I thought the galleys were jaw-droppingly beautiful. Astonishing. A masterpiece of the bookmakers’ art . . .
— Neil Gaiman, email of 22 November 2010
By the time I made my way north from Lansingburgh to Montreal in August 2009, the Little, Big Project had been in trouble for over a year. Early in 2008, two months after I made a substantial down payment on a major print production job by a venerable old Vermont printing company, they announced they were closing their doors. Two months after that the final job rolled from their presses – no, not Little, Big its own re-embodied self, it was too late for that, the money had gone down a rabbit hole never to reemerge from the years-long bankruptcy proceedings still a year away from commencing . . . but just as they were about to close their doors, a parting gesture – the printing of the four-page signatures for the Lettered and Numbered editions that John Crowley would later inscribe and, in the former, write out passages from the novel chosen by each Letter’s intended recipient. Eventually those signature sheets were to be and at long last now will be sewn into the limited editions as integral parts thereof.
But in 2008, the Vermont printer’s closure – a harbinger of the financial meltdown that in a few months would inundate the globe – derailed what had been a panicked rush to finish a process that, the deeper we got into it, kept insisting we slow down even as every external pressure was demanding we speed up. With nearly a fifth of the Project’s funds lost and no immediately obvious way to recoup, with the editorial work with John Crowley on the novel’s text largely finished, I went deeper into the book design and art selection process and began to seriously take the time that the sheer power of the juxtaposition between Peter Milton’s art and Crowley’s text suggested I take, each body of work created without knowledge of the other. Two whole readings of the novel against nearly the entirety of Peter Milton’s 50-year output as an artist and engraver (which Milton had given us carte blanche to draw upon), countless viewings of those artworks in whole and parts held up to every scene onstage and off, every chapter and book of Little, Big, and after another year of work what had originally been planned to be a six to seven hundred page edition with eighty to a hundred art selections scattered widely through it grew to an 800-page edition with well over 300 pieces of art painstakingly chosen and distributed over close to half of the page spreads in the book.
John D. Berry and I, in a sometimes fierce collaboration, developed a design approach to art emplacements in conjunction with text that sought to be all at once supple, flexible, and rigorous. What we had – it took years, the design and layout wasn’t completed until February 2014 – was not a quasi-graphic novel, but an interweaving of three modes or species of story that could be read as self-contained strands or in pairs or all three with great and potent play between them – the story unfolding page by page in the novel itself, the story found in the selection and sequence of images appearing alongside, and the story arising out of the juxtaposition between the novel and the art, with as many echoes and reversals and leaps forward and doublings back and slow reveals in the art as in the written story and with the two or three not infrequently hand in hand one moment and flying apart the next.
But by the summer of 2009 conversations had been had and voices raised and it was clear the issue of the shortfall had to be addressed.
I knew someone in the community of those devoted to the fantastic in the arts who was and is a steadfast friend of worthy, struggling projects. I’d gone to a Day of the Dead party once at his four-story 150-year-old Victorian house in the middle of nowhere somewhere in the flattest part of the lower 48. (Back then he was still rather shy.) A couple of years later he wrote a lovely appreciation of a short novel by a beloved mentor and friend that I was about to publish, for use on the dust jacket. Others – many others – consistently spoke of him with the warmest of voices, and still do, though the number of such voices has gone up rather spectacularly.
As it happened, he was to be the guest of honor at a certain convention. I couldn’t afford to go, but then at the last minute a bestselling science fiction writer of my acquaintance couldn’t attend and gifted me with his membership. Another friend offered to share his hotel room with me. Dollars were scraped, some of them together. A ride there but not back was offered and accepted.
Six days in Montreal! The single most gorgeous city I have visited, with, that week in early August, everywhere the highest concentration of gorgeous people I have ever seen in a single city. The second and third best lamb curries, too, to eat no less (topped only by the one I had on Drummond Street in Edinburgh six years before). Best of all, meetings and meals with beloved friends. Randy! Sharee! Many others. New friends. A three-story escalator ride arguing with Paul Krugman about the economics of space industrialization.
Knowing he would be insanely busy, I decided that I would not deliberately seek out the Guest of Honor. I would not go out of my way to attend his events. If I crossed paths with him, I would elbow no one out of the way, literally or figuratively, to talk to him. All I would do is keep my eyes peeled and if an opportunity presented itself to speak with him in a reasonably chill context, I would say hello and see what happened.
The third night of the convention, or the fourth, weary from all the walking, I wandered into a labyrinthine hotel bar I had somehow previously missed and saw someone I knew sitting with a largish group of people around a long table; I recognized several of the others there too. Feeling shy, I hung back a bit. A woman standing by the table, keeping relaxed watch over it, saw my interest and came over. Hi, what’s up? she asked. Did you want to talk to Neil?
Reader, I’d been so busy enjoying the convention, I hadn’t spent one moment imagining what I might say or how I would say it should the hoped-for occasion arise.
After a moment, improvising wildly, I said, I’m here to deliver a message for Neil from John Crowley.
She smiled and said, Cool! Okay. Let me check with him. (A garland for Lorraine or Anne – forgive me, it was long ago, it was late, I was tired – I don’t now recall if that was you, or another.) And she went over and touched Neil gently on the shoulder, leaned over, and they conferred in low voices.
At that moment, I glanced down at the digital watch on my left wrist.
It read 12:00. The stroke of midnight.
I looked up, and at that moment, Neil was turning in his chair with a Hi and a warm smile on his face.
We stepped a not-yet-codified minimum social distance away from the table and talked. Good news, Bloom’s essay and Crowley’s original short story, Milton’s amazing art and his enthusiasm for what we were doing with it. And the not so good, the printer bankruptcy, the shortfall, the longer lead time due to the more in-depth and careful design work. Details about our process and prospects. At the end, he grinned and said, Rest easy, Ron. I promise we’ll take care of John Crowley and Little, Big.
I thanked him, he turned back to his friends, and I waved thanks to his assistant.
Looked at my watch: 12:15. The Warholian interval. I turned away.
Twelve years on, when we need him most, Neil Gaiman is making good on his promise, in more ways than seven. That’s the kind of person he is.
As much as I admire Neil as a creative artist, I admire him even more as a human being. His presence and being-in-the-world is a wise and potent grace-note in a difficult time. What he models and asks us to model is much that is essential to our hopes for survival and the continuance of compassion and empathy in the world, upholding the balance-point between individuality and community.
Neil is joined by two others who recently stepped forward to offer significant financial assistance towards getting the now-40th anniversary archival edition of Little, Big into print at last, in a manner fully commensurate with our long-held standards qualitatively and from a materials-production standpoint. Those costs alone are almost twice what they were thirteen years ago.
Erik Davis is an author, counter- cross- and meta-cultural historian, collector and explicator of literary, botanical, and archeological arcana (among many others). Check out his cabinet of wonders at techgnosis dot com.
Jim, a good friend for 46 years, has made many excellent things possible. His contribution to the Project early this year was a game changer, in the best sense.
Over the last two years Ben Kamm, since the ’90s a good friend of mine and of John Crowley’s, has provided the Project with invaluable diplomatic, critical, and managerial help, all of it powered by his passionate advocacy for the Edition and belief in the importance of its successful completion.
These are amazing, great-hearted people. We’re grateful for their support, and for that of our many steadfast subscribers. Thank you, all; bless you.
On 8 September 2021, we made the first one-third down payment on the printing costs. We are now officially in prepress / print production on our new edition of Little, Big.
Today, 15 September 2021, is the 40th anniversary of that wonderful novel’s first publication.
More news soon. We’re not quite there; but the goal is in full view.
Thank you to everyone helping to make this possible.
Addenda, 5 October 2021:
Over half a decade ago I announced that the price of the Trade edition would go up once we were in press or upon publication. We are now long overdue for implementing that increase, on the basis of sheer economics alone. (Our markup over manufacturing cost is and will continue to be far lower, proportionally, than the markups on the vast majority of books from large New York publishers.) The increase in price from $95 to $125 goes into effect immediately.
The number of orders and enquiries we’re receiving has increased considerably in recent weeks. For the next two months, it’s essential that we devote the lion’s share of our attentions to the minutiae of prepress and print production work on the new Edition. We ask for your patience and understanding during this time.
Our current best-case estimate is that finished books will be in existence sometime during December-January. This means it is unlikely we will be able to deliver books by Christmas.