have consisted of two complete passes through the book by me, with the first one running more or less concurrently with the first of two complete passes through the book by John D. Berry and then my second now running more or less concurrently with his second, and running more or less alongside those has been and will have been two complete passes through the book by John Crowley. During this the final of the final passes, begun in April 2012, finalizing each chapter once and for all requires between one and four passes, depending on the given chapter’s issues, before we can declare that chapter locked down once and for all and move on to the next. All of which is a long way of saying that we are, the three of us, collectively on the final pass’s final pass. Last time through from beginning to end! And we just passed the halfway mark.

On losing our way, or not

Some have expressed the worry that we have lost our way, or that we are constantly making up new stuff to do, or that we are such perfectionists that we can’t bear to finish it lest it be less than perfect. And so on. I’m happy to report that none of those things are happening, with one exception. For several years now, we’ve known the basic plan and we’ve stuck to it. What we didn’t understand was just how long the elements of that plan would take to execute; but broadly speaking the nature of the tasks and the sequence of their execution have been pretty much known and understood for most of the history of the project. That said, there has definitely been an element of the chaotic in it, artistically speaking. Choosing, framing, and placing the art (totally aside from all the complex logistics of handling over a thousand digital images from multiple sources, of multiple types, at multiple densities) — art which was not created in response to the novel but which is fraught with potent possibilities arising in direct juxtaposition with the novel’s myriad moments, scenes, people, places, metamorphoses, echoes and remembrances and foretellings — has been itself an inherently artistic process, as Peter Milton affirmed to me in his response to the first fully art-inflected electronic galley of the book, a process full of uncertainties, experiments, daydreams and night-, broodings, musings, sudden unexpected discoveries, recognitions, all the fiercely unpredictable components attending at the creation of any work of art, no matter how carefully planned and mapped out beforehand. Fortunately, we got through almost all of that process and most of what remains lies, like so much of what has already been done, in the precinct of patient and methodical examination and execution.

Of course, the book will never be perfect. But it’s close enough, and more importantly it’s beautiful and good and alive, and our commitment remains to achieving the highest possible fidelity in the print reproduction of the art, a goal that is eminently achievable.

The exception I mentioned above? Earlier this year, for the first time in several years, after discussing it with John Crowley and John Berry and receiving their blessing, I made the decision to add a qualitatively new task to the list of tasks to be completed during the final pass through the book. You may recall that in the fall of 2011 John Crowley spent some weeks recording the audiobook of Little, Big for Blackstone Audio; with my blessing, for his reading Crowley used the “Author’s Preferred Text” of the novel, which we created for the Incunabula edition. In the course of his reading, Crowley noted a few dozen text changes and corrections he wanted made in our edition, which he forwarded to me. In January the audiobook was released, in cassette, mp3, and audio CD versions. In March, about to begin the final pass’s final pass, it occurred to me that the audiobook presented me with a unique opportunity, one that had never existed before: to perform a final proofreading of the book by reading the printed text against John’s audiobook recording. I could easily track all discrepancies between the two, and then query John on those changes that I deemed to be sufficiently substantive to warrant his consideration of them for adoption into the text; the changes he approved would then be added to those he had already sent us for implementation during the final correction pass through the book. But the added benefit was simply that after the creation of so many iterations of the novel’s 26 chapters, they each needed a careful final proofreading, because, though such cases have so far been few and far between, new errors can and do creep in. The plan was that I would proof a couple of chapters in this fashion to see how it went, and in the event it went exceedingly well, energized me considerably for all the other work that needed to be done on each chapter, and as I forged on the process turned up any number of important changes, including the clarification of a whole set of important continuity issues that had never been clarified before. And so that’s what we’re doing, and I am very happy to report that it has, in every respect, been a boon to the Project and a good decision, a worthy addition to the roster of final tasks. The additional time required has not proven to be prohibitive, and has been more than offset by the net gains.

A Midsummer Restoration;
Or, twenty-three degrees from
the ivory buckle of the Winter Solstice

Working on Little, Big on Summer Solstice Eve, I had occasion to triple-check a textual reference in “Pictured Heavens”, the final scene of 3.1, which took me back to the original typescript of the novel, the version first submitted to Bantam Books in 1979 or ’80. A handwritten emendation elsewhere on the page I consulted caught my eye, and I quickly discovered what turned out to be two previously unknown passages totaling 221 words, further elaborations of the description of Ariel Hawksquill's orrery, beautifully written and full of meaty astrological and artisanal detail. For unknown reasons, these splendid words had Somehow been cut from the first edition and since lost to history. I quickly typed up the two passages and sent them to John Crowley, who responded with the greatest interest. He has no idea how the passages came to be cut; my own suspicion (which is at best informed speculation on my part) is that Bantam’s editor may have urged Crowley to make the cut because in the editor’s opinion the material was too rarefied, too arcane. On Solstice afternoon I received from Mr. Crowley a freshly rewritten version of the material, which only served to improve the already-wonderful originals. I am happy to say we have now added the passages to the text of “Pictured Heavens”, deepening and enriching it thereby. This sort of thing has happened before, but never with passages so extensive — and that it happened at more or less the last possible moment before that chapter was to be locked down once and for all makes it especially sweet, a small miracle, a bit of the flotsam of fortuitous inadvertency.

Ron Drummond

Updated Friday, 27-Jan-2023 06:53:47 MST

Published 17 August 2012